Long before the world’s most famous mouse took up residence here, Florida reeled in hordes of visitors to bask in the sun and splash in the surf. They’re still coming to pitch their umbrellas on our sandy shores, and who can blame them? This 447-mile peninsula sports 1,100 miles of flip-flop friendly beaches, each with their own characteristics.
Some shores are blessed with snow-white sand, some with an abundance of shells. Others have golden sands perfect for sandcastle-building or sea turtle nesting. Still others are superior spots to swim, snorkel, surf, or fish. Almost all of them make great places for people-watching.
Ready to join the sun-and-sand set? Here’s a round-up of Florida’s best beaches in six categories.
Best Beaches for Celebrity Sightings
Criteria: Chosen for their close proximity to top-notch hotels—the places who puff pillows for stars—these beaches are palm-tree adorned slices of paradise. The sand is soft enough to comfortably walk barefooted, and the water is warm and inviting. Tanning butlers, private cabanas, and trendy restaurants and nightclubs are never far away—neither are paparazzi!
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1. Lummus Park (South Beach), Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th streets, Miami Beach
It’s no accident that the park opens at 5 AM, when bars close and revelers totter over to watch the sun rise. It’s later in the day, however, when stars (such as Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Lopez, and Will Smith, who are guests at hotels like the Delano, Tides, and the Ritz-Carlton) come out to freshen tans, frolic in the surf, play volleyball, take a leisurely stroll, or rollerblade on the boardwalk. Topless sunbathers are not uncommon on this beach, where the sand is golden and there’s very little seaweed in the water.
2. Ponte Vedra Beach, near Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Northeast Florida
3. Lantana Beach near the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach (in Manalapan), Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast
4. St. Pete Beach, near the Don CeSar, Tampa Bay area
5. Islamorada Beach, near The Moorings and Cheeca Lodge, the Florida Keys
6. Vanderbilt Beach, near the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, the Lower Gulf Coast
7. Seagrove Beach, near Seaside, in the Panhandle
Best Beaches for Solitude & Romance
Critera: We looked for shorelines that were uncrowded but beautiful, places you could walk a few hundred steps and find a stretch of sand all to yourself. But sometimes, even in your solitude, you want your Main Squeeze at your side to kiss, to snuggle with, and to watch the waves roll ashore and the wading birds negotiate the surf. These selections are not public beaches where the masses come to drink in the sun, but are the precious acres of sand where the water laps gently against a silent shore.
1. Caladesi Island State Park, a mile west of Dunedin, Tampa Bay Area
For a getting-away-from-it-all beach, this island retreat more than fits the bill: you can’t even get to it by car but must take a boat. With crystal-clear waters and tiny waves, this is a good spot for swimming, and there’s plenty of fish for saltwater anglers. You can paddle a kayak through the mangroves, hike on the nature trail, search for seashells, or just unwind with a romantic picnic on the white-sand shore. There’s a snack bar if you’ve forgotten something, a marina for your boat, and a gift shop so you can take a memento home.
2. Lovers Key State Park, on County Rd. 865 between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach in Lee County, the Lower Gulf Coast
3. Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key (mile marker 37), the Florida Keys
4. John U. Lloyd Beach Recreation Area, Dania Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County
5. St. George Island State Park, St. George Island, the Panhandle
6. Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jupiter, Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast
7. Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville, Northeast Florida
Best Beaches for Seashells
Criteria: These pretty beaches were picked for their abundance of seashells and how easy it was to find them there. In other words, these are places you won’t have to dig deep to find a gift from the sea—from whelks to olives to conchs.
1. Bowman’s Beach, on Sanibel Island, Lower Gulf Coast
While most beaches in Sanibel and Captiva are worthy hunting grounds for shell devotees, Bowman’s, the most remote, tops them all. Guests reach this wide sandy beach by traipsing from the parking area through beach grass, pines, wetland, and a picnic area cooled by the shade of pine trees and sea grapes. The likelihood of leaving with a bag full of gorgeous shells is high. You might even score one of the island’s most coveted shells, the Junonia. Time spent here is worth enduring “the Sanibel Stoop,” the nickname islanders have given the hunched-over position shell seekers assume.
2. Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, the Lower Gulf Coast
3. St. Joe State Park, on Cape San Blas, the Panhandle
4. Sombrero Beach, Marathon, the Florida Keys
5. Vero Beach, Palm Beach & the Treasure Coast
6. Turtle Beach, Siesta Key, Tampa Bay area
7. Jacksonville Beach, Northeast Florida
Best Beaches for Families (and sandcastle building!)
Criteria: To be considered, beaches had to have picnic areas, showers, lifeguards, and sand suitable for building great sandcastles. Also, beachgoers to these slices of sand wear bathing (not birthday) suits. Having a playground area and being a site for annual festivals or events were not required but were worth bonus points.
1. Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay area
This gem for families features gorgeous white sand, attentive lifeguards, shallow waters that are clear and warm, a pier, and plenty showers and restrooms. Bring some cash for renting certain amenities, like a beach umbrella or cabana, or for taking a whirl in the waves aboard a watercraft. Kids will want to have a pail and shovel in tow, especially if you’re coming during the Clearwater Fun ‘n Sun Festival in May, where sandcastle building contests are part of the festivities.
2. Delray Beach, Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast
3. Hollywood Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County
4. Siesta Beach, near Sarasota, Tampa Bay area
5. Harry Harris Park, Tavenier (mile marker 92.5), the Florida Keys
6. Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine, Northeast Florida
7. Fort Myers Beach, the Lower Gulf Coast
Best Beaches for Animals
Criteria: Most beaches do not allow dogs. These Fido-friendly spots do, giving a pup a chance to dig up a seashell, chase a sand crab, fetch a Frisbee, and maybe even bodysurf. Most provide fresh water so our four-legged pals can quench their thirst and sand soft enough to permit Fido an easy-on-the-paws hike along the shore. Note to dogs’ best friends: being faithful pooper scoopers is essential to making sure pooches won’t wear out their welcome.
1. Jupiter Beach, Jupiter, northern Palm Beach County
This well-maintained 2.5-mile patch from Juno Beach north to Carlin Park gives both dog and man plenty of room to hoof it. (The entire beach actually stretches 7 miles, but some areas are human-only.) Boarded crosswalks framed by sea grapes lead you to the shoreline, and doggie bags are provided at each entrance. Dogs need to be leashed unless they respond well to your commands, in which case they can take a mad dash into the surf for a refreshing untethered swim. Fido can rinse the sand off or slurp some fresh water at one the beach’s several showers or spigots.
2. St. Joe Beach, Port St. Joe, north of Apalachicola in the Panhandle
3. Dog Beach, Key West, adjacent to Louie’s Backyard Restaurant near the southernmost point, the Florida Keys
4. Smyrna Dunes Park, New Smyrna Beach, Northeast Florida
5. Rickenbacker Causeway and Beach, Key Biscayne, Miami & Miami Beach
6. Abercrombie Park, on Park Street at 38th Avenue North, St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Area
7. Flagler Beach, north and south of 10th Street (but not at the 10th Street pier), Flagler Beach, Northeast Florida
Best Beaches for Diving In
Criteria: Water clarity and warmth was key in the factors here, but we also looked for beaches that offer interesting things to eyeball underwater. Strap on a mask and snorkel and you’ll definitely see something eye-catching, from colorful coral reefs and schools of fish, to the remains of shipwrecks in their watery graves.
1. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, mile marker 102.5, Key Largo, The Florida Keys. With shallow water reefs, submerged sculptures, and 55 kinds of coral, Pennekamp has been hailed as the Diving Capital of the World. The country’s first underwater park showcases an eight-and-a-half-foot bronze sculpture “Christ of the Deep.” Those who don’t want to dive in can see the coral reefs—and some of the nearly 600 varieties of fish who live there—on a glass-bottom boat tour. A visitor center sports a 30,000-gallon aquarium and nature theater.
2. Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key (mile marker 37), the Florida Keys
3. Fort Lauderdale Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County
4. Fort Walton Beach, the Florida Panhandle
5. St. Andrew’s State Recreational Area, Panama City, the Florida Panhandle
6. Egmont Key, Tampa Bay, southwest of Fort DeSoto Beach, the Tampa Bay Area
7. Vero Beach, Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast