There comes a point in every Orlando vacation when you simply can’t take another roller-coaster line, character parade, or princess breakfast. That’s when one of Florida’s fine beaches comes to the R&R rescue with sun, surf, and sand. (Bonus: It won’t cost a cent to enjoy, either).
While situated in central Florida, Orlando is still well-positioned to reach the golden sands of popular Atlantic-facing beaches near Cape Canaveral and Daytona, most of which you can reach in less than a 90-minute drive. If you prefer the calmer waters and white sands of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll need just over two hours of drive time to reach the sugary sands of St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach.
And although it’s entirely doable to tackle the beach as a day trip from Orlando (plan on renting wheels, though tour companies like Gray Line Orlando do offer some day-trip beach excursions, too), it’s much more pleasant if you can plan to stay a night or two to feel the air turn cooler at sunset, watch the golden gorgeousness of an East Coast sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps even make time for an evening turtle walk to see nesting mothers lug themselves ashore (the season runs from May through October, and primarily unfolds on East Coast beaches). So leave those mouse ears behind for a spell, and grab your beach towel: Each of these six beaches near Orlando is well worth the drive.
Playalinda Beach is part of the 24-mile-long stretch of pristine Atlantic oceanfront that makes up Canaveral National Seashore, which is the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline on the entire eastern coast of Florida. Easily one of the country’s most beautiful strips, it’s no surprise that the beach’s Spanish name translates roughly to “pretty beach.” While there’s plenty of parking to reach the seashore—you’ll only need to cross a boardwalk ramp over the dunes to access it—keep in mind that there are no on-site concessions (so bring plenty of water and sunscreen; there are restrooms, however). Feeling hot? It’s common knowledge (if not officially sanctioned) that clothing becomes optional on the stretch of sand north of Parking Lot 13. Or if you’re not ready to come that much out of your shell, join ranks with the turtles who nest all along the beach during June and July. You can reserve a spot to head out on a “turtle watch” walk along the national seashore with rangers from the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (note that these ticketed outings books up quickly, so reserve well in advance).
Playalinda Beach is best accessed from the southern end of the park, near the agreeable little city of Titusville, where you should make time for a craft beer with the local surfers and anglers who frequent the Playalinda Brewing Co., housed inside a former hardware store in the heart of the historic, late 19th-century downtown. Beach access via Titusville; one-hour drive from Orlando
Florida surf culture flourishes in this mellow Atlantic-fronting beach town where native son Kelly Slater—the sport’s undisputed king and holder of 11 world champion surfing titles—grew up cutting his teeth on the mellow waves. (He’s since moved but comes back to visit often.) If you want to try wave-riding yourself, pass on lessons at the more touristy Ron Jon Surf School in favor of paddling out with the local instructors from mom-and-pop Neilson Surf School, a far less corporate affair. You can surf anywhere along the six miles of Cocoa Beach, but beginners tend to congregate at the pier, while advanced surfers flock further south to Sebastian Inlet.
Come sunset, locals and out-of-towners gather at the oceanfront watering hole and restaurant Coconuts on the Beach, where the people-watching is almost as good as the frosty beers and tropical drinks. The beach in front of the bar is the most crowded in town, so head north or south from there for a quieter stretch of sand if you’re looking to relax (the shore by 13th Street South is a solid bet). Beach access via the city of Cocoa Beach; one-hour drive from Orlando
Nine-mile-long Vero Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic-facing shipwreck-laden “Treasure Coast,” offers waters that are a touch clearer and warmer than points further north (like Cocoa Beach and New Smyrna Beach), as well the chance to visit the fascinating little McClarty Treasure Museum, where you can see some of the jewels and coins found by local beachcombers. Locals love off-the-beaten-path beaches like Turtle Trail Beach and Seagrape Trail, where professional treasure salvage boats can be seen searching for gold right offshore during the summer months—they’re still looking for loot from the 1715 wrecks of a Spanish treasure fleet, most of which remains lost at sea (onshore, you’ll see folks with metal detectors doing the same).
Don’t miss sunset drinks or a seafood dinner at Waldo’s Restaurant at the Driftwood Beachfront Resort Hotel, which dates to the early 1900s and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The outdoor tables are perched right over the ocean and the vibe is supremely casual. Beach access via the city of Vero Beach; 1.5-hour drive from Orlando
New Smyrna Beach
A shorter drive from Orlando than more crowded Daytona Beach to the north, 17-mile-long New Smyrna Beach is another old-school favorite stretch of East Coast shores where you can swim in shallow waters and kick back on the sand. Plus, cars can drive along and park on the hard-packed sand beach here in designated areas (a popular approach is from the 27th Avenue Beachfront Park), a local tradition since the 1800s, when horse and buggies were the vehicles du jour. But New Smyrna Beach’s swath of sand is extra wide, so you can either head up toward the dunes or down by the water line to put lots of space between you and the cars—or perhaps between you and the water, since New Smyrna is known as the “shark attack capital of the world.”
When you’re craving seafood, JB’s Fish Camp, on the south end of the beach (near Canaveral National Seashore), is a favorite local spot to tuck into a grouper sandwich. The restaurant also rents kayaks and paddleboards. Bonus: Dolphins and manatees are often spotted from JB’s riverfront dock. Beach access via the city of New Smyrna Beach; 70-minute drive from Orlando
St. Pete Beach
The first thing you’ll see when you cross the causeway from the Tampa area, west of Orlando, and approach the nearly seven-mile-long St. Pete Beach is the Don CeSar. The cotton-candy pink 90-year-old hotel fronting the Gulf of Mexico is a Florida grande-dame property, and the beach out front is a popular spot to unfurl your towel; you can also rent chairs here and order drinks at the pool bar.
Or for a less-crowded beach scene, drive a few miles south to Pass-a-Grille Beach; nearby, you can feast on fresh seafood at the dockside Sea Critters Café, located on Pass-a-Grille’s historic waterfront. Beach access via the city of St. Pete Beach; two hours and 10-minute drive from Orlando
West of Orlando and north of St. Pete Beach, 2.5-mile-long Clearwater Beach is renowned for having some of the softest sand imaginable (beware, it’s hard to remove!), as well as nightly sunset celebrations that lend a Key West feel to the scene at the lengthy Pier 60, complete with buskers, artisan vendors, and sun worship. Spend days beach-bumming along the warm, shallow waters, and beachcombing for seashells, before the sunset spectacle begins.
When you want to escape the sunset-seeking crowds, head to the tiki-style Sandbar, an outdoor watering hole with tasty mai tais and mojitos that overlooks the beach at the luxurious Opal Sands Resort. Or for some of the best sushi around, don’t miss the rolls and sashimi at Caretta’s on the Gulf, the beachfront restaurant inside the decadent Sandpearl Resort. Beach access via the city of Clearwater; two hours and 10-minute drive from Orlando