For me, the biggest challenge in making a list of the most beautiful places in Florida is deciding what to leave out. Florida’s beauty might be man-made, on the lively streets of a Spanish colonial town, the Art Deco architecture of Ocean Drive, or the far-flung Fort Jefferson surrounded by reefs at the western limit of the Keys.
It’s also surely natural, in the Everglades or unblemished cypress swamp, mangroves, springs, sinkholes, and beaches of all kinds. You can dive, paddle, bike, drive, hike, fly or catch an airboat into these habitats to see dolphins, manatees, alligators, species of fish, and a multitude of birds, all flourishing in their homes. For a mix of nature and nurture, there are stunning gardens made possible by the balmy sub-tropical climate, growing plants that you may not see anywhere else in the world.
So here’s my list of the most beautiful places to visit in the Sunshine State:
1. Dry Tortugas National Park
Key West is at the end of the Overseas Highway but the adventure doesn’t have to stop there. The westernmost of the Keys is another 70 miles away, reached only by seaplane or boat.
Dry Tortugas National Park is my idea of heaven, with undisturbed coral reefs, a high concentration of shipwrecks, and a huge 19th-century coastal fortress, begun in 1847 but never completed.
For all that history, the park is 99% water, as a mesmerizing sheet of azure from above, and a restless mass of brilliant marine life underwater.
You can make sense of this biodiversity along a snorkel trail around Garden Key, dotted with signs explaining the fragile reef ecosystems.
Fort Jefferson meanwhile comprises 16 million bricks and from 1865 to 1869 was a prison for physician Samuel Mudd, a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination who operated on John Wilkes Booth’s fractured leg when he was on the run.
2. Blue Spring State Park
My list has a couple of places where you can see manatees gliding in the shallows. The first of this is Blue Spring State Park, which has become a winter haven for these slow-moving giants, thanks to tireless conservation work.
As recently as 50 years ago only a handful of manatees made the annual migration along the St. John River to Blue Spring State Park. Now there are more than 720.
The manatees are the stars at the park, and can be seen on kayak or canoe trips, or on guided river cruises.
You can also walk the Pine Island Trail, tracing a lagoon through a mix of hardwood hammock, scrub forest and cypress swamp. I recommend lots of water and some defense against biting insects on this hike.
3. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Florida is a dream for amateur botanists, but if you could only choose one garden to visit, I think Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota is a contender.
The 20,000 + living plants on display are the product of more than 150 expeditions to the tropics, and the botanists here have described or identified more than 2,000 plants previously unknown to science.
On a placid bayfront plot you can make your way through a mangrove walkway, a bamboo garden, a fern garden, a rare outdoor butterfly garden, banyan groves, and a spellbinding tropical conservatory.
The latter houses the Orchid Identification Center, growing some 6,000 orchids, with a focus on species from Andean South America, Venezuela, Central America, and Mexico.
4. Amelia Island
One of my favorite stretches of coast in Florida is right in Jacksonville’s backyard, where the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve gives way to the majestic Amelia Island. Named by the British for a princess, this place has it all.
You’ve got 13 miles of sandy shore, a picturesque historic district covering 50 blocks, quaint bed & breakfasts, more restaurants than you could visit in a year, and 99 holes of golf on the most scenic courses you’ve ever laid eyes on.
The landward side is ecologically sensitive marshland, ready to be toured by kayak or SUP and inhabited by egrets, herons, hawks, peregrine falcons and osprey.
5. Crystal River
If like me you’ll never miss a chance to hang out with manatees, the Crystal River is not to be missed. The river is fed by springs, rising at a steady 72 °F. So when the temperatures go down in the Gulf of Mexico, those lovable herbivores make their way upriver to warmer climes on the aptly named Nature Coast in Central Florida.
Manatee season is mid-November through March, and they visit to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Crystal River is one of the few places on the planet where you can legally swim with manatees in the wild.
There’s much more to get up to in the area, from canoeing/kayaking to hiking in untouched forest and biking the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, the longest paved trail in the state.
6. St. Augustine
Going back to 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European-founded city in the United States.
The colonial downtown is a tight walkable grid of brick streets, lined with restored architecture, much of which is older than the country itself.
Soaring over this streetscape are palatial 19th-century hotels in Revivalist styles, three of which were built by industrialist Henry Flagler, who brought the railroad to the city to attract wealthy tourists. St. Augustine is still defended by the Castillo de San Marcos.
Built from locally quarried coquina, this is the oldest masonry fort on the continental United States, and one of many places where you can stare awestruck at the bay.
7. Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
There’s Gilded Age elegance at this waterfront mansion, built over multiple years for the industrialist James Deering (1859-1925).
Completed in 1922 the villa was inspired by Tuscan and Venetian Renaissance palazzi, and is ensconced in a blend of Italian Renaissance formal gardens and native hammock, left untouched on purpose by Deering.
If I were to call Villa Vizcaya opulent, I would be understating things. There are 70+ rooms adorned with imported European decorative arts from the 1400s to 1800s, but also equipped with technology like a dumbwaiter, a central vacuum cleaning system, and Miami-Dade County’s first telephone system.
The formal gardens are fabulous, as a marriage of Renaissance geometry and sub-tropical flora, with a stately alley that climbs to The Mound where the Casino pavilion overlooks the estate.
Related: 30 Amazing Hidden Gems in Florida
8. Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
My list of beautiful spots in Florida would be missing something big without one of the most recognizable streets in America; Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.
On one side you’ve got the palms of Lummus Park, with the sandy beach beyond it. And on the other is a long line of swish Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and 1930s, painted in louche pastel tones.
Immortalized by dozens of TV shows and movies, Ocean Drive is all hotels and restaurants/bars with seating spilling onto the sidewalk so you can watch life unfold in this glamorous part of a glamorous town.
9. Henderson Beach State Park
With their sugar-white sand and glimmering emerald green waters, the beaches around Destin are so beautiful they hardly look real.
My pick is Henderson Beach State Park, which has that flawless white sand, and an enchanting quality to its rolling surf, but also safeguards an important piece of coastal nature.
A boardwalk carries you into the dune, which are like snowy hills, and have signs identifying the many different plant species growing in this delicate environment.
My ideal time to hit the beach is early in the day, when you’ll have acres of sand to yourself, and stand a great chance of seeing dolphins in the surf, just a matter of feet from the beach.
10. Sanibel Island
Off Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is a subtropical paradise made convenient by a causeway that was built in the 1960s.
The island’s unique ecology has always been strictly conserved, and more than two thirds of the landmass is made up of wildlife refuges.
My go-to, and I’m not alone, is the J.N. Darling National Wildlife Refuge, angled towards the bay, and protecting part of the largest unspoiled mangrove system in the United States.
Some 230 bird species, including many migratory birds, as well as manatees and alligators inhabit this astonishing place.
On top of that Sanibel Island has been dubbed the Shelling Capital of the World, a status reinforced by the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, displaying some of the largest and rarest specimens in the world.
11. Blowing Rocks Preserve
‘Rugged’ is not a word that comes to my mind when I think of Florida, but as if out of nowhere there’s a section of craggy limestone shore bookended by miles of soft, sandy beaches.
Blowing Rocks Preserve is on Jupiter Island, where breaking Atlantic waves slam the seawater through erosion holes to create impressive misty plumes climbing as high as 50 feet.
This spectacle takes place at high tide, and if you’re waiting for the right time to explore Jupiter Island’s dunes, mangroves and maritime hammocks. You’ll find a boardwalk along the Indian River Lagoon, with signs detailing the native plants and wildlife.
12. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
The largest surviving stand of virgin bald cypress awaits you at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary managed by the National Audubon Society. This place is a true journey into the heart of the Everglades, in a primeval forest bustling with wildlife.
You’re sure to see alligators on your adventure, but may also spot cottonmouth snakes, red-bellied turtles, otters and a kaleidoscope of birdlife, from wintering painted bunting to endangered wood storks. A 2.25-mile boardwalk carries you through a mosaic of habitats, including pinelands, wet prairie, the fringes of a marsh, and then into those cypress woods.
13. The Southernmost Point In Key West at Sunset
There are few places in the world where sunset is as much of a ritual as it is on Key West. At the tip of the Keys, the island is angled towards the Gulf of Mexico, with nothing but yachts and the shapes of outlying islands on the horizon. I can’t do justice to the symphony of colors at this time of day, but safe to say it’s something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
There’s a certain atmosphere around the city at this time of day, with a nightly festival at Mallory Square, and couples cozying on the west-facing benches at Fort Zachary Taylor. My pick is the 12-foot buoy at the Southernmost Point of the Continental USA, where there’s no escaping the reality that you’re at the far end of a nation.
14. Falling Waters State Park
The highest waterfall in the state is in the north of Florida in a curious landscape of fern-lined sinkholes and skyscraping trees. Falling Waters Falls plummets 100 feet into one such cavity, feeding an underwater river with a destination that has not yet been discovered.
There’s an observation platform about halfway down the sinkhole where you can take in the wispy curtain of water, the mist and the lush backdrop of ferns and moss. The trail to get here will bring you past and over several smaller sinkholes for a bird’s eye view into these geological oddities.
15. Mount Dora
Hiding in Orlando’s northwestern outskirts there’s a welcome taste of Old Florida at this endearing little town. Mount Dora was settled in the 1870s and soon became a winter escape, attracting boaters, hunters, and fishermen. Downtown is easy to navigate on foot, and has no shortage of boutiques, antique shops, and eateries to draw you in.
These streets slope westwards to the shores of Lake Dora, where you’ll see one of just three freshwater lighthouses in Florida.
Mount Dora has a hopping events calendar, with festivals that have been going for years, like the Arts Festival in February, the Sail Boat Regatta in March, and the Bicycle Festival and Craft Fair, both in October.
See also: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Florida
16. The Kampong
I can never get enough of Florida’s tropical botanical gardens, and there’s one to fall in love with by the bay in Coconut Grove. Established in 1926, this nine-acre piece of paradise was the estate of the horticulturalist and explorer David Fairchild (1869-1954), for whom the nearby Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is named.
Fairchild is credited with introducing Americans to tropical crops like avocados, and The Kampong is a lush tribute to his work. There’s a profusion of exotic fruit growing here, including 23 avocado cultivars and 65 mango varieties.
You’ll see flower trees and rare fruits from the tropics, catch natural scents used in the fragrance industry, and a personal highlight for me is a gigantic baobab tree, close to 90 years old. This is all a living classroom, serving as the mainland campus for the National Tropical Botanical Garden, with collections studied by scientists from across the world.
17. South Pointe Park In Miami Beach
Along the Government Cut channel at the southernmost tip of Miami Beach, this stunning park was landscaped in the 1980s and has dreamy views in almost every direction. You could set your gaze on the towers along the South Beach shoreline, downtown Miami, or Fisher Island across the channel.
On the east side you’ve got the endless expanse of the Atlantic, and the promenade continues along a pier next to the breakwater where you can see everything in one perfect panorama. No surprise that this is one of my favorite places to watch the sun go down in Miami, and by day there’s an enticing stretch of beachfront.
But maybe the best reason to come is to watch the massive cruise ships departing the Port of Miami along the channel, making everything around them seem tiny.
18. Salvador Dalí Museum
Did you know that the world’s second-largest collection of works by the great Surrealist Salvador Dalí belongs to a museum in St. Petersburg? This attraction moved into new digs in the 2000s, with a spherical glass skylight that bulges from the concrete cube structure, creating an atrium 75 feet in height.
The Salvador Dalí Museum has more of the artist’s masterpieces than any other museum in the world, counting Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man (1943) and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-1954) as a couple of my faves.
With close to 100 of the artist’s paintings, the collection is rotated every few months, and cast in fresh light with the help of augmented reality, VR and AI.
19. Shark Valley Observation Tower
Deep into the Everglades and accessed via the Tamiami Trail there’s a large dip in the landscape at the head of the Shark River. The Shark Valley is covered in vast swaths of sawgrass prairie that is submerged in water during the rainy season.
As you might guess, the valley has awesome biodiversity, as a home for ibis, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, alligators, and a slew of amphibian species.
A Modernist 65-foot observation tower gives you a 360° panorama, the best in the Everglades, reaching for 20 miles to the horizon across prairies and tropical hardwood forest. Three trails set off from the Visitor Center, including a paved loop used by the tourist tram, giving you an enlightening two-hour tour of the valley.
Related reading: 40 Places to Visit in Florida Before Your Kids Are All Grown Up
20. Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park
In 1923 the New York financier Alfred B. Maclay purchased an estate in Tallahassee, and with his wife Louise spent the following decades planting one of the most beautiful ornamental gardens I’ve seen.
Becoming a state park in the 1950s, the gardens are held as a masterwork of botanical architecture, loved for their profuse azaleas and camellias. The time to catch these flowers in bloom is the first few months of the year, up to May. On your way, you’ll come across a walled garden, a brick walkway, a reflection pool, and a romantic secret garden.
The park is also a place for active recreation, and you can swim, go fishing or embark on a paddling trip here. There are more than 10 miles of biking trails, about half of which are shared-use, while hikers can stride off into the deep woods encircling the estate’s main lake.
21. Hollywood Beach
For a developed beach with everything you could need for a relaxing time on the Atlantic Coast, I think it’s hard to top Hollywood Beach.
This ample strip of soft white sand is washed by the rolling ocean surf and continues as far as the eye can see up and down the coast. Hollywood Beach can be found between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, and has won awards for the 2.5-mile, brick-paved boardwalk that borders it.
Known as the “Broadwalk”, this promenade is a dynamic artery, traveled by joggers, walkers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers, but also bringing you to a line of waterfront attractions, including a children’s water playground and the Hollywood Beach Theatre.
22. Cape St. George Light
A lighthouse reborn, Cape St. George Light has a history of moving from place to place because of the exposure of the west end of St. George Island off the Florida Panhandle. Within 20 years of being built in 1833, the lighthouse was rebuilt and moved twice. Finally, after decades of sand erosion and hurricanes, the Cape St. George Light toppled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.
But this wasn’t the end. Much of the building’s masonry was retrieved from the water, and this magnificent building was moved to a more protected spot at the end of FL-300 in the middle of the island.
Posted above the pale sandy beach and footed by palms, the light looks like it has always been here, and has a view to savor over this long sliver of land from the lantern. Visit the museum keeper’s cottage for artifacts from the original lighthouse, and to shop for gifts made by local artists.
23. Big Cypress National Preserve
Bordering the Everglades to the north and west is a gargantuan cypress swamp, some 730,000 acres of which are in the care of the National Park System. This habitat is crucial for the health of the Everglades, and is a habitat for remarkable species like the endangered Florida panther, the ghost orchid and the much more abundant American alligator.
Most people just pass through the landscape on I-75 or US 41, but there’s a lot for intrepid visitors to do.
You can drive, paddle and hike beneath those giant trees on short trips or day-long expeditions, and there’s always an interesting interpretive program to take part in.
My pro tip is to come for a ranger-led astronomy program, with a rare chance to study one of the darkest skies in the eastern United States through a telescope.
24. Naples Pier
For a marvelous landmark that signifies Florida’s resilience in the face of natural disasters, you can’t get much better than Naples Pier. Pushing out into the Gulf for more than 1,000 feet, Naples Pier has real historical importance as the entry point for people and materials when Naples was settled in the late 19th century.
Late in the day, the pier is lovely in silhouette against the low sun from Municipal beach, and you can wander to the end for one of the great Florida sunsets.
Naples Pier was badly damaged by Hurricane Ian in 2022, but reconstruction plans had already been approved.
25. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
One man who can be thanked for protecting a lot of Florida’s natural heritage is the newspaper editor, John Pennekamp. He was instrumental in creating the Everglades National Park, and then helped to preserve the underwater splendor off Key Largo with the first underwater park in the United States in 1963.
The reef is a joyous natural playground for scuba diving, paddling and glass-bottom boat tours, with dazzling wildlife at every turn. One image that will always be associated with the park is the Christ of the Image, a 4,000-pound, 8 ½ foot statue of Christ submerged at a depth of 25 feet in 1990.
26. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Northeast Florida’s largest fine arts museum, located in Jacksonville, came about in the late 1950s, when Ninah Cummer left her estate and formidable art collection to a foundation for a museum. The collection has grown many times over, and features work by the likes of Rubens, Rockwell and Winslow Homer.
As much as the art, it’s the riverfront gardens that put this attraction on my list. On 1.5 acres, this is a gentle oasis in the midst of a giant city, with a formal Italian Garden, brick paths and azaleas in the English Garden, and the Olmsted Garden, designed by the namesake landscape architects.
Florida is full of stately old live oaks, and for my money none are finer than the 200-year-old oak commanding the gardens, with a span of almost 140 feet.
27. The Ancient Spanish Monastery
You can visit a piece of Medieval Spain by the Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach. The St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church is where an entire 12th-century Cistercian cloister popped up in the 1960s after being shipped from Spain in the 1920s.
With its round Romanesque arches and daintily carved capitals, the cloister was purchased in Segovia under dubious circumstances by the publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). His plan to rebuild the monastery in New York was scuppered by financial problems, and the dismantled stonework sat in a warehouse in Brooklyn for several decades.
Finally the complex found an owner in the 1950s and was pieced back together with great care in the 50s and 60s. Time magazine called it “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history”, and today it’s a hushed enclave, with lush gardens and a collection of Medieval artifacts on show in the museum.
28. Hillsboro Inlet Light
I’m obsessed with this maritime landmark, rising from a nub of land on the north side of the Hillsboro Inlet in Pompano Beach. This point was declared hazardous for navigation in the late 19th century, and the framework lighthouse, 132 feet tall, was raised in 1907.
The beacon is unusually powerful, with a range of 28 nautical miles (32 mi). The lighthouse, with quaint outbuildings hiding among the palms, has hardly changed since it was constructed.
Unless you come on one of the open days, four times a year, the light is off limits due to its location in the private Hillsboro Club.
There are plenty of accessible vantage points for awesome views and photos, on the south side of the inlet at Fisherman’s Point, or at Hillsboro Inlet Park by SR A1A, where there’s a little museum about the lighthouse.
29. Boneyard Beach
Not far out of Jacksonville there’s a place of ethereal natural beauty in Big Talbot Island State Park. Strewn with the bleached skeletons of oaks and cedars, Boneyard Beach is a result of coastal erosion.
This isn’t a place for typical beach activities like swimming. Instead I’d recommend the Boneyard Beach to photographers, and if you can get here early in the day the tangle of limbs looks even more mysterious just after sunrise.
There’s more than a mile of shoreline, and you’ll spend your time clambering over roots and trunks. As well as looking otherworldly, this band of driftwood plays a big role in preventing further erosion of the bluff, serving as a natural breakwater.
30. Silver Springs State Park
I’ll bring this list to a close at the beginning, because Silver Springs State Park was Florida’s first commercial tourist attraction, starting way back in the 1870s when Northerners came down by steamship.
Feeding the river of the same name, Silver Springs make up the largest artesian spring on the planet. Because this has been on the tourist map for so long, the springs have never been developed, and were taken over by the state in the 2010s.
You can do what Victorian tourists did and take a glass-bottom boat tour to see the wildlife that thrives in the springs’ crystal clear waters. For a bit more independence there are kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals, as well as 15 miles of trails.