Are you looking to do something different on your next Florida getaway? Do you want to get outside the theme parks and crowded beaches and discover hidden Florida? We got you covered. We put together our local’s guide to Florida’s hidden gems to share all of our favorite ways to have fun in the Sunshine State. We’re full-time Florida residents with a thirst for adventure and love of the outdoors. These unique things to do in Florida will help you to find Florida vacation spots where you can get back to nature and discover a bit of its history along the way.
Cayo Costa is one of the real hidden gems in Florida. Droves of visitors would swarm its seven miles of sandy beaches if it were in any other state. Perhaps what makes it one of the most quiet beaches in Florida is that it’s nested between Sanibel Island and Amelia Island. Maybe it’s because you can only get there by the Cayo Costa Ferry or take your own boat the State Park Marina. No matter what the reason is, Cayo Costa is generally left to the adventurers, explorers, and free thinkers who yearn to get off the beaten path.
Once you set foot on Cayo Costa, you have a whole world to explore. You can rent a kayak at the marina and paddle along the mangroves. Cabbage Key (the alleged home of the original Cheeseburger in Paradise) is just around the corner. Along the way, you’ll find alligators, osprey, and even a manatee or two in the summer, if you know where to look. Inland, you can walk or take the tram across the narrow island to the Gulf beaches where you’ll find buckets of shells, or simply a place to get away from it all. We thought an afternoon wasn’t enough to explore everything Cayo Costa offered, so we camped in the primitive cabins at the campground. Tent sites are available, but we’re adventurers, not savages. We arranged for the ferry to bring our kayak over and probably should have brought our bikes too. There’s definitely more than a weekend of fun to be had at Cayo Costa.
Suwannee River State Park
In 1851, which is about a bazillion in music years, Stephen Foster scored a number one smash hit with his song “Old Folks at Home.” Now if you’re thinking that sounds a bit like Florida, you’re right. It’s the state song. Heck, you probably even know the words, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River…” Ironically, Foster had never been to the Suwanee River, and neither have a lot of people. That’s a shame because it’s one of the most beautiful places in Florida.
Suwannee River State Park sits at the confluence of the Withlacoochee, creating a mecca for kayakers. In fact, the Suwannee River paddling trail cuts through the State Park on its 176-mile run to the sea. The park has over 18 miles for hiking trails where you can see karst topology and Civil War fortifications. If you’re looking to make it a weekend getaway, the park offers campsites and air-conditioned cabins.
Blue Heron Bridge
Some of Florida’s bridges, like the 7 Mile Bridge in the Keys gain their notoriety from what you see above the water. Blue Heron Bridge is famous for what’s beneath the surface. It’s known as one of the world’s best shore dives for good reason. Divers frequently count over 100 different species of fish on a single trip. Combine that with an easy entry and short surface swim, and Blue Heron Bridge climbs to the top of the list.
Diving Blue Heron Bridge is all about timing the tides. You want to make sure to go on a high slack tide. Park at Phil Foster State Park and plan to enter about an hour before the peak tides. The maximum depth is 20′ so you can expect bottom times of more than one hour on an aluminum 80. Enter east of the swimming beach and navigate to the bridge pilings. Be wary of currents and boat traffic. If you’re not certified, this area has a snorkel route inside of the swim beach that where don’t need a dive flag. However, divers and snorkelers alike are required to bring a dive flag beyond the swim zone. A couple of times a month when the tides are right, local dive shops obtain permits for night diving at Blue Heron Bridge. A whole new host of critters comes out to play at night.
Key West Snorkeling
One of our favorite Florida tourist attractions is Key West snorkeling. The Keys are some probably the most visited of the Florida islands because it’s going to the Caribbean, but you can drive there. You’ll find that chill island vibe, outstanding blue water, and the only living coral reef in America.
There are some great spots you can snorkel from the shore. The jetties at Hicks Beach are nice, but you need a dive flag. Snorkeling off the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State take you to a couple of small rock piles within the swim zone (re: no dive flag needed). To see the really good stuff you have to go by boat. The shallow reefs surrounding Key West are filled with colorful coral and teaming with tropical fish. We took a sunset cruise so we could see that famous Key West sunset from the water on the way back in.
On the subject of Florida sunsets over the water, GG’s Waterfront is our hidden gem for catching the sunset in Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood Beach. The beaches out there are stunningly beautiful, but they all face east. That’s great for sunrise but doesn’t make for good sunsets. The solution is to head across to the Inner Coastal side to catch the sunset. From GG’s patio, you can watch the sunset over North Lake and the Inner Coastal Waterway.
GG’s history makes it more than just a restaurant with great views and delicious food. This former speakeasy has quite a history. You see, this was Al Capone’s place. When mobsters were kings, Florida was neutral ground. Chicago land gangsters could dine with New York bosses, and nobody was going to get shot. The place was hopping. Gangsters, celebrities like Frank Sinatra and a venerable whos who of south Florida would come here on the reg. You never knew what was cooking at GG’s, but it was always something special.
Siesta Key is a barrier island just off the coast of Sarasota, Florida. What makes it unique is the sugar sand beaches that stretch on for miles. The white, powdery silica sand squeaks under your feet as the waves of warm, Gulf water gently crash ashore. If you think this sounds like a slice of heaven, wait till you hear the rest of the story. Even though Siesta Key Beach is rated as one of the best beaches in Florida, there is much more to do on Siesta Key.
Siesta Key Village is a collection of shops and restaurants right off the beach. You can listen to live music at the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, get a happy hour frozen drink at the Daiquiri Deck, enjoy a Billionaire Burger at the Cottage, eat incredible gelato at Made in Rome, and so much more. There’s a free shuttle bus that runs the length of the island too, so once you pull into your hotel, you never need to drive again until it’s time to go home. Siesta Key boasts other watersports as well. We loved snorkeling at Point of Rocks (pro-tip, go during a high slack tide) and paddleboarding at Blind Pass. Siesta Key is a complete beach vacation without the headaches of South Beach.
Swimming with Manatees at Crystal River
Crystal River has to be on your best places to visit in Florida for swimming with manatees. Every winter, hundreds of manatees flock to Florida springs to survive the cold weather. Manatees can’t live in water below 68 degrees, and the springs are a constant 72. Every other clear water spring is closed during this season except for Crystal River. The springs here remain open to help educate the people, and it’s working. Florida manatees are the only manatee population that’s increasing. So much so, they have recently been removed from the endangered list. Crystal River itself boasts the highest survivability rate of the west coast population. You might come for cuteness but leave with a little more understanding of the world around you.
Manatee tours are a simple affair. You don’t get fins, and you’re required to use a float and stay on the surface. These are really your best tactics for good manatee interactions anyway. You want to as still and calm as possible. If you’re fortunate, they’ll get curious and come over to check you out. At worst, you get to see these beautiful animals in their natural environment. Either way, it’s a day well spent.
Silver Springs Monkeys
If you’re looking for more fun things to do in Florida, you should check out the Silver Springs monkeys. Yup, you heard me. There’s a troop of about 200 monkeys running wild through the forest around Ocala. They aren’t native to Florida. They were brought to an island in the Silver River by Colonel Tooey in 1938 for his wild jungle cruise. He didn’t know monkeys could swim, and they were soon running wild and free.
The best way to see the monkeys is to kayak from Silver Springs State Park to Ray Wayside Park. It’s an easy 5.5 mile run in very calm water. You start at the Silver Springs springhead, the largest artesian spring by volume which pumps out over 500 million gallons of spring water a day. For the first mile or so, the spring run is clear enough to see the bottom. Here you’ll find a series of historic boat wrecks and maybe even a manatee or two. Further down, tannin-rich waters seep in from the surrounding forests. Here you’ll frequent bird and turtle sightings, perhaps an alligator or two in the backwaters, and, if you’re lucky, monkeys. You don’t have to fly to Asia to see monkeys in the wild!
We want to end this piece talking about some of our favorite Florida getaways. They all involve seeing Florida animals in the wild. We’ve already mentioned scuba diving reefs, swimming with manatees, and kayaking with monkeys, but there is so much more you can do. Key deer are stupid cute. They are about the size of a small dog and only live in the Florida Keys. Also, the vast Everglade Swamp is an important ecological site right on the edge of south Florida development. Here you can go on an airboat tour or even camping. Also, south Florida is currently the world’s largest Loggerhead Turtle nesting ground.
Taking tours like this not only provides funding for conservation, but it also increases awareness. Sea turtles, manatees, key deer, and the Florida panther have all seen dramatic comebacks. There’s hope, but there’s also work to be done. Coral diseases are threatening America’s only living reef off the Keys. Invasive animals like pythons and iguanas are running amok in south Florida. Invasive plants are moving into Crystal River and Suwannee River. Groundwater pumping is dramatically reducing the flow of Silver Springs. Red tide blooms threaten Cayo Costa and Siesta Key. Visiting natural Florida is a beautiful opportunity, but we need to protect this treasure if we want our children to enjoy it as well.
Parting thoughts of Florida’s Hidden Gems
Florida has a long history of visitors searching for hidden gems. Ponce De Leon spent his life searching for the fountain of youth while treasure hunters comb the Keys looking for lost Spanish Galleons. Today, tourists looking for something a little different, a little more natural, can still find it in wild Florida.
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