Compile your perfect Florida bucket list with these fabulous ideas on how to find the best of the Sunshine State.
Your Perfect Florida Bucket List
I'm often asked which place in the world surprised me the most. And my answer, perhaps surprisingly, is Florida. Why? Well, where to begin.
The sparkling water and white sand beaches? No, you've probably heard of them. The world famous resorts? They're great but hardly a surprise.
No, fasten your seatbelts for this collection of amazing things to do in Florida. From archaeological remains to pristine beaches, world class art and world leading research centres. Even a touch of Hollywood. Let me explain what I think should be on your Florida bucket list.
Planning a Trip to the US
Don't forget that you need to arrange your ESTA visa in advance if travelling from the UK. You can do this yourself online or, for greater peace of mind, you can use a company like Estaform.org who will manually check your application before you pay your fee.
Florida Road Trip
Perhaps it's a cheat to start like this, but the first port of call on any Florida bucket list should be a road trip. The Sunshine State is made for exploration behind the wheel. Parking is free and easy almost everywhere and you can drive right up to the beach or into the parks. You can stay cool and load up with music and snacks.
- Here's our favourite west coast Floriday itinerary
Florida Bucket List for Art
Art may not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to the highlights and must-see attractions of Florida. But it's high time that changed. Florida has some spectacular museums. Here are the best ones to add to your Florida bucket list.
The Dali Museum
The Salvador Dali museum in St Pete stands out not only for its art but also for its architecture. It's made of swooping, swerving stone curves on the outside and contains over 100 pieces of work from Dali himself inside.
The place runs regular guided tours and also has a fantastic Spanish-themed cafe inside. What's not to love?
Officially called the Morean Arts Center, residents of St Pete talk about it as "the Chilhuly." Over on the Gulf Coast, this monument to flamboyant glass artwork mesmerises even the most jaded of traveller.
The Ringling Museum of Art is a world-class museum with a history that started in 1931 with John and Mable Ringling. Using wealth they had built from the circus, they created Florida's largest art museum, housed in a bright pink Italianate setting.
The museum's collection includes a range of European paintings, drawings, and prints from the Middle Ages to the present, as well as Asian art from China, Korea and Japan
Florida Bucket List for the Great Outdoors
Think Florida is all palm trees and sandy beaches? Think again. I mean, you will find those and they will be stunning. But you'll also find mangrove swamps and bayous, crystal rivers and landscaped gardens. Hiking boots at the ready for the Great Outdoors Florida Bucket List.
If you like the outdoors and wildlife, stick the Everglades National Park firmly onto your Florida bucket list. I have heard of the place for years and yet it is still one of the few places on this list of Florida must-see attractions that I haven’t yet seen in person.
So why do people recommend it? The Everglades National Park is a subtropical wetland in southern Florida with a vast ecosystem that includes sawgrass prairies, pinelands and mangrove forests. They’re one of the largest wilderness areas in North America, with endangered species and relatively easy to access from the main airports.
Withlacoochee State Trail
The Withlacoochee State Trail is a paved, multi-use trail that runs for over 100 miles from U.S. 41 in northern Citrus County to State Road 44 in Pasco County (aka the Nature Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. )
It is the only state-designated multi-use trail in Florida and is open to walkers, cyclists, and horse riders. You’ll also find many campsites and fishing spots along the way.
Sponge Diving in Tarpon Springs
Well, it's not exactly a wildlife adventure but it is outdoors and it is fascinating. Tarpon Springs on Florida's Gulf Coast has an abundance of natural sponge under its deep blue water.
For years, this valuable commodity required skilled divers and the US didn't have enough. So skilled divers from Greece gathered here, became American and harvested the sponge.
Today, you can head out on a boat and watch people repeat the process that began here around 100 years ago. It's a jaw-dropping feat that belongs on any Florida bucket list.
Myakka State Park
If you know Florida as a place full of palm trees and the ocean, then it may be surprising to hear about a state park with subtropical hardwood forests, wetlands and alligators. But if you want to experience the diversity of Florida, Myakka State Park is a perfect destination.
The park is a vast habitat for over 500 species of birds and animals, including alligators and other reptiles. The alligator population in the park is one of the largest in North America. The wetlands are an important part of the ecosystem that provide homes for many species that cannot live anywhere else on earth.
As a visitor, you can take a boat tour across the water and get up close, but not too close, with the alligators.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
This gorgeous spot, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, lives on Key Largo in south Florida. It's a great spot for scuba diving or snorkelling amid the coral reefs. Or, if you don't fancy getting wet, you can take a tour on a glass bottom boat and see the fish that way.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Travel 70 miles west of Key West to reach the open water Dry Tortugas National Park. Seven small islands lie dotted amid the 100 square miles of water but along with the snorkel and boating opportunities, you'll also find a rust red building. Fort Jefferson is one of the largest 19th century forts in the States and it, along with the rest of the park, is only accessible by boat or seaplane.
Ocala National Forest
North of Orlando, Ocala National Forest stands out for its sand pine scrub and springs. You can canoe amid picturesque sounding names like Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Salt Springs. Hikers, meanwhile, can take the Yearling Trail past the remains of 19th century homesteads.
Florida Caverns State Park
As the name suggests, you head underground at the Florida Caverns State Park into the only state park in Florida with cave access. Truthfully, caves are not really my thing but I'm reliably told that the place should belong on your Florida bucket list.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is a protected area in the U.S. state of Florida, located about 100 miles offshore of Miami, within a large section of the Middle Florida Keys.
The sanctuary is a long and narrow system of reefs and shallow water habitats that run along the continental shelf from Key Largo to Key West. The sanctuary provides protection from fishing, boating and other disruptions for seventeen endangered species, including, including sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and whales.
The sanctuary was established by Presidential Proclamation 8031 on September 14, 1990 to preserve and protect one of America's most unique ecological regions. While its scientific value is well documented, it was also singled out for its cultural and economic contributions to American heritage.
Florida Bucket List for Wildlife
Research, conservation and just plain old love for animals combine across Florida. You'll be amazed by the wealth of different opportunities and activities to put on your Florida bucket list when it comes to wildlife.
Swimming with Manatees
Ethical and responsible swimming with manatees is one of the greatest success stories in conservation. The most popular place to swim with manatees is in Crystal River, on the western Gulf Coast.
Responsible tourism here has turned around declining populations due to partnerships between hotels and tourists combined with convincing residents to slow down their speedboats.
You can read what it's really like to swim with manatees here.
Marine Discovery at the Mote
A visit to the Mote was one of the highlights of many amazing things to do in Sarasota. The Mote Aquarium itself is an independent, not for profit marine research organization with an aquarium that's open every day of the year.
But what really earns it a place on this Florida bucket list is the Sealife Encounters tours it runs. Open to all, from couples to families, you board a boat and travel with a marine biologist, scooping out marine life for education and then returning them to the sea. Dolphins skim and swim alongside and, well, it's just a fantastic way to spend the afternoon.
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is one of the oldest and largest butterfly conservatories in the world.
The nonprofit environmental organisation is dedicated to conserving native Florida butterflies and their habitats by "reducing the loss of habitat that sustains them." The Conservatory provides a home for more than 500 species of live butterflies representing 40 different families. You'll find more than 10,000 square feet of indoor space filled with live butterfly exhibits, educational programs, nature trails, and more. The Conservatory also has an outdoor area with a rainforest garden filled with tropical plants where, if you stay still, butterflies will land on your hand, hair and even face.
Dolphin Research Center
The Dolphin Research Center is an educational facility in the northernmost part of Key Largo, Florida and one of the largest centres in the world for dolphin research and conservation. The facility was created by the late Joe Gerstein and opened on December 27th, 1971.
Since then, it has been a popular tourist attraction and a major contributor to worldwide efforts to protect dolphins and other marine mammals.
It mixes work with fun through interactive sessions with the dolphins and makes for a thought-provoking visit.
Laura QUinn Wild Bird Sanctuary
Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary is a Florida bucket list spot for anyone who loves birds.
The sanctuary was founded in the 1980s by the late Laura Quinn and her husband, Bob, as a place to rehabilitate injured or endangered birds. Today, it's the largest nonprofit of its kind in the nation and one of Florida's most popular attractions. But it wasn't always that way.
In fact, when Laura first envisioned her sanctuary, she had no idea how it would be received: "I thought people would think we were strange and they would laugh at us," she recalls.
Today, you can find over 100 species of birds from all over the world in one spot: the sanctuary.
Marine Mammal Conservancy
The Marine Mammal Conservancy is a group of wildlife enthusiasts who take care of injured, stranded, or endangered marine mammals and give the marine mammals a better and safer life.
Located in the Florida Keys, the Marine Mammal Conservancy was founded in 1980 by a group of concerned citizens who were disturbed about the state of marine mammal populations. The organisation has grown with the help of many volunteers and supporters, and has been able to protect an area of more than 22 square miles.
In addition to educating others about marine life, they have been able to rescue more than 3,000 animals from being stranded or entangled in nets.
Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Looking for something to keep you occupied at Halloween for your Florida Bucket List? Try the Seacrest Wolf Preserve, a not for profit conservation group dedicated to saving these canine adventurers.
Florida Bucket List for Beaches
Florida's 1000 miles of sandy coastline make it a prime destination for both fishing and surfing and lazing around by the water. Throw in jet skiing and snorkelling and you have yourself a good time! Here are the best beaches for your Florida bucket list.
Sunset Key, an Island off Key West
Florida has no shortage of pretty beaches but the finest sunsets I ever did see took place over, wait for it, Sunset Key. Just a short boat ride from ever popular Key West, Sunset Key is a tiny spot with a resort and guest cottages.
If you do plan to add this to your Florida Bucket List, make sure to time it around sunset ;-)
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda notches up plenty of awards when it comes to beaches and it's easy to see why. The palm-fringed soft sand looks as though it's come straight from a magazine brochure. When in fact, it's the other way around.
It's easily accessible by road in the Keys, but that does mean that you'll have a view of the road as well...
Siesta Beach near Sarasota on the West Coast has some of the coolest sand in Florida. No, that's not a joke. It really is sand that doesn't get hot. Carried down from the Appalachian mountains, the sand here not only looks pretty but it's comfortable too.
South Beach is a neighbourhood in the city of Miami which is famous for its Art Deco architecture and nightlife scene. It runs along the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean between 5th and 14th Streets and was one of the first places in America to host a bikini contest. Make of that what you will!
Florida Bucket List Landmarks
In leafy, alternative Key West, you can visit where Hemingway used to live and revisit the era of his words. The house is now a museum, reassuringly, so you don't need to lurk around someone else's home.
A painted concrete buoy marks the southernmost point of the United States in Key West. And, cheesy though it may be, it deserves a place on your Florida bucket list for the iconic shot of you standing next to it.
Mallory Square at Sunset
More an experience than a landmark, no Florida bucket list would be complete without spending the evening in Mallory Square, Key West at sunset. To the sound of men playing conch shells, watch street entertainers and eat, drink and be merry.
Key West Lighthouse
As the most visible symbol of Key West, a visit to the lighthouse should be on every Florida bucket list. It can be seen from 25 miles away and it stands at an elevation of 40 feet. Constructed in 1825 and still in use today, this white-washed brick round tower with a red lantern on top makes a perfect photo stop.
Florida Bucket List for Gardens
It is no surprise that Florida is blessed with a number of different gardens perfect for a quick escape. From the subtropical gardens of the Miami area to the cooler waterfalls in Central Florida, this state lives up to its name when it comes to flowers. Here are the best gardens to add to your Florida bucket list.
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens are, as you might guess, a botanical garden in Lake Wales, Florida. The tower is a major landmark on Tampa Bay, visible from more than 20 miles away.
The gardens were founded by Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant who was one of the most influential journalists of his time. He admired how European cities had beautiful, manicured parks that invited people to come together and enjoy themselves without barriers of race or class.
Marie Selby Gardens
The Marie Selby Gardens are a botanical garden and art museum in Sarasota, Florida. They were established in 1929 and contain the world's largest collection of orchids and other epiphytes.
The five-acre garden features more than 5,000 varieties of plants from around the world as well as sculptures by such artists as Isamu Noguchi and Joan Miró.
But the real attraction is the sheer beauty and creativity of the place. Read here about how the Marie Selby Gardens will surprise you.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens was built in 1916 by James Deering, a wealthy industrialist, as his private estate on the shores of Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, Florida. The house is surrounded by formal gardens that are now owned and operated by the Miami-Dade County Parks Department.
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens has been called “the crown jewel of Miami’s cultural landscape”. This is not only because it contains some of the most important art ever assembled in Florida, but also because it provides a window into an era when Miami was one of America’s most glamorous cities. John Singer Sargent's monumental painting Gassed earned Vizcaya international fame back in the day.
Florida Bucket List for Theme Parks
If anyone knows how to do a theme park well, it's Florida. Buckle up and visit some of the world's best...
Walt Disney World
What Florida bucket list would be complete without a mention of the one and only Walt Disney World? As possibly the most famous theme park in the world, meet Mickey and the gang besides Cinderella's castle, zoom along rollercoaster rides and finish the evening with fireworks. These days, it's not only children who love it there. Millennials are visiting all on their own.
Step into the world of Harry Potter and magic at Universal Studios Resort near Orlando. Then cool off in the water theme park.
Kennedy Space Center
Use the lovely Cocoa Beach as a base and explore the world of the stars at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Try your hand at some astronaut training, wander past space memorabilia and let your imagination run wild in the two IMAX theatres.
Florida Bucket List for Cities
While Florida isn't obviously a place for city lovers, she has more than you might expect.
Miami is the largest city in Florida and the eighth-most populous city in the United States. Heck, Will Smith even wrote a song about it.
It's a cool, beach city on a sub-tropical peninsula, perfect for parties and being seen to be seen.
Orlando is the theme park city, with many families basing themselves here for theme parks and theme parks alone.
Yet the food scene in Orlando is also its own thing and it's worth exploring beyond the land of Universal and Disney.
Sarasota is real hidden gem that absolutely belongs on your bucket list. It's right by pristine beaches and world class marine and plant research. Plus, it's beautiful all by itself. Read about why you should visit Sarasota here.
West Palm Beach
West Palm Beach is a city that comes highly recommended, with cultural attractions, theatres, opera and, as the name suggests, a great beach.
St Petersburg should be crowned the arts capital of Florida for the Salvador Dali museum alone, but it shows off a little by adding even more. Look out for the historic pink hotel in the colour of PeptoBismol, as well as the arts district and, arguably, the home of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Fort Lauderdale lies just north of Miami and claims its spot on the Florida Bucket List as the yachting capital of the state. It's also big on golf and a key hub for the cruise industry, so from here, you can see the world.