People always ask – where’s the closest beach to Orlando? As local, I know the better question is what’s the best beach to go to from Orlando. Of course, the answer all depends on what you’re looking for. Each of these beaches offers something a little different. I’ll give you the local lowdown on the best beaches near Orlando, and you can pick your favorite. No matter if you’re looking for romantic things to do, day trips, or adventures around Orlando, nothing beats a trip to the beach.
Clearwater / St Pete – The Best Beaches Near Orlando
If you wanted to go to ‘a beach’ without providing any additional information, I would recommend the beaches of Clearwater and St Petersburg because they are close, warm, and beautiful. In my opinion, they are the best beaches near Orlando. They are located on 25 miles or so of barrier islands off of Tampa and its namesake bay. Clearwater Beach is on the northern end, and St Pete is on the southern tip with about 20 miles of condo communities in the middle.
What makes this area exceptional, besides the warm and gentle Gulf waters and dazzling sunsets, is all of the beach amenities. You’ll have a fully supported beach trip from rentals to dolphin cruises for fun in the sun and your choice of beachfront or rooftop dining when you get hungry.
If I had to pick between Clearwater or St Pete for a day trip, I would choose Clearwater and maybe cruise by St Pete to check out the historic Don Cesar hotel for a walk-in tour. Clearwater has Pier 60 and a beautiful beach boardwalk plus easy access to a tourist marina and dining. You park once and have all of these options available. St. Pete has more beach resorts with semi-private beach fronts that encourage you to stay on property. It’s awesome that they open onto the beach, but it doesn’t suit the day trip format. Maybe more of an Orlando beaches getaway.
The greater Tampa area is worth visiting on its own. They have a hip and cool downtown riverwalk and a vibrant art scene with the Dali and Chihuly museums. Pair those with the aquariums, Big Cat Rescue, Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, and everything else Tampa offers, and you have beach and city combo that’s hard to beat with a one way trip of just under two hours from Orlando to Clearwater.
Siesta Key – America’s Best Beach
While Clearwater is known as ‘the best beach city,’ Siesta Key is known as ‘the best beach.’ The operative word is ‘city.’ Siesta Key has the most beautiful silica sand beaches south of the Panhandle. The sand is white as snow and so pure it squeaks under your feet. The wide white beaches of Siesta Key are kissed by the warm, blue waters of the Gulf in a decedent display of tranquility. It’s idyllic, peaceful, and the stuff of postcards and daydreams. It’s also only about a half-hour farther from Orlando than Clearwater, which still makes it a viable option for an Orlando day trip.
Siesta Key still has things to do beyond the beach. Siesta Key Village offers restaurants like Made in Rome Gelato (so yummy), The Cottage (home of the Billionaire Burger), Daiquiri Deck (happy hour 3-7), and a shuck ton of fresh oysters. Most nights, you can find a live band playing too. While you are there, be sure to rent a jetski or SUP for a jaunt to Midnight Pass.
Cocoa Beach – the Closest Beach to Orlando
Cocoa Beach is the closest beach to Orlando that you can reach in just under an hour. It’s close enough many people commute from Orlando to Cocoa Beach every day, but don’t worry. You’ll be heading against traffic on your Cocoa Beach day. If this beach were anywhere else other than Florida, it would be outstanding. I would give it a ranking of pretty good and close by. It’s also one the closest beaches near Disney World since you don’t have to drive through downtown Orlando to get from Disney to Cocoa Beach.
Since it is on the Atlantic, the water is a little colder than the Gulf, and you don’t have the blazing sunsets. What you do have is surf. Cocoa is home to Ron Jon and Kelly Slater, but to be honest, the surfing is more miss than hit. It tends to be to flat for even longboards in the summer and a little short interval / choppy in the winter. There are also seasonal and tidal changes to the beach breaks, so you never know when the waves will die and reform on their way in. Also, every afternoon, the tradewinds tend to blow out the break. If you follow the surf report, take a surf lesson from a local shop, and start early in the morning, you have a chance. Even if you don’t surf, the wave action is fun for jumping waves and boogie boarding.
Cocoa Beach is a great place to go for a combo trip if you’re going to Kennedy Space Center. Likewise, if you’re heading out on a cruise from Port Canaveral, you may as well get some vitamin B(beach) before you set sail for some vitamin C (sea). You can even book a kayak tour of the Indian River Lagoon, including bioluminescent night paddles on dark summer nights. Cocoa’s close, easy, and worth the doing, especially if you have a Sunpass for the toll road.
Playa Linda – the Most Natural of the Orlando Florida Beaches
Playa Linda offers miles (and miles and miles) of undeveloped beach. If that’s your thing, this is your place. You’ll have parking, flush toilets, showers, and not much else. Be sure, at a minimum, to bring a cooler and pack a picnic. This beach is the most natural of the Orlando Florida Beaches.
Playa Linda is on federal land just north of the Cape on Merritt Island, which is an important fact for several reasons. First, it’s the best place outside of Kennedy to watch a space launch. Secondly, they don’t remove alligators from here so you can see some real big boys, particularly on the back roads through the marshes. Third, the state and local laws that prohibit public nudity are tacitly not enforced at the northernmost fringes of Playa Linda for the sun’s out, buns out crowd.
Daytona Beach – The World’s Most Famous Beach
Daytona Beach – aka ‘The World’s Most Famous Beach’ is a perfect combination of Cocoa Beach and Clearwater. There is some surf and a decent amount of beach amenities as well. It’s almost as close as Cocoa Beach going Orlando to Daytona, but you have to take I-4 through downtown Orlando. During the right times of day, you can make it in just over an hour. Leave during the morning commute or drive home and you’ll be in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour and still not be through town.
Once you reach Daytona Beach, there’s a wooden pier and beachfront amusement park that will remind you a little of Santa Monica. The surf’s break might even be a bit better up here because you don’t have to contend with Merritt Island blocking the northerly swells. Nearby New Smyrna Beach has a famous break at the Ponce Inlet. It’s also the ‘Shark Bite Capital of the World’, but you’re significantly safer from shark bites than you are with boat traffic in the inlet. All in all, Daytona Beach makes a great beach trip, especially on summer weekends, when they have their outdoor concert series rolling.
West Palm Beach – Home of the World’s Best Shore Dive
Logistically speaking, West Palm is about as far as you can reach on a day trip since it’s three hours one way to get there from Orlando. It’s the outlier of this group for sure, and there many beaches in the 2 1/2 – 3-hour range that I didn’t include like St Augustine, Amelia Island, Melbourne, and Venice Beach to name a few. The reason West Palm Beach is on this list is that it’s the first beach you can reach for good scuba diving (or snorkeling) because it’s the last place the Gulf Stream Current is close to the shore before it veers off to sea at the Mid-Atlantic Bight.
West Palm offers warm, clear water with visibility routinely at 50′-80′. A multitude of sea creatures visit these waters from sea turtles in the summer months to goliath grouper aggregations in the fall to a veritable underwater zoo at the ‘best shore dive in the world‘ – Blue Heron Bridge.
A typical boat dive at West Palm Beach is your choice of a morning or afternoon two-tank dive. Dive sites range from drift dives on the Florida Reef Tract to one of the hundreds of shipwrecks places as artificial reefs just off the shore.
The boat ride out is short enough that, if you plan well and are up to it, you can get one more dive in. The obvious choice is diving at Blue Heron Bridge, which has to be done at high slack tide. If the moon is right, this could even be a night dive on certain days each month. The hard part is working out a time to pick up and drop off your rental gear while the dive shop is still open.
An alternative is to book a black water dive, which happens on select moonless nights. The dive boat takes you out into the Gulf Stream in 400′-600′ of water. You float at 20′ down and watch the strange creatures rise up from the depths. You never know what you’re going to see, and often don’t have the words to describe it. It’s also a perfect way to get your gear back to the shop but makes for a late-night driving back to Orlando.
Best Beaches Near Orlando Florida
Going to the best beaches near Orlando, Florida, is a wonderful way to add some sand and surf to the theme parks and attractions of Central Florida. The Gulf Coast offers beautiful sand, warm calm water, and incredible sunsets while the Atlantic Coast is a touch closer with better surf and decent beaches in its own right. On either shore, you can balance your trip between amenities and solitude. You might also have some particular interest like space, art, or diving that contributes to your beach decision. There’s plenty of choices for a little sun, surf, and sand on your Orlando vacation.
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