Florida is pretty awesome. As a state, it is definitely a Bucket List, once-in-a-lifetime destination that should be on everyone's list of "places to see before you die". The only exception is if you actually live in Florida *wink*.
Confession time: We've visited 45 US states so far, including Alaska. And guess what, we still haven't visited Florida. That's a mistake that we're about to correct in March 2020, and this is why you're seeing so many posts about Florida in this blog recently - they are all part of the research we're doing for this trip. And yes, you can expect plenty of revisions, additions and new installments as soon as we return.
Now that we have researched a bunch of Florida destinations, it's time to look at the bigger pictures. What do we think are the must-see places in Florida? We've put together this list of 11 destinations that currently make up our Florida Bucket List - they are:
- Everglades National Park
- Orlando Theme Parks
- Florida Keys
- Crystal River & Ocala
- St. Augustine
- Daytona Beach
- Tampa Bay Area
- NASA Space Center
- Sanibel Island
No matter what vacation you’re interested in, you’ll find something to suit your preferences below. Hopefully, this list helps you plan your own Florida itinerary - more notes about ours down below. And no, we're actually not going to be checking all of these off our list on the next trip. More on that later.
- 11 Florida Bucket List Destinations You Must Visit
- 1. Everglades National Park
- 2. Orlando Theme Parks
- 3. The Florida Keys
- 4. Crystal River & Ocala Forest
- 5. Miami
- 6. St. Augustine
- 7. Daytona Beach
- 8. The Tampa Bay Area
- 9. Pensacola
- 10. NASA Kennedy Center & The Space Coast
- 11. Sanibel Island
- The Florida Bucket List Map
- How to create a Florida Itinerary
- Over to you
11 Florida Bucket List Destinations You Must Visit
1. Everglades National Park
Measuring 1.5 million acres, the Florida Everglades is one of America's largest and wildest national parks. Only a 40-minute drive west of Miami, the “River of Grass” is an exceptional place for tourists who want to see the wonderful wetlands up-close.
The most popular way to explore the Everglades is by taking a guided tour on a super fast—and super loud—airboat. Keep your eyes peeled for hundreds of colorful birds, crocs, and (if you’re really really lucky) Florida panthers.
If riding an airboat doesn’t strike your fancy, then you might want to consider other Everglades activities like hiking, biking, fishing, and canoeing. There are also a few approved camping areas for folks who would like to spend the night.
We already researched the park and we'll be dedicating two full days to exploring it in March. You can ready our detailed Everglades National Park guide right here.
2. Orlando Theme Parks
If you’re traveling with kids, then chances are high you’ll be spending most of your Florida vacation in the Orlando Metro Area. Sometimes called the “Theme Park Capital of the World,” this Central Florida city has quite the reputation for its amusement parks.
When discussing Orlando theme parks, we have to start with the elephant…er, rather, the “mouse” in the room. Disney World is one of the world’s largest and most popular resort areas, period. Measuring about 40 square miles, this impressive “world” is home to four iconic theme parks, two water parks, and the Disney Springs shopping & dining district.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are now over 30 resorts & spas, an ESPN sports complex, golf courses, and countless dining options on Disney World’s property. Do yourself a favor and research Walt Disney World’s website for detailed info well before your visit.
Although Walt Disney World usually tops the list for Orlando-area theme parks, it’s not the player in town. For instance, there’s the Universal Studios Orlando Resort area, which features the incredibly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Here are a few other hot Orlando attractions to consider adding to your travel itinerary:
3. The Florida Keys
For a quasi-Caribbean getaway, you can’t do better than the Florida Keys. Stretching for about 100 miles southwest of the mainland, this tropical archipelago is beloved by tourists searching for a slower pace of life without leaving the USA.
Although every key has its own wonderful personality, there are a few that stand out. Let’s briefly go through a few tourist hotspots on three major keys.
Snorkeling Central: Key Largo
First off, Key Largo often takes the top prize in the snorkeling community for its fantastic John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Only a one-hour drive south of Miami, this key is also one of the easiest to reach for day-trippers in South Florida.
Before leaving, don’t forget to take a ride on Key Largo's African Queen, which was featured in the classic 1950s Humphrey Bogart film.
Greet Marathon’s Delightful Dolphins
For those who love dolphins, head one-hour south of Key Largo to Marathon. On this more developed key you’ll come across the highly-reviewed Dolphin Research Center, which puts on spectacular dolphin shows almost every day.
Party On In Key West
The most popular of all the Florida Keys is the southernmost city of Key West. This fun-loving island is home to dozens of fantastic attractions including the Ernest Hemingway House, President Truman’s Little White House, and the Southernmost Point.
Key West also hosts many unique annual festivals including:
To get a better sense of the wealth of attractions in this area of the state, be sure to visit the Florida Keys’ official website.
4. Crystal River & Ocala Forest
Located about a 1.5-hour drive north of Tampa, Crystal River is an unspoiled vacation destination known for its remarkably pure springs and multiple manatee viewing locations.
Begin your tour at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which currently serves as one of that nation’s largest protected zones for manatees who migrate in the wintertime. After touring this national refuge, consider visiting the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge for even more wildlife viewing opportunities.
Another popular destination to visit in the Crystal River area is the 57-acre Three Sisters Springs & Boardwalk. Whether you choose to snorkel, walk along the boardwalk, or ride in a clear-bottomed kayak, you’re bound to be impressed by the wildlife and scenery in this well-protected reserve.
If you ever tire of the natural splendor of the Crystal River area, you’re just a short drive from nearby Ocala’s many attractions, which includes the International Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. Check out our post on the 9 awesome things to do in Ocala for more details on visiting this area.
Thanks to its fantastic beaches, lively Latin heritage, and numerous nightclubs, Miami is Florida's ultimate party destination.
For most people, a trip to Miami begins and ends in South Beach. Well known for its well-preserved Art Deco architecture and soft sand, South Beach has become one of the trendiest nightlife & shopping destinations in the nation.
Oh yeah, let's talk more about shopping! Besides South Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall, Miami is home to many spectacular shopaholic stops including the pedestrian-friendly Bayside Market, the Dolphin Mall, and the Aventura Mall.
Although Miami is a great tourist destination in its own right, it’s also a fantastic home base for exploring some of South Florida’s top attractions like Hollywood Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and the Everglades National Park.
6. St. Augustine
Colonized by the Spanish in 1565, Saint Augustine is America’s oldest city and an obvious draw for history buffs. A one-hour drive south of Jacksonville, this city’s well-preserved historic center, old city walls, and cobblestone streets will instantly transport visitors to Spanish Colonial times.
Here you could visit America’s oldest…well, everything! Tour the Oldest House in America, then the Oldest School, then the Oldest Store, and then—you get the idea. St. Augustine is also home to the impressive Castillo de San Marcos fort, the beautiful Flagler College campus, and the charming St. Augustine Lighthouse.
Learn more about all the fun things to do in Saint Augustine on this previous post.
7. Daytona Beach
With its 23-miles of hard-packed sand, hot nightlife, and proud racing heritage, there’s no doubt northeastern Daytona Beach deserves its title as the “World’s Most Famous Beach.”
Of course, nobody could talk about visiting Daytona Beach without first mentioning the famous Daytona International Speedway. Headquarters of NASCAR and home of the Daytona 500, this mecca of sports car racing is a must for any adrenaline junkies in the region.
Although Daytona has a reputation for being a bit rowdy (especially during Spring Break), that shouldn’t scare away families. Indeed, since Daytona Beach is only a one-hour drive from Disney World, it has become an increasingly popular day-trip for folks who want to pause the Mickey Mouse madness.
8. The Tampa Bay Area
Located in West Central Florida, the Tampa Bay Area rivals nearby Orlando for its plethora of family-friendly attractions. Whether you want to ride roller coasters in Busch Gardens, explore marine life at the Florida Aquarium, or learn at the Museum of Science and Industry, there’s no shortage of kid-approved attractions in the Tampa Bay Area.
As an added bonus, tourists who stay in Tampa have convenient access to some of the world’s most talked-about beaches. St. Petersburg Beach and Clearwater, often considered the best beaches in America, are just a 40-minute drive from Tampa’s center.
Art lovers will also love exploring the Tampa Bay Area’s many awe-inspiring museums. Indeed, St. Petersburg has the distinction of housing one of the largest collections of surrealist Salvador Dalí’s works in the futuristic Salvador Dalí Museum.
Lastly, Tampa is a great city for pro sports enthusiasts. NFL fans can root for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while NHL fans cheer on Tampa Bay Lightning. Plus, the Tampa Bay Area is well known for attracting pro baseball teams during spring training.
Not far from the Alabama border, Pensacola has plenty of sand, surf, and Southern charm.
Of course, the main attraction in this Panhandle city is the beautiful beach. Situated on the Emerald Coast, Pensacola Beach is beloved for its white sands, lovely blue-green waters, and plentiful dolphin sightings.
But it’s not all about the beaches in this city. Indeed, Pensacola has an interesting history under Spanish, French, British, Confederates, and American rule. You can get a sense of Pensacola’s past on a stroll through the wonderfully preserved Historic Village, St. Michael’s Cemetery, and the Pensacola Lighthouse.
Today, Pensacola is well known for its Naval Air Station, which is home to the spectacular jet fighter team The Blue Angels. Definitely visit the National Naval Aviation Museum to learn about Pensacola’s high-flying heritage.
Another perk of visiting Pensacola is that you’re not far from other popular Panhandle destinations. Check out these posts on things to do in Destin and attractions in Panama City for more info on all the Panhandle has to offer.
10. NASA Kennedy Center & The Space Coast
Want to get blown out of this world? Well, there’s no better place on earth to learn about outer space than in Brevard County’s NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.
Only about an hour’s drive east of Orlando, the NASA Kennedy Space Center remains America’s most important launching pad. Tourists who visit this complex can see relics from NASA’s past, view immersive IMAX presentations, and take a bus tour around former launch sites.
Just bear in mind this is still an active site, which means the Visitors Center could close due to rocket launches. But hey, if you are lucky enough to be there for a launch, make the best of it and make sure to watch the launch - a true Bucket List experience in its own right! Check the NASA Kennedy Space Center’s website for more details on expected closures.
Although the Kennedy Space Center is the top draw along Florida’s eastern “Space Coast,” there are plenty of other attractions in the area well worth your time. For more ideas on what to include in your Space Coast tour, check out our previous post on things to do in Cocoa Beach.
11. Sanibel Island
Do you love collecting seashells on the beach? If so, you’re going to love our final Florida bucket list suggestion.
Located in the southwest, Sanibel Island is a relatively small stretch of sand with a big reputation in the sea shelling community. Indeed, this island’s reputation for seashells is so high that some have called it the “Seashell Capital of the World.”
Regardless of whether you love seashells or not, this island’s relative seclusion also makes it an intimate beach experience for romantic couples.
Looking for more information? Check out our post about things to do in Sanibel Island and nearby Fort Myers.
The Florida Bucket List Map
Let's take a look to see where these places are -
How to create a Florida Itinerary
First, let's get one thing out of the way - Bucket Lists are a fantastic tool for getting you interested in a destination and mapping out the most unique things to do. However, no one says you need to check every item on the list. Definitely not on a single visit. And yes, there are plenty of other awesome things to see and do in Florida - if you have the time, you can go deeper and explore more of the state at leisure.
To create a trip itinerary, you need to take into consideration the timing of your visit, and how long you have.
What's the best time to visit Florida
We've dedicated an entire post to when's the best time to visit Florida, so you can go there and read more. The bottom line is: winter. Or, more precisely, November-April. While elsewhere in the US, this is generally off-season, in Florida, this is high season. Here's why -
- Winter is the dry season. Relatively dry - it can still rain but not like it does during summertime.
- Hurricanes be gone - November marks the end of Hurricane season.
- Comfortable temperatures - generally in the 70's.
- Peak wildlife viewing opportunities.
Of course, like everywhere else, high-season also means peak prices. To try and balance things, you can try coming in April or even May, and hope that the tropical rains won't start just yet. Just keep in mind that manatee viewing opportunities drop around February, as soon as the water begins to warm up.
How long should your visit to Florida be?
This post is getting to be too long, so we won't be suggesting itineraries here today. However, suffice to say at this point, that you can have an awesome weekend in Florida, or spend a couple of months here. Especially during winter. There's just so much to see and do.
As a general outline, a month-long family trip to Florida can look something like this -
- Day 1 Arrival
- Days 2-3 Everglades National Park
- Days 4-6 the Florida Keys
- Days 7-12 the Florida coast: Miami-St. Augustine
- Days 13-17 the Florida panhandle
- Days 18-19 Crystal River and Ocala
- Days 20-21 the Tampa Bay area
- Days 22-30 Orlando including the theme parks
Since most people can't take such long winter vacations, you can pick and choose any of the sections for shorter visits.
For our own trip, we only have two weeks for sightseeing (and a few more days for family visits). With that in mind, and considering the costs and our kids ages (they are teenagers now), we're not sure we'll be visiting a Disney theme park. We also won't have time to get to the panhandle area this time - but that's ok, we'll get there someday!
We do plan to visit the Everglades, the Florida Keys, Miami, Tampa, Crystal River and the Kennedy Space Center. Hopefully, St. Augustine too. Can't wait to share our reviews and tips once we get back!
Over to you
We hope you found this list helpful. If you're already familiar with Florida, let us know what you think the Florida Bucket List should look like!
Want to think of more places to travel? Read below -