If you know where to look, the Sunshine State is bursting with hidden gems and under-the-radar attractions where you’ll never be overrun by crowds of tourists.
While Florida’s tourist and snowbird populations may flock to high-profile locales like Miami’s South Beach and Orlando’s bevy of theme parks, local Floridians know the best part about living in the Sunshine State is the ability to enjoy unspoiled nature and unique culture in peaceful, less populated surroundings.
Experiencing Florida like a local means finding a spot, your spot, a special place where you can enjoy Florida’s abundant flora and fauna without interruptions. Experiencing Florida like a local also means adventure and mystery await around every corner, and you know exactly where to explore next. Finally, experiencing Florida like a local means you’ve got a unique, homey, favorite restaurant or two that always prepares your favorite dish just right, marking the perfect end to a day spent enjoying all that Florida has to offer.
Here are eight hidden gems across the Sunshine State where locals go to avoid the crowds and bask in their favorite features of Florida:
North Beach Oceanside Park
When local Miamians organize beach outings fit for the whole family, they skip the raucous scenes at South Beach and head straight to North Beach Oceanside Park. Also called North Shore Open Space, this Miami Beach park offers a wide expanse of powdery sand, on-duty lifeguards, and a picnic area in the shade of old sea grape trees complete with three pavilions, barbecue grills, dining tables, electricity, and bathrooms.
Coral Castle Museum
Legend has it that the oolite limestones comprising century-old Coral Castle were carved and moved single-handedly by one man, Edward Leedskalnin, who utilized reverse magnetism, or perhaps supernatural abilities, to achieve this feat. Leedskalnin would tell you he used the same methods as the Egyptians building the pyramids. It’s a Floridian rite of passage to visit the Coral Castle, today considered a museum, on South Dixie Highway between Homestead and Leisure City in southern Miami-Dade County. Take a guided tour of the endless stone creations Leedskalnin birthed over three decades, including 25 rocking chairs, a sundial, a polar telescope, an obelisk, and a fountain.
Florida Caverns State Park
Florida locals may be the only ones who know: the Sunshine State’s not all beaches and swamps. Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, a Florida Panhandle town near the Georgia line, offer visitors otherworldly adventure with large underground rooms featuring 38-million-year-old limestone stalactites and stalagmites. The caverns, composed of shells, coral, and sediments, date back to when the Atlantic Ocean receded to create the southeastern plain of Florida. Look out for the cave roosting bats, cave salamanders, and blind cave crayfish who call this damp, dark place home.
Nestled near the heart of St. Augustine’s downtown historic district, this quaint, breezy restaurant aimed at “omnivores, herbivores and locavores” serves up fresh, local cuisine that somehow achieves making Southern comfort food healthier. Ask for outdoor seating, and you might get the opportunity to sip swamp ponies (a refreshing spin on mojitos caballitos) in the Floridian’s garden among flowering plants–the perfect, green backdrop to a day of adventuring through Florida.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Rowdy crowds of students from the nearby University of Florida tend to gather at north central Florida’s Ginnie Springs for river tubing adventures characterized by loud music, alcohol, and more alcohol, so locals who know better opt for tranquil floats and paddles at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, only an hour northeast of Gainesville. In this state park designated a national, natural landmark, eight springs coalesce to create the six-mile Ichetucknee River, a peaceful waterway ideal for a lazy float or a gentle kayak or paddleboard trip. Another locals-approved tip: don’t purchase your floating gear at the park itself. Instead, save a few dollars by stopping by one of several, independently owned tube rental shops along U.S. Highway 27, each of which straps your gear to your car and allows you to conveniently return everything near the state park’s entrance.
Neptune Memorial Reef
Every tourist visiting the Sunshine State has heard of Key Biscayne, the barrier island town just east of South Miami, but only locals in the know have explored the sunken city that lies just another three miles east. Located 45 feet underneath the ocean’s surface, Neptune Memorial Reef, formerly known as the Atlantis Memorial Reef, is both an underwater cemetery and a 16-acre, artificial reef. Fish, rays, and sharks mingle with coral and the burial sites of ocean lovers like Bert Kilbride, who made the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living scuba diver. A dozen or so Miami-based dive shops regularly visit the reef, so you only need to book your trip and rent your scuba diving gear a couple days in advance to witness this awe-inspiring site.
Clam Pass Beach
You’ll have to traverse a winding boardwalk built inside of a mangrove forest to reach this hidden gem of a beach in Naples, on Florida’s southwest coast. Once you’ve made it through this natural tunnel, the pristine, turquoise waters and powdery, white sand shores of Clam Pass Beach await. The Clam Pass itself is a shallow estuary where fresh marsh waters and saline Gulf waters mix. Unlike most estuaries that contain strong currents aiming to pull swimmers out to sea, Clam Pass creates a natural, lazy river that carries you to even more secluded beachfront to the north.
Situated near A1A in New Smyrna Beach, The Garlic is a restaurant so unique and fantastical, it could only exist in the Sunshine State. Locals brave the long wait times time and time again (the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, even for large parties) for a taste of Chef Michael Perri’s brick-fired pizzas, char-grilled filet mignon, and garlic rack of lamb, among other Italian-inspired specialties. The appeal of The Garlic isn’t limited to food flavors, however–its open-air courtyard transports diners to another realm with hand-crafted, wooden seating, twinkling fairy lights, and the pièce de résistance: Il Forno, a brick fire oven blasting at 800 degrees Farenheit.