Florida Holiday Planning Guide
The "Sunshine State," Florida became a favorite winter destination for the affluent crowd over a century ago. Today, the state attracts visitors from around the world with its golden beaches and modern theme parks. You can spend much of your Florida vacation enjoying the state's highly developed seaside areas, but remember that some of Florida's best-kept secrets are in secluded locations. Visit the big cities and their comfortable resorts offering top-notch dining and nightlife, but leave some time to see the peninsula's swampy landscape, filled with wild creatures and native plants. Farther away from the tourist-packed urban areas, the untamed wetlands of Florida offer kayaking, boat rides, and numerous other outdoor activities.
Places to Visit in FloridaOrlando
: Any mention of Orlando instantly conjures up images of giant theme parks filled with popular animated characters, yet this city also boasts world-class museums, galleries, gardens, and leafy neighborhoods with a strong sense of community.Florida Keys
: An ideal destination for scuba diving on your Florida holiday, this archipelago of about 1,700 islands south and southwest of the state's mainland features some of the world's top fishing spots, once a huge draw for writer Ernest Hemingway.Key West
: Just 140 km (90 mi) from Cuba, Key West resists the pitfalls of mass tourism and offers the simple pleasures of island living, like snorkeling in the clear waters and soaking up local culture at any one of the main street's bars and restaurants.Florida Panhandle
: Add this "Emerald Coastline" to your Florida itinerary to explore 322 km (200 mi) of pristine white-sand beaches and fishing communities, home to dozens of waterfront shops and seafood cafes.Miami
: A lively tropical metropolis, this city remains one of the world's top vacation spots, known for its dynamic nightlife, striking Art Deco architecture, and colorful ethnic neighborhoods that preserve the look and feel of old-time Cuba.Miami Beach
: This coastal resort town serves as a high-end holiday locale, offering an alluring blend of boutique hotels, upscale shops, and chic restaurants, along with a seemingly limitless variety of beach activities.Tampa
: One of America's most livable cities, Tampa is a great destination for Florida sightseeing, featuring a history-steeped neighborhood that once housed dozens of cigar factories and now boasts a vibrant nightlife and entertainment scene.Fort Lauderdale
: This "Venice of America" contains an extensive network of navigable waterways and over 4,000 restaurants, 60 golf courses, 130 nightclubs, and dozens of other cultural attractions suitable for a range of visitors.Kissimmee
: Sunny weather and proximity to a major Disney entertainment complex make this central-Florida city hugely appealing to families with kids. Kissimmee also contains a historical district with nearly 200 heritage-listed buildings.Clearwater
: Among Florida's sunniest cities, Clearwater offers a diverse selection of year-round activities, like fishing, sailing, kayaking, and parasailing.
Things to Do in Florida
Popular Florida Tourist AttractionsWalt Disney World Resort
: The largest vacation resort in the world, Walt Disney World encompasses four theme parks, two water parks, five golf courses, and a sprawling shopping and entertainment area. The complex includes Magic Kingdom Park
, featuring six magical lands centered on a fairy tale castle from the film "Cinderella." Universal's Islands of Adventure
: Eight million tourists flock to this Florida attraction each year, home to seven action-packed themed areas, offering roller coaster rides and interactive shows featuring superheroes and fictional characters like Spider-Man and Harry Potter.Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
: A theme park and zoo, this family-friendly site offers a mixture of rides, live shows, dining, shopping, and interactive activities with some of the 12,000 animals housed here.The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
: Explore the creative process of a Nobel Prize-winning artist at this estate, where Hemingway often entertained his friends and wrote some of his finest works.SeaWorld Orlando
: An ideal Florida vacation idea for both adventure seekers and theme-park aficionados, this amusement park and zoo hosts orca shows and offers thrilling rides on its upside-down (floorless) roller coaster.South Beach
: Often called the "American Riviera," this Art Deco neighborhood contains trendy boutiques and oceanside restaurants nestled along some of Florida's best white-sand beaches.Disney's Animal Kingdom
: The largest single Disney theme park in the world, this Florida tourist attraction includes seven themed areas and offers visitors a chance to choose between carnival-style rides and tours of diverse animal habitats, sheltering creatures like zebras, lions, bats, iguanas, wallabies, and anteaters.Universal Orlando Resort
: Inspiring nearly seven million annual visitors to "ride the movies," this entertainment complex provides a behind-the-scenes look at movie-making and TV shows. Its seven themed areas and two theme parks offer everything from shopping and dining to 3-D rides and live shows with costumed characters.Mallory Square
: A major sunset-watching spot in the evening, during the day this square serves as a hub of souvenir shops and waterfront restaurants, ideal for tasting local seafood dishes or meeting up with friends.Duval Street
: This tree-lined Key West street draws sightseers with its eclectic blend of boutiques and souvenir shops, interspersed with century-old Victorian mansions that preserve Florida's rich cultural and architectural heritage.
Planning a Florida Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Florida with Kids
Filled with magic kingdoms tailor-made for family vacations, Florida remains one of the most kid-friendly U.S. states. You don't have to go farther than Orlando
to find plenty of amusement-park fun and family-oriented entertainment. In addition to theme parks that show up on practically every family's Florida itinerary, this city offers plenty of pleasant distractions for parents, including museums, shops, restaurants, and energetic neighborhoods ideal for soaking up some authentic Floridian culture. Head to the Florida Keys
to enjoy family activities like snorkeling, fishing, diving, and boating, or tour Miami
to discover one of America's most multicultural cities filled with kid-oriented museums and zoos. For classic beach fun, explore the Florida Panhandle
, featuring a sandy coastline made for water sports and boardwalk activities.
Things to Do in Florida with Kids
Florida works hard at making it easy for visitors to have fun--it's not surprising that the state is one of the world's favorite destinations for family vacations. From white-sand beaches and theme parks to zoos and and children's museums, you'll find plenty of Florida attractions to love and return to year after year. If you get tired of building sand castles and swimming, tour Florida Railroad Museum
, where you can ride railroad cars from the 1920s. To experience the world of science firsthand, explore the interactive exhibits of Museum Of Science & Industry
, featuring a specialized children's center. At Zoo Miami
, home to over 2,000 animals, the family can take an air-conditioned monorail ride to explore over 100 exhibits. For family-friendly kayaking or hiking through the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, include Everglades National Park
on your Florida itinerary.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Florida
The main thing to remember when preparing for your family's Florida holiday is that a little bit of planning can make a big difference. The high season means high prices and huge crowds waiting to get into most major attractions. Book your activities well in advance to avoid spending much of your vacation standing in long lines. If you're coming expressly for Florida's sun and sand, make sure both the grownups and kids in your group have and use sunscreen. You can always get the kids out of the sun by visiting Florida's indoor attractions, so make sure you add a few of those to your itinerary. To avoid exhausting the family with too much theme-park entertainment, consider visiting wilderness preserves and state parks, filled with calm rivers and easy trails ideal for young hikers, inexperienced paddlers, and budding nature lovers.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Florida
Cuisine of Florida
As diverse as the people who cook and eat it, Florida's cuisine is a major reason for visiting. Concentrated in the southern portion of the state, Floribbean cuisine is a fusion of many cultures, most notably Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Colombian, and Puerto Rican. Typical Floribbean specialties include arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), fried plantains, paella, boiled yuca (cassava), Jamaican jerk chicken, empanadas, and white rice with black beans. Key lime pie, swamp cabbage, and conch fritters also recur on many restaurant menus. To add a bit of spice to your food-inspired Florida tour, visit a few local distilleries, great places for discovering the mojito, a cocktail made of rum, lime, and mint. Good options include Siesta Key Rum
and St. Augustine Distillery
Shopping in Florida
Appealing to shoppers from around the world, Florida's big cities offer buying options for every budget and interest. You'll find the biggest selection of shopping malls, retail shops, and souvenir stores in Orlando
. Many Europeans and Brazilians flock to these centers to purchase products for significantly less money than in their home countries. If you're looking for a more authentic shopping experience on your Florida trip, consider exploring outdoor markets and antique shops, where you can pick up fresh produce and unusual gifts. For the world's largest selection of Disney character merchandise, head to World of Disney
, a retail wonderland selling themed collectibles, children's apparel, toys, and accessories.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Florida
History of Florida
By the 16th century, when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon became the first European to reach Florida, effectively inaugurating the region's recorded history, Native American tribes had already lived there for millennia. Less than 50 years after their initial landing, the Spaniards established a tenuous control over the region from their base in St. Augustine
. While exploring this city, America's oldest, you can visit Colonial Quarter
, which preserves the area's history as a Spanish colony.
Other explorers followed Ponce de Leon, who named the land he discovered La Florida (Flowery Land). Spain's colonial territories diminished once English and French colonies spread to the north and west. The English attacked St. Augustine several times, forcing the Spanish colonists to construct Castillo de San Marcos
to defend areas under their control. Include Fort Matanzas National Monument
on your Florida itinerary to learn more about the state's colonial history.
Spain traded Florida to the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1763. In return for their "Flowery Land," Spaniards received control of Havana, Cuba. Most of Florida's Spanish population left for Cuba at this time, taking many of the indigenous people with them.
Florida remained a British colony until 1783, when Britain's defeat by the American colonies and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles put the area back in Spanish hands. By this point the region served as a sanctuary for African Americans seeking freedom from slavery. The United States annexed parts of western Florida in 1810, claiming these areas as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Florida as a whole entered the Union on March 3, 1845. The state seceded on the eve of the Civil War, and rejoined the United States in 1868. Visit places like Fort Mose Historic State Park
to find out more about Florida's 18th- and 19th-century history.
The building of naval stations brought an influx of settlers to Florida after the Spanish-American War and World War I. Florida's real story of prosperity starts after World War II, when growing retirement communities and a developing aerospace industry helped spark a major development boom. Explore Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
to discover Florida's key role in America's manned flights into space.
No Florida trip can ever be complete without a visit to Walt Disney World Resort
, opened in 1971. Largely responsible for Florida's continuing reputation as one of the world's major tourist destinations, this giant entertainment complex welcomes over 50 million annual visitors.
Landscape of Florida
In addition to a long coastline of sandy beaches, bays, and estuaries, Florida features a mostly flat landscape interspersed with lakes and wetlands. The easiest way to discover the vast expanses of untamed wetlands filled with native wildlife is by including Everglades National Park
on your Florida itinerary. Formed by the overflow from Lake Okeechobee
(aka "Florida's Inland Sea"), the wetlands contained within this World Heritage-listed park shelter manatees, American crocodiles, Florida panthers, and many species of wading birds. The chain of subtropical islands known as the Florida Keys
boasts its own distinct geography, with coral reefs and beaches washed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Holidays & Festivals in Florida
Local festivals provide a convenient way to discover Florida's distinct way of life. Time your trip for February to attend the Florida State Fair, held annually near Tampa
. The fairgrounds host animal displays and cheerleading competitions, along with carnival-style rides and games. If you tour Florida in March, you can visit the Strawberry Festival of Plant City
, considered the strawberry capital of the United States. Visit in the fall to participate in the Florida Seafood Festival, the state's oldest maritime event. This two-day food celebration in Apalachicola
offers musical performances, arts and crafts exhibits, oyster shucking contests, and parades. Summer brings a slew of music festivals hosting performers from many different genres. Consider the Orange Blossom Festival in Brooksville
, or the free jazz fest held in downtown Jacksonville
Florida Travel Tips
Climate of Florida
Florida's climate varies from humid subtropical in the north to true tropical in the south. Though most people know it for its balmy weather ideal for beach activities, Florida also experiences severe weather conditions, including massive thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. If you schedule your Florida vacation for the rainy season (mid-June to September), make sure your itinerary includes at least a few indoor activities. Perhaps the best time to visit is the shoulder season (February or September), when you can take advantage of dry days and thinner crowds at the beaches. The off-peak season between October and December offers not only lower prices, but also pleasant weather ideal for hiking and camping.
Transportation in Florida
Nearly all international visitors to Florida arrive by air, landing at one of the major airports in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, or Fort Lauderdale. Once there, you can choose from any modern mode of transportation, though traveling by car remains the best way to get around and explore areas not served by reliable public transportation. If you wish to avoid driving during your trip, take advantage of daily trains linking Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, and Tampa. You can also get to all major and mid-sized urban centers by bus, but remember that most tourists find this mode of travel time-consuming and relatively inconvenient. To visit Key West, consider taking the high-speed and comfortable Key West Express
, a ferry service departing from Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island.