This Florida West Coast road trip itinerary brings you soft sand, art and more. Buckle up and enjoy everything from manatees to mint-soaked cocktails. It’s one way to tackle your Florida bucket list.
Your Two Week Florida West Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Forget dear old Mickey. Florida’s Gulf Coast offers wildlife of a different kind. Gentle manatees and wild dolphins that skit through sparkling surf. Scorching pink flamingoes and American Bald Eagles.
Mile after mile of soft white sand bordered by mangroves and lifeguards. Just pull up and go for a swim, no organisation required.
Let me walk you through the exact Florida west coast fly drive I did with my husband and young toddler. After that, I’ll share the other things you could add to your Florida road trip.
- Recommended reading: how to plan a road trip by yourself
Who is this Florida itinerary for?
This Florida Gulf Coast road trip itinerary leaves time for you to slow down and enjoy life.
With a toddler, it means there’s time for naps and early bedtimes and not too much time spent in the car. There’s the chance for a run-around or swim (or both) every single day.
Restaurants are close enough to the hotels to mean that little ones won’t be too late to bed. But none of them are plastic fantastic fare.
That said, if you’re travelling without children, you could pick up the pace. You could probably spend one less night in each of the places if you’re determined to cram things in.
But pace yourself. Part of Florida’s charm involves moving slowly through her landscape, across her water. When trying to see wildlife in the, well, wild, you need time.
Day by Day Florida West Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Days 1 – 4: Crystal River
From Orlando Airport, it’s a straightforward if unspectacular drive towards the west coast. And then you get close to Crystal River, Manatee Capital of the World.
The streets drip with green, as branches fall to the floor to meet a rug of tangled tropical roots. Crystal River sits at the northernmost point of this itinerary and it resembles most people’s ideas of Louisiana’s Great River Road: all lush vegetation, grand white houses and plenty of alligators.
Make the most of jet lag by scheduling an early morning swim in the waters of Crystal River in search of manatees.
And then, explore the rest of the land around Crystal River.
- Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park, with its flamingoes, manatees and American Bald Eagles.
- The Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Museum traces back thousands of years of human activity through steep pyramids of shells that overlook the water.
- And the beaches. Try Hunter Springs Beach or Fort Island Gulf Beach.
Where to stay in Crystal River
The Plantation on Crystal River is a sprawling complex with a grand avenue of live oaks and 232 acres of green. It sits on the edge of King’s Bay and perfectly placed to arrange trips to swim with manatees.
Days 4 – 6: Clearwater
If there’s one place you MUST stop at on this section of the journey, it’s Tarpon Springs.
Laced with kitsch, this tiny fishing village is, wait for it, the sponge capital of the world.
It’s also home to a proud Greek community and the two are intertwined. Around 100 years ago, when the sponge beds were discovered here, young Greek immigrants had the skills to get them out and sell them. And if you’re really lucky, you can hop on a boat for a demonstration of how this used to be done.
It’s far more daring than it sounds.
From Tarpon Springs, it’s just a quick 20 minute drive to Clearwater.
Clearwater is a fairly built up beach town, but the work from its aquarium inspired a Morgan Freeman film. Dolphin winter lost her tail in an accident and the work from the Clearwater Aquarium resulted in a prosthetic tail to help her swim. Not only did that research fuel the development of technology for humans missing limbs but it also connected with and inspired children with illnesses and disabilities.
- Top tip: try the grouper sandwiches at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill.
Where to stay in Clearwater
The Hyatt Regency Clearwater Resort & Spa suits family travel with its spacious swimming pool and kitchenettes in rooms. With 287 rooms, it’s far from boutique but staff are friendly and rooms still feel fresh and quiet.
It’s just a short walk to the beach, local restaurants & Pier 60, the public mingling spot as the sun sets.
Days 6 – 8: St Pete
Next up is St Pete, short for St Petersburg, and awash with classy charm.
It’s only a 45 minute drive from Clearwater, making this an easy day on the road, but the characters of Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St Pete are so different that it pays to spend enough time in each one.
The Salvador Dali Museum
The razzle-dazzle feature of St Pete is the Salvador Dali Museum.
This really is a remarkable museum, with thought provoking tours, stunning architecture and better gazpacho than I had in four years of living in Spain.
Showcasing more than 100 pieces, the museum made me realise just how much of a genius Salvador Dali was. And the bright airy space made his work feel a lot less creepy: it gave it the space to breathe.
Stand in front of the Abraham Lincoln piece and see for yourself.
MORE ART IN ST PETE
But Dali isn’t the only big name in town. The Morean Arts Center hosts a permanent collection of Chihuly glasswork and lives on a whole avenue dedicated to exploring and understanding the arts.
Where to stay in St Pete
The Vinoy Renaissance St Petersburg Resort and Golf Club shocks in salmon pink as a fascinating historic hotel with a modern extension. With lavish rooms and a fantastic breakfast service, the Vinoy offers great views across the Marina. You can walk to the Dali Museum if it’s not too hot and you have time on your hands.
- Did you know? Fresh and funky Paul’s Landing restaurant claims to mark the spot where oranges first reached Florida.
Days 8 – 10: Bradenton
It’s another short drive (45 minutes) from St Pete to Bradenton but it’s the kind of drive that sums up driving in Florida. Water everywhere. Blue skies everywhere. And concrete bridges sweeping across great swathes of even more blue.
- Watch out for pelicans swooping as you make it over Highway 275.
Bradenton itself has a very different feel to the other stops on this Gulf Coast Florida itinerary.
Most visitors, I sense, zoom on past to the well-heeled sands of Anna Maria Island, leaving downtown Bradenton with a quieter, more riverside feel.
From the 1930s historic Hampton Inn & Suites, you can walk to through Bradenton’s Old Main Street and on to its new, creative Riverwalk, stopping off at Corwin’s for ice cream along the way.
Here splash pads and art installations wait just minutes from the South Florida Museum, home to a planetarium and some rescued manatees.
Further afield, a car is handy for checking out the quirky Arts Village and for making a stop at two very different foodie stops: the citrus Mixon’s Fruit Farm, which claims to serve the state’s best Reuben sandwich, and Farmhouse Donuts, which serves donuts called Sweet Squealing Pig and Cow Patties amid rustic home decor.
You can also, of course, drive to the coast to soak in the sand of the lovely Anna Maria Island.
When it’s time to drive on to Sarasota, stop off in the intriguing Manatee Village Historical Park en route for a look at how buildings used to look back in the pioneer days.
Where to stay in Bradenton
The Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton Downtown Historic District is an historic hotel with plentiful parking and an excellent location for local art, history, culture and the Riverwalk. Breakfast options are pretty simple so it’s a good time to head out for brunch.
Days 10 – 14: Sarasota and Around
It’s the shortest drive to Sarasota, at only 30 minutes or so, but you’re saving yourself for the drive back to Orlando, not to mention all the upcoming day trips. You’ll find so many unique things to do in Sarasota, making it a place well worth visiting.
But the highlights are these:
- The Ringling Museum – half museum, half Renaissance fantasy. Founded by circus magnates, John and Mable Ringling, expect to find vast art galleries, theatre performances and bayfront gardens and plan to spend the whole day here.
- The gorgeous Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the world centre for orchid and epiphyte research with tranquil gardens that overlook the bay mixed in with truly creative floral art.
- The Mote – The Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island researches endangered species and has a 135,000 gallon shark habitat.
- Get on the water at Sarasota Bay with Sea Life Encounters Cruise with Sarasota Bay Explorers We saw dolphins, osprey, crabs and snapper fish – and that’s not even the half of it.
- Reserve a day to drive inland to the moss and alligator wetlands of Myakka River State Park, stopping off in the Amish holiday enclaves of Yoder’s on the way there and Der Dutchman on the way back for a legendary slice of pie.
- Shopping – St Armand’s lines up chic eateries and concept surf stores into a compact, walkable circle (it’s another legacy of the Ringlings, through both design and the Italian statues standing on the circle.)
- Lido Beach lives just a short distance from St Armand’s, with white sand and blue water.
- Siesta Beach – ranks as the USA No. 1 beach. Its quartz sand from the Appalachian mountains leave it white and cool underfoot, and the painted lifeguard stations give its horizon an iconic, timeless feel.Beaches run for miles along Siesta Key; parking is pretty easy and access is free.
See this article on Is Sarasota worth visiting? for more about this great city.
Where to stay in Sarasota
The Hyatt Regency Resort Hotel Sarasota has beautiful views of the marina and easy parking. The swimming pool is great for kids and it’s a good base for day trips into the surrounding area.
How to end your West Coast Florida Road Trip Itinerary
If you can squeeze in an extra day then drive further south to Venice Beach.
Otherwise, it’s time to pack up the car and head back to Orlando (leave three hours to be on the safe side if you have an international flight to catch.)
I hope you enjoyed this Florida west coast road trip itinerary. Please share or bookmark and have a great time in the sunshine state!
Ideas for Other West Coast Road Trips
If you have more time available, consider visiting these key spots:
If you want to spend a few days fishing, kayaking, or birdwatching, Pine Island is the best place on Florida’s Gulf Coast for these activities. Its small-town atmosphere, combined with the tropical plants and palms, turns it into a paradise for history lovers who will feel like slipping back in time as they cross the bridge toward the island. Be prepared to be welcomed into a friendly rural community that has been living here for centuries.
Panama City Beach
The alabaster beaches, emerald waters and sunshine make Panama City Beach a popular tourist destination. It offers a bit of everything from sunbathing, fishing, dolphin and bird watching to nature exploration at nearby St. Andrews or Pier Park. Panama City Beach is also famous for its festivals, starting with the Seabreeze Jazz Festival in April and ending with the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in August.
Fort Myers Beach
Fort Myers loves its watersports. Tourists come here for kayaking and parasailing and resting on the thick layers of soft sand. The beach gradually slopes into the sea, making it a good fit for families with kids or hesitant swimmers. During the warm season, two major baseball teams occupy a part of the beach along with their fans eager to see them training. Fort Myers Beach also has the historic winter estates of Edison and Ford.
No Florida itinerary is complete without a stop in Ybor City, a picturesque neighbourhood in Tampa, which was once an important hub for the cigar industry. The historic 7th Avenue, with its brick-paved streets and wrought iron balconies reflects the multicultural heritage of the city, where Spanish, Cuban, and Italian influences are still present. Stroll around the neighbourhood to discover the many charming cafes and restaurants and take your time shopping around the local cigar stores for a scent of local history.
Marco Island houses many of the luxury resorts on the Gulf Coast. Treat yourself with a Spa treatment and enjoy the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. From canoeing and fishing to picnic facilities, this place offers you the possibility to relax far from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, plus you can visit Collier Seminole State Park.
Taking time to relax and meditate is an important part of life, and Captiva Island is a great place to do it. It’s a serene place with calm tides and soft sand, as well as golf, kayaking, boating, and taking drives along rows of giant cactuses.
Everglades National Park
Right at the southernmost tip of Florida’s west coast, you’ll find the Everglades. Only a one-hour drive from Miami,the 1.5 million acres of the Everglade National Park is one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. It gathers mangroves, freshwater sloughs, and marl prairies, as well as the Florida panther and American crocodile.
But the main attraction is the West Indian manatee. If you want to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat, then plan your trip during the winter season (November to April) when the population is at its peak.
Classic Sights for a Florida Road Trip
You won’t find these on the west coast of Florida but they are definitely worth seeing. So, if your Florida road trip has some space on the end, then consider adding these in.
This lively city on the coast of north-eastern Florida is among the oldest settlements established by the Europeans in America and a wonderful place to spend a few days. Every year, the brick-paved streets fill with tourists who come here for its white beaches and stately castles. If you are travelling with your kids, show them the breathtaking nature trails, historical reenactments, and the scary ghost tours that take place every day.
Dry Tortugas National Park
One of the greatest experiences you can have in Florida is spending a day at the Dry Tortugas National Park. An oasis combining the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico with colourful coral reefs, marine life, and tropical birds, it is accessible only by boat or seaplane, so it is usually quieter than other places in the area. Take your time to scuba dive and search for the legendary sunken treasure. And don’t forget to check out the massive coastal fortress of Fort Jefferson, which is said to be composed of over 16 million bricks.
Although today the Tamiami Trail is no longer the fastest way to travel from Tampa to Miami, in the 20th century, when it was built, it was considered a feat of human engineering. However, if you are on vacation, there is no reason to take the faster Alligator Alley trail when you can drive on this historic route that will take you across untainted natural landscapes. Start your trip at Brickell Avenue and keep going along the border of the Everglades National Park. This is the best portion of the trail so take it slow, admire the birds and the blue sky and give yourself time to meditate.
If you want to get as close as possible to the place that served as a launch pad for many of America’s space exploration programs, don’t miss the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. You will learn a lot of interesting things here, like, for example, how the International Space Station was built or how satellites are repaired. You can also meet real astronauts and even attend a launch event. But this is not all. Cape Canaveral is also known for its cruise ship port, fine restaurants and friendly hotels and inns.
The nights on Fort Pierce’s historic waterfront are spectacular, as all its restaurants, bars, and hotels start shining under the blueish-black Florida sky. One of the oldest communities on the east coast, the region is still bustling with life, offering excellent shopping opportunities and music events held inside a historic theatre.
Blue Spring State Park
Housing one of the largest springs in Florida, Blue Spring Park functions as a sanctuary for the West Indian manatee which needs warm waters to survive throughout the winter. Unlike in Crystal River, however, you are not allowed to swim with them here. On the other hand, you can practice canoeing or boating. You can even spend the night inside the reservation at one of the air-conditioned cabins or campsites on the premises.
West Palm Beach
If you are looking for a more luxurious location, the upscale shops and restaurants at West Palm Beach should offer the requisite razzle dazzle. Get ready for days spent in the sunshine of Florida’s Atlantic coast, sipping tropical cocktails and swimming in some of the bluest waters in the country. When you get bored of the beach, head to the Norton Museum of Art to see big names like Gaugin, Brancusi, or Rodin.
New Smyrna Beach
With its artistic vibe, New Smyrna Beach is a cosmopolitan town that is a favourite with surfers. It also has a reputation for strong eco-tourism.
Get ready to take the Hogwarts Express or teleport yourself to Diagon Alley. Universal Studios Florida is ready to entertain. The Transformers studio is also very popular at the moment, and a fight against the Decepticons takes place multiple times a day. Bring the kids and offer them an unforgettable cinematic adventure.
Ocala National Forest
A world-famous natural site for its wonderfully large number of bird and animal species, Ocala National Forest attracts many adventurers every year. Join the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail through scented pine forests or put on your boots and spend half a day hiking. Migratory birds circle the tops of the trees while woodpeckers keep on with their ‘chores’ on this restful, natural place.
Key Largo is all about luxury and relaxation, so be prepared to be dazzled. Scuba diving is a way of life here, and people love to go scavenging for lost treasures in the deep waters. For those less adventurous, an underwater hotel offers the opportunity to spot the dolphins without getting wet.
Travel Tips for the United States
- Leave plenty of time to arrange your visa. Most standard visas can be arranged online for a small fee but you will be checked before you board your flight.
- Get ready to tip up to 20% for things you never imagined you’d need to tip for.
- Pack a US two-pronged travel adapter.
- Pack a lightweight jumper or cardigan. Air conditioning inside can be fierce!
- Watch out for “resort fees” – extra charges from some hotels for using the pool or other facilities. Always ask at check in to get some clarity.
If you’ve heard that Miami beach is all about splurging, you’ve got it right. The whole place is upscale, with luxury shopping centres and fine restaurants. Add in the Art Deco architecture and historic landmarks and the place is a dream. For more serious pursuits, check out the Holocaust Memorial and Ancient Spanish Monastery
Daytona Beach is the motorsports beach. Here you can see the annual Daytona 500 racing event and even drive your own car on some portions of the beach if you are willing to pay a fee. If you are up for a special church service, you just need to park your car in front of the Daytona Beach Drive-In Church, turn on your radio, and select the right frequency to hear the pastor.
The ‘Venice of America’ is famous for the vast structure of waterways and canals that languish over a distance of 165 miles. Fort Lauderdale is a great place to take photos along its signature white wall which extends along the historic waterfront.
- Recommended Reading: How to Plan Your San Francisco to Santa Barbara Road Trip
On Amelia Island, you can take a guided horse ride along the shore or explore the Atlantic Ocean in search of dolphins and whales. At the end of the day, emjoy a delicious dinner close to the beach at one of the many 5-star restaurants famous for their seafood.
Sick of the beautiful but overcrowded Florida beaches? Check out Vero Beach for its small-town atmosphere and cosy shores, where you have higher chances of seeing turtles hatching and heading to the ocean. This elegant city has plenty of shops and restaurants but none of the towers that dominate Miami Beach.
More on Travel in Florida and the Deep South
- The best road trips for couples in the US
- How to put together the perfect Florida bucket list
- Driving the Great River Road in Louisiana
- Planning a road trip from New Orleans
- The best road trip itinerary through Alabama
Disclosure: We worked in partnership with some great companies to help put this trip together, while always keeping the right to write what we want, the way we want, of course (it gets a bit pointless otherwise.) If you book through links on this page, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.