Known for the Disney scene, grand beach resorts, and nightlife, Florida's map is also speckled with many gem towns that shine with personalities and emanate magnetic warmth. These scenically-set, bucket list-worthy small town escapes offer enough activities to fill a long weekend.
The historic Apalachicola set in northwest Florida's Panhandle is known as the town where time slows for a perfect weekend getaway that seems to last forever despite a myriad of activities. Established in 1831, "Apalach" was the third-largest port in the Gulf of Mexico, with a long seafaring culture that can be explored at the Maritime Museum, along with the hundreds of historic buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. The "rustic charm" of a former fishing village includes over 900 historic listings, including small cottages and stained-glass churches. The Cape St. George Lighthouse is a wonderful spotting place emanating a special kind of charm during an evening stroll at sunset. It is known for hardly any traffic noise, friendly locals, and delicious seafood. It is a true laid-back slice of paradise for relaxing and unwinding. The active will love exploring the beautiful nature while hitting the trails in the Apalachicola National Forest and the Tate's Hell State Forest, while the Scipio Creek Boardwalk and the Apalachicola River estuary offer the most stunning scenery around.
Set on the western Florida coast, Crystal River comprises a wonderful weekend getaway for families and nature lovers, being known for the amplitude of outdoor activities and manatee sightings. One can watch the gentle giants float at the Three Sisters Springs or the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, while the beach lovers will love the Springs Park's cozy beaches, natural springs, kayaking, jet skiing, boating, and snorkeling opportunities. For history fanatics, the vast Crystal River Archaeological State Park presents an opportunity to wonder at the remnants of the country's earliest human settlement, wandering around the pre-Columbian site featuring burial mounds and ritual sites, a plaza area, and a significant midden. The nearby state parks offer more long walks with bird watching and wildlife sightings. Crystal River provides a perfect outlet for relaxation, especially popular during the winter months when one can swim in the warm water springs sheltering manatees.
Set on the Atlantic coast, Daytona Beach is a reputable budget travel destination with an endless choice of fun things to engage in during a weekend getaway. Many come specifically for the Daytona International Speedway, home to NASCAR racing, even on no-race days. The many beach-front amusement arcades and attractions with souvenir shops, restaurants, and other entertainment venues sprinkled in-between induce a true mental relaxation for entire families, where everyone will find something to suit their taste. The legendary lengthy Boardwalk is incredibly atmospheric during the night, coming alive with colorful lights from the rides and attractions and the sounds of the outdoor street performers. The stretch of sand extending some 23 miles contains some of the most recognizable beaches in Florida, edged by quintessential aquamarine waters with the sounds of the waves emanating peace. There are ten parks in the vicinity, several interesting festivals, and more shopping at the Ocean Walk Village, while from May 15 to October 31, giant sea turtles emerge from the ocean and lay their eggs on the sand.
A friendly rural fishing village with a grand personality, Matlacha means "Big Warrior" in Seminole. Pronounced Mat-La-Shay, it is home to hippies, artists, and other free spirits. An instant delight, the small town bursts with a vibrant color of displays and funky shops with hand-made trinkets infused with meanings to bring home as one-of-a-kind souvenirs. The Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens is a two-in-one treat, offering lush landscapes and local artwork, while the nearby MOTI, The Museum of Islands, showcases the area's history. With just around 800 people made up of artisans and fishers, the quaint-town feel comes complete with bed-and-breakfasts and local eateries serving fresh, flakey fish, set among the endless line of art galleries, island boutiques, and colorful Floridian cottages. A long-weekend getaway at Matlacha must include a visit to Pine Island to spend a day in fresh, sea-breeze air.
Set at the heart of the state, Mount Dora is full of antique shops and a plethora of outdoor activities, while Lake Dora, a part of the Harris Chain of Lakes, offers scenic lake views and some of the country's best bass fishing. Bounded by Gilbert Park, there are playgrounds and picnic pavilions by the waters that can hold families and groups of friends captive for the entire weekend getaway. The park's trails are perfect for some heart-healthy strolls for those seeking active time-spent. The boardwalk is great for shopping and dining with views. The fishing pier is where loners or romantics intermingle with the anglers to reminisce at the sight of waters. In-town, the historic district streets lined with beloved 19th-century clapboard houses, antique shops, and outdoor cafes induce a different kind of reminiscing. One can also search and find valuables and collectibles at the Renninger's Antique Center and Farmer's Flea Market, and the Mount Dora History Museum. The Mount Dora Museum of Speed hosts an impressive collection of vintage cars and a live replica of a 1940s gas station.
The small town in Florida's Panhandle, Navarre, is most known for hosting one of the most beautiful beaches in the state. The cozy coastal town comprises a perfect weekend getaway to suit every taste with exciting activities and mesmerizingly beautiful fall-time nature. When the beach crowd thins by October, the comfortable temperature of 70-some degrees and the calm setting present a perfect time to stroll along the beach and fish on the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier. It is also the time for the town's most popular annual fall events to be enjoyed in the crisp air under the blue skies. The Halloween-themed month of October at the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center and a trick or treating trail at Gulf Breeze Zoo are beloved by families with kids. The scenic hiking trails of the Blackwater River State Forest in Historic Milton are also just a short drive away for a diversified time-spent.
Panama City Beach
Located in the topmost eastern corner of the Gulf of Mexico, Panama City Beach and town come alive during summer, offering white-sand beaches, parklands, and nature reserves, with plenty of water-based activities and adventures. For as far as the eye can see, the wide-spread beaches stretch for 27 miles of sandy heaven for safe swimming and snorkeling opportunities. The on-leash Dog Beach at Pier Park is the best of its kind in the state for a weekend getaway with one's best friend, while the City Pier comprises a fisher's paradise. More water fun can be had with a rented Jet Ski, paddle-boarding, sea kayaking, lounging poolside, or observing it all from one of the dozen water-front restaurants. Known as the revelation home to an Oyster Trail and a burgeoning Mural Trail, Panama City Beach also houses the History Class Brewing Company. It is a new gastropub revealing the town's true age with old-time artifacts and design, where the mango and guava-infused wheat beer is a must-try. The nearby historic St. Andrews funky fishing village features streets lined with oyster shells and a pretty Oaks by the Bay Park with an ancient oak tree, "Old Sentry."
Perched on the northeast coast of Florida, the pretty walled St. Augustine is the nation's oldest city founded by Spanish colonists in 1565, two centuries prior the establishment of the United States. Popular for its high-end oceanfront resorts, the city is also memorably preserved from the 17th and 18th centuries, managing to keep its European flare. Filled with historical sites for a history buff's long-weekend escape, the old pirates' dock, the country's oldest masonry fort, and the cobblestone streets in the historic district will be enjoyed by all. The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is a fortress built to protect the Spanish city from other occupiers. The Anastasia State Park is perfect for outdoor lovers looking to explore the lush wildlife setting and flourishing ecosystems of varying landscapes, including beaches, tidal marshes, and nature trails. The downtown area and George Street burst with unique shops, top-rated restaurants, and bars for diversified down-time opportunities, soaking up the sun at St. Augustine Beach, and seeking longevity at the Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
This small town with big vivre, St. Petersburg, just west of downtown Tampa, contains Florida's most enviable white sand beaches. Ambient and edgy, St. Petersburg is most known for its streets brimming with a vast collection of murals scattered throughout downtown. One will never want to leave the grounds of the stunningly modern and intuitive St. Pete Pier opened two years ago, with a bike-able perimeter, a rooftop tiki bar, beach on the bay-front, and art installations. The world-class Dalí Museum is a unique building constructed of 900 glass panels housing the Spanish Surrealist artist's grand collection. The Fort De Soto Park offers a great escape into the outdoors of beaches, nature trails, and a historic fort, while the Sunken Gardens provide a place to relax while treating all senses with thousands of plants and a butterfly house.
Bursting with color, flavor, and life, these towns offer the best weekend escapes in Florida for any type of group. Each unique in history has a magnetic quality that will make it difficult to leave or at least make a timely comeback during the next weekend escape.