We’re all familiar with Miami, Orlando, and the other large cities that can be found in the Sunshine State. However, some of the best Florida gems are actually the quaint small towns sprinkled throughout the peninsula. There are plenty of charming cities in Florida that visitors (and even residents) may be unaware of, so enjoy our list of the best small towns in Florida.
Our first spot, Tarpon Springs, can be found about 30 miles northwest of Tampa, on the central Gulf Coast. Tarpon Springs is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places, and the town’s historic district certainly doesn’t disappoint. Enjoy the old-fashioned brick streets while browsing shops and taking in 19th-century architecture.
The town has also been deemed the “sponge capital of the world”, so you have to head down to the Sponge Docks at some point during your stay. In fact, it was the area’s Greek immigrants that built the town’s sponge industry, and Tarpon Springs still has a rich Greek community today. Enjoy the town’s Greek culture and heritage by visiting a Greek restaurant, like Hella’s or Mykonos, where you can try favorites like saganaki, spanakopita, and souvlaki.
And since you’re in Florida, you should obviously explore the town’s beaches. But for those looking for more cultural activities, check out the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art or the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts and Cultural Center.
Another charming Florida Gulf Coast town, Dunedin can be found just over 20 miles from St. Petersburg. Dunedin is actually one of the oldest towns on the west coast of the state, and it offers plenty of coastline and a historic downtown area.
In fact, there are two beautiful state parks in the area that you can’t miss if you’re in town: Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park. Honeymoon Island State Park can be reached by car via the Honeymoon Island Causeway, and from there you can catch a ferry over to Caladesi Island State Park, which is one of the few untouched islands along the Gulf Coast.
But for those who prefer to stay on the mainland, there are plenty of ways to keep busy. You can check out the Dunedin Historical Museum, stroll around the quaint downtown, or tee up at the Dunedin Golf Club. Baseball fans can visit the TD Ballpark, which serves as the spring training location for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Dunedin is also a beautiful and charming place to call home and is one of our picks for the best places to live in Florida!
Located in central Florida, you’ll find Mt. Dora a little over 30 miles northwest of Orlando. This lovely town offers plenty of attractions, one of its main visits being Grantham Point Park. Here you will find the 35-foot Mt. Dora Lighthouse, one of the last remaining freshwater lighthouses in the state.
Mt. Dora is fittingly located on Dora Lake, and the area is surrounded by other inland lakes, like Lake Eustis, Lake Harris, and Lake Apopka. The picturesque Dora Canal connects the area’s lakes. Take a boat ride through the Harris Chain of Lakes and spot local wildlife, like herons, turtles, and perhaps even an alligator.
Once you’re back on land, head into downtown Mt. Dora, where you can check out historic buildings, stop into local shops, and enjoy the town’s diverse dining options. Or pay a visit to one of the town’s various museums and galleries, like the Modernism Museum, the Mt. Dora Historical Society Museum, or the Mt. Dora Center for the Arts.
** READ MORE: Historic Lighthouses in Florida You Can Climb for a View!
Anna Maria Island
This Florida Gulf Coast barrier island is located a little over 20 miles from Sarasota. Anna Maria Island is ideal for beach lovers, as it has some incredible stretches of coastline. Head to the Beach at Bean Point for some peace and quiet, Manatee Beach for fun with the whole family, and Coquina Beach for sunbathing and swimming. But the fun in the sun doesn’t end there: the island also boasts other beautiful beaches like Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach, and Cortez Beach.
Once you’re ready to take a break from the sun and sand, you can check out the spectacular views from the Bridge Street Pier (also known as the Bradenton Beach Pier). Be sure to try some of the delicious seafood while you’re in the area. Right next to the pier is Bridge Street, also known as the Historic Old Town District. Browse the area’s shops, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy wandering around this unique downtown area.
Punta Gorda is located right off the Gasparilla Sound/Charlotte Harbor. This peaceful town is an excellent visit for nature lovers. First off, the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center is located just south of the town. This free nature park offers educational tours and over four miles of hiking trails. Animal lovers should check out the Peace River Wildlife Center, the Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center, and the Babcock Ranch Preserve.
Some more of the town’s unique attractions include Fisherman’s Village, an open-air shopping and dining center near a picturesque marina, and Alligator Bay Distillers, a can’t-miss for rum lovers. The area also has a number of educational visits and museums, like the Blanchard House Museum, which highlights the African Americans’ contributions to the progress of Southwest Florida, and the Muscle Car City Museum, which is an excellent attraction for car buffs.
The downtown is also home to a favorite local Farmers Market every Saturday morning!
Just around 30 miles south of Sarasota you’ll find Englewood, a lovely little town on Lemon Bay. Englewood offers a relaxing getaway for people hoping to enjoy some beautiful Florida landscapes. The town has various parks, like Lemon Bay Park and Environmental Center, Indian Mound Park, and Cedar Point Environmental Park. And located less than five miles inland is the Myakka State Forest, which is excellent for bird and wildlife viewing.
In less than a 10-minute drive from Englewood, you will find yourself on Manasota Key. This is where you can explore some of the area’s best beaches, like Englewood Beach. This spacious beach has great facilities (parking included) and is conveniently located near a variety of dining options. At the far south end of the key is Stump Pass Beach State Park, where you can enjoy white sand beaches and search for shells and shark’s teeth. Or cast a line and try your luck at catching some flounder, trout, or snapper.
Venice is another charming Florida Gulf Coast getaway, located about 20 miles from Sarasota. It has some of the best beaches in the state and is in fact a premier location for shark tooth hunting. Venice is actually known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World, and Caspersen Beach, which you will find just three miles from downtown, is one of the best shelling beaches in the area. Or try your luck at finding a shark’s tooth on Venice Beach, located just a short walk from the historic downtown district.
While you certainly can’t miss the area’s beaches during your stay, there are plenty of other things to do while you’re in town. Downtown Venice dates back a century, and its historic buildings, beautiful parks, and diverse dining and shopping options offer something for everyone. If you happen to be in town on a Saturday morning, check out the Venice Farmers Market. Finally, art lovers can peruse the town’s numerous galleries.
Venice has also been voted many times as one of the most charming, affordable, and best beach towns in all of Florida!
Known as the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River is best known for being a refuge for these gentle giants. You can get up close and personal with manatees at Crystal River Wildlife Refuge: it is best to visit during the winter season (from mid-November to the end of March) if you want to take a dip with the hundreds of West Indian manatees that seek refuge in the warm waters of Crystal River.
What people may not know is that downtown Crystal River has a number of shops, restaurants, and bars. You can find all of this at just a stone’s throw from the waterfront. On top of this, Crystal River offers great fishing, golfing, hiking, and more for the most active visitors. Crystal River is located about an hour and a half north of Tampa.
Head all the way to the southern tip of the Sunshine State to find Islamorada, which is actually made up of six islands: Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, and Lower Matecumbe Key, as well as the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key. This area is a perfect destination for fishing aficionados, as this area is considered the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World. In fact, this is where backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered.
But aside from fishing charters, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy in Islamorada. The area boasts spectacular coral reefs, great for snorkeling and scuba diving, and you can even swim with dolphins at Theater of the Sea. Divers can also check out the History of Diving Museum. Or hop on a boat and head to the Alligator Reef Lighthouse, a skeleton lighthouse located 4 nautical miles east of Indian Key Historic State Park.
Cedar Key is an island city located on the northwest Florida Gulf Coast. One of its highlights is the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge, which was established in 1929, consists of 13 offshore islands and serves as a protected zone for the area’s native birds. The refuge is a great area for fishing, photography, and wildlife viewing.
Cedar Key is also a great visit for history buffs. Its quaint downtown (Cedar Key has less than 1,000 year-round residents!) offers unique shops, galleries, and restaurants, as well as two historical museums. Some other historic attractions include an abandoned pencil factory and the old cemetery on Atsena Otie Key.
If you’re just hoping to soak up some Florida rays, you have a couple of options. While there is a small stretch of sand near the marina on Cedar Key, you can charter a boat to take you to a more secluded, intimate beach on one of the area’s surrounding islands.
Winter Park is a neat town located just 20 minutes from Orlando, which is sure to provide an excellent cultural excursion if you happen to be in the area. It has various art museums, including the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. It also has a number of history museums, like the Casa Feliz Historic Home Museum and the Winter Park History Museum.
Winter Park is also a great shopping destination. The Park Avenue Shopping District offers fine dining and sophisticated shops, and each Saturday morning the town hosts a farmer’s market at the old train depot. Finally, check out some of the town’s beautiful gardens, like the Mead Botanical Garden and the Kraft Azalea Garden.
** READ MORE: 20 FREE Things to do in Florida
Boca Grande/Gasparilla Island
Boca Grande, which is located on beautiful Gasparilla Island, can be found just northwest of Fort Myers. The area is well-known for its prime fishing conditions, but there is plenty more to do on Gasparilla Island. Boca Grande beaches are beautiful, white sand stretches of coast with crystalline waters. And don’t miss the island’s two lighthouses: the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse and the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum (the latter of which is located in Gasparilla Island State Park).
Cayo Costa State Park is just a short boat ride away from Gasparilla Island. This pristine island has miles of untouched beaches and serves to protect the Charlotte Harbor Estuary. Visitors can enjoy fishing, biking, hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and more. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a sea turtle or a manatee.
St. Augustine, which stakes its claim as the oldest city in the United States, is one of the most historic visits on our list of the best small towns in Florida. It is known for its Spanish architecture and Castillo de San Marcos Fort, which is actually a national monument. You can also check out the town’s historic lighthouse and maritime museum. Another great attraction is the St. Augustine Distillery, which is housed in an old ice factory.
St. Augustine is also an excellent area for beach lovers. St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach are great places to relax and enjoy the Atlantic Ocean, or head to Anastasia State Park. This park, which is equipped with camping facilities, has over 1,600 acres of untouched beaches, along with some pretty good surfing conditions.
Ft. Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island
Located up in the Florida Panhandle, located less than 10 miles from Destin, you will find Ft. Walton Beach. This dreamy destination offers crystalline sand, emerald green waters, and more. Okaloosa Island, which can be reached from Ft. Walton Beach via the Brooks Bridge, allows visitors to try a plethora of aquatic adventures, like deep-sea fishing, jet skiing, kayaking, and more. Don’t miss the island’s picturesque fishing pier.
Okaloosa Island also offers plenty of fun for the whole family, from Wild Willie’s Adventure Zone to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. During your time in Ft. Walton Beach, you should check out the area’s various museums, like the Air Force Armament Museum and the Indian Temple Mound and Museum.
The Fort Walton Beach area is also a top pick for one of the most affordable areas to live in Florida that is not in the middle of nowhere!
We wrap our list up with another charming Panhandle town: Apalachicola. You will find this hip town some 60 miles southeast of Panama City. This quaint fishing village is an excellent place to get your seafood fix, as well as to visit various historic attractions. The Orman House Historic State Park, the Raney House Museum, the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, and the John Gorrie State Museum all offer glimpses into the area’s rich history.
Or hop on over to St. George Island, located right across the Apalachicola Bay. Here you can enjoy pristine, untouched beaches and explore Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park. For a more rustic stay, pitch tent and discover the island’s unmatched stargazing conditions.
** READ MORE: Fun Things to do in Florida
As you can see, there is plenty more Florida beauty to see outside of Sarasota, Miami, and Orlando. The best small towns in Florida are sure to deliver fun and sun on your next Sunshine State adventure.