Florida, the southernmost state in the continental US, is still one of my personal favorites, even after visiting 46 of them (I was collecting states before countries). But Florida is more than just Miami and Orlando! There are 12 distinct coastal regions that highlight what the Sunshine State has to offer to both vacationers and travelers.
Okay, Florida officially has two coasts (the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico), but since it has the longest coastline of the contiguous US (1,350 miles or 2,170 kilometers), it has been split into 12 different “coasts.”
Florida is an interesting state as it is a mix of cultures, and it is quite varied: a 10-hour drive separates the northwesternmost point (in Perdido Key, where I was last Spring Break) from the South (in Miami, where I go every year, usually multiple times a year). And it’s even longer to go all the way to the very end of the road in the Florida Keys.
It’s incredibly different in the North, where it really feels like the “Deep South,” with its warm and welcoming atmosphere and quieter vibe.
So there are a lot of contrasting places in the huge state. But many people don’t know because they’ve only ever been to Orlando or Miami, the very touristy, overcrowded spots. If you only stick to the areas with mass tourism, you don’t see the whole picture at all.
Florida is the only tropical place you can drive to on a roadtrip (Southern Florida has the only climate classified as tropical in the continental US), but for almost all of us, it also happens to be one of the cheapest places to fly to. We often spot affordable flights to Florida on our cheap flight deals page, and it’s one of the cheapest places for car rentals (if you follow our tips to avoid the scam of paying for car rental insurance).
I’ll share a lot more content about this destination since it is so popular and it is a great place to get yourself to the beach and the heat for a long weekend on the cheap with our tips (to keep your precious weeks off from work for international trips that will help you grow!).
For now, here are the first of the 12 Florida coasts that actually market themselves as “Something” Coast that you might not have heard of.
But we’ll start our exploration with the most well-known: we’re going to travel to the southern tip of Florida where glitz and glam meet cyan tidal waves.
1. Gold Coast
Gold Coast Overview
The “Coast” name is less used than it is in the others “Coasts.” More often called “South Florida,” “Greater Miami,” “Miami Area,” or just “Miami,” this very urban region of Florida is known for its fancy and invigorated lifestyle: the name comes from the “glittering lifestyle” in the area.
This region feels very tropical and exciting with golden-sand beaches and nightclubs where the party doesn’t stop. South Beach’s reputation precedes it. It’s why people from all around the world come here to experience the incredible mix of cultures.
I’ve been to Miami over 20 times. It is such a cool city, with many unique neighborhoods and a very strong Latin-American and Caribbean influence. Over 60% of Miami-Dade County’s population speaks Spanish at home!
There is a saying that the best thing about Miami is that it is so close to the US: it’s true that it sometimes feels less American than Latin-American. (If you really go to Miami, not in the very quiet northern suburbs: if you prefer quieter places and don’t want any culture shock, there are plenty of other areas to stay in this sprawling 6-million strong metro area.)
All that glamour and attractions come with a price, though. It’s no secret that the Gold Coast is the most expensive region of Florida.
But ironically, it can also be the cheapest place in the US to travel to if you want, don’t miss my Miami tip (subscribe to our newsletter for free).
Main Cities On The Gold Coast
Miami, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, West Palm Beach*
Airports: Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), West Palm Beach (PBI)
*sometimes considered to be part of another “coast” we’ll cover in the next part
Best Beaches On The Gold Coast
Other Gold Coast Attractions
In terms of non-beach attractions, you can visit the Perez Art Museum downtown, the Vizcaya Museum on the waterfront, a few Metrorail stations away, Jungle Island Park, and Zoo Miami. I’ll cover Miami attraction in an in-depth piece soon, including the many annual events.
For those of you who want a little break from the hustle, Biscayne National Park offers scuba diving and snorkeling to see the preserved offshore barrier reefs. The Everglades are another option.
Hollywood, just north of Miami, has delightful family-friendly beaches and a lovely “Broadwalk” (not “boardwalk”), which extends for 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) along Hollywood Beach.
Or if you want a taste of local culture, head to Delray Beach, a city district well-known for its main street, Atlantic Avenue, with boutiques, galleries, and plenty of dining options, as well as the emerging art scene.
For a more leisurely trip, Boca Raton might be the spot. It’s a city near the northern part of the Gold Coast, perfect for shopping, golfing, and eating out.
2. Emerald Coast
Emerald Coast Overview
Let’s go to the polar opposite, in every sense.
Known informally as the “Redneck Riviera” or “Northwest Florida,” the Emerald Coast is located in the Florida Panhandle (the part that isn’t a peninsula), on the Gulf of Mexico. It is named for the emerald-green waters in the area.
The Panhandle is very different from South Florida—it is 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Miami, after all—and it’s much closer to the Southern culture of neighboring Alabama. It’s basically an extension of Alabama geographically and has a laidback small-town vibe that feels like a completely different world compared to Miami.
There is a famous saying that Florida is the only place in the US where the further north you go, the more southern it gets. The Emerald Coast is known for its stunning white-sand beaches. I went for the first time this year and absolutely loved it; it’s great to experience a whole other side of this state.
Destin, Panama City Beach, Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach
Airports: Panama City Beach (ECP), Destin-Fort Walton Beach (VPS), Pensacola (PNS)
Henderson Beach State Park
Other Emerald Coast Attractions
Many dive bars and nightclubs line the coastline, which attracts clientele from the Emerald Coast and surrounding southern States. The Flora-Bama in Perdido Key near the Alabama–Florida state line (hence the name) is a particularly popular bar and music venue in this area.
The iconic Waffle House chain dominates the space between Pensacola and Panama City; it’s a Southern institution you must try at least once. Another is Chick-fil-A, although I don’t get the absurd level of hype it generates.
Like in most places in Florida, you can also enjoy eating fresh seafood and catching it, too. This area has plenty of seafood restaurants with freshly caught Gulf delicacies to enjoy. Destin, a popular fishing city, is the perfect place to go fishing and catch your own meal for the day!
3. First Coast
First Coast Overview
To finish off Part 1, let’s keep with the extremities theme.
In the Northeast corner of Florida lies the First Coast, named that way because St. Augustine is the oldest continuously-inhabited European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States. The Spanish founded the city in 1565. Nearby Fort Caroline was also established in the 16th century, but by the French.
This makes the region quite historical, with some places having beautiful old architecture. You’ll also find well-explored beaches, and a smack of modernity with the bustling city of Jacksonville.
Main Cities On The First Coast
Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Fernandina Beach
Airports: Jacksonville (JAX)
Best Beaches On The First Coast
Ponte Vedra Beach
Other First Coast Attractions
Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental US… by land area. They just merged everything around the city into the city. If you visit, maybe catch a Jaguars football game if you’re into sports. Or ride one of the earliest (and least used) monorail transit systems in the US.
Enjoy the history in St. Augustine. And off the coast is Anastasia Island, where you can visit St. Augustine Lighthouse and have 360-degree views of the island and surrounding ocean. The island also offers Spanish and French cuisine, lots of seafood options, and spicy Minorcan clam chowder!
Amelia Island further north is a beautiful nature destination, especially for bird watching. There’s also Little Talbot Island State Park with endless ocean fronts and a lovely kayak tour through the myriad waterways of marshes straight to the Atlantic Ocean.
Then there’s the Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville, which have drawn relaxation seekers for centuries. The waters stay at a soothing 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.6 degrees Celsius) and fill a municipal pool nearby for a calming and peaceful natural bath.
4-12. Get the rest of the list before everyone for free!
Winter weather is here, and Florida is always warm. If you want an escape from the cold, head to any one of these regions! You can pick based on your preferences: one of these 12 varied coastal regions will have what you’re looking for. Don’t miss the next parts.
Have you been to one of these coasts? What did you like most about it? Let us know in the comments!
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Featured image: South Beach, Miami (Photo Credit: Joël de Vriend)
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