The Ultimate Guide to Florida's West & East Coast Beaches
By Kara Chalmers
Take this quick trip around the Sunshine state to find your perfect beach on Florida's Gulf of Mexico and east coast.
National Seashore and snow-white dunes
This region is home to Gulf Islands National Seashore, which encompasses miles of beaches from Florida’s border to the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island. While 80 percent of this protected area lies under water, the rest is snow-white beaches, coastal marshes and maritime forests. Perdido Key is home to part of this Seashore. This hidden island retreat offers luxury condominiums, award-winning Florida east coast beaches and an abundance of peace and quiet.
Nearby Pensacola Beach, which occupies part of Santa Rosa Island, has two lively beach parks – Casino Beach and Quietwater Beach. The Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier extends across emerald water and offers breathtaking views of the shoreline and sunsets.
Destin/Fort Walton Beach
Sea oats and dolphins on the Emerald Coast
The Destin/Fort Walton Beach area, also known as the Emerald Coast, is a top destination. Its beaches offer snow-white, powdery sand and crystal-clear water great for swimming or snorkeling.
Fun, family-friendly and amenity-packed east coast of Florida beaches include John C. Beasley Park; Newman C. Brackin Wayside Park (the Boardwalk), situated on the Gulf side of Okaloosa Island; James Lee Park; and Ross Marler Memorial Park, located on the Okaloosa Island’s bayside Intracoastal Waterway.
Henderson Beach State Park is characterized by gleaming stretches of pure white sand, dunes and sea oats, and you can often see dolphins swimming in the emerald waters offshore.
Clean, cute beach towns on the Gulf
Sixteen beach communities, four state parks and a state forest make up this area. Soft white sand, emerald water and tall dunes along the coast are complemented by charming beach towns including WaterColor, Grayton Beach and Rosemary Beach. Coastal lakes, which are unique to this part of the world, can be found here. See urban planning history in Seaside.
Sandestin is a family-friendly beach resort alive with activity.
Panama City Beach
Family and barrier beach fun
This coastal area, with its powder-white sands and emerald-green waters, is popular with both families and divers, who call the area the “Wreck Capital of the South.” At Camp Helen State Park, two bodies of water (the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell) surround the park, providing superb wildlife viewing. St. Andrews State Park features pristine shoreline and lots of amenities. There is also Shell Island, a barrier island you can get to by water shuttle.
At Panama City Beach and Pier, take advantage of all kinds of water sports as well as one of the most popular Florida east coast beaches. Afterward, refresh at one of the many eateries -- or go shopping -- at Pier Park, right across the street.
Apalachicola/Port St. Joe
Unspoiled, unharried beaches
Think of Apalachicola and oysters come to mind. Here, at Indian Pass, there’s an oyster lagoon that’s known worldwide, as well as a broad beach that’s serene and uncrowded, as many in this region are. From here, you can boat to the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge or one of the other pristine barrier islands off the Apalachicola coast. This region is also home to the Cape San Blas beach, located on St. Joseph Peninsula, which contains unspoiled Florida east coast beaches within several beach parks. For a secluded beach oasis, head to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park at the tip of the peninsula.
Apalachee Bay Region
Horseback riding and bird watching
The beachy area here – located about an hour’s drive south of Tallahassee and composed of several small islands – is well known for its scalloping and fishing. Two wildlife refuges protect most of this coastline. The area offers boating, fishing, scalloping, biking and even horseback riding along the water’s edge. Keaton Beach, a laid-back, small town, features a wild, natural public beach with a boat ramp and fishing pier. At Hagan’s Cove, shallow Gulf waters and grass flats provide wonderful bird watching.
Scalloping along secluded coastline
This coastal region may not have big stretches of sandy beach, but the undeveloped landscape here has a beauty and serenity all its own, plus a few pocket east coast of Florida beaches. Utterly charming, walkable Cedar Key is home to a small, peaceful beach at City Park.
The Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by boat and great for bird watching, offers wildlife viewing and fishing. From Steinhatchee’s pristine shoreline, set out for the shallow grass flats in the Gulf of Mexico for some of Florida’s best scalloping and fishing.
Freshwater springs meet the Gulf
The Crystal River area, which calls itself “Florida’s Nature Coast,” is known for its shallow, grassy flats in the Gulf of Mexico, which translates to superb fishing and scalloping in the summer. But there are also some beaches here. Best bets for sandy shores are at Fort Island Gulf Beach (Crystal River’s only saltwater beach), Rogers Park, Alfred McKethen/Pine Island Park and Linda Pedersen Park, which has all sorts of amenities including an observation tower overlooking the Gulf, as well as natural, freshwater springs. Jenkins Creek Park features waterways leading to the Gulf, a boat launch and fishing pier.
Tampa Bay Area
Miles of beaches near big city lights
Mention Tampa, and most people think of such big-city luxuries as shopping, hip restaurants and nightlife. However, Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico provide miles and miles of shoreline for this area – in particular, the family-friendly beach parks of Anclote River Park and Robert J. Strickland Memorial Park. Catch a stunning sunset at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park, located on an island west of New Port Richey. At E.G. Simmons Park on Tampa Bay, the beach is surrounded by mangroves and nearby swamps, which provide plenty of opportunities to check out local flora and fauna.
Pristine islands and top-rated beaches
Fort DeSoto Park offers unspoiled sandy beaches, multi-use trails, camping areas, a historic fort, fishing piers and kayak rentals. The Park repeatedly wins awards for being one of the best beaches in the country.
The St. Pete/Clearwater Area is also where you’ll find Caladesi Island State Park, Egmont Key State Park and Shell Key Preserve – islands with pristine, gorgeous east coast Florida beaches accessible only by boat.
On the other end of the beach spectrum, the wildly popular and lively Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach offers free, nightly sunset celebrations, as well as a town that your whole gang will love.
From Clearwater Beach at the north end of the island to St. Pete Beach at the southern tip, you’ll find beaches thick with white sand, bordered by placid, emerald-hued waters.
A variety of small towns with an old-Florida flavor are snuggled alongside these beaches, including Madeira Beach and Treasure Island.
St. Pete Beach is a bustling city with an abundance of Gulf-front accommodations, as well as beaches.
Quartz sand and sharks’ teeth
Clear, cerulean and calm best describe the beaches of Sarasota and Bradenton.
Anna Maria Island is a serene, seven-mile long sliver of sugar-sand, sans high rises or chain restaurants, but rich in natural beauty and old-time charm.
Family-friendly fun can be found at the amenity-packed (north to south) Manatee Public Beach, Lido Beach and Siesta Beach, known the world over for its blindingly white, velvety soft quartz sand and crystal clear waters. In the south end of the barrier island chain that is strung along this beachy region is a not-to-be-missed beach spot: Casey Key’s North Jetty Park.
Venice-area beaches are treasure troves of prehistoric, fossilized sharks’ teeth and shells.
Blind Pass Beach is a little-known, locals’ favorite for treasure hunting.
Isolated beaches on quiet islands
This area is known for pristine beaches bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The shoreline is perfect for shelling and reconnecting with nature.
Manasota Key has great beaches, and lots of locals’ restaurants. At Stump Pass Beach State Park, undeveloped, secluded shores await. Family-friendly Englewood Beach/Chadwick Park features a wide, sandy beach.
Upscale and off-the-beaten path, luscious Gasparilla Island overlooks one of the world’s best tarpon-fishing locales. Don Pedro Island State Park, Little Gasparilla Island and Palm Island are hidden gems, perfect for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the everyday world.
You can experience Charlotte Harbor itself at the well-equipped Port Charlotte Beach Park.
Shells and stunning sunsets
Sanibel Island and its tiny sister Island of Captiva are famous for their world-class shelling and natural beaches. Neither have high rises, chain stores or restaurants, or traffic lights. Yet in this lush, eco-friendly paradise, you’ll find an abundance of accommodations, unique eateries and shops, guaranteed to please your whole posse.
Fun Fort Myers Beach offers beach-goers groomed white sand, jet skiing, parasailing, windsurfing, sailing and water skiing, as well as a quintessential beach town and pier.
Just south, nature abounds at Lovers Key State Park, which boasts world-class shelling, fishing, bird watching and waterways to explore by canoe or kayak.
Naples and Marco Island
Stylish towns near sparkling water
This area is known as the “Paradise Coast” for its breathtaking beaches featuring powdery white sand, gently swaying palm trees and inviting blue waters. Naples Municipal Beach, a vibrant, bustling beach with a fishing pier great for watching the sunset, is one example.
But many of the area’s beaches are also wonderful places to spot wildlife, including manatees and bald eagles. Both award-winning Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park feature terrific nature trails.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass' major draw is its beach; at Tigertail Public Beach, there are boardwalks, butterfly gardens and tidal pools filled with sea life.
Florida Keys/Key West
Beaches near snorkeling heaven
This string of islands is best known for fantastic snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing, since they run parallel to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. The area isn’t renowned for its beaches, but there are some places to get some sand between your toes.
Bahia Honda State Park is home to several stunning and award-winning beaches.
Sombrero Beach in Marathon is likewise lovely, a curve of turquoise water framed by palms.
The southernmost island, Key West, is home to several beaches, including Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. It offers a white-sand/rock/shell beach, clear, turquoise water, lush vegetation and views of breathtaking Key West sunsets.
Miami is home to the world-renowned South Beach, but the celebrities and models aren’t all that’s beautiful. South Beach has white sands, swaying palm trees and whimsically painted lifeguard stands, all just steps away from hip shopping, restaurants and nightclubs.
However, Miami also boasts a number of amenity-packed, family-friendly beaches. Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park Beach, Matheson Hammock Park and Marina and Homestead Bayfront Park are but a few. In the Miami region, the Atlantic Ocean merges with the Caribbean Sea. The sand is soft and white and the water nearly clear aqua.
For awe-inspiring beauty, head to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, ranked one of the country’s best beaches.
Stylish beaches for couples and families
Fort Lauderdale, which provides the ultimate in beach vacations, draws visitors from all over the world seeking sandy shores and warm, sparkling Atlantic waters. There are beaches for families, for couples seeking romantic getaways and for active, adventurous types looking for water sports or beachfront promenades on which to inline skate, bike or jog. Snorkelers and divers should head to Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, where it’s possible to swim out to a reef from the beach. Less-bustling beaches can be found in Deerfield Beach. At Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park, hike along nature trails and canoe among the mangroves during breaks from swimming, snorkeling and sunning.
The Palm Beaches
Social networking at quiet parks
Its name says it all: Palm-lined, expansive beaches with warm, shimmering blue waters are the main draw to this area, which is also famous for high-end shopping, trendy restaurants and striking waterfront mansions. In North Palm Beach County, you’ll find several unspoiled, sea-oat-dappled beaches, including the Juno Beach Park and Pier, a great spot to fish and swim.
Singer Island claims the county’s only state park, MacArthur Beach Park, which welcomes guests with a glorious sweep of unfettered sand, as well as trails, kayaking and numerous ranger programs.
In Palm Beach itself, you’ll find Palm Beach Municipal Beach as well as R.G. Kreusler Park, where a manicured lawn with palm trees adjoins the beach, providing shade for sunbathers.
Make sure to check out Delray Beach on the south end of the county, heralded by USA Today and Rand McNally as ‘the most fun small town in America.” It boasts all the amenities of a big city wrapped up in an artsy village, all kinds of watersports, and a lush, latte-hued beach.
Fort Pierce/Vero Beach/Jupiter Island/Stuart
Geography makes the beach
This region possesses outstanding golden-shored beaches. Some are lively and packed with families while others are pristine, with nature trails leading to secluded shores. The area is known for its offshore shipwrecks, which present spectacular diving opportunities, as well as for Sebastian Inlet State Park, where some of the best surfing in Florida can be found. Don’t miss Bathtub Reef Beach, beloved by families for the offshore reef that helps to create a warm, shallow lagoon free of ocean currents. Make sure to discover one of Florida’s most unique beaches at Blowing Rocks Preserve. At high tide, the waves hit the limestone rock outcroppings at the shoreline, sending water up through holes in the rock.
Surfing and beach blasts
This area’s beaches are famous for having great waves and the awesome, huge Ron Jon Surf Shop, which can outfit visitors to ride said waves.
Those who don’t wish to experience surfing firsthand can watch the pros from a beach chair at the Cocoa Beach Pier, a historic landmark with a beach famous for surfing, sunning, swimming and people-watching. However, this area is also chock-full of undeveloped shores that are striking in their natural beauty. Check out the peaceful Canaveral National Seashore. And don't miss Lori Wilson Park, which features a boardwalk that winds through hardwood forest.
Daytona Beach/New Smyrna Beach
A typical beach day in this area could include biking on the sand, riding first-rate waves or surf-fishing. And on many of the area’s beaches, you can drive your car right out onto them.
Offerings include relatively quiet Ormond-by-the-Sea, as well as Daytona Beach – the center of this region’s action – where you can sun, surf, swim and then stroll along the old-fashioned boardwalk and fishing pier. Ponce Inlet’s beach features Lighthouse Point Park, which has nature trails and an observation tower.
New Smyrna Beach is famed for its surfing, and offers a village brimming with mom and pop stores, a vibrant arts community, and a variety of one-of-a-kind eateries.
Flagler Beach/Palm Coast
Quiet on the East Coast
You’ll find fewer crowds here than in neighboring coastal regions, and the beaches are unique and wide, thick with sand that’s the color of cinnamon. At Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, waves have washed away the sand, exposing coquina rock and creating a picturesque, boulder-strewn beach in one section, which is perfect for exploring tidal pools. Flagler Beach and Pier offers fishing and surfing, and you won’t want to miss the utterly unique village: its flavor is laid-back, whimsical and colorful.
Just south of town, you’ll find Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, that promises a peaceful beach as well as kayaking, fishing, ranger programs and more.
Strong links to history
St. Augustine area beaches are characterized by towering sand dunes (often with boardwalk walkovers to protect them) and unspoiled, golden, shell-strewn Atlantic shores. Head to the gorgeous coquina sand beach at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, or to Anastasia State Park, Crescent Beach or Fort Matanzas National Monument to experience all that this coastal region has to offer. Choose from some of the most outstanding beachfront resorts in the country in Ponte Vedra, or check out the quiet beach town of Vilano Beach. Experience St. Augustine Beach from its main entrance point at the St. Johns County Ocean Pier, home to a beachfront park.
Or climb St. Augustine Lighthouse for a better view.
“First Coast” beaches
A favorite of beach and nature lovers, not to mention surfers, this region is home to beaches with a wide range of personalities. Vibrant Jacksonville Beach encompasses some 60 blocks along the Atlantic Ocean, encompassing a pier, boardwalk and concert pavilion. Drive north and you’ll discover the side-by-side beaches of Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach, anchored by a brick-paved village that’s made for walking.
Venture farther up the coast and you’ll find Amelia Island, which features miles of seashore lined with soaring, sea-oat-speckled sand dunes.
Here, you can visit Fort Clinch State Park, the northernmost beach park on Florida’s Atlantic coast, and American Beach, a historic site on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA