Best Florida Beaches: Discover the Perfect Stretch of Sand for Your Tastes
Carousing on the Coral Cays (Florida Keys Beaches)
People do things differently on the chain of islands that splay off Florida’s southernmost tip. You can see it when a hurricane bears down on the state. Whereas the rest of the peninsula stocks up on water and propane, the inhabitants of the Keys lay in beer and rum.
You get the idea: it’s always a party on the archipelago.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Key West is probably the island most known for its carousing, but one of the Keys’ most fascinating beaches lies just off its coast. Dry Tortugas National Park offers the crystal-clear water and excellent snorkeling you’d expect in the islands.
However, it also contains Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century structure that covers 16 acres and was built during the Civil War. Onsite guides can show you around the site, and there’s plenty to do once you’ve tired of history.
Diving, kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming — you’ll find ample opportunities for any and all water sports. Plus, you’ll discover numerous campsites on the undeveloped islands comprising the park, as well as yacht cruises to and from it.
Bahia Honda State Park
One thing any visitor to the Keys should realize is that beach space is at a premium. That isn’t only due to the gorgeous sunsets and spectacular fishing.
The islands are accretions of coral, making sandy stretches rare indeed. But you’ll still find a few excellent beaches, most notably Bahia Honda State Park (Big Pine Key).
Even though ecologist Stephen Leatherman named it his best beach in America in 1992, it might look a little different than you’d expect. The two beach sites (i.e., Sandspur and Loggerhead) are laced with sea grass, and it’s illegal to disturb any live shells.
But it’s also so pristine and beautiful that it garners regular comparisons to the Caribbean.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Relaxing on the Redneck Riviera (Panhandle Beaches)
Want to combine the welcoming Gulf Waters with easy access to other entertainment? Then look to Northwest Florida (aka the Panhandle) and the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk (Pensacola Beach).
The tranquil waters of English Navy Cove lap at the beach’s white sand and invite plenty of boaters to anchor just off shore.
But do you know what crowds up right next to the water’s edge? Pizza joints and wine bars, cute boutiques and seafood shacks, outdoor outfitters and water sport rentals.
Then there’s the boardwalk itself and the pier that juts out into the Cove. You certainly won’t lack for things to do around the boardwalk, and if boredom (no pun intended) threatens, the Gulf Breeze Zoo and Sam’s Fun City can entertain kids of all ages.
If you’re looking for many of the perks of Pensacola with fewer crowds, Navarre Beach is also a good option along the Panhandle.
On the opposite side of the spectrum lies Johnson Beach (Perdido Key), a pristine stretch of shore near Pensacola that’s part of the so-called Redneck Riviera, that gorgeous bit of Gulf coast that slips out of Florida and into the American South proper.
You can suss out fine dining and plush accommodations if you really want to, but Perdido Key is all about enjoying the raw coast. In fact, Johnson Beach is the only beach on the island offering visitor amenities (think picnic tables and restrooms) and lifeguards.
It’s usually blessedly free of crowds, and when you’ve enjoyed as much swimming, fishing and hiking as you can stand, you’ll discover that’s only the start of the area’s charms.
Johnson Beach and Perdido Key are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a federally protected strip that stretches all the way into Mississippi. Load up the car and drive to any of the three American Revolution-era forts (Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee) in the area. Or keep a watch out for abundant wildlife, including wild sea turtles.
St. Vincent Island
While visiting the Panhandle, be sure to take a shuttle to St. Vincent Island, where you can visit the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Although the island is only accessible by water, once you’re there you’ll be able to explore untouched natural habitats.
Ride your bike or take a hike along the island’s many trails, seeking out secluded beaches and varied animals including alligators, deer and red wolves.
A short half-hour drive from Panama City, Shell Island is another pristine location that remains undeveloped. You’ll need to take a shuttle to get there, but traveling over crystal-clear waters will only serve to excite you for the beaches that await on the peninsula.
Keep an eye out for ghost crabs, piping plovers and green sea turtles.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Best Beaches for Nightlife
Geography isn’t the only way to sort out great Florida beaches. You’ll find the best beaches for nightlife all over the state. Remember South Beach (Miami)? There’s a reason why party-happy P. Diddy chose the clubbing capital of South Florida to settle down.
Siesta Key Beach (Siesta Key) is another place where bar crawlers and spring breakers can easily enjoy ample refreshment. Though Clearwater Beach (Clearwater) is primarily praised for the quality of its coast, it also boasts a hopping restaurant and beach bar scene, not to mention a number of local breweries.
Smathers Beach (Key West) adds a bit of class to its partying. Sure, you can down drinks while watching fire eaters and performing house cats at Mallory Square Pier. But there’s also a rich gourmet scene to enjoy.