15 Best Beaches in Florida Locals Want to Keep Secret
For the best beaches in Florida, follow the locals to these hidden gems just a little off the beaten path
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Soak up the sun on the best beaches in Florida
With 1,350 miles of ocean views, Florida is home to one of the largest coastlines in the United States, second only to Alaska (where beach days tend to be a liiiiiittle cooler). Combine that with the Sunshine State’s 237 days of perfectly blue skies each year, and you’ve got a recipe for some of the best beaches in the world and one of the best places to travel. The even better news? Our southernmost state is also a great destination for cheap beach vacations, with tons of affordable beachfront hotels and resorts for you to choose from.
Of course, not all beaches in Florida are created equal, even when the bar starts pretty high. That’s why we’ve come up with a list of the best beaches in Florida, just slightly off the beaten path and beloved by locals, where you can bask in the sun and frolic in the warm water without fighting the crowds.
How we chose the best Florida beaches
We explored and paddleboarded our way across the Sunshine State to bring you this list of secret finds. (Hey, it’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it!) We also talked to Florida locals and travel experts and scoured the TripAdvisor boards to find not just the best beaches but also the best things to do at them and the best places to stay. You’ll be ready to book that vacation by the time you get to the end of this article. Need something to tide you over until your departure date? Check out the best beach in your state.
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Pass-a-Grille Beach, St. Pete Beach
Best for: Families
When the elbow room at its more famous neighbor, Clearwater Beach, becomes scarce, take advantage of the free Suncoast Beach Trolley and move your umbrella over to Pass-a-Grille. This laid-back island is more fishing village than luxury hideaway, which means plenty of mom-and-pop fish camps, adorable beach bungalows and a handful of quaint inns with killer water views. While the water is as calm and translucent as Clearwater Beach, the beach is wider here, allowing you even more room to spread out and let the kids run wild. In fact, you’ll have four miles of windswept, undeveloped beaches to explore, making Pass-a-Grille our pick for the best family beach in Florida.
What to do: Stroll quaint Eighth Avenue, with its coast-inspired galleries, shops and restaurants. For amazing sunset views, book a table at the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant.
Where to stay: The Coconut Inn is close to everything you’ll want to visit in this Florida beach town, and its rooms come with fully equipped kitchens, so you can save on breakfast and even dinner when the kids are exhausted after a day in the sun. You’ll also get complimentary bicycles for the perfect family-friendly jaunts around the area.
Santa Rosa Beach, Walton County
Best for: Paddleboarding
One look at the kelly-green water, and it’s clear how Florida’s Emerald Coast earned its name. But the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico is not the only thing that makes this one of the best beaches in Florida. The warm, calm water is perfect for paddleboarding, as well as swimming with younger kids. You’ll want to grab a beach umbrella and hang out all day. When the sun goes down, explore the boutique shops and restaurants in the charming nearby villages, each with its own distinct architecture and vibe.
What to do: Visit in the spring during the Digital Graffiti Festival, when artists project their work on the stark white walls of the Bermuda-inspired Alys Beach community.
Where to stay: The WaterColor Inn & Resort is amazingly kid-friendly, with treat suites on every floor, a well-managed kids club and free bicycles, kayaks and canoes for use by guests. It’s also within walking distance of the beach, villages and restaurants.
The beaches of Caladesi Island State Park
Best for: Secluded beach days
You’ll feel like you’ve fallen off the grid when you set foot on Caladesi Island, a barrier island reachable only by boat. Take the scenic 20-minute ferry ride from Dunedin, a fishing village less than an hour’s drive north of Tampa, to explore Caladesi’s three miles of natural, picture-perfect Florida beaches. Upon arrival, pick up picnic supplies and beach chairs at the snack shack. From there, walk your choice of nature trails to the beach, where you’ll be rewarded with views of an endless horizon. The only sound is of the occasional boater whizzing past.
What to do: Collect seashells, hike the three-mile nature trail that winds through tropical mangrove forests, or rent a kayak at the snack shack and explore three miles of paddling trails. It’s a slice of Old Florida that’s harder to find these days.
Where to stay: You can’t stay overnight on the island, but the Fenway Hotel is right in Dunedin. Bonus: Your stay comes with a complimentary shuttle that takes you to Clearwater Beach, which is about five miles away. You might also want to check out the best all-inclusive resorts in Florida.
Playalinda Beach, Titusville
Best for: Nature lovers and beach campers
Sometimes the best thing about a beach is what you won’t find there. On 24-mile-long Playalinda Beach in Titusville—located on Florida’s East Central “Space Coast,” near the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station—there are no buildings or motorized water sports. What you will find on this quiet stretch of the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, however, is one of the best beaches in Florida and a picturesque sanctuary. The unpopulated area is also home to many of the best beach camping spots in the state.
What to do: Drive through the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, home to bald eagles, manatees and loggerhead turtles hiding in wetlands. This long swath of undeveloped shoreline is rarely crowded, but what sets apart this beach is its proximity to the refuge, so you can explore trails in the morning and body-surf in the afternoon.
Where to stay: Even if beach camping isn’t your thing, you should still visit. Just book a stay at the Royal Mansions Resort, about an hour south of Merritt Island and minutes from Port Canaveral. It offers a variety of condos with oceanfront views, and it’s centrally located for all the Space Coast attractions.
Bowmans Beach, Sanibel Island
Best for: Shelling and sunsets
One of the most incredible shelling destinations in Florida, if not in the entire United States, Bowmans Beach, on the west end of Sanibel island, rewards visitors with sand dollars and conch shells, and even sometimes (after a storm) the elusive and exceedingly rare Junonia shell. Parking is on the steep side at $5 an hour (the same as all Sanibel beaches), so make the most of your time on the sand by hitting the beach in the afternoon and staying for the breathtaking sunset.
What to do: Act like a local and take your yearly family photos at this hidden gem. The sunsets on Bowmans Beach are next-level. You can even hire a photographer to capture you and the brood in perfect beach form for your next holiday card.
Where to stay: While many of the on-island properties are still recovering after Hurricane Ian, you can stay just over the bridge at the Marriott Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa. This gorgeous, right-on-the-water property in Fort Myers is a five-minute ride from the Sanibel beaches, and it offers access to a private yacht, a spa and an on-site steakhouse. FYI, many of the Sanibel resorts are now booking for 2024.
Boca Grande Beach, Gasparilla Island
Best for: Tarpon fishing
Nestled between Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico sits lush, no-rush Gasparilla Island and its perfect beaches. It takes about an hour to reach from Fort Myers and two from Tampa, but once here, you won’t need your car. Grab a beach bag and hit the road via bicycle or golf cart. Those are just fine for zipping around this seven-mile-long paradise in southwest Florida and checking out the dolphins in the distance.
What to do: Visit the southern end of the beach, where driftwood is strewn about like nature’s artwork and a unique, two-story lighthouse built in 1890 is open for visits. Plus, the Boca Grande Pass has been referred to as one of the world’s top spots for tarpon fishing. In the spring, you can attend the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, a catch-and-release, traditional drift-fishing tarpon tournament that represents Boca Grande’s fishing culture.
Where to stay: One of the oldest resorts in Florida, the Gasparilla Inn & Club is also a premier family destination. Named Florida’s top resort in various travel publications in recent years, it is located within walking distance of many restaurants and bars in the area, making it an excellent home base. And did we mention how gorgeous this 1913 property is? Well, we should have, so definitely check it out.
The beaches of Amelia Island
Best for: Beach bonfires
Just off the northeast Florida coast, this barrier island offers 13 miles of ocean beaches, calm waters and Southern hospitality. You’ll find fine, soft sand, the lull of the Atlantic Ocean’s waves, a cooler winter climate and one of the only areas in Florida where you’re legally allowed to make a beach bonfire (sunset to sunrise). Grab a cushy beach towel and a beverage, and relax while staring into the crackling flames.
What to do: Amelia Island is also one of the only places in Florida where you can go horseback riding along the shore. The family-owned Kelly Seahorse Ranch offers guided tours.
Where to stay: Reserve a private bonfire for you and your fam complete with a s’mores kit (with all the fixings) when you stay at the Omni Amelia Island Resort, one of the best beach resorts in Florida. This massive resort complex on Fernandina Beach also offers an on-site spa, three golf courses, nine restaurants, 23 tennis courts and seven pickleball courts, to name a few of our favorite things here.
Siesta Key Beach, near Sarasota
Best for: The softest sand
Nestled on a barrier island in southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, this family-favorite Florida beach has smooth, bright white sand that’s as soft as talcum powder on your feet. And here’s an interesting fact: It’s not the regular sand you’re used to—it’s 99% pure quartz, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains, which makes it silky-smooth and always cool to the touch. Part of a county park, the beach itself is wide, with plenty of room for building sandcastles or kicking back with a good beach read without bumping into your neighbor. It’s common to see dolphins playing just offshore.
What to do: While daytime here is lovely, you’ll want to check out the island when the sun goes down too. Book a sunset sail with a local guide, or visit on a Sunday, when the Siesta Key Drum Circle kicks off one hour before sunset.
Where to stay: The Siesta Key Palms Resort gives you everything you want out of a Florida beach vacation: tropical gardens, kid and adult pools, tiki torches, fire pits and hammocks—all within half a mile of the beach in a renovated midcentury charmer.
The beaches at Bahia Honda State Park, Florida Keys
Best for: Snorkeling and camping
Looking for the best beaches in the Florida Keys? Named by Spanish explorers for its “Deep Bay,” Bahia Honda State Park in Marathon is actually an island nestled inside a 500-acre tropical sanctuary, where you can spot all kinds of shore birds. Loggerhead Beach on the south side is home to a sandbar just offshore that’s perfect for families looking for calm, shallow waters and incredible underwater visibility.
What to do: Explore the park’s shelly trails, or slip on a mask and fins and snorkel just offshore—visitors have spotted everything from spiny lobsters and crabs to sea turtles.
Where to stay: Rent a rustic waterside bungalow (read: no air conditioning) at the state park’s campgrounds, book a traditional campsite or pull up in your RV, then unplug for a few days. This is one of the best waterfront campsites in the state because of its incredible views at every turn.
Seagrape Trail Beach, Vero Beach
Best for: Treasure hunting
Yes, you read that right. Located halfway between Melborne and Palm Beach, this secluded stretch of sand in Vero Beach is known by locals for actual buried treasure! Back in the early 18th century, a Spanish fleet met an untimely demise off the coast here, and ever since, silver coins have been turning up in the sand and surf. Prefer a more relaxing day on the sand? No worries—Seagrape is small (only 20 parking spots here) and very quiet. It’s a great place to dig into a beach read without interruption.
What to do: Rent a metal detector, and spend the afternoon looking for those rare shipwreck finds that are still buried in the sand. Pro tip: Hunting after storms may increase your chances of finding something great.
Where to stay: Book a room at the four-star Kimpton Vero Beach for a prime oceanfront location. And make sure to get a massage at the White Orchid Spa after a “hard” day of treasure-hunting.
Turner Beach, Captiva Island
Best for: Saltwater fishing
Located on the south side of Captiva Island just beyond Sanibel, this beach makes one of the most perfect, crowd-free picnic and play spots on the island, with tons of shelling and incredible saltwater fishing. Though its beloved by anglers, you’ll see all kinds of wildlife here, from seabirds to dolphins in the oh-so-blue waters beyond. Just note that the undertow can be strong—especially near the bridge, where the water gets deep quickly—so save swimming for farther down the beach, away from the bridge.
What to do: Get a fishing license for $37 for the whole year, and you can make like a local and fish right from the sand. Florida residents can get one for free!
Where to stay: Stay at the South Seas Island Resort, where you can choose from a traditional hotel guest room or a three-bedroom villa. Aside from boasting gorgeous views, this dreamy spot offers tons of included amenities like tennis, golf and water sports. The only problem is that you may never want to leave.
Tigertail Beach, Marco Island
Best for: Swimming and bird-watching
After you park your car and start walking toward the water ahead of you, you might ask yourself: Is this the beach? It certainly is “a beach,” but what you see from the parking lot is actually just a huge lagoon, full of birds and tidal pools. And yes, plenty of people set up camp right there! But if you walk just a few minutes past the lagoon (sometimes, depending on the tide, you’ll have to wade through), you’ll get to the real star: three miles of soft, wide sand, fiddler crabs and beautiful migratory shorebirds.
What to do: Stay until the sun goes down, and then grab a bite at Sami’s, a local favorite where you can feast on delectable Italian dishes while enjoying live music.
Where to stay: Marco Island is a great place to look for a beach house rental in one of the condos that line the back of Tigertail Beach. Alternatively, stay at the enormous, all-inclusive Marco Beach Ocean Resort, which offers picture-perfect vacation views, daily smoothies by the pool or on the beach, and an on-site spa.
Lovers Key State Park, near Fort Myers Beach
Best for: Biking on the beach
A squiggle of barrier islands near Fort Myers Beach and Estero Island, this area was saved from condo development in the ’80s and preserved for all to enjoy as a state park instead. More than two miles of pristine, secluded beaches stretch out here, and you’ll likely spot a dolphin or a manatee swimming by. But arguably, the best reason to visit this Florida beach is to take advantage of the five miles of biking that surround it. With tons of scenic spots to stop and take in the view, you’ll see osprey diving for their lunch and the resident alligator sunning itself by the nearby freshwater lagoon.
What to do: Throw your bike and helmet in the car (or rent them when you get here), and enjoy the trails on your own or via a guided bikes tour. And if you time your trip right, you should definitely come back in the evening for the magical, twice-a-month full moon guided paddle tour.
Where to stay: Move up the beach a bit, and book a stay in nearby Fort Myers Beach. At the family-friendly beachfront DiamondHead Resort, you can hop on the trolley and explore all the cafes and shops up and down the beach.
Navarre Beach, Navarre
Best for: Swimming and fishing
Navarre Beach, less than an hour east of Pensacola, is home to crystal-clear emerald waters, soft lapping waves and a calm, laid-back vibe. But the real star here may be the fishing pier: It’s the longest one in the state at 1,500-plus feet, with gorgeous views looking back to the beach. Take a stroll out to the end, and peer into the water (30 feet below you) to spot schools of fish, sting rays and dolphins.
What to do: Spend the morning sunbathing and playing in the sand, and spend the afternoon trying your luck fishing off the pier. Check with the locals as you walk out to learn what’s biting that day (everything from mahi mahi to red snapper, cobia and more). You don’t even have to stray too far from your pole to grab lunch at Windjammers on the Pier, where you can brag about your catch and enjoy the view.
Where to stay: SpringHill Suites Navarre Beach is right on the Gulf of Mexico—with stunning views from every room to prove it. The all-suite hotel also features a beautiful pool and a top-notch seafood restaurant on the property.
Calusa Beach, Big Pine Key
Best for: Young families
With gentle or nonexistent waves, this beach in the Florida Keys is one of the best spots in the state for littles. It’s shallow, and fun snorkeling opportunities happen right off the sand, making this stretch a great way to spend a relaxing family afternoon. This is also one of the only beaches in the Keys that is entirely natural, which means soft sand for castle-making. Lots of clean, close amenities like changing rooms, cafes and restrooms also mean you can hang here all day.
What to do: Level up your snorkeling, and book a private, guided trip around the extensive local coral reef system. You’re likely to spot parrotfish, barracuda and sting rays.
Where to stay: After a full day on the beach, retire to the gorgeous Isla Bella Beach Resort, located on a mile of waterfront property at the foot of the Seven Mile Bridge in nearby Marathon (in the heart of the Florida Keys). Every room in this brand-new, contemporary luxury resort has a view of the ocean.
Additional reporting by Ana Connery and Chloë Nannestad.