The Best Places to Visit in Florida—Beyond Miami
There's a time and place for Miami's sexed-up pool parties, white-hot nightlife, and bronzed beach crowds, but when you're ready to leave the 305, we've got you covered. Read on for seven low-key Florida gems where you can soak up the sunshine and some much-needed peace and quiet.
Chelsea is Brooklyn-based travel writer, editor, and photographer. When not home eating her way through NYC, she's gallivanting across the globe, sailing the coast of Croatia or hiking the peaks of Peru. Her superpowers include booking flight deals and sleeping in small plane seats.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
An hour north of Naples, these two sister isles are known for their secluded shores and shell-covered beaches. Check into Captiva’s sprawling South Seas Island Resort, whose 330 acres feature 20 pools, six restaurants, a marina, and two-and-a-half miles of pristine sands. Serious beachcombers should head to Bowman’s, a powdery strip on Sanibel, to treasure-hunt for conches, whelks, and sand dollars, while nature enthusiasts will love biking through J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to incredible native wildlife such as alligators, manatees, sea turtles, and exotic pink-hued roseate spoonbill birds. When hunger strikes, there's Il Cielo; order the pistachio-crusted lamb loin or lobster ravioli with asparagus and sherry mustard cream.
Palm Beach is one of the Sunshine State’s ritziest towns, so you can expect to find all amounts of couture shops, high-end restaurants, and luxe resorts. The Breakers, a 140-acre seaside estate formerly owned by Henry Flagler, might be its most over-the-top stay. Modeled after 15th-century Roman architecture, the historic 1896 mansion is a vision of wealth, from the gold-leaf details and frescoed ceilings to the Venetian glass chandeliers. There are also four oceanfront pools, five hot tubs, 11 on-site designer boutiques, two 18-hole golf courses, nine restaurants, 10 tennis courts, and a scuba dive site to keep guests entertained. During the afternoon, do as the locals do and catch a match at the International Polo Club or flex that plastic at the chic stores along Worth Avenue—we love Balatro for vintage accessories; Raptis Rare Books for first-edition tomes; Socapri for elegant Italian resort wear; and A.B. Levy’s for fine art, jewelry, and antiques.
The Emerald Coast
The best way to experience Florida's Panhandle is by hopping between the close-knit towns along its Emerald Coast. After checking into Destin’s Gulf-front Henderson Resort (it offers 70 coastal-chic guest rooms along with yoga classes, a salon, an adults-only pool, and a retro ice cream shop), it's time to hit the road, starting along Route 30A. First stop: Grayton, an eclectic enclave where you can find sea-glass collages at The Shard Shop and live bluegrass bands at a funky low-lit dive called The Red Bar. Continue on to the utopian town of Seaside (it stood in as the set for The Truman Show) to have lunch with a waterfront view from the top deck of Bud and Alley’s before heading to Rosemary Beach, a Dutch Colonial hamlet centered around The Pearl Hotel and its hip rooftop lounge, which has cabanas, fire pits, and ocean vistas. Wrap up the day with a gourmet meal at Caliza or George’s in Alys Beach, whose cool Moroccan-meets-Mediterranean vibe stands out from the region’s Old Florida charm.
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Just a half-hour's drive northeast of Jacksonville, Amelia Island is a far cry from sexed-up South Beach—we're talking windswept sand dunes, quaint Victorian architecture, and heritage oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort is its Southern Belle, set on 1,350 acres of serpentine salt marshes that are now home to two championship golf courses, 3.5 miles of uncrowded coastline, and a nature center that hosts guided wildlife tours, birding excursions, and sea kayaking. For an even quieter retreat, there’s Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a bucolic beach bungalow with a wraparound porch from which a lucky few might see migrating whales, who pass through Amelia's waters between December and March. Whatever you do, don’t miss the island’s historic sights, including the Civil War-era Fort Clinch and the 1838 lighthouse—the oldest in Florida—on a bluff overlooking Egans Creek.
Majestic mangrove forests and world-class snorkel sites make Key Largo a favorite tropical getaway. Book a few nights at the Playa Largo Resort, where you’ll spend your days lounging by the tranquil pool or on palm tree-strung hammocks, tucking into fresh fish in Sol by the Sea’s boathouse, and sipping sundowners on the hotel sailboat. The best place to hit the sand is Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, so named for the 17th-century cannons that line the sand. This spot is a scuba diver’s dream: just offshore, there’s a Spanish shipwreck teeming with colorful parrotfish, damselfish, brain coral, and sea fans.
Sarasota proves that some of the best things come in small packages. Despite its small size, this sophisticated city south of Tampa packs in a host of impressive institutes including the Ringling Museum of Art, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and Ca d'Zan Mansion, a Venetian-style palace and former home of John Ringling done up with marble terraces, crystal chandeliers, and a 16th-century Spanish tile roof. While you can only take tours of the lavish 1920s residence, it’s worth the splurge to stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, built on the bay downtown. The opulent oasis features a private beach club on Lido Key that has a pool, restaurant, and nightly sunset parties as well as an award-winning spa with more than 100 blissful treatments to choose from.
Although Pensacola is often called "Redneck Riviera", the area is way more upscale than it’s given credit for. Bed down at the adorable Lee House inn, whose location by Seville Square and Fountain Park is ideal for exploring downtown. Stroll through the historic district, see a show at the Saenger Theatre or Pensacola Opera, browse contemporary works at the Pensacola Museum of Art, and hit up Gallery Night on Fridays, when Palafox Street—the main drag—closes for pedestrians and shopfronts open their doors to an evening of live music and festivities. On the hunt for a souvenir? Toad Hall Antiques & Gifts sells jewelry and handmade crafts (no tchotchke key chains here) while interior design emporium Duh is the place to go for homewares and garden décor. After all that shopping, fuel up at Al Fresco, a group of food trucks that serve everything from chicken and waffles to tacos and barbecue out of airstream trailers, then hit up Jaco's Bayfront Bar & Grille for killer happy-hour drinks.
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