Are you looking for a fantastic beach getaway that’s beautiful, close, and inexpensive? Florida Gulf Coast beaches are absolutely gorgeous with cool white sugar sand and warm blue waves.
What’s more, you can get direct flights from much of the east coast at bargain prices. There’s no need to travel halfway across the world to find paradise when these fabulous Florida beaches are right in your backyard. Come for a short Florida getaway or make it a full vacation.
No matter what you choose to do, you’ll find it here, even if you decide to do nothing at all!
Florida Gulf Coast Beaches of Tampa, St Petersburg, and Clearwater
Tampa Bay is home to the largest metro area on the Gulf Coast. It’s the natural gateway to Florida gulf beaches, whether you’re coming by car or plane. Clearwater Beach is often called America’s best beach city. There are two parts to this title ‘beach’ and ‘city,’ and you get the best of both worlds in greater Tampa.
The resorts and public beach access give visitors the sand and surf they came for as well as some unique “big market” attractions. Pier 60 offers a sunset celebration that rivals Mallory Square in the Keys. Numerous tourist boats leave out Clearwater Beach Marina and St John’s Pass offering everything from ice cream dolphin tours to jet skiing on the bay.
A little farther inland, you’ll find legit urban adventures like the Dali Museum, Tampa Riverwalk, and nightlife in Ybor City.
A short drive up the coast takes you to the Scottish town of Dunedin and the Greek village of Tarpon Springs – sponge diving capital of the world. If you don’t want to drive at all, the trolly system can take you all the way from Tarpon Springs to the Tampa Riverwalk.
St Pete Beach sits on the south side of the strip of beaches. It’s filled with beach resorts that access miles and miles of sandy goodness including the historic Don CeSar Hotel – aka the Pink Palace.
Florida vacation spots around Venice Beach, Siesta Key, Lido Key, and Longboat Key
Lido Key Beach is a public beach with ample beach resorts nearby. It’s the closest beach to Sarasota with its own share of sugar sand.
Longboat Key looks like it should have beautiful beaches, but it is lined with private homes, condominiums, and rental properties that limit public access to the beach. If you’re lucky enough to rent one of these, you’ll have the beach almost to yourself. There are public access points, but parking is hard to find. A little farther north, and you reach Coquina Beach and Bradenton Beach. They are just across the drawbridge to Anna Maria and offer 1.5-miles of public beach with all of the amenities you would expect (including parking).
Siesta Key is a wide barrier island accessible by a toll bridge. It’s wide enough to support Siesta Key Village with several blocks of shops and restaurants. Our favorite is Made in Rome Gelato, which is the best we have had in Florida. The beaches are snow-white sugar sand that’s so pure it squeaks under your feet. What’s more, they have a free local ferry that runs the length of Siesta Key so, once you park for the weekend, you never need to drive again until you leave. That means you get to enjoy that extra daiquiri at happy hour. No wonder Siesta Key keeps getting named as America’s Best Beach.
Venice Beach is a nice enough beach. It doesn’t have the sugar sand or solitude of other area beaches. It has a pier and restaurant, but those alone wouldn’t have earned it a spot on this list. Venice Beach is the shark tooth capital of the world! You can go shark tooth hunting here during low tide and expect to return with about 50-100 shark teeth every trip. I would say it’s loads of fun for kids, but that would be seriously underplaying how much I enjoyed it. Really, you have to try it out.
Beach vacations in Florida near Fort Myers, Estero Bay, Sanibel, Captiva, and Cayo Costa
Fort Myers is a port city a few miles inland on the Caloosahatchee River. However, the beaches on the nearby barrier islands are some of the best in the state. Heading north, the first bay you’ll reach is Estero Bay. It’s home to the Estero Bay Aquatic Reserve and the start of the 190-mile-long Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail. The small southern barrier islands contain scenic and natural Bonita Beach, Little Hickory Beach and Lover’s Key. On the north end of the bay, you’ll find the more populated Estero Island and Fort Myers Beach.
Another chain of islands forms Pine Island Sound. You can drive on a toll bridge over Blind Pass to reach Sanibel and Captiva Island. More than half of the island is wildlife sanctuaries. During low tide, search for the prized junonia shells at Bowman Beach. When the tide rises, explore the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
The most remote beach in Sanibel is Cayo Costa State Park. It’s accessible only by boat, but public ferries leave from Sanibel, Pine Key, and Punta Gorda. Along Cayo Costa’s seven miles of beaches, you’ll find the best shelling in Florida.
Best Beaches of Naples and Marco Island
Naples Beach and the historic 1888 Naples Pier make a terrific 1-2 punch for families looking for a beach with all the amenities. Showers, restrooms, nearby restaurants, and plentiful beach resorts make this a one stop Florida beach vacation.
If you’re looking for something a little more natural, consider this trio of beaches in North Naples: Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Clam Pass Beach Park, or Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park. You’ll find oat grass growing on wind-swept dunes, plenty of nature, and even more peace. Paddling fans will enjoy the Clam Bay Canoe Trail through the mangroves and estuaries.
About twenty miles south of Naples is Marco Island, easily accessible by the Jolley West Bridge. The four-mile beachfront is the end of Florida’s gulf coast beaches. Access starts at South Beach, where you’ll find palm-lined walkways against an urban backdrop. Next comes the resort zone featuring Marco Beach Ocean Resort and JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. Finally, you’ll reach the untouched dunes and tranquil lagoons of Tigertail Beach Park.
Bonus Beach Content – Crystal River / Homosassa
If you drive to Florida, like 78% of visitors do, make sure you take the detour up US-98 to Crystal River, especially if you’re visiting during the winter months. In fact, maybe you should just fly down some winter weekend and rent a car to do this. You have to try swimming with manatees at least once in your life.
From December through March, hundreds of manatees congregate at Crystal River to stay warm in the springs. Your tour will teach you manatee manors and how to interact with these gentle giants ethically.
Then your boat captain will take you to manatee hotspots around the bay. You enter the water gently and stay as still as possible. When you float like a manatee and act like a manatee, then maybe they’ll come up to say hello. It’s the most incredible experience you can imagine.
Wrapping up Your Florida Beach Vacation
There’s no shortage of sand or water on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s hard to pick a favorite, and you don’t have to. Even if you can’t go everywhere on one trip, you can always come back. You can also explore some of these options on an Orlando-based beach trip.
Each beach city offers something unique, from natural encounters to urban adventures. One thing is certain, if you’re looking for beautiful beaches, it’s hard to do better than the west coast of Florida.
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