Florida is ranked number one in the US for vacations because of its abundance of tourist attractions, natural beauty, and beaches. Some underrated towns are just as popular as the bigger, more well known cities like Orlando and Miami that should be on every traveler's bucket list. These towns offer enough tourism to have an abundance of lodging options, yet do not have an influx of tourists at the same time, making these towns the perfect way to experience Florida without having to fight the crowds.
Naples is a sophisticated beach town on the southwest coast. The town is best known for its sugar sand beaches with azure colored water, high end shopping, and numerous golf courses. The town's symbol is the pier, built in 1888, and is a perfect spot to watch sunsets.
What sets downtown Naples apart from other small towns is its level of sophistication. The area is divided into sections, each with something different to offer. Fifth Avenue South stretches one mile a has several fine dining establishments and Third Street South has four blocks of independent shops. Tin City, once a fish house, is the place to go for funky, nautical themed shops, and Crayton Cove, home to the Naples City Dock, offers The Boathouse and The Dock, which are both landmark restaurants.
Located in central Florida, Mount Dora is a classic Florida town that embraces the old school Florida charm. The town is known for its abundance of antique shops like the Village Antique Mall and musems like the Modernism Museum and the Mount Dora History Museum. The History Museum is housed in a historical 1923 firehouse and highlights local history.
The charming town centers around Lake Dora and a lighthouse, Grantham Park, was built in 1988 to guide boaters after dark. The brick paved downtown is one of the most popular spots for visitors, and is where the bulk of the antique shops and the farmers market can be found. To capture the whole experience of Mount Dora, a stay at The Lakeside Inn is a must. The inn is the most historic in Florida and has continuously ran since 1883.
Sebring is a haven for gearheads and racing enthusiasts, but this small town has much more to offer. "The City On The Circle", is named for Circle Drive, the heart of the historic downtown area and is home to the 12 Hours of Sebring every March.
Historic downtown is a dedicated 1920s Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. There are 22 historic buildings lining the small roads. The buildings include the Buckeye Building, Zakary Building, and the Whitehouse Building. Sebring is known as a racecar destination, but the center of town offers tranquility and a relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of Old Florida.
Matlacha, on the southwest coast, is one of the most eclectic towns you will ever visit. Originally a commercial fishing village, the town has been home to artists since the early 1990s. There is only one road through town, and you will know when you have arrived because virtually every building, mailbox, and sign is painted in bright, vibrant colors.
The first three buildings in town are art galleries: Gallery of Matlacha, Leoma Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens, and Matlacha Menagerie. Leoma's Gardens extends out to the canal and boasts a microbus, Beatles memorabilia, and a dock, all painted in pink, green, and yellow colors. The small town is perfect for a day trip but those looking for a longer stay will probably have to find find lodging in nearby Pine Island or Naples.
Islamorada encompasses six of the Florida Keys and is known for its coral reefs. It's not as popular as Key West, but this is part of its charm. Fishermen and divers travel from all around the world to "The Sportfishing Capital of the World", but the town has plenty of other attractions to offer onshore as well.
The History of Diving Museum, Theatre Of The Sea, The LIgnumvitae Key Botanical State Park, and Indian Key Historic State Park are just a few of the attractions. The Cheeca Lodge and Spa is a sophisticated resort experience. The resort is on the beach with 1,200 feet of palm trees, offers five restaurants, and caters to sports fishermen.
Tarpon Springs, on the Gulf Coast, has a vibrant Greek culture, an homage to the Greek sponge fisherman who put this town on the map in the early 20th century. Dodecanese Boulevard is the main road that the center of town revolves around, and this is where to find the bulk of the Greek restaurants and artistic shops. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in the 1940s, is a popular site for visitors and is filled with stunning stained glass windows.
The Historic Downtown includes brick lined streets and 145 historic buildings and is 700 acres in all. The historic sites include City Hall, the Safford House, and the Arcade Hotel. The brick lined streets are pleasant to walk around and there are many shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore.
Cedar Key is an island on the Gulf Coast that is reachable over Florida State Road 24 west of Gainesville. It is where the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge is located, a string of smaller islands that has walking trails and an abundance of birds. On the island, the Cedar Key Museum State Park includes a nature trail and a historic home built in the 1920s.
Although the beach and birding are the main attractions, the island is fun to explore on foot. The Prickly Palm is the spot for breakfast while Tony's Chowder House and Steamers Clam Bar and Grill are two options for lunch or dinner. For lodging options, there are cottages, suites at the marina, and a cozy bed and breakfast, Cedar Key Bread and Breakfast. This is a little-known and charming island that encapsulates the best of the Nature Coast.
Sanibel Island, aptly named the Seashell Capital of the World, is on the southwest coast next door to its smaller sister island, Captiva Island. The barrier island sanctuary is perfectly situated to capture the millions of shells that wash ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. The three-mile causeway leading to the islands offers a bird's eye view of this little paradise.
Sanibel, as a preservation, does not allow buildings to be built taller than the tallest tree, which preserves the natural look and feel of the island. There is a boardwalk that winds through the marshes and leads to the 19th-century Sanibel Lighthouse. Other attractions to visit include the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, the Farmers Market, and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
Captiva Island, the smaller sister to Sanibel Island, is a secluded hideaway with white sand beaches and turquoise water. The slow pace of the island is perfect for a relaxing weekend, but there are plenty of attractions if you wish to explore. Most come for the beach, for good reason, and there are three to choose from.
One of the beaches is the Mucky Duck, home to the eponymously named pub where you can enjoy a few cold ones on their little stretch of beach. There are also kayaking and boat trips to explore the outer islands. Golf carts and bicycle rentals are available to explore downtown and lively Andy Rosse Lane, home to local restaurants lined with hibiscus flowers and palm trees.
Punta Gorda is on the Gulf Coast in Sarasota County and is home to a historic district, and an Old Florida atmosphere created by the tin roof homes and streets lined with royal palms. Part of the historic district contains 22 blocks of residential homes built between 1884-1930 including the AC Freeman House Museum that defines the Victorian Architecture Era. Another 23 blocks of history are home to Bethel A.M.E. Church, the first religious center in this area that was built in 1888. This section also houses the Blanchard House Museum of African American History and Culture of Charlotte County.
The town embraces its past while also offering modern amenities and attractions. There are several parks including Gilchrist and Laishley Park and the Peace River Botanical Gardens and Sculptures. The uniqueness of Punta Gorda is its diversity between the past and present, and the local attractions exude this attitude with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The area was hit hard by Hurricane Ian in 2022, but most of the businesses are back in business.
Juno Beach is on the Atlantic Coast and was the original town in Dade County. It is a small beach community that is welcoming to visitors. One of the highlights is the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, one of Florida's most visited nonprofit scientific destinations.
The unspoiled coastline is home to hundreds of sea turtles, which is the main attraction for visitors and locals alike. Also on the beach is the Juno Beach pier which offers spectacular sunrise views right next to the Juno Beach State Park. The Hurricane Cafe is an award-winning American cafe that has been here for two decades, along with the Ke'e Grill. Juno Beach is a perfect destination for those wanting to see the best natural sights the "right coast" has to offer.
Boca Grande is a small town on Gasparilla Island on the southwest coast that is home largely to seasonal residents. Gasparilla State Park is a popular attraction that includes the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum and the Gasparilla Lighthouse. After spending a day riding the Rail Trail on a rented bicycle. stop by the historic Gasparilla Inn and Club which was built in 1911 and still retains its original charm.
The Boca Grande Historical Center lies on a canopy road made from towering oaks and offers a historical center to explore and an online store. Whidden's Marina is another historical site that must be seen. The wooden structure epitomizes Old Florida Charm and the locals are warm and inviting to visitors.
Fernandina Beach is on Amelia Island on the northwest coast and the island is called The Keys Of North Florida. This charming and historic town has several historic sites like the Amelia Lighthouse and the HIstoric District. The historic district is a combination of historic homes and buildings and cobblestone streets.
There is something here for everyone from romantic bed and breakfasts, to a beach, and a legendary shrimping village. Fort Clinch which was built in 1848, is on the northern side of the island along the Amelia River and has a beautiful tidal marsh. Downtown Fernandina is pedestrian friendly and this is where you will find the shops and cafes, including the local favorite Holas, which serves up authentically made Cuban fare. Fernandina Beach has a lot to offer, and it may take a couple of trips to explore all it has to offer, but a second trip here is not such a bad thing.
Florida is a traveler's paradise and these small towns prove why. From strikingly beautiful stretches of sand along turquoise water to historic forts, Florida is a paradise of riches. The major tourist cities offer a lot, but these towns embrace what made Florida what it is today and offer a different and more laid-back atmosphere.