Great Vacation Destinations Outside Florida’s Big Cities

Beyond the Big City - Florida

Search for a place to take a vacation in Florida, and you’re bound to find the major cities first. While they certainly have their appeal, there are many other areas worth visiting for affordable Florida vacations. Here are a handful of destinations for adventure seeking and memory making that are within driving distance of Orlando, Tampa and Miami. Old masonry forts, arts-and-crafts fairs, chill surf towns, extravagant mansions, professional baseball games, blue herons and glass-bottom boats await you.

Vacation Destinations Outside Orlando

Home to more than a dozen theme parks, Orlando ranks as one of the most visited cities in the U.S. If you’re looking to extend your adventure, there are great new places to explore.

Getting there: Fly into Orlando International Airport and pick up your rental car.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument The fort of Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 17th century to protect a Spanish settlement in Florida and today speaks to the rich history of St. Augustine.

 

St. Augustine

Where: About 105 miles northeast of Orlando via Interstate 4 and Interstate 95.

Why: Explorer Ponce de Leon first set eyes on St. Augustine 500 years ago, and the coastal city has welcomed visitors with its old-world charm ever since. Walk through Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest masonry fort in the U.S., and then meander about two blocks west to pedestrian-only St. George Street, where you can swing into shops, cafes and galleries at your leisure. Music, art and history come to life during the many festivals held throughout the year, so be sure to check what’s happening when you are in town.

Mount Dora

Where: About 35 miles northwest of Orlando via state Route 408, state Route 429 and U.S. Route 441.

Why: When the Orlando locals want to get away, they head to Mount Dora. Go for shopping galore — hunt for treasure at Renninger’s Vintage Antiques Center or find the perfect gift at Whispering Winds — and if you fish, try to catch a big one in the Harris Chain of Lakes, considered to have some of the best bass fishing in the world. Arts and crafts lovers won’t want to miss the festivals — two of the finest are the Mount Dora Arts Festival in February and the Mount Dora Craft Fair in October.

New Smyrna Beach sunset New Smyrna Beach is a desired destination for surfers and paddleboarders — and a spot for visitors wanting to try out these activities.

 

New Smyrna Beach

Where: About 55 miles northeast of Orlando via Interstate 4 and state Route 44.

Why: New Smyrna Beach is a fun and funky surf town with a vibe that jibes effortlessly with art galleries, cafes and boutiques. Stroll the streets and window-shop, play in the sand, or get in the water to surf or paddleboard — lessons and board rentals are available at surf shops like Nichols Surf Shop and East Coast Paddle.

Vacation Destinations Outside Tampa

On Florida’s central west coast, Tampa has a thriving riverwalk, several professional sports teams and proximity to world-class beaches. Your vacation opportunities open up even more roughly an hour’s drive outside of town.

Getting there: Fly into Tampa International Airport and pick up your rental car.

Ca’ d’Zan at The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art Ca’ d’Zan was home to the famed circus mogul John Ringling and his wife, Mable. The 56-room mansion and the two museums on the grounds can be toured daily with paid admission.

 

Sarasota

Where: About 60 miles south of Tampa, via Selmon Expressway, Interstate 75 and state Route 780.

Why: Sarasota seamlessly blends art and culture with sand and surf. In addition to its white, powder-soft beaches and clear, warm turquoise water along the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota is known for its wealth of cultural institutions. Wander the galleries of fine art in The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and then tour the Ringlings’ former home, Ca’ d’Zan, which has been called “a testament to the American Dream of the Roaring ’20s.” For natural beauty, stroll the grounds of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens on your own, or join a guided tour. When it comes time to shop and dine, St. Armands Circle is a must-do.

Dunedin

Where: About 25 miles northwest of Tampa, via Interstate 275, state Route 60 and U.S. Route 19.

Why: There is much to discover in this charming beachside town. Be sure to visit Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park (accessible only by boat from Honeymoon Island) — these natural barrier islands boast uncrowded beaches, abundant wildlife and breathtaking sunsets. If you’re visiting the area in March, watch the Toronto Blue Jays professional baseball team take the field for spring training. Festivals are held throughout the year, including the Dunedin Highland Games & Festival in the spring — a nod to the city’s rich Scottish heritage — and the Orange Festival in the summer.

Vacation Destinations Outside Miami

Miami has so much to offer: wide beaches, oceanfront art deco architecture, international flavors and pulsing nightlife. Outside the Magic City, you’ll find even more to see and do in South Florida.

Getting there: Fly into Miami International Airport and pick up your rental car.

Shark Valley Biking Trail Tram Road loops 15 miles round trip from the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park, giving visitors up-close encounters with egrets and other wildlife.

 

The Everglades

Where: About 35 miles west of Miami via U.S. Route 41.

Why: Watch the soaring Miami skyline fade from your rearview mirror as you drive due west to Everglades National Park. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is a good spot to base your exploration of this 2,400-square-mile park — it provides ample opportunity for hiking, bicycling, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. Take a ranger-led or self-guided walking tour near the visitor center or head out on the 15-mile paved trail by bike or tram to see some of the park’s best wildlife concentrations. From the observation tower halfway along the trail, specifically, you’ll be treated to 360-degree views of the Everglades and a bird’s-eye view of the sawgrass marsh below — look for alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and snail kites.

Grunt fish under a coral reef in Key Largo, Florida Snorkelers and scuba divers have an underwater world to explore among the colorful coral reefs of Key Largo.

 

Key Largo

Where: About 70 miles south of Miami via U.S. Route 41, state Route 997 and U.S. Route 1.

Why: Get a taste of island living in Key Largo, the northernmost of the string of islands known as the Florida Keys. Key Largo is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a must-stop for marine lovers. Hop aboard one of the park’s snorkel or scuba charter boats and dive into the crystal-clear waters, where healthy reefs teem with colorful fish. Or, if you wish to stay above water, join a glass-bottom boat tour for a peek into the undersea world. As the day comes to an end, make your way to the west side of the key for the best sunset views — at Snook’s Bayside Restaurant, you can dig your toes into the sand, Frozen Key Lime Colada in hand.

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About the Author

Susan B. Barnes, aka travlin’ girl, is a travel writer who enjoys exploring the world as much as her own Florida backyard and sharing discoveries with her readers. Follow her travels online on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.