The Best Beaches in Florida—And Where to Stay

Florida’s many beaches offer sand, surf, and salty breezes—as well as a healthy dose of urban fun.

St. Pete Beach

St. Pete Beach offers snorkeling, paddleboarding —and even a Dalí museum.

Courtesy of Visit St Pete/Clearwater

Just when you think you’ve honed in on your favorite Florida beach, someone who knows the state’s secret spots goes and puts another one you’ve never even heard of on your radar. That’s the bounty and beauty of the Sunshine State’s hundreds of miles of coastline that stretches all the way from its northwest corner along the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean and down into the necklace-like island chain of the Florida Keys.

From glorious strands only steps from vibrant downtowns brimming with cafés and boutiques to pristine undeveloped islands, Florida has a beach for every kind of traveler. With more than 230 days a year of sunshine, your chances of landing the perfect beach day here are pretty optimal—whether you visit during the sultry days of summer or winter’s milder months. Get ready to play at our picks for Florida’s best beaches, where the sun, surf, and sand are sublime and there’s plenty to do when you dry off for the day, too.

Shell Island, Panama City Beach

Shell Island comprises the southern part of the 1200-acre St. Andrews State Park

Courtesy of Visit Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach is one of the finest in northwest Florida if you’re looking for that anytime sugar-fine-sand-meets-crystal-clear-water beach vacation. Ride the Shell Island Shuttle, a pontoon-style passenger ferry that makes regular daytime trips, just offshore to reach an undeveloped seven-mile-long barrier island where you can play castaway, strolling the beach, snorkeling, or counting dolphins cruising past. Consider a yacht charter aboard the Bella Vita to go fishing or even out for an overnight boating excursion. Or bask on Panama City Beach’s mainland beaches in the natural beauty of St. Andrews State Park, where you can snorkel in the shallows or stroll 1.5 miles of totally undeveloped chalk white–sand lapped by waters the loveliest shade of emerald.

Stay the night

There aren’t any true luxury beach resorts in Panama City Beach, and that’s part of its charm. Instead, splurge on a gulf front vacation rental from Sunset Luxury Properties with a private pool overlooking your own stretch of sand.

St. Pete Beach

Prefer to take your beach time with an artsy city within striking distance for when it’s time to rinse off? St. Pete Beach is the spot. You can spend your morning splashing in the gentle shorebreak or paddleboarding atop water that’s usually as smooth as glass in St. Pete Beach. Or check out the satellite beach community of Pass-a-Grille Beach, just south, where St. Pete resident Amber Brinkley says the jetty at the beach’s southern end is a fun spot to snorkel and scope for hiding octopuses in the shallow waters. East from the beaches, downtown St. Pete’s urban fun awaits, including the Dalí museum, with its renowned collection of Salvador Dalí works, and the city’s glorious new St. Pete Pier, complete with a rooftop tiki bar and its own sandy bay beach.

Stay the night

It’s impossible to miss the cotton candy–hued birthday cake figure the Don CeSar (aka the Pink Palace) cuts on the horizon of St. Pete Beach. Come for the gulf front swimming pool and bar and prime beachfront setting. For a more intimate beach stay, a half mile away, the hotel’s extra luxurious sister property, Beach House Suites, fits the bill for fun in the Florida sun, too.

The Resort at Longboat Key Club

Flordia residents can get 15% off a stay at The Resort at Longboat Key Club.

Courtesy of

Longboat Key

Powdery sand so fine you might feel like you’re traipsing atop pixie dust and warm shallow warm waters make Longboat Key feel like the Caribbean. The Gulf of Mexico beach only minutes from downtown Sarasota usually stays fairly quiet, since it’s mostly fronted by low-rise condominiums, private homes, and intimate inns. “Longboat is low-key and relaxed,” says Janet Malin, from Tampa, who often visits for a beach day with her daughters. “It’s got the old Florida vibe.” When you’re ready for people watching off the beach, Sarasota’s upscale Saint Armands Circle, with its seafood restaurants, European-style cafés, and ice cream shops, is a few miles south.

Stay the night

For the full beachfront resort experience, complete with a spa and links-style golf course, the Resort at Longboat Key Club fronts a pristine barrier island beach at the southern tip of Long Key, right across the bay from downtown Sarasota, and it is hard to top for luxury, comfort, and location.

Ponte Vedra Beach

Jacksonville’s most upscale oceanfront community, Ponte Vedra Beach has long drawn golfers with its proximity to TPC Sawgrass, home to two legendary PGA tour courses. But the coquina shell beaches here might be even more beautiful than those legendary greens. The beach across from Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Marine Estuarine Research Reserve is backed by some of Florida’s most pristine sand dunes and is a popular spot to hunt for shark’s teeth and other marine fossils at low tide. Dig into delicious southern-inspired shrimp and grits and fried local fish while enjoying views of the Intracoastal Waterway at Barbara Jean’s on the Water.

For more sightseeing off the beach in the area, it’s less than an hour’s drive south to reach St. Augustine, one of the most historic U.S. cities. It’s home the country’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, which dates to the early 18th century, as well as the Castillo de San Marcos, an impressive fort on the Matanzas River first built by the Spanish in the 17th century.

Stay the night

A 30,000-square-foot spa, championship golf course, and tennis courts are among the many amenities at the sprawling Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and sister property, the Lodge & Club, which sprawl across 10 low-rise buildings on the oceanfront.

Cocoa Beach

If you’re yearning for space after a few Disney days, head to Cocoa Beach.

Courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism

Cocoa Beach

Drive 65 miles (just over an hour) east of Orlando’s theme park attractions for an out-of-this-world experience along Florida’s Atlantic coast in Cocoa Beach. Rocket launches happen so regularly in nearby Cape Canaveral that you might find yourself surprised by one while you’re out for a surf or sipping something frosty at a popular beach bar like Coconuts on the Beach or Rikki Tikki Tavern, at the end of the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier. The wide, golden beaches here get tracked by mother sea turtles when they come ashore to nest from March through October. During the summer months, you can head out on nighttime turtle walks in the area and try kayaking through bioluminescent waters in the Indian River Lagoon.

Stay the night

Beach Place Guesthouses, behind billowing dunes in quiet South Cocoa Beach, has firepits and hammocks on a deck overlooking the sand. The apartment-style accommodations include full kitchens, and there’s a talking parrot to greet guests.

Vero Beach

Art galleries, destination dining, and plenty of open space help Vero Beach make it onto the list.

Photo by Joe Semkow

Vero Beach

Along Florida’s Treasure Coast (named for the Spanish 1715 Treasure Fleet that spilled its loot here during a hurricane), Vero Beach is no longer the rustic diamond in the rough it was in bygone decades. But the tony town still oozes plenty of real Florida charm in spots like Waldo’s Restaurant and Bar, where you can eat coconut shrimp and conch fritters as good as in Key West overlooking the pounding surf and narrow swath of coquina shell beach, and sample the tuna nachos at Riverside Café on the Indian River Lagoon, where dolphins frequently swim. The Vero Beach Museum of Art has more than 800 works of mostly American art, including from notables like Reginald Marsh, for when you fancy a break from the beach.

Don’t miss an outing to Sebastian Inlet State Park, where an even wider and emptier stretch of spectacular Florida beachfront awaits some 16 miles from downtown Vero Beach. There’s good snorkeling in a protected cove on the north side of the inlet. For the best breakfast in Vero Beach, arrive early for a coveted table at Lemon Tree café, known for its lemon blueberry pancakes.

Stay the night

With an oceanfront pool, hot tub, and bar within steps of the sand, boutique property Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa in downtown Vero Beach is within a short stroll of restaurants, boutiques, beach bars, and the weekly Vero Beach Farmers’ Market. Families love the nearby Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa for its sprawling pool overlooking the beach and suites with full kitchens and multiple bedrooms.

Palm Beach

Head about 20 miles north of Delray Beach to reach Palm Beach. The narrow barrier island town by the same name is known for being one of the country’s most high-income zip codes. But what many people don’t know is that the gorgeous beaches at the eastern end of uber-luxe Worth Avenue (home to couture boutiques and European-style cafés) are open to the public and sublime.

“The water has a luminous quality there that I love and it’s the perfect temperature for a dip nearly all year long,” says Amy Murad, who vacations in Palm Beach from her home in Central Florida for a long weekend every summer. Hit Le Bilboquet for French fare and oyster platters in a tucked-away courtyard off Worth Avenue or cross Lake Worth (the Intracoastal Waterway) from more casual entertaining options on Clematis Street in neighboring West Palm Beach. Make time to rent a bike, to pedal along the Lake Trail past some of Palm Beach’s most historic and spectacular waterfront homes.

Stay the night

Florida’s most legendary grande dame oceanfront hotel is the Breakers, with suites and restaurants that appeal as much to couples as families with kids in tow, a world-class spa, and a prime beachfront location. For a boutique stay a few blocks off the beach, White Elephant Palm Beach’s 32 rooms occupy a lovely renovated 1924 building.

Delray Beach

Like a mini, more manageable Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach has a loyal following among Floridians and the many northeasterners who’ve “discovered it” thanks to its pleasant, small town vibe mixed with a happening main drag (Atlantic Avenue) full of shops and buzzing restaurants. Much of the beachfront here is backed by sea grape trees that help prevent the sands from eroding during storms while lending the place a true tropical look. Kite boarders and surfers take to the waves.

And when you’re not beaching it among them, there’s the creative Pineapple Grove Arts District, home to the incubator galleries and studios at the Arts Warehouse and the many bars, boutiques, and restaurants of lively Atlantic Avenue to check out (don’t miss City Oyster & Sushi Bar and the chic women’s boutique, Periwinkle). It’s worth detouring a few miles inland to the incredible Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, where you can stroll past lakes lined with flowering trees, visit the bonsai garden, or take a sadō (tea ceremony) workshop.

Stay the night

Opal Grand Resort & Spa has luxury villas and oceanfront rooms with balconies overlooking the beach and is just steps from the dining and entertainment of Atlantic Avenue.

Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.
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