When planning a Florida vacation, Walt Disney World and white sand beaches may be the first things that come to mind. But there’s so much more to see and do in the Sunshine State. You’ll find beautiful natural wonders with crystal-clear waters fed by springs, culturally rich cities, historical attractions reminiscent of Old Florida, exciting festivals and events, impressive museums, and amusement parks that don’t have a mouse in charge of the fun.
If you’re looking for new places to visit and fun things to do for adults – or the entire family – check out these top things to do across the state for your next Florida vacation.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: Merritt Island
(Courtesy of Kennedy Space Center)
The Kennedy Space Center features five Mission Zones covering 144,000 acres with attractions, interactive exhibits and 3D simulators about all things space exploration and the history of humanity’s journey into space. One of the best ways to explore this expansive complex is with an 11-hour small-group VIP experience. Guided by a space expert, you’ll be treated to a behind-the-scenes tour by bus highlighting the iconic attractions, transportation to and from your hotel, and other perks. Travelers rave about the center and comment that you don’t have to be a space enthusiast to enjoy the visit. For a thrill of a lifetime, plan your trip around one of the scheduled launches to see space exploration come to life before your eyes.
Visit the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs
Known as the “Sponge Capital of the World,” Tarpon Springs has a rich Greek heritage and a unique history. The saltwater fishing village is best known for its natural sea sponges, which were harvested by divers from the Gulf of Mexico beginning in the late 1880s. More than 500 Greek divers with 50 boats worked in the industry by 1905. While in town, visit the original sponge docks along the Anclote River and grab a traditional Greek lunch at one of the restaurants on the docks, such as Mykonos. For dessert, Hellas Bakery & Restaurant offers a tempting selection of Greek pastries like baklava, kataifi and kourabiedes. And remember to take home a local sponge as a souvenir from your visit as the industry still exists today in Tarpon Springs.
Hop on a glass-bottom boat in Silver Springs State Park
(Jason Frankle and Scott Wesson/Courtesy of Visit Florida)
The historic glass-bottom boat tours on the Silver River in central Florida have attracted travelers since the 1870s. Visitors come to see the crystal-clear waters fed by springs, local marine life, and Spanish and Native American artifacts. You’ll even catch a glimpse of old Hollywood underwater movie props at the park. There are two tour options: a 30-minute boat ride that operates throughout the day, 365 days a year, or a 90-minute excursion available Friday through Monday. Recent tourgoers enjoyed the boat ride and Silver Springs State Park, saying that it’s a great choice for a local Florida experience.
Wynwood Walls: Miami
(Patrick Farrell/Courtesy of Visit Florida)
Wynwood Walls is an acclaimed street art museum and urban revitalization project located in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. The installation opened in 2009 and is continually evolving, with 35,000 square feet of walls and more than 100 featured artists from 21 countries. Explore the open-air museum’s murals, street art galleries, sculptures and retail shops on your own with a general admission ticket. Visitors enjoy the art displays and are impressed by the quality of the exhibits, with some saying they make return trips every time they’re in Miami. After spending time at the Wynwood Walls and nearby Museum of Graffiti – two of the top museums in Miami – check out some of the local eateries, bars, boutiques and events in the neighborhood.
Explore Winter Park
Situated just north of Orlando, Winter Park feels worlds away from the bustling city. Take a walk along the tree-lined Park Avenue district with its popular restaurants and boutiques. You’ll also find two impressive museums in town: the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art and Rollins Museum of Art. There are more than 70 parks for outdoor adventure – and be sure not to miss the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. The hourlong narrated excursion traverses three lakes in the Winter Park Chain of Lakes, offering opportunities to see local wildlife and views of the impressive estates built along the shoreline.
The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art: Sarasota
(Courtesy of The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art)
The Ringling is an impressive museum complex in Sarasota showcasing the legacy of renowned circus owner and art collector John Ringling and his wife, Mable. The Ringling was named the official State Art Museum of Florida in 1980 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Plan an entire day to see the extensive collection of art at the museum and to visit Ca’ d’Zan, the Mediterranean Revival mansion that was the winter residence of the Ringlings. Children of all ages will delight in the interactive exhibits at the Circus Museum. You can also stroll the beautiful Bayfront Gardens and visit the Historic Asolo Theater, Education Center, Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion and more. Travelers call it a must-see when in Sarasota and rave about the museum, artwork, grounds and overall experience.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay: Tampa
(Courtesy of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay)
If you’re a thrill-seeker looking for heart-pumping rides and nonstop entertainment outside of Orlando, then plan a trip to Busch Gardens. Roller coaster fans will have plenty of exciting twists, drops and high-speed turns at the park, especially on the new Serengeti Flyer. The 135-foot-tall coaster is billed as the tallest and fastest ride of its kind in the world. For the less adventurous, head to the 65-acre Serengeti Plain for an open-air off-road tour. The 30-minute ride offers up-close safari encounters with African wildlife including zebras, giraffes, rhinos and antelopes. There are also plenty of activities at this Tampa attraction to keep children busy with rides, tours and activities designed for younger kids. Recent travelers like the concept of the theme park with the safari tours and comment that the grounds are well maintained.
Hit the beach at Siesta Key
This 8-mile-long barrier island of Siesta Key is famous for its powdery white sand beaches and sparkling turquoise waters along the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors to the beach call it one of the prettiest beaches in the U.S., saying they also enjoy the incredibly soft quartz sand that doesn’t get too hot – even in the Florida sun. While on the island, take a ride on the complimentary Siesta Key Breeze Trolley for an overview of the area. Then, head over to Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Key Village to check out the local shopping, dining and entertainment scene.
Meet a manatee in Crystal River Preserve State Park
Known as the “Manatee Capital of the World,” Crystal River is located on Kings Bay. The bay’s crystal-clear waters are fed 600 million gallons of fresh water daily by more than 70 springs. If you visit in the winter, you’ll see as many as 500 to 1,000 manatees enjoying the cool spring-fed waters, whereas about 100 manatees reside there in the summer. For a one-of-a-kind experience, book a manatee tour with Crystal River Watersports, where you can swim and snorkel with one of these gentle giants. The company also offers scalloping excursions where you can hunt for your dinner and a unique chance to try out mermaid courses for all ages.
Ichetucknee River State Park
Situated about 80 miles southwest of Jacksonville in Fort White, this nearly 2,700-acre state park is regarded as a haven for wildlife, including beavers, softshell turtles, wood ducks, limpkins and other species. You’ll also find eight major springs that form the 6-mile-long Ichetucknee River, including one that’s a National Natural Landmark. Travelers rave about the natural beauty and their experiences at the park. Aside from walks along the three nature trails and geo-seeking, activities here include canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving, swimming or tubing on the pristine river. The state park is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Alligators are one of Florida’s most notorious residents, and this educational park is one of the top things to do in Orlando with kids. Whether you’re fascinated by or terrified of these predators, you can see more than 2,000 American alligators of all ages and sizes (including 14-foot giants) – at a distance – at “The Alligator Capital of the World,” Gatorland. There are plenty of other thrilling things to do at the 110-acre wildlife preserve and theme park, including the 1,200-foot-high Screamin’ Gator Zip Line and a Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure in the swamp on a monster vehicle. If you dare, reserve a spot for the behind-the-scenes tour during Adventure Hour, where you’ll be up close and personal with (and even able to feed) hundreds of hungry alligators. Reviewers say they enjoyed the shows, activities and seeing all the gators, and some even wished they had planned to spend more time at the preserve and park.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument: St. Augustine
Castillo de San Marcos was built by Spanish colonists in the late 1600s to defend their settlement of Florida and the Atlantic trade route. The well-preserved structure is the oldest masonry fortification in the continental U.S., and it was designated as a national monument in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. You’ll find park rangers and volunteers in period dress stationed throughout the fort to answer questions while you explore on your own. They’ll also elaborate on the experiences of colonists that lived at the fort hundreds of years ago. Musket and cannon demonstrations take place at scheduled times on most weekends. Be sure to download the official Castillo park app for a self-guided tour and other information to help you make the most of your visit.
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens: Miami
(Robin Hill/Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens)
This 45,225-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion – situated on Biscayne Bay in the Coconut Grove area of Miami – is home to an impressive collection of artwork, sculptures and priceless antiques. Retired millionaire and bachelor James Deering began building the property in 1914 but died in 1925, only a few years after it was completed, leaving the mansion to the children of his half-brother and sister. The family looked after the home and property and worked to make it accessible to the public. Vizcaya opened as a museum in 1953. Today, visitors can tour 34 decorated rooms (out of 54 rooms total) of The Main House, covering approximately 38,000 square feet. They can also stroll through the European-inspired gardens that are regarded as some of the most elaborately designed gardens in the U.S. Travelers praise the home and gardens and say the complimentary audio tour covers a lot of interesting information about the family.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. and is considered an international treasure. The park has the distinction of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance – and it’s protected under the Cartagena Treaty. The National Park Service recommends visiting in the dry season, between November and April. The winter months also afford optimal opportunities to see wildlife, including endangered and rare species like the Florida panther, manatee and American crocodile. For the best experience, take a ranger-guided tour or event, an airboat tour by one of the approved operators, or a guided tour by kayak or canoe. There are also tour options for anglers and photographers as well as eco-tours.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Clearwater
(Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium)
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a unique nonprofit marine rescue center and one of the top aquariums in the U.S. The facility engages in research, education, rehabilitation and release programs. Two beloved dolphins at Clearwater even garnered the attention of filmmakers: “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” share the emotional stories of Winter and Hope. Other than dolphins, visitors will find rescued sea turtles, stingrays, river otters, nurse sharks and more marine life here. You’ll learn more about ongoing rescue and rehabilitation efforts and even meet some of the rescued animals. Reviewers say the facility is beautiful and the staff is dedicated and knowledgeable. The aquarium also offers exhibits and animal care experiences where you can meet some of the residents. To see the local marine life in their natural habitat, book one of the aquarium’s guided eco-boat tours on Clearwater Bay.
Daytona International Speedway: Daytona Beach
A trip to Daytona International Speedway is a must-do for NASCAR enthusiasts when visiting Florida. The speedway offers an hourlong speedway tour and a 2.5-hour VIP tour. The VIP experience is available once a day on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays and includes an exclusive visit to the NASCAR Archives & Research Center and Press Box. You can also plan to attend one of the races at the speedway, including the best-known event, the Daytona 500. Visitors say it’s an incredible experience to go out on the track, and many rave about the quality of the tours and the museum.
McKee Botanical Garden: Vero Beach
The history of this property dates back to 1922, when two land developers purchased an 80-acre tract to grow citrus. However, after some consideration, they decided not to disturb the land’s natural beauty and instead hired a landscape architect from the celebrated firm of Frederick Law Olmstead to design the gardens. By the 1940s, more than 100,000 tourists were visiting McKee Jungle Gardens each year to see the impressive collection of waterlilies, orchids, and other ornamental and exotic plants from around the world.
Today, guests can wander through the now 18-acre jungle that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The gardens are also regarded as a preservation project of national significance by the Garden Conservancy. If you have kids in tow on your visit, don’t miss the Children’s Garden here. Travelers enjoy the serenity of the gardens and comment that it’s a beautiful place for photography.
World Equestrian Center: Ocala
(Courtesy of MAVEN photo + film for the World Equestrian Center)
The World Equestrian Center is the largest equestrian complex in the U.S., with state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor facilities that host many equestrian events and other recreational activities throughout the year. Dog lovers can attend canine events, for example, such as the national specialty dog shows. You’ll also find live music at the Yellow Pony Pub & Garden, Food Truck Fridays and Grand Prix Dining Experiences. If you’re looking for a wedding venue, you can get married in the on-site chapel and then have the reception in a beautiful setting under the majestic oak trees in the garden. For an extended visit to experience all the center has to offer, plan to stay a few days at The Equestrian Hotel, a luxury resort on the grounds.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Situated along the sparkling emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Islands National Seashore includes coastal regions in both Florida and Mississippi. There are six areas in Florida to explore: Fort Barrancas, Fort Pickens, Naval Live Oaks, Okaloosa, Perdido Key and Santa Rosa. History buffs will appreciate the fortifications, exhibits and visitor centers at the two fort areas. At Naval Live Oaks, you can hike 7-plus miles of trails and then have a picnic along the bay. Beach lovers will enjoy spending the day at Perdido Key, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S. You can even go backcountry camping by boat at Perdido Key. And after the sun goes down, look up at the sky as this national seashore is an excellent place for stargazing.
Note: Fort Barrancas was closed to the public at the time of publication. It is expected to reopen for visitation in summer 2023. Consult the National Park Service for more information.
The Hemingway Home and Museum: Key West
(Rob-O’Neal/Courtesy of Hemingway Home and Museum)
The legendary author Ernest M. Hemingway first visited Key West in April 1928. During this trip to the Florida Keys, he finished his novel “A Farewell to Arms.” He and his second wife, Pauline, fell in love with the island, and after two seasons Pauline’s uncle bought a home for them on Whitehead Street. The Spanish Colonial home, built in 1851, was in disrepair when it was purchased and went through a significant restoration project in the 1930s. Today, Hemingway’s home is a National Historic Landmark. Many of Hemingway’s personal artifacts remain in the house. According to tourgoers, you can even see quite a few six-toed cats wandering the property, just like the six-toed tomcat that belonged to Hemingway. Guided 20- to 30-minute tours are available daily.
South Beach: Miami Beach
South Beach is one of three neighborhoods located on the 9-mile-long barrier island of Miami Beach. The area runs between South Pointe Park north to 23rd Street along the Atlantic Ocean and is best known for its colorful art deco buildings lining famed Ocean Drive. You won’t want to miss Lincoln Road, a popular mile-long pedestrian area with boutiques, restaurants and street performers. South Beach is also home to The Wolfsonian: This museum houses one of the most extensive American university art collections of decorative arts, design and propaganda pieces from 1850 to 1950. Before leaving town, head to Lummus Park, a beachfront park where you’ll have some of the best people-watching in South Beach.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Located approximately 15 miles south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs takes guests back to Old Florida and gives them opportunities to glimpse deer, alligators, manatees and turtles. The 6,000-acre wildlife sanctuary has thousands of years of history and boasts one of the world’s deepest and largest freshwater springs plus an ancient cypress swamp. This setting was the perfect backdrop for filming “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954). Take the 45- to 55-minute ranger-led glass-bottom boat tour on the Wakulla River for incredible wildlife-viewing opportunities. The spring-fed water is remarkably clear, which helped a mastodon skeleton be discovered within its depths. The ancient fossil is now on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.
Palace Saloon: Amelia Island
(Dawna Moore/Courtesy of AmeliaIsland.com)
Grab a seat and tip back a cold one at the oldest continuously operating bar in the state: the Palace Saloon. Located on Centre Street in downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, the historic building was originally designed as a haberdashery in 1878. When it was purchased in 1903, the new owner enlisted the assistance of his friend – the founder of Anheuser-Busch, Adolphus Bush – to create an upscale “gentleman’s establishment.” The bar was so exclusive that it even attracted the wealthy Carnegie and Rockefeller families who vacationed on nearby Cumberland Island, Georgia, during that time. Local lore claims the Palace Saloon was the last bar to close in Florida during Prohibition and that it survived by selling special wines, ice cream, Texaco gasoline, 3% near-beer and cigars. Today, the interior retains much of its original charm, although the clientele has changed. When in town, stop by the saloon’s new outdoor space, The Shipyard, and order a famous Pirates Punch.
The Dalí Museum: St. Petersburg
(Courtesy of 2023 – Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL)
The Dalí Museum highlights the life and work of the innovative artist Salvador Dalí. The design of the building, by architect Yann Weymouth of HOK, is the perfect introduction to the eccentric pieces of art inside. Known as the Enigma, the 18-inch hurricane-proof glass sections create a 75-foot-tall geodesic bubble in the center of the building resembling the one at his museum in Spain. Visitors can view the permanent collections at The Dalí, which include prints, paintings, objects, photographs and works on paper. You’ll also find rotating exhibits from other artists, special events and classes. Reviewers comment that the exterior is as much a work of art as the collections inside and say it’s better to visit when additional exhibits are on display and you can spend more time at the museum. After your visit, have dinner and watch the sunset at one of the restaurants on St. Pete Pier.
John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park: Key Largo
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park encompasses 70 nautical miles, and it was the first undersea park in the U.S. You can take a glass-bottom boat tour to view the coral reefs and marine life from above, though scuba divers and snorkelers may want a closer look at the underwater habitats that are part of the Florida Keys ecosystem. In addition to colorful sponges and different species of fish, you may also see crabs, lobsters, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees. If you want to visit the famous 9-foot-tall bronze statue known as Christ of the Abyss located off the coast, you’ll need to take a boat tour with a company like Silent World Dive Center in Key Largo. For an extended stay to enjoy more water-based activities like kayaking and canoeing, plan to camp overnight in the park.
Come for Gasparilla Season in Tampa Bay
(Courtesy of Visit Tampa Bay)
This two-month-long event features a massive pirate festival, named for the (likely fictitious) pirate José Gaspar of local legend. The Gasparilla Pirate Fest has been thrilling attendees since its inception in 1904. The swashbuckling fun kicks off at the end of January with the third-largest parade in the country. The 4.5-mile route features hundreds of elaborate floats with treasures to pillage, all led by the captain of Ye Mystic Krewe and his pirates. Gasparilla Season also features an outdoor music festival, a children’s parade followed by a fireworks display, a film fest, an arts fest and much more. Even college football teams and their buccaneer fans get in on the parley during the Gasparilla Bowl in December. If you’re ready for a yo-ho-ho good time, bring your hearties and scallywags to Tampa Bay during Gasparilla Season. Aargh.
Lion Country Safari: Loxahatchee
(Courtesy of Lion Country Safari)
Lion Country Safari is a 320-acre family-friendly attraction in a rural part of Palm Beach County about 20 miles from West Palm Beach. The drive-thru concept opened in 1967 as one of the first cageless zoos in the U.S., with free-roaming lions and other animals offering a big game experience close to home. The year-round tropical climate in Florida is ideal for the large herds of animals originating from six continents, including lions, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, rhinos and chimpanzees. The safari is also involved in conservation efforts and breeding programs for threatened species.
You’ll find seven main habitats across 4 miles of the safari. There’s also a 55-acre adventure park with rides, a petting zoo and animal encounters, a water park, paddleboats, and other attractions. You can even take an escorted VIP tour with an expert guide that includes two up-close experiences with some of the animals. Travelers say they enjoy getting close to the animals, that it’s worth a visit and a great way to spend an afternoon.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Gwen Pratesi is an avid travel adventurer and culinary explorer who has covered the Southeast and coastal and central regions of Florida since 2009. She is a resident of Amelia Island, Florida. She frequently visits other parts of the state to explore the lesser-known areas and unique destinations that many travelers miss when visiting Orlando. She writes about the travel and culinary industries, specializing in cruises, for major publications, including U.S. News & World Report.