Sure, everyone knows Florida is the home of the world's most famous rodent, but there's much more to this state than mouse ears and theme parks. There is a reason why Florida is, year after year, one of the most visited places in the United States. It's home to historic villages, multicultural cities, secluded nature trails and some 825 miles of white sand beaches — so no matter what kind of traveler you are, Florida has a destination for you.
We've picked six great places to have fun in the Sunshine State for six different types of travelers, including seniors, foodies and beach bums. Read on to see which destination in Florida is right for you.
Editor's Note: As of this writing (July 2010), none of the destinations listed below have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and most of Florida's beaches are still clean and open to the public. For updates on the trajectory of the spill and any potential impact on Florida's coastline, see VisitFlorida.com.
For history buffs: St. Augustine
It isn't surprising that the oldest permanent settlement in the United States would be chock-full of history. The city of St. Augustine is captivating from the get-go — its narrow cobblestone streets and European architecture make it one of the most charming places in Florida. The Old Town is where you'll find many of the historic sites and attractions, such as Castillo de San Marcos (which dates back to the late 1600's) and Old St. Augustine Village, a group of restored period buildings.
Also worth a stroll is the campus of Flagler College, home to the circa-1888 Hotel Ponce de Leon. Built by wealthy industrialist Henry Flagler as a luxury resort, it's now a National Historic Landmark and the centerpiece of Flagler's attractive campus. For outdoor activities, head to Anastasia State Park with its opportunities for swimming, beachcombing, hiking, biking and boating.
For beach bums: St. Petersburg/Clearwater
The 35-mile St. Petersburg/Clearwater coast is bordered by a series of barrier islands that boast some of the softest, whitest sand in the state. Beachcombers will find colorful shells, pebbles and sand dollars on all of the area beaches, and Florida's plentiful sunshine makes tanning a breeze. (Don't forget the sunscreen!) Some of the beaches are more built up than others — like Clearwater Beach, a popular spring break destination, and St. Pete Beach, crowned by the signature bright-pink Don Cesar Hotel overlooking the Gulf. Both Clearwater and St. Petersburg offer plenty of restaurants and shops to keep you entertained if you need a break from baking on the sand.
More secluded beach towns include the former fishing village of Pass-a-Grille (local laws prevent high-rise buildings, so the town consists of small, well-kept houses and a quiet, serene beach) and Caladesi Island, an unspoiled retreat that can only be reached by ferry. One word of advice: Don't leave the beach too early — nearly every night, on nearly every beach, you can catch a spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
For foodies: Miami
With its melting pot of cultures and its proximity to the sea, it's no surprise that Miami is home to Florida's most varied and exciting culinary scene. Eat your way through the city with Miami Culinary Tours; the company offers two food tours, one focusing on the creative fusion cuisine of South Beach and the other on authentic Cuban dishes along the famous Calle Ocho. In addition to food and drink tastings, the tours also offer up delicious morsels of info about the history of each neighborhood.
In between indulgent lunches and sunset seafood dinners, there's plenty more to see in Miami. Worth a look are the exclusive neighborhoods of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, with their upscale boutiques and historic buildings, and the beaches and natural attractions of Key Biscayne are just a short car ride away. For more sightseeing ideas, see our three-day Miami guides for seniors, couples and families.
For seniors: Amelia Island
Taking a trip to Amelia Island — in the northeastern-most part of the state — is in many ways like taking a step back in time. Though thoroughly modern, the island has escaped much of the commercialization that plagues other parts of Florida. Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island's city, is a celebration of the Victorian era and boasts restored mansions and manicured lawns along Centre Street, the main drag. Take a walking tour of the area (offered by the Amelia Island Museum of History) and you'll find out how it has been influenced by being under the rule of eight different flags — the most of any place in the United States.
Besides history lessons and walking tours, seniors can go to the beach, enjoy a round of golf (there are several courses on the island) or take a leisurely river cruise along the island's scenic waterways; sightings of dolphins, manatees and alligators are not uncommon.
For families: Tampa
We know it can sometimes be tough to satisfy every member of your family — your oldest might be a science geek while the youngest craves adventure and the middle child prefers to just chill out on the beach. Luckily, the Tampa area is a crowd pleaser sure to suit even the pickiest of kids. Start with a trip to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, where the whole family can scream themselves hoarse on the roller coasters and then take a safari on the Serengeti Plain.
Satisfy your natural curiosity at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), full of hands-on educational displays, or at the Florida Aquarium with its comprehensive collection of sea critters. And when you're ready for a break, head for the coast — Tampa is the gateway to a number of gorgeous white sand beaches. We love Clearwater Beach, where you can swim, build sandcastles, go fishing, run around a covered playground at Pier 60 Park and even catch a pirate cruise. For more family-friendly ideas, see Taking the Kids: Three Days in Tampa.
For romantics: Fort Myers/Sanibel
What's more romantic then strolling hand in hand down white sand beaches and watching some of the country's most spectacular sunsets? The Fort Myers and Sanibel beaches in Lee County, Fla., offer one opportunity after another to explore perfect stretches of sand with the one you love. If all this romance weren't enough, the area beaches and towns have been developed with little disruption to the natural environment. Twin islands Sanibel and Captiva are a great example of this and are often recognized as among the best beaches in the country, particularly for shelling.
But if you're looking for love and shells don't rev your engine, head to — where else? — Lovers Key. This relatively secluded beach (home to a resort and a state park) offers not only astonishing beauty but also a wealth of attractions for active couples, including hiking and biking trails, kayaking, and wildlife watching; keep an eye out for snowy egrets and colorful roseate spoonbills.