Florida calls to mind Walt Disney, beaches, retirement, and holidays. And to be sure, it is all those things. But it’s also a state with wonderful natural beauty, exciting cities, and fantastic small town living.
Many of Florida’s small towns offer something special that no other place does. Many are coastal towns, but not all. If you find you’re about to be one of the 80 million people who visit the state each year, be sure to check out these fantastic small towns to visit in Florida:
1. Cedar Key
During the low-season, Cedar Key’s population shrinks to about 900, making it the definition of ‘off the beaten path.’ Locals refer to it as ‘old Florida,’ or ‘before Disney Florida.’ Just an hour from Gainesville, this is a charming and old-fashioned enclave that offers fishing, nature preserves, and great beaches. If you’re looking for low key, start here. There are dirt roads to ramble down, oaks trees at least a century old, kayaking and other water sports, and a small downtown with boutique shops and cafes.
When you’re ready for an incredible sunset, join the flocks of spoonbills that come each evening, just in time to watch the sun sink. Many of the houses and shops are built on stilts, the police drive suped-up golf carts, and everyone is ready with a smile.
Near Tampa, and tucked into the St. Joseph Sound cove, is Dunedin. It’s a popular place because of the many beaches in the surrounding area. Many of which will take your breath away. It’s also the jumping off point for Caladesi Island State Park – an undeveloped barrier island and one of the last of its kind.
You won’t find any franchises or big box stores here, just a charming downtown, specialty shops, and small cafes. There’s virtually no crime in Dunedin, a low cost of living, and over 25 annual festivals to enjoy!
3. Temple Terrace
With a population around 25,000, Temple Terrace is a small town with easy access to big city amenities. Nearby you’ll find the University of South Florida, Florida College, Busch Gardens, professional sports arenas, and great beaches. Often advertised as “Tampa’s Most Beautiful Suburb,” they’ve got golf, bike trails, lively community events, artisan restaurants, and amazing golf courses.
It’s recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places and also has a Tree City USA designation. The town is in the middle of a redevelopment of the downtown area in order to make it more walkable and inviting. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Victorian Village to find some great gifts and collectible items.
Located in northwest Florida, Niceville is far from the big cities in the less populated panhandled region of Florida. Built around the Boggy Bayou (along with twin city Valparaiso), the town has a population around 13,000. It’s just a short trip to some fantastic Gulf of Mexico beaches – which makes it a pretty wild place for a few weeks out of the year as university students flood the area during spring break.
There’s a definite hometown vibe happening in Niceville and visitors love the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida, the Mattie Kelly Fine and Performing Arts Center, the children’s park, Turkey Creek Park and Boardwalk, top quality golfing, and several waterfront parks.
5. Fort Myers
Both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford used to vacation in Fort Myers. Its long been a favourite among those trying to escape the cold weather of the US Northeast. The list of don’t miss activities is long and includes the Imaginarium, a planetarium, the Calusa Nature Center, great golfing, Captiva and Sanibel Islands, the Ford and Edison Estate Museums, and more.
Each year there’s an Art Walk, ArtFest, and a Music Walk that draws crowds from across the state. But the locals will tell you that the real claim to fame is great fishing all year long.
For something truly different on your next holiday, why not visit the “Psychic Capital of the World?’ Spiritualism is the currency here as a large number of mediums and psychics have settled in Cassadaga.
The bookstores are filled with metaphysics, American Indian crafts, crystals and more, but the real attraction is in the Cassadaga Hotel. For a small fee, visitors can have a spiritual reading at the hotel. It’s a serene and peaceful place with a history that dates back to the late 19th century when two mediums conducted a séance in Wisconsin and where told by the Indian spirit Seneca that Florida was to be the new spiritualist centre and that they had been chosen to establish this new home.
If you want an interesting look into the town, check out the album by the band Bright Eyes, entitled Cassadaga.
7. Safety Harbor
One of Dunedin’s neighbours is Safety Harbor, which means it’s also close to the amenities of Tampa. It is full of professionals who work in the city but want to live in a small community. The town first came to popularity in the early 20th century when people believed that nearby Espiritu Santo Springs was the mythical fountain of youth.
Today, visitors still flock to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa for rest and rejuvenation. It’s a Historical Landmark that brings people to town year after year. Safety Harbor may sound boring, but it’s a laid back slow tempo kind of place that’s good for the soul.
Located between the Florida Strait and the saltwater Everglades National Park is one of the many eclectic towns that make up the Florida Keys, Islamorada has a population of around 7,000 but is filled with people from across the world who come to visit each year.
Six different islands make up Islamorada and there are also several smaller islands with private residences on them – hideaways for the rich and famous. The Plantation Yacht Harbor is a modern marina with some of the best fishing in the Keys. Enjoy the Pigeon Key Art Festival where residents celebrate the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge each year.
9. Crystal River
One of Florida’s purest spring fed water system is Crystal River. Come here for snorkelling and kayaking – year round activities on the river. See turtles, schools of fish, aquatic plants, and the natural spring vents that they area is known for – with a visibility of more than 200ft, it’s a snorkelers dream come true. It’s also a great chance to sight the endangered Florida manatee.
At the Crystal River Nature Preserve you can hike or bike through over seven miles of gorgeous trails, take stunning pictures, fish at the Mullet Hole, and canoe through the preserve to see the undisturbed inlets and coves tucked away there. Consider a Manatee or Eco Tour while you’re there.
10. Vero Beach
For a retro vibe, check out Vero Beach, one of the first tourist draws before Florida was known as a beach destination. It’s a progressive town and yet reminds you of America in the 1960’s. Aviation buffs come to Vero Beach to visit Piper Aircraft and their historic site.
Others come for the gorgeous beaches like the Spoil Islands, the historic sites around town, and the many cultural events on offer. One of the major draws is Eco-tourism and visitors always enjoy the McKee Botanical Garden and the Indian River Citrus Museum.
At the top of most of the lists about best places to retire is Venice. This island community enjoys public beaches, parks, safe biking, access to the Gulf of Mexico, low cost of living, and plenty of sun. What more could you want to live life to the fullest?
It’s a very walkable island with a historic downtown and tons of character. Close enough to St Petersburg, Sarasota, and Tampa, it makes a great getaway with big city amenities. Juried arts shows, craft festivals, parades, and Friday night concerts ensure that there is always something to do in Venice.
In southern Florida you’ll find “The City on a Circle.” So named because of the circular layout of the historic downtown. Sebring is also surrounded on all sides by lakes, rivers, and wonderful citrus groves. Though much of Florida consists of swampy lowlands, this little town sits on top of some lovely rolling hills.
With a population of right around 10,000, locals love the International Speedway, Highlands Hammock State Park, world class golfing, and an alligator leather factory. Despite its popularity with tourists, it remains a quiet little town where it’s impossible to feel rushed.
Unlike its counterpart in Italy, Naples, Florida is an upscale town with a small town vibe. It has the sixth highest income rate in the US and many of the homes there sell for more than $50 million. But don’t feel pushed out if this is not typically the crowd you run with. It’s also a popular retirement community and vacation destination.
Great beaches, fishing, Marco Island, Everglades City, Ten Thousand Islands, and more ensure that Naples has something for everyone. If you like shopping, you’ll get your fill here. Boutiques, art galleries, home décor, you name it, Naples has it. When you’re done for the day stop in to any of the sophisticated and delicious restaurants downtown for a culinary experience you won’t soon forget.
14. Key Largo
Key Largo owes its popularity to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who filmed the steamy 1940’s noir film about the island. Every year residents still turn out for the Humphrey Bogart film festival. With less than 12,000 inhabitants, Key Largo is the largest of the Keys and the starting point of the Overseas Highway – a sight to see in and of itself.
A premiere diving location, you can also try snorkelling, kayaking, sport fishing, and beach-bumming. There are intriguing shipwrecks to underwater to make your diving experience one of a kind. Key Largo has two state parks, a national park, a rehabilitation centre for birds, dolphin encounter programs, and a marine sanctuary. Before you leave, don’t miss the underwater hotel.
In the heart of the Forgotten Coast is Apalachicola – authentic Florida Gulf Coast at its best. Along with the communities of Eastpoint and St. George Island, this tiny town is southern, eclectic, and tight knit. There are great locally owned shops and restaurants as well as beautifully restored hotels and B&Bs.
Known for fresh seafood, miles of pristine beaches, protected waters, and the chance to see the Florida Panhandle’s oyster. Explore the national and state parks and some of the nicest people to be found in the state.