It should go without saying that one of the main reasons you are considering Florida as your holiday destination is its beaches. And you would be right on the money.
When it comes to any review of the best beaches in the USA, the Sunshine State typically takes the lion’s share, while it also earns high marks for many of the cleanest beaches you will find.
If you manage to visit any of Caladesi Island State Park, Grayton Beach State Park, Siesta Key, Clearwater Beach and Daytona Beach, you will have touched on the very crème de la crème of Florida’s seaside splendours.
But the key thing here is that, along its staggering coastline length of 8,436 miles, the state has literally hundreds of beaches that meet the gold standard for a memorable stretch of welcoming, sugar-fine sands. In fact, it’s almost impossible to go wrong in choosing the right one as everywhere has its share of blissful seafronts.
Many of them are set in state parks, so don’t be put off if you see that designation in our round-up. While there may be a small fee to enter, the parks will all provide a good level of amenities, plus a well-maintained aspect.
The other facet of Florida beach life is that the seas are almost invariable warm, not too rough – although the Atlantic does attract its share of daredevil surfers at times – and family-friendly. You do need to pay attention to any posted notices about rip-currents and other tidal phenomena, while lifeguard stations also raise flags every day to indicate the state of the sea:
Green = Low hazard, calm conditions
Yellow = Medium hazard, moderate surf and/or currents
Red = High hazard, high surf and/or strong currents
Double red = Waters closed to public
Purple = Dangerous marine life (such as occasional tidal jellyfish)
There are two distinct coastal variations for the state as a whole – the Atlantic side, where the sea tends to be a touch rougher and the currents stronger; and the Gulf Coast side, where the waters are usually a degree or two warmer and quite calm.
The Florida Keys, which extend out into the Gulf to the south-west, surprisingly don’t have a lot of beaches in the manner of the rest of the state, but you will still find several inviting stretches of sand along the way.
The following round-up of memorable beaches lists the best, in our opinion, for each of the seven regions of Florida that have a maritime aspect.
As a general rule, this 200-plus-mile swathe of coastline is some of the least crowded (outside of the American holiday of Spring Break) that you’ll find in Florida, but its reputation as an overlooked corner of the Sunshine State is fast evaporating. Instead, it now has as much appeal – and as many amenities – as its better-known counterparts to the south and east, and the wide, open expanses have a lot to recommend them.
Grayton Beach in Santa Rosa used to be something of a locals’ secret, but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag after its regular appearances in the USA’s Top 10 list of Prof Stephen Leatherman, otherwise known as Dr Beach. And this is certainly one of the best, mid-way between Destin and Panama City Beach, especially for the chance to splash in its startling emerald-green waters, a feature somewhat unique to this area. Walk the wide, quiet beach or forested trails, or simply enjoy a break from Florida’s higher-energy, family orientated beaches.
Panama City Beach is known nationwide as the “Wreck Diving Capital of the South,” but it also boasts unusual white-quartz beaches that stretch for 27 miles. Sitting Gulf-side in the Panhandle, it attracts surfers, divers, sunbathers and nature lovers. At the heart is St Andrews Beach, where families flock to the warm tidal basin affectionately dubbed the “kiddie pool” by residents. Want to learn how to paddleboard? This calm natural cut-out is the place to do it.
Also here is Camp Helen State Park, with a historic lodge and a great eco-tourist aspect, including a fascinating beach and interior scrub oak forest. Shell Island is another secluded hideaway that can only be reached by boat and is great for nature walks and shell collecting.
Cape San Blas, the fish-hook-shaped promontory on the east of the Panhandle, is home to another regional stunner in the shape of St Joseph Peninsula State Park. With 10 unbroken miles of eye-popping white sands and sea-water that can reach a bath-water warm 28 degrees, this is also a bird-watcher’s paradise, with more than 240 species to look out for. There is even a full-facility campground if you want to stay the night and be as close to nature as possible.
When it comes to the big-destinations beaches of the Panhandle, Gulf Islands National Seashore at Pensacola Beach is another of those long stretches of idyllic seaside just waiting to be explored, with the quintessential emerald-green seas lapping at its edge. Equally, Navarre Beach is another blissful corner of laid-back charm, with plenty on offer for sun-seekers and adventure-minded visitors alike, including memorable fishing and kayaking.
Okaloosa Island at Fort Walton Beach and Henderson Beach State Park at Destin are two other notable gems, both loaded with acres of open white sands, well-maintained facilities and plenty of parking.
If you’re looking for Beach Central in the Sunshine State, this is it. From Scottish-tinged Dunedin at its northern extent to chic Naples, 175 miles to the south, the Gulf Coast boasts absolutely everything you could wish for in a beach destination. It is fringed with glamorous resorts, packed with adventure and activities, and crowned by mile after mile of utterly superb gently-shelving beaches that are pure balm for the soul.
Caladesi Island is the archetypal beach experience hereabouts, it can only be reached by boat, but it’s well worth the Caladesi Connection ferry’s 15-20 minute ride to the state park. Discover nature trails, kayak through the mangroves along water trails, catch up on your birdwatching or just wile away the hours sunbathing or beachcombing on three miles of white-sand beach. In slower seasons it almost feels like your own private island. Restrooms and concessions are available.
Long a major destination for its warm waters, expansive beaches and vast array of hotels and restaurants, magnificent Clearwater Beach sits at the epi-centre of this prototypical beach region. Activities abound, including parasailing, waverunner hire and dolphin-spotting tours along the intracoastal waterway. Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise is a 2-hour sailing, ideal with children, while thrill seekers should schedule a powerboat tour on board the Sea Screamer, and have cameras at the ready. Dolphins often frolic in its wake!
St Pete Beach just to the south is also prime tourist territory, but head to its southern-most tip and Pass-a-Grille, one of those gems Floridians whisper about so that it remains undiscovered. Want a restful beachside retreat? You’ll find it here. And it’s that quiet, peaceful ambiance that makes it a favourite with couples and honeymooners, too.
When you want to know where the locals go, Fort De Soto State Park is a wonderful discovery just south of St Pete Beach. Head to North Beach, a short drive into the park, for a natural, unmanicured beach whose highlights include plenty of birdlife and curious dolphins swimming lazily around the pier or darting about as they hunt down their dinner. Perfect book-reading territory, but it is also the site of some fascinating Civil War history.
Anna Maria Island, just off the coast at Bradenton, is a rich area for beach hounds as it boasts a series of idyllic stretches of golden sands, all wrapped into a wonderfully chic destination that attracts tourists and locals alike. Visit Manatee Public Beach and you will have captured the essence of the island, with some of the best pure ocean scenery around in a spot that’s especially popular with families. Alternatively, bring a towel and picnic to Bean Point for one of the most beautifully secluded beaches on the island, and be sure to stop for dinner at the iconic Sandbar restaurant, where you can drink and dine with your toes in the sand as you watch the sun go down.
As you continue to travel south, Siesta Beach on gorgeous Siesta Key (just south of Sarasota) is purest Florida. One of our all-time favourites for its wide, soft-sand beaches and gorgeous waters. The beaches are split into three sections, so there is something here for everyone, from those who just want to work on their tans to those seeking a more active visit.
Venice Beach is justifiably a Sunshine State treasure for its lovely location and its reputation as ‘The Shark-Tooth Capital of the World.’ Keen-eyed beach hunters patrol the sands here on the lookout for prehistoric shark teeth among the shells, and it is all backed by a town that was named one the ‘Happiest Seaside Towns’ by Coastal Living magazine, with a charming main street of shops and cafes.
Island hideaway Sanibel offers three major attractions for beach-lovers, the most famous of which is shelling. This pleasant pastime is so popular it has spawned the term “Sanibel Stoop,” in reference to the stance early morning beachcombers take while searching for the deposits of shells that appear when the tide goes out, especially during winter months. Lighthouse Beach Park is arguably the best, boasting the archetypal lighthouse, fishing pier, picnic area and showers to ensure a comfortable visit. This is also the ideal place for a bit of year-round dolphin and manatee spotting.
As you reach the final destinations on the Gulf Coast, Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park in Naples lures visitors in with the promise of gentle waves, and, most appealingly, few other beach-goers outside of weekends. The sand is soft, the calm waters are a lovely blue-green, and, like its sister parks on Sanibel, it boasts fantastic opportunities for shelling. Go in the morning when shelling is at its best, and if you’re there on a weekday you’ll find a nearly empty expanse to explore. Prefer to be active? Snorkling and kayaking are popular here, too.
Marco Island is as far south as you can go hereabouts, and it’s worth it for two spectacular and contrasting beaches. The coastline is book-ended by the public accesses of Tigertail Beach and South Beach. Both juxtapose the natural with the man-made – Tigertail’s untouched dunes and lagoon contrast South Beach’s palm-lined walkway and skyward architecture – while the former rates higher with families and the latter is a bigger hit with couples and those looking for seclusion.
Space & Treasure Coasts
This section of the Atlantic coast’s ‘midriff’ offers some of the biggest mainstream beach opportunities, and some of the more boutique. This is the best surfing territory in Florida and also some of the most iconic, including the beaches of Ormond and Daytona, where Henry Seagrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell – among others – chased the world land-speed record with impressive success on the hard-packed sand at low tide.
Daytona Beach is the Atlantic side of the state’s answer to the tourist traffic of Clearwater Beach on the Gulf side, with 23 miles of busy, bustling beaches filled with families enjoying seaside fun. The waves are stronger here, making it a terrific spot for (somewhat tame) surfing, but visitors should also take note of rip current warnings, especially with children. Some stretches of sand are hard-packed, offering designated areas on which you can drive your car! The main stretch of beach is either side of the Main Street Pier, but you simply can’t go wrong anywhere along this seemingly endless coastal nirvana. Take note, Daytona is also the home of Biketoberfest event in mid-October, which is mainly appropriate for ages 21 and up.
For the slightly more small-scale beach choice, Ormond Beach is an upcoming Sunshine State destination that retains its natural old-time charm with the benefit of all mod cons, and a dazzling stretch of white-sand beach. This is definitely the place to come for a wide variety of water-sports, while the historic downtown area makes for a nice change of pace, as well as an excellent restaurant choice, of which the fun Ormond Garage is an excellent brew-pub.
Equally, its neighbour to the south, New Smyrna Beach, is another happening destination that features a wide, 17-mile expanse of beach and a lot of fun, funky restaurants and shops. Like Daytona, this is also where you can drive on the beach (for a $20 daily fee) and cruise along the smooth sands to your heart’s content. Enter the beach at historic Flagler Avenue and you have a great array of boutiques, art galleries and dining. There is even a dog beach on the north side of the jetty at Smyrna Dunes Park!
Another of the coast’s big beach centres is at Cocoa Beach, due east of Orlando and the closest stretch of sand to the Theme Park Capital of the World. This is where much of Central Florida comes to play at weekends, but it tends to be quieter during the week (again, outside the busy US holiday of Spring Break). With six miles of pristine shoreline to play with, there are also three oceanfront parks, picnic tables, showers and restrooms, while the town’s signature shop, Ron Jon’s, is a wild and wacky emporium of surf culture that is open 24 hours a day.
Heading further south, Sebastian Inlet State Park features some of the best surfing in the state amid three miles of blue Atlantic water. Situated on the tip of two barrier islands, the park is surrounded by the Atlantic to the east and Indian River Lagoon to the west, with the Inlet flowing between the two. This is a favoured spot for picnicking, swimming, surfing, fishing, boating, snorkelling, scuba-diving and bird-watching, as well as some pristine beachfront and even two museums packed with the area’s maritime history.
For a more serene and upscale experience, head to the city of Vero Beach, where the pace is slower, the resorts are fancier and the whole style is more laid back and refined. The coast hereabouts offers four genuinely tempting public beaches and beach-parks, of which the most eye-catching is lively Humiston Beach Park, which is the setting for arts and crafts festivals during the year, while Golden Sands Beach Park is more geared up for sea-going activities for things like snorkelling and scuba-diving.
The beautiful barrier island of Hutchinson Island features another 21 miles of blissful sands, including the cities of Fort Pierce and Port St Lucie as well as the beaches of charming Martin County. Public parks lie along seven miles of this coastal stretch, projecting an unspoiled, tropical tranquility, most notably at Jensen Beach, where picnic pavilions, volleyball courts and all the necessary restroom facilities underpin the park’s sandy splendour.
Everglades & The Keys
While the Everglades are largely the place to go for a great eco-adventure, the Keys are another popular sea-going choice for their sheer adventurous nature, both ashore and under water. In fact, you could say this is the Fishing Capital of Florida, with numerous opportunities to go deep-sea or inshore fishing. And, while the beaches often take second place to all the water-sports, you will still find several excellent examples of more Sunshine State seaside glory.
While there are many reasons to stay in Key Largo, the magnificent John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is reason one, two and three. Stretching for 25 miles along the coast and three miles out to sea, this is the USA’s largest coral reef. Here, you can enjoy some of the best diving and snorkelling, as well as glass-bottom boat rides that provide a fascinating ‘window’ on to the underwater world. Also here is Far Beach, with its soft, warm sands, fringed by the iconic Keys palm trees and offering a shallow stretch of sea ideal for young ones who just like to paddle. Bring a mask and snorkel and you can also conduct your own family undersea exploration without having to take one of the offshore trips.
If you’re looking for the totally natural seaside experience, as opposed to a beach with a man-made quotient, head for Marathon and Coco Plum Beach. As well as being one of the larger beaches in the Keys, Coco Plum has free parking and restrooms, plus a general store nearby if you want to create your own picnic. It is also popular with kite-boarders, and it is dog-friendly, which provides another chance to meet the locals.
Sombrero Beach is as good a stretch of seaside territory as there is in the Keys, and is ideal for a family day out, just off Highway 1 in Marathon. The wide stretch of sand is again supported by relatively shallow water and is rarely crowded (although try to avoid public holidays). There are showers, restrooms and pavilions, plus a children’s playground and free parking. Be aware this is a significant area for nesting sea turtles from April to November, and some parts of the beach may be closed to protect nests, but that will still leave plenty of space for all concerned.
Another natural gem, just across the magnificent engineering immensity of Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Upper Keys to the Lower Keys, Bahia Honda State Park is a great stopping point. Although it suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017, the park is largely restored and offers a lovely hideaway, with more than 500 acres of pristine Florida nature and a series of small, natural beaches, of which Calusa Beach is probably the best. It is shallow enough for young children but with good snorkelling right at hand, and there is a gift shop, restrooms and picnic pavilions. Park activities include snorkel boat tours to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, kayaking and guided tours seasonally.
When it comes to Key West, Smathers is simply the best beach in the city. At almost a mile long, it is a lively and popular hangout for all-comers, with kayaks and parasailing for the active and plenty of space for those who just want to lie in the sun and enjoy the seaside vibe. The coral reef just offshore helps keeps waves to a minimum, hence it is suitable for younger children. All the usual amenities – showers, restrooms, etc – are provided, and there are volleyball courts for those who enjoy the sport. Food trucks and other vendors usually hang out to provide meal options and, while parking is $4/hour, it is plentiful and rarely over-subscribed (apart from weekends in peak season, Feb-Apr).
Tucked away along the most northerly stretch of the Atlantic Coast, otherwise known as Florida’s First Coast, this section of beaches is largely a mystery to most, but it is actually one of the state’s great secrets, especially for the area of Amelia Island in the extreme north-east. Not only are the beaches here the equal of anywhere in the state, they are also packed with great nature preserves and parks that help to underline the natural splendour of the coastline and immediate hinterland, including beautiful Big Talbot Island State Park.
Any visit to this part of the world should start – or finish – on Amelia Island, a delightful 13-mile long by four-mile wide barrier island that is part of the Sea Islands chain. It has 13 miles of unbroken, gorgeous beaches, including fringing the main town, Fernandina Beach. As well as being a super-cute historic downtown, it also boasts Main Beach Park on the waterfront, with excellent family facilities and plenty of parking to make for a great double-header of shopping/dining and beach time.
When you’d like some Civil War history with your beach-going, head for Fort Clinch State Park, with more than 1,400 acres to explore, including the 1847 fortress that was part of General Robert Lee’s Confederate plans. The park also includes its own pristine stretch of beach, as well as hiking trails, a fishing pier, picnic kiosks and children’s playground for a memorable family day out.
Another unique experience is on offer at Amelia Island State Park, where it’s possible to go horse-riding on the magnificent expanse of wide, open sands. Visit the Kelly Seahorse Ranch and you can saddle up for this rare adventure, trekking through the maritime forest to emerge on the dazzling white beach and trot along the edge of the sea for a wonderfully exhilarating experience. It is also one of the seven parks that make up the Talbot Islands State Parks.
Also to be found here in the Talbot Islands is undeveloped Skeleton Beach, one of Florida’s most unusual locations. Tucked away inside Big Talbot Island State Park, it isn’t the place to come with your bucket and spade or sun-lounger and umbrella but with your camera, as the shoreline here is littered with the salt-washed remains of live oak and cedar trees that make for a stunning panorama. It is a little bit of a hike from the public parking area, but it richly rewards those who come looking for the unique rather than the standard.
Discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century but founded in 1831as the community of Mayport, what is now Jacksonville Beach offers vast stretches of exquisite beach, as well as a famous fishing pier and boatloads of water activities. Beach volleyball, para-sailing, fishing and a wide variety of eateries are all on hand, while it is common to see dolphins rolling along just outside the surf line. Surfers are also drawn here by some of the best waves in the region, notably on Neptune Beach, which attracts water-sports enthusiasts in great numbers when the sea gets up.
Golfers will already know the name of Ponte Vedra Beach, as it’s the home of The Players Championship and majestic TPC Sawgrass golf club, but stray just a few miles to the east and you discover the other major facet of this swanky seaside destination – miles of pristine seafront, all fringed with perfect white quartz sand. Here you’ll find extensive dunes and lots of unspoiled nature, notably on Anastasia Island, where Crescent Beach is one of the most scenic in the area, perfect for beach-combers and eco-tourists.
St Augustine Beach is the closest beach to the historic Old Town of America’s oldest city, where the municipal sandscape features a festive mix of boating and fishing recreation around the St Johns County Pier. Sunbathing and picnicking spots abound along a two-mile-long beachfront that also offers shaded pavilions, a playground, bait shops, volleyball courts and food options. On weekends, the pier is often host to concerts and special events.
If there is one thing that most people associate with Florida’s brightest city, it is beaches. Miles of them. There really is an almost ubiquitous connection between Miami and its vast, glittering seaboard, as evidenced in TV programmes like Miami Vice and films such as Goldfinger and Bad Boys. And, while it isn’t really all about the beaches, there are a seemingly endless line of them, stretching from Key Biscayne in the south to Golden Beach on the northerly border with Fort Lauderdale.
There are fully 35 miles of Miami coastline, and virtually all of it is fringed with fine, golden sands, so it’s hard to go wrong. For families, Haulover Beach is a great spot, with lots of amenities and a very wide, generous section of beach that stretches for several miles. Part of the 99-acre urban park is reserved for nudists, and there is even a section for dogs! Nearby Sunny Isles is a two-mile stretch of pure Miami public beach fringed by a series of eye-catching luxury condos that give this area a more upscale vibe.
For ease of access, especially parking, 46th-63rd Street Beach takes some beating, notably as it doesn’t seem to draw the crowds of elsewhere, hence it is another good family choice, and there are several big-name hotels nearby when you need to retreat into an upscale environment. There is also a children’s playground at 53rd Street.
World-famous South Beach is about as sizzling-hot as it gets, attracting hordes of sun worshipers “seeing and being seen” as they top up their tans. During busy seasons this is party central, but those interested in exploring this quintessential Miami location will also find the architectural beauty of its Art Deco district, along with cafes, nightclubs and smart restaurants as well as several miles of open beach.
For arguably the best sights of Miami Beach, head to South Pointe Park Pier, the most southerly part of South Beach and a 17-acre park with picnic areas, playground and pier. This is where the locals come to watch the cruise ships depart each evening from the neighbouring Port of Miami, which is a majestic sight.
The island of Key Biscayne in south Miami is a fabulous nature spot with the bonus of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the southern tip, a lively but largely unspoiled historic site, with a beautiful beach affording stunning sunset vistas over Biscayne Bay. The 1825 lighthouse and keeper’s cottage are open for guided tours daily, and the Lighthouse Café is ideal for a casual lunch. En route to Key Biscayne you can also stop at Hobie Beach and watch all the windsurf action, as this is hugely popular with the watersports brigade, and you will see a lot of boating, jet-skiing and sailing here, too.
Completing the final ‘link’ of Florida’s shoreline between the Treasure Coast and Miami, the Gold Coast is another rich area of almost unbroken beachfront, lovely parks and striking resorts and condos. It includes the big-city destinations of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, both of which have blissful beaches to spare, as well as Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, amounting to some 110 miles of sun-kissed coastline and plenty of seaside options.
Sitting pretty between Jupiter and Palm Beach, Juno Beach is a classic example of barrier island seclusion and charm. A haven for nesting sea turtles, it has water on both sides and is hugely popular for all kinds of watersports, especially surfing, kite-boarding and fishing (centred on Juno Beach Pier, with its bait shop and pole rentals). A superb spot for sunrise-watching, it also offers a near five-mile stretch of inviting sandy delights.
Also at the more northerly end of the region, John D MacArthur Beach State Park is another secluded barrier island beauty, featuring nearly two miles of picturesque beach. Here, you can swim, snorkel and relax in the clear blue waters of the Atlantic or head to the other side of the park, which sits in the urban estuary of the intracoastal waterway, and try kayaking, canoeing and hiking, as well as a visit to the Nature Center. There are also picnic tables, BBQ grills, a children’s playground and gift shop.
Continuing south, Lake Worth Beach is perfectly set up for sun-seekers to soak up some rays among the scenic sea views. Noted for its cleanliness and relaxed atmosphere, this is where the action is largely confined to leisurely strolls along the golden sands or a spot of fishing from the signature pier. Here, you’ll also find the locals’ haunt of Benny’s on the Beach, a fab oceanfront restaurant with an array of tempting cuisine from breakfast to dinner.
Families make a beeline for Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park, where canopy-covered walkways, a hardwood boardwalk and a large sea turtle sculpture provide a welcoming aspect to several miles of superb seafront. There are umbrella and lounge chairs for hire, a children’s playground and a café to ensure both kiddie delight and parental relaxation.
Situated between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, serene Delray Municipal Beach offers a less frenetic experience than the better-known beaches to its north and south, but you won’t go without the conveniences. It offers a throw-back glimpse at Florida’s early days as a tourist destination, but with modern amenities that add to its charm. Primarily locals territory, its long expanse of shallow water makes it an excellent option for families with young children.
For a more low-key experience between the glittering high-rise properties of Delray Beach and Boca Raton, Highland Beach is a natural haven as one of the foremost nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles (March-October), hence its beaches are less built up and busy along the scenic A1A highway. Here, you won’t find a single traffic light, let alone the crowds, so couples tend to appreciate the laid-back vibe that much more.
Boca Raton has a string of fabulous beaches, hence it is hard to go wrong here, but, for something different, Red Reef Park is a secluded, wooded area that’s a haven for bird-watchers, with some 1250-plus species to look out for, from some of Florida’s smallest to the seemingly omnipresent pelicans and elegant royal terns. Photographers can often be found here, while others come for the snorkelling and fishing. Plenty of parking makes beach access smooth, while there are restrooms, showers and a picnic area equipped with free-to-use grills.
Fort Lauderdale Beach is simply pure, classic Florida, with a wide, handsome swath of sand stretching for almost three miles along the maritime aspect of this striking city. There is a brick walkway at the back of the beach for walkers, skaters, joggers and cyclists, and all manner of watersports, cafes and other amenities within a short walk. Mostly, there is just a seemingly endless vista of epic beachy enjoyment for all the family.
Hollywood Beach is the place to go for the funky, lively beach scene that has a more grown-up style with its many bars and resorts. It features a wide, walkable boardwalk, highlighted by the iconic bulk of the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, as well as acres of sand on the gently-sloping beach. Be sure to grab a burger at the famous Le Tub Saloon.
Finally, before you reach Miami, there is Hallandale Beach, highlighted by its colourful water tower that looks like a lollipop. Here, with its plentiful parking and paved walkways, there is more of that signature golden beachfront that is Florida’s top commodity. Kick back, relax, grab a drink from one of the nearby cafes or bars and tell yourself, I’m HERE…