Florida Road Trip Planning: Where to Go

Start your vacation planning today with this overview of Florida with the road tripper in mind. Author Jason Ferguson introduces you to the different parts of the state and the top draws of each region.

Multi-story art deco buildings in pastels in Miami's South Beach.
Art deco buildings along Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach. Photo © Richard Goldberg/123rf.
Map of Greater Miami, Florida
Greater Miami

Miami

Informed by the culture of its substantial Latin American population, by the tropical sea breezes that blow in over Biscayne Bay, and by its stature as the state’s largest metropolitan area, Miami manages to be urban and stylish while maintaining the laissez-faire sort of cool that comes with year-round gorgeous weather. With skyscrapers and condominiums crowding the downtown area, art deco architecture and fashion-forward clubbing in South Beach, the lush, wealthy beauty of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, and suburbs extending until the wilderness of the Everglades stops them, Miami neatly summarizes all the dreams and nightmares that people have about Florida.

Atlantic Coast

Fort Lauderdale has recovered from its role as the preferred destination for collegiate spring-breakers and has evolved into a cultured mellow place with vibrant nightlife and arts scenes that complement its beautiful public beaches. Farther north, Palm Beach has maintained its status as the richest town in Florida for almost 100 years. Its sister city of West Palm Beach offers a more urban experience and relaxed atmosphere. The beaches and fishing in Fort Pierce contrast with the slightly uptight oceanfront vibe in Vero Beach. These two cities along the Treasure Coast are as unique as they are different from other locales in South Florida. Farther north, the generally laid-back atmosphere that comes with living on the coast is a little more evident. Whether you’re staring in awe at the rockets of the Kennedy Space Center, the race cars of Daytona International Speedway, or historic St. Augustine (the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States), you still can’t help but notice that it’s the area’s natural beauty that is by far its primary attraction.

Walt Disney World and Orlando

A visit to Orlando’s theme parks is a fundamental part of many people’s idea of a Florida vacation. Thankfully, each of the major resorts in Orlando—the Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld—continue to meet and exceed the expectations that come with that idea. More importantly, each of them offers something different. And although Walt Disney World is interchangeable with the idea of a trip to Orlando in many travelers’ minds, the fact is that even without the land of theme parks south of downtown, the city of Orlando and the Central Florida region are a compelling vacation destination. The city of Orlando offers a diverse array of cultural attractions, outdoor activities, and nightlife action. The sights in its immediate area, most notably the historic and upscale city of Winter Park, are also quite compelling.

Low waves roll in past a long pier at Clearwater Beach, Florida.
Enjoy the sunset at Clearwater Beach. Photo © Elena Petrova/123rf.

Tampa Bay Area

This part of the state literally has it all. Urban explorers will enjoy the nightlife and urban scruffiness of Tampa and the historic and walkable downtown area of St. Petersburg. Families flock to the theme park thrills of Busch Gardens and the gorgeous beaches that stretch for miles south of Clearwater. Outdoor adventures abound, from the backwater rural vibe of Crystal River to the hiking, nature-watching, and other natural activities that abound along this beautiful coastal area.

South Gulf Coast

Traveling along the south Gulf Coast of Florida is something of a mixed bag. Along with the stunning natural beauty of beaches like those on Sanibel Island and the barrier islands along the coast of Sarasota, there are economically struggling cities like Fort Myers and tony locales like Naples. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Art lovers will enjoy browsing the galleries of Naples and Sarasota and beach bums will love the white-sand beaches and blue waters.

A smoky blue heron stands in the water of the Everglades in Florida.
A little blue heron in the Florida Everglades. Photo © Brian Lasenby/123rf.

The Everglades

The Florida Everglades comprise nearly 4,000 square miles of wetlands, swamps, scrub forests, and rivers. The majority of hiking, canoeing, and kayaking trails are easily accessible, and the Oasis Visitor Center, Shark Valley Visitor Center, and Flamingo Visitor Center offer exhibits and knowledgeable staff. In the small town of Everglades City, you’ll find the teeny-tiny Ochopee Post Office, the stunning and unique Big Cypress Gallery.

Florida Keys

For much of Florida’s early history, this island archipelago was Florida’s pioneer paradise, the place where rogues and adventurers headed on their boats as a way to escape the demands (and occasionally the laws) of the mainland. Amazingly, decades of tourism have done little to alter the fundamental character of the Florida Keys. Key West is the libertarian heart of the Keys, a city as devoted to bacchanalian pleasures as it is proud of its beautiful and historic scenery. That spirit carries over to the natural on- and offshore wonders of Islamorada and Marathon.

Color map of the Florida Keys
Florida Keys

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