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Top Things to Do in Florida

Walt Disney World

Like one of Snow White's dwarfs, Orlando was sleepy until Uncle Walt turned this swampland into the world's most famous tourist attraction. Nowadays Walt Disney World is a 39-square-mile complex and growing, with four separate parks, scores of hotels, and satellite attractions. Thanks to innovative rides and dazzling animatronics, these parks feature prominently in every child's holiday fantasy. Walt Disney World also has grown-up amenities, including championship golf courses, sublime hotels and spas, and fine restaurants. If you have time for only one megapark, choose the original, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

South Beach

You can't miss the distinctive forms, vibrant colors, and extravagant flourishes of SoBe's architectural gems. The world's largest concentration of art deco edifices is right here. The neighborhood also has enough beautiful people to qualify for the Register of Hippest Places. The glitterati, along with assorted vacationing hedonists, are drawn by über-trendy shops and a surfeit of celeb-studded clubs. Divine eateries are the icing—umm, better make that the ganache—on South Beach's proverbial cake.

Key West

These 800-plus islands in the Florida Keys are at once a unique landmass and a mass of contradictions. At the far end of this island chain, Key West is the main attraction. Its laid-back vibe is intoxicating. Eating, drinking, water sports, sunset cruises, kayaking, and more drinking are high on the agenda. Visitors never grow tired of the walking tours through the gingerbread-house-filled streets and channeling the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, who lived and worked here. Today, touring his former digs and toasting his memory at Sloppy Joe's Bar on Duval Street is almost mandatory.

Shopping in Fort Lauderdale and Miami

The Sunshine State is a shopaholic's dream. Visitors travel from overseas with the sole purpose of shopping weekends at Fort Lauderdale's 2-mile, alligator-shape Sawgrass Mills outlet mall. The alfresco addition to the mall, the Shops at Colonnade, caters to well-heeled patrons with a David Yurman jewelry outlet and other shops, including Valentino, Prada, Burberry, Kate Spade New York, and Barneys New York. For more high-end shoppers, Bal Harbour Shops in the swanky Miami suburb is a collection of 100 haute couture shops, boutiques, and department stores. Restaurants and cafés, in tropical garden settings, overflow with style-conscious diners.

Universal Orlando

With rides and attractions more geared toward adults and teens, Universal's two theme parks—Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure—deliver gravity-defying rides and special-effects extravaganzas based on popular television shows and films. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the newest "land" at Islands of Adventure, where you'll get to see Hogwarts Castle and drink butter beer!

Kennedy Space Center

Though there are enough wide-open expanses to justify the area's moniker, it was NASA that put the "space" in Space Coast—and this is its star attraction. Space memorabilia and aeronautic antiques, ranging from Redstone rockets to the Apollo XIV command module, turn an outing here into a trip back in time for anyone who lived through the space race. More down-to-earth types can also visit the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (originally created as a buffer for the space program) and Canaveral National Seashore.

Tampa Bay

As a vibrant city with exceptional beaches, Tampa Bay is perfect for indecisive folks who want to enjoy surf and sand without sacrificing urban experiences. Families will love Busch Gardens, a major zoo and theme park. Football and hockey fans will relish the chance to see the Buccaneers and Lightning play. Baseball is big, too: the Rays are based here, and the Yankees descend annually for spring training.

The Dalí Museum

St. Petersburg is home to a museum dedicated to the work of Salvador Dalí, showcasing the most comprehensive collection of the surrealist's artwork. This is the kind of first-class museum you'd expect to find in Paris or Madrid, but instead it's here on the Gulf Coast. The state-of-the-art glass building housing the museum is quite a spectacle in and of itself.

Sportfishing

Islamorada in the Florida Keys holds steadfast to its claim as Sportfishing Capital of the World. Up in the Panhandle, Destin proves it is the World's Luckiest Fishing Village each October by inviting anglers young and old to compete in the monthlong Destin Fishing Rodeo. However, if you'd prefer to throw fish rather than catch them, head to Pensacola in late April for the Interstate Mullet Toss. (Participants line up to throw dead fish across the Florida–Alabama state line.)

Surfing in Cocoa Beach

Cocoa Beach, on the northeast coast, is Surf City for Floridians. Baby boomers may remember it as the place where Major Nelson dreamed of Jeannie. The community is better known today as the hometown of surfing's biggest celeb, Kelly Slater. He has won a record-breaking 10 world championships, and totally tubular types can learn to emulate him at the Ron Jon Surf School.

Palm Beach

If money could talk, you'd hardly be able to hear above the din in Palm Beach. The upper crust started calling it home—during winter at least—in the early 1900s. And today it remains a ritzy, glitzy enclave for both old money and the nouveau riche (a coterie led by the Donald himself, who owns the landmark Mar-a-Lago Club). Simply put, Palm Beach is the sort of place where shopping is a full-time pursuit and residents don't just wear Polo—they play it. Ooh and aah to your heart's content; then, for more conspicuous consumption, continue south on the aptly named Gold Coast.

Broward's Inland Waterways

Mariners should set their compass for Fort Lauderdale (aka the Venice of America), where vessels from around the world moor along some two dozen finger isles between the beach and the mainland. Tourists can cruise Broward County's 300 miles of inland waterways by water taxi and tour boat, or bob around the Atlantic in a chartered yacht. If you're in a buying mood, come in late October for the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. Billed as the world's largest, it has $3 billion worth of boats in every conceivable size, shape, and price range.

Little Havana

On the streets of Miami's Little Havana, just west of downtown, salsa tunes blare and the smell of spicy chorizo fills the air. (You can get a good whiff of tobacco, too, thanks to the cigar makers who still hand-roll their products here.) For nearly 50 years, the neighborhood's undisputed heart has been Calle Ocho, the commercial thoroughfare that hosts Carnaval Miami. The roaring 10-day block party each March culminates with the world's longest conga line. Ambience- and amenity-wise, it is as close as you'll get to Cuba without running afoul of the federal government.

The Everglades

No trip to southern Florida is complete without seeing the Everglades. At its heart is a river—50 miles wide but merely 6 inches deep—flowing from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay. For an up-close look, speed demons can board an airboat that careens through the marshy waters. Purists, alternately, may placidly canoe or kayak within the boundaries of Everglades National Park. Just remember to keep your hands in the boat. The critters that call this unique ecosystem home (alligators, Florida panthers, and cottonmouth snakes for starters) can add real bite to your visit!

Sanibel Island

Ready to do something slightly more vigorous than applying SPF 45 and rolling over? Trade beach-bumming for beachcombing in Sanibel, the Shell Capital of the World. Conchs, cockles, clams, coquinas—they're all here (the bounty is caused by this barrier island's unusual east–west orientation). Of course, if you'd rather construct sand castles than do the Sanibel Stoop, you need only cross the 3-mile causeway to Fort Myers Beach. It has the finest building material and, every November, professional and amateur aficionados prove it during the American SandSculpting Championship.

Ringling Center for the Arts

Sarasota, once winter headquarters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, is proud of its circus heritage. Ringling's former 32-room, 15-bathroom mansion is now the site of the Florida State University's Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts. Within this center, visitors who can't get enough of sawdust and sequins can see an impressive collection of vintage costumes, props, and parade wagons at the stunning Ringling Circus Museum. In addition, the center's John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art showcases 500 years of art, including an impressive collection of tapestries and paintings by Rubens. The adjacent Tibbals Learning Center houses a mind-boggling ¾-inch-scale miniature circus with almost a million pieces.

St. Augustine

History comes to life in St. Augustine... and the same can perhaps be said of the undead. Ghosts are plentiful, thanks to all the pirates, plunderers, and other lost souls who formerly lived in this deceptively quiet city. To hear lurid lore about local haunts, sign on for one of the nightly outings organized by Ghost Tours of St. Augustine. These 90-minute lantern-lighted walks recount spirited stories full of goose bump–inducing details. You can also opt for a trolley ride and enter the old jail if you dare, or take a cruise through the harbor shadows in the summer. Top off your tour with an overnight stay at St. Francis Inn (St. Augustine's oldest hostelry) or the Casablanca Inn: both are reputedly haunted.

Updated: 10-2013

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