Ah, Florida. What state conjures such a mix of emotions in those who live here and venture here? With over 1,300 miles of coastline, sandy beaches are a dime a dozen in this sun-splashed land. Miami lives and breathes to a Latin beat and hosts one of the world's most important art festivals every wi…nter during Art Basel Miami. Tampa’s Cuban culture harkens back to a much earlier era than Miami’s, when immigrants arrived to pursue their cigar fortunes. Moneyed Palm Beach, with its enormous oceanfront mansions and exclusive shopping, is known as the state’s Gold Coast, and the Florida Keys are as close as you can get to Caribbean-style escapism in the Lower 48. And who could forget Orlando: theme park capital of the world, yes, but also with its own surprising urban vibe that’s home to a burgeoning foodie scene set to rival any in the South. It’s impossible to arrive in Florida without some sort of expectations. But dive into the Sunshine State with an open mind, and you’re sure to be surprised.
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A year-round destination, Florida has something to offer in every season. Winters here are as good as summer gets in most places, with balmy temperatures and cloudless skies (though expect the ocean to be rather cool for swimming in the state’s northern reaches and the Panhandle). The southern part of the state—from Vero Beach south, and from Sarasota to Naples on the Gulf Coast—is particularly seasonal, drawing large crowds of "snowbirds" (people from more northern states on an annual migration to esape the cold) from about January through April. March and April are busy all over the state with spring break crowds, and spots like Panama City, Miami, Clearwater Beach, Daytona, and St. Pete Beach are particularly packed. Hurricane season runs from late May through late November; that’s also the warmest time of year and when hotels are most likely to offer deals (outside of holiday periods, at least). Major festivals to put on your calendar include October’s Fantasy Fest in Key West and Art Basel Miami every December. But there are many more festivals and gatherings all over the state, celebrating everything from gay pride to Florida’s seafood bounty.
Florida has major airports all over the state that see arrivals from across the country and around the world. The biggest and best-connected include Miami International Airport (the hub for South America and Caribbean flights), Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Orlando International Airport, and Tampa International Airport. And while all of the major cities have public transportation, it’s well worth renting a car here to make the most of your time and to reach outlying attractions with ease.
The best Florida trip takes in a mix of cultural and city highlights, stunning beaches, and the state’s formidable wilderness, home to many spring-fed rivers supporting an amazing mix of birdlife and reptiles. Everglades National Park, an International Biosphere Reserve and the third-largest national park in the Lower 48, is the famed natural wonder to see. But there are many smaller state parks with equivalent wild beauty on offer, too. Also experience authentic Cuban culture in Miami’s Little Havana and Tampa’s Ybor City, catch an unforgettable sunset with a cast of island characters in Key West, and enjoy thrills like no place on the planet at the many theme parks of Orlando.
Florida dishes up a world of flavors, pulling from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico’s seafood bounty for meals to remember. The flavors of Miami skew largely Latin, and this is where you’ll find some of the best Cuban, Brazilian, Argentinean, and Peruvian restaurants in the country, not to mention authentic New York bagels, sushi, French fare, and more. On the state’s Gulf Coast and in the Panhandle tastes tend toward the simpler, with grouper sandwiches and fried seafood popular staples—along with the ubiquitous key lime pie, made famous in the Florida Keys. Downtown Orlando surprises visitors with its thriving Asian district, with the best selection of Vietnamese restaurants in the state. And in Apalachicola, on the Gulf, don’t miss a heaping platter of Florida’s most famous oyster crop. The state's favorite seasonal seafood offering by a long shot, however, is stone crab, fresh on menus from mid-October to mid-May. With sweet, tender meat, they’re usually served with a mustard dipping sauce and are as good as seafood gets.
The constant sunshine may make for a mellow, tropical mindset, but Florida is far from a cultural desert: World-class museums like the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Pete and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami are merely scratching the surface. Sarasota is home to the famous Ringling Museum, Orlando has the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and even party-minded Key West oozes culture and history, with its Hemingway House and an important literary festival on the schedule every winter.
Family itineraries are a cinch to cobble together in Florida; the hardest part will be narrowing your focus. For theme park action, you’ll stay busy for days between Orlando’s many parks and Busch Gardens Tampa, an hour’s drive west on Interstate-4. If it’s a beach vacation you’re after, you need to decide between the calm shores along Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the surf-friendly action on the endless East Coast beaches. During the cooler months, the state’s pretty inland campgrounds along the many crystal-clear springs and rivers are a good option for a budget-minded holiday, too.
Floridians live a bit differently than folks elsewhere in the country. Winter is their favorite time of the year, and that’s when you’ll find them packing up tents or loading up RVs to make for the many beautiful state campgrounds, mostly mosquito-free from January to March, both along the beaches and inland, too. Come spring break (March is the bullseye month), those who can will often bolt out of state, heading for the mountains or a city escape—the beaches are too packed at that time and traffic in towns picks up. During the summer, Floridians beat the heat by ditching inland spots like Orlando and Gainesville and making a break for the coasts, where hotels offer discounted rates, particularly from June through August.
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Terry Ward has lived around the world and across the Sunshine State, including stints in Jacksonville, Cocoa Beach, Orlando, and, most recently, Tampa. She’s been a freelance travel writer since 2000, when she quit her advertising job to travel the world, and has written for The Los Angeles Times, Conde Nast Traveler, USA Today, Endless Vacation Magazine, and many other publications. Her hobbies including scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing. Read more at terry-ward.com.