Where to Go in Florida: A Cheat Sheet to the Top Destinations

Offering some of the warmest year-round weather and prettiest beaches in the United States, it's no surprise visitors flock to Florida throughout the year. Choosing where to go in the Sunshine State can be difficult, though, as most cities have slightly different vibes and appealing factors -- from the array of amusement parks in central Florida to the Caribbean-like beaches found farther south. To help you better plan where to go, check out our cheat sheet to the top destinations in Florida. 


Beach at Newport Beachside Hotel and Resort, Sunny Isles, Miami/Oyster

Beautiful white-sand beaches, delicious Cuban cuisine, and late-night clubs are just a handful of the reasons travelers head to Miami. The sunny, southeastern city offers something for everyone -- vacationing families, party-hearty bachelorette groups, and international jet-setters -- with its vibrant South Beach, more peaceful North Beach, and business-centric Downtown. Colorful Art Deco architecture offers a nice contrast to modern high-rise hotels, while world-renowned dining and designer shopping are mixed between inexpensive stores and bars slinging cheap fishbowl margaritas. Expect public beaches only, sweltering humidity in the summer, and the potential for hurricanes, as evidenced by September's Irma. 

Those looking to be in the thick of the action should head to sexy South Beach, which isn't the most kid-friendly location, but provides a convenient setting for experiencing everything the city is known for. Families will likely prefer an amenity-packed resort like the Acqualina Resort & Spa on the Beach in quieter Sunny Isles.

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Florida Keys

Beach at Sunset Key Cottages, Key West, Florida Keys/Oyster

The Florida Keys are an archipelago off Florida's coast that stretches to the southernmost point in the United States. Being the closest travelers can get to the Caribbean, the Keys have become a favorite travel destination for those wanting warm weather, calm waters (particularly on the gulf side), and access to one of the largest reef systems in the world. The drive along Highway 1 can be done in three hours, with many worthwhile stops along the way. Key Largo offers excellent scuba diving and snorkeling spots; Islamorada is the most upscale area; and Key West is packed with kitsch and gay-friendly nightlife. Unfortunately, much of the Keys were devastated by Hurricane Irma, though many once-closed hotels are back open for business, like Cheeca Lodge & Spa

Key West, the most popular key, is home to rowdy bars and tacky souvenir shops, but there's a lot to love about this destination, including quaint bed-and-breakfasts and its laid-back vibe. For a less-touristy spot, try Marathon, which is known for world-class fishing, numerous Caribbean-like beaches, and seafood restaurants. 

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Magic Kingdom, Disney World, Orlando/Oyster

There are two main reasons over 60 million annual tourists head to Orlando: Disney World and Universal Studios. Disney's whopping 43 square miles -- an area roughly the size of Boston -- house four main theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and the Animal Kingdom), providing children and adults with an endless array of character-themed fun. Guests at all Disney resorts get a range of free perks and privileges, including free shuttles to the parks, free transportation to and from the airport, and extended-hours access to certain parks on certain nights. A 20-minute drive north leads to Universal's three main parks -- one housing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- a pleasant outdoor shopping mall, and generally nicer-looking hotels. 

While Orlando may be the happiest place on earth for Disney enthusiasts and amusement park-lovers, the city itself is an hour from beaches and lacking in real natural beauty. Disney-themed fare, kid-centric attractions, affordable restaurants with kids' menus, and activity-packed resorts make this arguably the most kid-friendly destination around, but the abundance of chain eateries and lack of non-theme-park-related cultural sights may be downsides for some.

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Beach at Holiday Surf and Racquet Club, Destin/Oyster

Situated on Florida's Emerald Coast, Destin is famous for its sugar-sand beach and green-blue waters. Its well-populated waters attract anglers, and fishing charters to catch amberjack, snapper, marlin, and more are available. A water park and bustling boardwalk lined with eateries and shops add some buzz, but most visitors to Destin are content plopping a lounge chair on the sand, sunbathing, and grilling hot dogs outside. Free outdoor summer concerts and Fourth of July fireworks, and its setting nearly equidistant from the charming town of Seaside and popular Pensacola Beach, make it an attractive Gulf Coast option. Expect lots of souvenir shops selling neon tank tops and chain eateries like Taco Bell and Whataburger, though there are also ample upscale restaurants and boutique shops. It's undoubtedly worth paying for a beachfront room. 

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Rooftop Patio at Westin Tampa Bay/Oyster

Situated in the middle of Florida's western coast, Tampa is a family-friendly destination that attracts spring breakers and sports enthusiasts. It's popular for its emerging foodie scene, baseball stadiums (one of which acts a as spring training facility for the New York Yankees), and Busch Gardens, a huge theme park with roller coasters, animal encounters, and year-round events. Its bayside setting means more waterfront walkways than beaches, but lovely stretches of sand can be found within a 45-minute drive, including Clearwater and St. Pete Beach. Foodie itineraries should include authentic Cuban food from Columbia Restaurant, ribs and macaroni and cheese from Al's Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que, and a beer flight from Cigar City Brewing. 

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Fort Lauderdale

Beach at Sonesta Fort Lauderdale/Oyster

A 40-minute drive north of Miami and 25 minutes south of Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale has swapped its previous spring break persona for a more sophisticated beach getaway image. It has been dubbed the "Venice of America" due to its extensive network of canals (there are 165 miles of waterways within the city), which are lined with eye-catching mansions and yachts. The 23 miles of wide, sandy beaches are fantastic, and lined with luxury hotels, delicious seafood restaurants, and lots of bars to grab a piƱa colada. Sailing on a catamaran, shopping along Las Olas Boulevard, and exploring unique museums such as the Antique Car Museum are all top activities for visitors. 

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St. Augustine

Beach at The Saint Augustine Beach House/Oyster

Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St. Augustine lays claim to being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. Today, it offers historic sights and horse-drawn carriages next to fine-dining Italian eateries and gift shops. The Castillo de San Marcos fortress, grass-covered Plaza De La Constitucion, and Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park are great tourist attractions for history buffs, while St. Augustine Beach and Anastasia State Park provide areas for recreation. Travelers can choose between a setting in the historic center or by the beach. St. Augustine is an hour's drive south from Jacksonville

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Palm Beach

Beach at Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach/Oyster

For travelers who don't love the public-only beaches in destinations such as Miami and Panama City, Palm Beach's mostly private beaches may be the answer. Wide, pristine, and uncrowded, the beaches here are a major selling point, as are the luxury hotels lining them. The five-pearl Italian Renaissance-inspired Breakers resort is an attraction in its own right, having opened in 1896 by Standard Oil founder Henry Morrison Flagler. Flagler's 73-room mansion is now a frequently visited museum. Art museums, the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, well-manicured golf courses, CityPlace shopping center resembling a European square, and drama theaters add to the upscale feel of this city. Cheap hamburger spots can be found here, but expect mostly fine-dining fare throughout the area. As Palm Beach attracts a largely older, well-heeled crowd, nightlife and budget-friendly spots are limited.

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Panama City Beach

Beach at Holiday Inn Resort Panama City Beach/Oyster

Panama City Beach was once the premier spring break destination for booze-fueled college kids, until 2015 when the city banned alcohol consumption on the beach. Now, it's trying to change its party-hearty reputation to a family-friendly spot along the Florida Panhandle, and largely succeeding. Kids and adults are kept entertained with 27 miles of white-sand coastline, multiple amusement parks (Shipwreck Island Waterpark is a favorite), convenient shopping and dining options that little ones will like, and ample water-based activities (sailing, fishing, and dolphin watching, to name a few). There are lots of beachfront properties to choose from and they're largely affordable (don't expect a Four Seasons property here).

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