With a record-breaking 137.4 million people visiting Florida in 2022, it is clear why this Sunshine State is such a popular vacation destination. While much of its tourist industry is tied to major cities like Orlando and Miami, you may be surprised to learn how popular its small towns are with out-of-towners as well. These towns, with their attractions ranging from white sandy beaches to pristine backwater bayous, collectively lure millions of people every year. If you are looking to create memories that will last a lifetime for you and your family, here are seven of the most memorable small towns in Florida that will help you do just that.
In your search for Florida’s most memorable towns, chances are, you have heard of Crystal River. Despite having a population of just a few thousand, this Gulf of Mexico community welcomes around 300,000 visitors each year, many of whom visit during the winter to see the town’s claim to fame: its manatees. Hundreds of these “sea cows” migrate to Crystal River’s warm springs in Kings Bay during the wintertime, and the constant 72°F means manatees and humans alike are drawn to these waters. If you are wondering whether it is legal to swim with these protected animals, you are in luck: the answer is yes! Three Sisters Springs is one of the more popular spots to swim or dive with these adorable marine mammals, from November 15th through March 31st. Other companies like Explorida offer manatee viewing cruises or diving tours, depending on your preference.
Even though Crystal River is known for its manatees, nature lovers will not want to overlook its equally thrilling land-based attractions. Crystal River Preserve State Park has over 27,000 acres of gorgeous Florida landscape to explore, from towering hardwood forests to secluded mangrove islands. Cast a line, hike a trail, or head back out on the water by kayak or paddleboard. With its 20 miles of coastline, do not be surprised if you find yourself beckoned by the park’s shores. Give in to the bliss and cast off with Crystal River Preserve Adventures to experience a vibrant Florida sky on their sunset cruise.
Located deep in southern Florida, Islamorada is a village in the Florida Keys, spread across six stunning islands. Vacationers adore this tropical getaway for its sandy beaches, whose shores welcome millions of visitors every year. Anne’s Beach is one of the most visited, popular among windsurfers for its mellow waters and among animal lovers for being pet-friendly. Founders Park Beach is a great alternative if you are looking for that classic vacation spot. The water here is shallow and perfect for swimming, and there are tiki huts, picnic tables, and grills dotted around the park, making this an ideal Islamorada beach to bring the whole family.
Aside from its beaches, one of the greatest perks of this island village is the unforgettable views beneath its waters. Diving or snorkeling is exceptional thanks to the crystal clear Atlantic, granting serene views of its marine life. Book a snorkeling adventure with Sundance Watersports or Clearly Unique Snorkel & Sandbar Charters to witness the wonders of the third-largest reef system in the world.
Making our way to Florida’s east coast, Cocoa Beach is another memorable town famous for its beaches, along with a thriving surf culture. However, this spirited beach vibe was not always present. The town was settled by fishermen back in the 1860s before being devastated by a hurricane shortly after, and for a long time, the town remained desolate. This changed when a bridge was eventually built, connecting it to Florida’s mainland. Since then, Cocoa Beach and its stunning shores have drawn massive crowds looking to experience everything it has to offer.
Many like to start their visit at the Cocoa Beach pier. Extending 800 feet out over the Atlantic, it offers a lovely place to stroll and take in the ocean air. Fishing is also popular here, but if you are not looking to reel in your next meal, hit up Pier 62 Oceanfront Restaurant & Bar for fresh seafood, refreshing cocktails, and unbeatable views. The beach below has famously smooth waves, and if you plan to surf, head to The Cocoa Beach Ron Jon Surf Shop first. Whether you gear up or grab a souvenir, you can say you got it from the largest surf shop in the world. If you find the beach below the pier too crowded for your taste, Howard E. Futch Memorial Park offers a more secluded surfing spot with fewer crowds.
If you are looking for a more lowkey day trip with memorable attractions, make your way to the Florida Panhandle. DeFuniak Springs in Walton County is a one-of-a-kind town, making up for what it lacks in flashy beaches with charms you are unlikely to find anywhere else. The best part is, travelers on a budget will find that the attractions are incredibly affordable compared to other Florida destinations.
The first quirky feature of DeFuniak Springs is Lake DeFuniak, which is no ordinary reservoir. Famous for its perfectly round shape, it is one of only two spring-fed lakes in the world with this impressive symmetry. Chipley Park is where you will find this natural marvel, perfect for a day on the lake with the family. Whether you hike around its border or paddle across its 40 acres of water, you will see why it is the centerpiece of DeFuniak Springs. Also in the park, you can find the historic Walton-DeFuniak Library. Established in 1886, it is the oldest running library in Florida, making it a bucket list feature for book lovers and history buffs.
Keeping with bucket list attractions, about 30 minutes from DeFuniak Springs, Lakewood Park is home to Britton Hill–the highest point in all of Florida. The hike up this scenic 345-foot highpoint is incredibly tranquil and, like the other attractions on this list, completely free. All in all, when it comes to DeFuniak Springs, while it may not be the first town we think of for a Florida destination, it is full of pleasant surprises.
For another affordable day trip with more of a maritime vibe, we can look back to the Gulf of Mexico. Nicknamed “the Venice of the South” due to its abundant winding waterways, such as the mighty Anclote River, Tarpon Springs sets itself apart as the “Sponge Capital of the World,” supplying 70% of all natural sponges. Around one million people visit this sponge town every year for attractions like Fred Howard Park, a 155-acre beach area featuring snow-white sand, palm-dotted shores, and serene swimming areas. Entry to the park is free, though parking costs just $5 USD.
The town’s original tourist attraction is the Spring Bayou in Craig Park, and today, it serves as Tarpon Springs’ anchor. Whether you visit for a waterside stroll or manatee spotting in the winter, one look at this postcard scene is enough to see why it was this very spring that attracted the town’s original settlers. You can learn more about these Greek immigrants and their sponge diving lore at the historic sponge docks. Consider taking the St. Nicholas Sponge Diving Boat Tour for a guided cruise on the Anclote River, which includes a fascinating live sponge harvest demonstration.
Around 2 hours south of Tarpon Springs, Venice is another town paying homage to the Italian city it is named after. Originally called Horse and Chaise, the townspeople decided they wanted a shorter name, choosing “Venice” because the area’s beautiful waterways reminded settler Frank Higel of the Italian canals he experienced as a child. Take a scenic bike ride through the Venetian Waterway Park Trail to take in the sights that reminded Higel of the world-famous European city.
Florida’s Venice is also extremely memorable for its 14 miles of beaches. The shores themselves are gorgeous, but it is what you find in the sand and below the waves that makes these beaches so unforgettable. Venice is the shark tooth capital of the world, meaning you can go home with some pretty rad souvenirs. Beachcombing is popular at Caspersen Beach where shark teeth are frequently found washed ashore, along with other fascinating shells and fossils. You can extend your search for treasure to the crystal clear waters, where snorkeling is also super popular. For a deeper dive, head to Venice’s Fisherman’s Wharf Marina to book a dive with Florida West Scuba.
In the southernmost point of Florida, Key West is a town whose beauty has drawn in people from around the world, including many famous names. Among figures like Jimmy Buffet and former president Harry S. Truman, Ernest Hemingway is one of the most iconic people to have made this island town their home. Living here from 1931 to 1939, the renowned author even set his novel “To Have and Have Not” in Key West, inspired by the island’s splendor. Tour the very house where this Nobel Prize-winning author resided at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum to “walk the path of the legend.” When exploring the grounds and gardens, keep an eye out for iconic six-toed cats who are descendants of Hemingway’s own feline friend.
To understand why so many people, famous and otherwise, continue to visit Key West to this day, exploring the beaches is a must. Sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling are some of the most popular ways people spend their time at places like Fort Zachary Taylor Beach, where pine and palm trees cast a cooling shade. Smathers Beach is equally gorgeous and is by far the most popular of Key West’s shores, offering beach volleyball and rentable Hobie sailboats. Keep in mind, these beaches get pretty busy, but if you would prefer a more secluded swim or snorkel, there are plenty of ways to get around the crowds. One popular choice is Cruisin’ Tikis Key West, whose floating tiki bars make for an unforgettable experience.
Whether you’re spending the day exploring DeFuniak Springs’ one-of-a-kind landmarks or enjoying a weekend in Islamorada for a tropical getaway, there is something memorable for everyone in these Florida towns, regardless of budget or preference. Some may prefer swimming with manatees in Crystal River, while others might rather make memories on the Cocoa Beach pier. Or, perhaps you would like to step out of your comfort zone to try something new and unexpected. Ultimately, with an open mind and a spirit for adventure, any of these Florida towns can fulfill your getaway goal of having an incredible, memorable time.