Best Florida Beaches: Discover the Perfect Stretch of Sand for Your Tastes
Find the Best Sand & Surf Throughout the Sunshine State
Everyone knows about the dog days of summer, especially if you’ve spent any time in the American South. In early August, the days start to swelter as the mercury climbs, the winds still and humidity so saturates the air that you feel as though you could wring it like a wet towel.
But summer isn’t the only season that tends to overstay its welcome.
When I lived in the Chicago suburbs, I saw how the March cold seemed to slide on interminably, slow as a sleepy snail. The snow had stopped falling, but the chill remained, and the old drifts grew crusty and gray with accumulated grime. And April brought little relief as that tired snow melted to mush before refreezing as the thermometer flirted with the freezing point.
Is it any wonder that this time of year sees an exodus from the Northeast and Midwest to The Sunshine State? True, Florida has a reputation for being something of an — ahem — idiosyncratic state, especially if the exploits of the semi-famous Florida Man are any measure.
But there’s one thing few would dare deny: Florida contains some of the world’s best beaches.
Following you’ll find our guide to the best beaches in Florida. Though not exhaustive, this guide should help you suss out the most suitable spots to enjoy sand and sun in all of the state’s major regions, as well as a few specialty beaches. So without further ado, let’s begin.
Bienvenidos a Miami! (South Florida Beaches)
Will Smith’s music doesn’t seem to have aged anywhere near as well as his films, but his 1998 hit “Miami” pretty much captured the feel of South Florida’s most famous beach:
“Here I am in the place where I come to let go, / Miami, the bass and the sunset low. / Everyday like a Mardi Gras, everybody party all day, / No work, all play, okay.”
You know the area already, right? It’s South Beach (Miami).
Like most sandy stretches in the southern tip of the state, the best time to visit this man-made beach on Florida’s southeastern tip is late winter to early spring — it’s no surprise that this is one of the more popular spring break beaches.
Expect clear or partially cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s or 80s — not to mention warm water, Art Deco lifeguard stations and lots of Spanish. Miami is, after all, the gateway to Latin America, and the luxury surrounding South Beach draws visitors from all over the world.
When sunburn threatens, stroll down Lincoln Road to spy out the distinctive architecture or go clubbing when night falls. (More on that in the “Nightlife” section below.)
Hollywood Beach and the Boardwalk
Heading north to Broward County, Hollywood Beach and the Boardwalk (Hollywood) offers an Old Florida counterpoint to the ritz and glamour of Miami’s shores. Think of a broad walkway lining a length of golden sand, impromptu and organized concerts, and the splash pads and jungle gyms of Charnow Park that kiddos love.
Buy an ice cream, watch a free show at The Hollywood Beach Theater, and head west a mere 10 minutes to reach the downtown area with its 50s-era eateries and high-end shops.
Red Reef Park
Located in Palm Beach County, Red Reef Park (Boca Raton) offers easy ecotourism. A favorite of surfers, snorkelers and divers, the oceanfront area offers all sorts of watery enjoyment. Framed by sea grape-swathed ridges, the beach boasts lifeguards year-round.
Worthwhile diversions include digging for shark’s teeth, swimming around the man-made reef and walking across the street to the Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex. This family-friendly nature center lets visitors peer at sea turtles (some of them mind-bogglingly giant) that are being rehabbed after recent injuries.
There’s more than just a pristine stretch of sand in Hobe Sound. Visit the Blowing Rocks Preserve — at high tide, water is forced through holes in the rocks and shoots up to 50 feet high. It’s a sight you aren’t likely to see anywhere else!
Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is also located nearby. Sea turtles love nesting here, but the refuge is also home to bobcats, manatees, royal terns, snowy egrets, gopher tortoises and southern black racers.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Bigger and Better for Families (Central Florida Beaches)
Most people probably think of NASCAR when considering Daytona Beach (Daytona Beach), forgetting that its 23 miles of beachfront have been the main draw long before drivers began buzzing around a concrete loop in 1959.
More than 8 million visitors flock to its shores annually for the sun, the surf and (in a big plus for families) its regular lifeguard patrols. Outfitters galore hawk adventurous experiences such as parasailing, jet skiing and WaveRunning, and snorkeling.
The boardwalk seems to nod toward a bygone era with a lit Ferris wheel, arcades filled with Skee-Ball as well as more modern video games, and vendors frying fresh funnel cakes and plying ice cream.
Daytona Lagoon combines a water park with laser tag, mini golf, rock climbing and a go-kart track. Or consider renting a bike and simply peddling down the beach
North New Smyrna Beach
A fun and somewhat surprising fact: you’re almost as likely to run into cars on North New Smyrna Beach (New Smyrna) as you are people. Forget about building sand castles, too. The sand here is so tightly packed that it easily bears the weight of passenger vehicles.
But aside from a few intrepid beach combers, most of the action here is out on the waves. Most of Florida doesn’t have a reputation for great surfing, yet New Smyrna Beach regularly lands on top surf lists.
You’ll get waves here, and nearby Ponce Inlet often hosts national surfing competitions. You’re also not far from Canaveral National Seashore, a 57,000-acre refuge where visitors can watch sea turtles lay eggs in June and July.
Continuing the Central Florida theme of “the busier, the better,” Cocoa Beach is an area beloved by both tourists and Orlando locals. The beaches on this sliver of barrier island find themselves thronged with sun worshipers all throughout the year and particularly in March and April.
One of the most popular spots to hit is Alan Shepard Beach Park (Cocoa Beach), a mere stone’s throw from Cape Caneveral. It’s a perfect place to watch space shuttle launches, so check to see if one coincides with your trip.
Yet even if the rockets aren’t rising, you can enjoy bumming around at the famous Ron Jon and Cocoa Beach Surf Co. Nearby Canaveral Pier is also worth visiting for a little history and some great grub.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Beating the Keys at Their Own Game (Northeast Florida Beaches)
Any beach that the Sun-Sentinel (the newspaper of Broward County, Florida) described as “a family-friendly Key West … with better beaches” would sound too good to be true, right?
Well, such a place exists, and it’s Amelia Island, a barrier island in Northeast Florida that boasts Peter’s Point Beach (Fernandina Beach). Winding wooden boardwalks twine through the grass-clad dunes bordering the brown sands.
Campers will particularly enjoy the fact that you can legally pitch a tent for free on the shore. (However, realize that parking on the beach isn’t allowed at night.)
Cyclers and walkers should enjoy the 6.2-mile Amelia Island Trail that starts at Peter’s Point. Ready to get away from the sand? Try your hand at Fernandina’s Putt-Putt, a mini golf course that has been around for six decades.
Join a river boat cruise along the Amelia River, where you might spy wild horses racing along the shores of Cumberland Island or even a nuclear submarine on its way to Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia.
Just south of St. Augustine lies a stretch of coastline called Crescent Beach. If there’s nothing you love more than playing sports and games on the beach, this is the place to do it. The hard-packed sand along the water’s edge is perfect for throwing a Frisbee around or forming a game of pick-up volleyball.
Rent a cottage for the weekend or pack a picnic lunch and enjoy an afternoon soaking up the rays and intermittently enjoying the waves.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
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.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Budget-Friendly Beaches with Sublime Sights (Southwest Florida Beaches)
If South Florida is the busy, bustling home for transplants from the American Northeast and the Keys revels in Margaritaville-style antics, Southwest Florida serves as the state’s sleepier side.
Rather than endless suburban sprawl with condos crowding the coast, this area boasts more modest communities, each with their own character — and some truly fine beaches.
Take Tigertail Beach (Marco Island), for instance, a beach that’s every bit as gorgeous as it is isolated. Have no illusions: this isn’t the kind of beach where you’ll be lying on cabanas sipping cocktails.
To even get to Tigertail, you’ll have to park, walk past the paddleboard rentals and snack bar, and make your way to a shallow saltwater lagoon. The fun only starts once you’ve waded across it and found three miles of unspoiled coastal nature.
Dolphins swimming in Gulf waters, fiddler crabs scurrying across the sand, terns nesting in the trees — you’ll get to see what real Florida looked like before development began in earnest.
And once you’ve gotten your fill of the pristine, you can always head back over the lagoon to enjoy civilization. In addition to an onsite bathhouse, there’s also a butterfly garden, beach volleyball court, and playground for the kids.
Captiva Beach (Captiva Island), which lies on a barrier island just west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, captures an entirely different mood. Sugar-white sand. Brilliant sunsets. A dearth of waterfront vendors.
Yes, the beach is its own draw, much like Tigertail. But the vibe has less to do with getting back to nature, and more of enjoying the sights with someone you love.
Remember Stephen Leatherman, the guy who praised Bahia Honda? Well, he’s dubbed Captiva the most romantic beach to visit. If strolling the shell-lined surf and lounging on towels isn’t enough for you, consider chartering a sightseeing cruise or learning how to handle your own sailboat.
And speaking of shells, nearby Blind Pass Beach and Turner Beach (Sanibel Island) are some of the best places in the Sunshine State for shelling.
Located near Captiva on the north end of Sanibel, an enchanting little island where families book rentals months in advance, these beaches enjoy the gentle action of the tides from the Gulf of Mexico. You can guess what that brings, right? Shells, shells and even more shells.
There’s firmly packed sand along the shore in Sanibel, but come low tide and you’ll find a blanket of shells waiting for you. The waves will have crushed some of them, sure. However, there will also be remarkably intact specimens you can take home.
Shellers and fishermen love this pair of beaches, not least of all because their relative isolation means you shouldn’t run into much competition. Be warned, though, that you won’t find a bathroom on the Sanibel side of Blind Pass.
No guide to Southwest Florida would be complete without a mention of Clearwater Beach (Clearwater), an area that regular tops “Best American Beach” lists year after year. Powdery sand. Crystal-clear water. A yearly average of 361 days of sun (yes, you read that correctly).
It’s easy to see why people love this stretch of coast. Unlike our previous entries, though, the city offers a surfeit of side activities off of the beach.
Pier 60 conducts sunset celebrations almost every evening, celebrations where vendors ply homemade goods and buskers sing, play instruments, breathe fire and juggle. Clearwater Marine Aquarium lets little ones get up close to all sorts of marine life.
Jump onto a pirate cruise for sightseeing and mock sea battles. And use the Jolly Trolley to get around town for pocket change while you enjoy area boutiques and art galleries.
Fort De Soto Park
Although not quite so southerly, it’s worth traveling up the west coast a bit to enjoy Fort De Soto Park. Kids will love playing in a wide tidal pool at the park’s North Beach. You can also check out the Fort De Soto Batteries, a historic fort featuring old artillery holds and firing galleys.
Don’t forget to explore the water itself by renting a canoe or kayak. Once you’re floating, you can follow the two-mile paddling trail and see how many herons you can spot.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Best Nude Beaches
It might surprise you to learn that nude beaches are scattered all over the state. Understand, though, that with the exception of Haulover Beach (Miami), there aren’t any legally sanctioned nude beaches in Florida. Take this Florida beach guide to heart — if you get caught going bare, prepare for trouble.
Still, that doesn’t mean you won’t find like-minded individuals and ample opportunities to shuck off your suit. Johnson Beach (Perdido Key) and most of the Gulf Islands National Seashore offer lots of isolation. Locals also tolerate nude swimming at Apollo beach, as long as you are sure to keep a low profile.
With a population of a mere 800 souls, Jupiter Island is also secluded and beautiful to boot. Ecotourists and shutterbugs love Playalinda Beach (Titusville) for its ample wildlife, yet it also has a history of drawing nude sunbathers.