Craving the warmth of the Sunshine State, but can't stomach the idea of spending your vacation at a theme park? Florida is well-known for its amusement parks, but it is not -- and should not be -- defined by them. Even outside of the ever-popular Miami and the state's 663 miles of beaches, Florida has lots more to offer, if you know where to look. Whether it's an epicurean scene that can battle out the best of Epcot's Food and Wine Festival or animal encounters that are far more natural than at Busch Gardens, we've picked out the best Florida vacations for theme park haters. And don't worry, we won't waste your time with the obvious stuff, like South Beach -- or any beach for that matter. Don't forget to pack your sunscreen, appetite, and adventurous spirit because these trips are just as magical as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Tampa Bay may have its own set of theme parks, like Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, but this hip hideout is also home to a delicious culinary scene. Newer installments, such as the 73,000-square-foot Armature Works and the smaller Hall on Franklin, have a food hall with top-notch stalls, coffee shops, and bars. These trendy spots feel reminiscent of spaces like New York’s Chelsea Market and Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Armature Works’ Heights Public Market also offers pop-up cooking classes, wine tastings, and more.
Looking for the tried-and-true local favorites? Bern’s Steak House is practically a rite of passage for folks in the area. The wine cellar is legendary, with close to 7,000 different labels (including around 1,000 dessert wines), plus there are over 50 desserts served in the restaurant’s dedicated dessert room. Plus, did we mention the Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa? For an award-winning taste, go to Columbia in Ybor City, where they’ve been slinging Cubanos and other Cuban specialities for over 100 years.
For additional eats and drinks, check out happy hour at Haven in South Tampa, the Floridian fare over at Ulele, and over 40 wines at Wine Exchange in Hyde Park. More of a beer person? Tampa is filled with breweries. Take your pick with tours and tastings at Cigar City Brewing (famous for their Jai Alai beer), Florida Avenue Brewing Co., Coppertail Brewing Co., and more. You won’t go hungry or thirsty in this town.
Where to Stay: The 137-room Epicurean Hotel features chic and modern interiors accented with a culinary theme. Multiple dining and drinking options include a restaurant, rooftop bar, patisserie, and wine shop. We love the food-themed spa treatments and excellent Epicurean Theater, a demo kitchen where you can partake in cooking classes and tastings.
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Just south of Tampa Bay lies St. Petersburg, one of Florida’s more recent hits. This creative city has blown up over the last 10 years, thanks to some heavy investments and developments from locals and NYC folks, though somehow it still remains faithful to its art core.
Although The Dali Museum, which holds the highest number of the painter’s work outside of Europe, and the Chihuly Collection are two of the city’s biggest attractions, there are over 20 top-quality museums and galleries spread around town. Some of our favorites include the Museum of Fine Arts, The Florida Holocaust Museum, Morean Arts Center, and Great Explorations, a hands-on museum for children. There are also several weekend artist markets, tons of street murals, and plenty of ways to interact with your own inner artist. For live music, check out performances by The Florida Orchestra, hop into one of the local dive bars such as The Bends or Iberian Rooster, or pull up a patio chair at one of downtown’s many local watering holes, where live tunes are often a guarantee.
Where to Stay: TheHollander Hotel is a 96-room boutique property smack in the middle of downtown St. Petersburg. Built in 1933, it mixes an eclectic style with Old Florida charm, without a lot of frills. There’s a small spa, an outdoor pool area with cabanas and a poolside bar, and a restaurant and bar with live entertainment on the weekends. Full kitchens are available in King Suites, and Standard Rooms come with mini-fridges, coffeemakers, microwaves, and free Wi-Fi.
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If you like your history with a side of hip amenities, head to St. Augustine. Claimed by the Spanish in 1565, it’s dubbed the oldest city in the United States — previous Native American presence notwithstanding, of course. In fact, it’s the site of the first Thanksgiving. Today, you’ll find gorgeous Spanish colonial buildings, beautiful beaches, and a surprisingly trendy scene here.
Flagler College helps keep the town young, plus a handful of local breweries like Dog Rose Brewing Co., Ancient City Brewing, A1A Ale Works, and Old Coast Ales fuels locals, coeds, and tourists alike. Meanwhile, The Hyppo serves up creative craft popsicles, perfect for battling the Florida heat. You can also sink your teeth into some delicious dishes like pickled pepper shrimp at The Floridian, freshly baked biscuit sandwiches at Maple Street Biscuit Company, or Minorcan chowder from Catch 27 and O’Steen’s Restaurant.
Work off the calories by exploring the cobblestone street and city’s history. Popular places of interest include the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17-century stone fortress featuring a drawbridge; the St. Augustine Lighthouse; and the famous Fountain of Youth. Boarding an interactive pirate cruise, figuring your way out of an escape room, or hopping on a zip line will keep you occupied, too.
Where to Stay: Originally built in the 1790s, this stately, two-story town home that sits across from Matanzas River serves as a friendly and inviting 15-room bed and breakfast. The rooms, each named after a historical figure or location in town, have private entrances. Plus, Bayfront serves a full Southern breakfast, and hosts an early evening happy hour with homemade appetizers and sangria, wine, and beer. To top it off, St. Augustine’s museums, art galleries, shops, and restaurants are a 10-minute walk inland.
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Opportunities to interact with wildlife and nature can be found throughout Florida, but we have a soft spot for the experiences in the Florida Keys. Why? We love a good road trip, and the Florida Keys offer a wide variety of wildlife and nature activities on nearly every island. In the north, you’ll find Biscayne National Park, a protected underwater park that contains reefs, turtles, and popular dive sites with shipwrecks. However, you’ll need a boat to access the park. If you don’t have a boat, or want to stick a little closer to land, check out the underwater statue, colorful fish, kayaking, and birding at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo.
Moving farther south to Tavernier, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center functions as both a rehab facility for over 1,000 birds per year and a family-friendly, educational stop. Learn about local wildlife plights and peep over 40 different wild bird species, including Florida brown pelicans. Visitors are asked for a donation to enter, and can participate in twice-daily pelican feedings. There’s also a turtle rehabilitation center in Marathon, where guests can tour the facilities and visit some of the rehabbers-in-residence during a 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour. Guests can opt to feed and/or sponsor some of the permanent residents. For a unique animal experience, head down to Big Pine Key‘s National Key Deer Refuge, where you can try and spot the endangered white-tailed Key deer. These tiny deer don’t exist anywhere else in the world, but roam the 8,542-acre park freely.
Along the way, there are also countless ways to get into (or onto) the water. We particularly like kayaking through the mangroves, finding our balance in SUP yoga classes, and renting jet skis. Boat trips, sunset dolphin cruises, or even finding a place to hand-feed wide-mouthed tarpon are also top on our list.
Where to Stay: Epitomizing the laid-back Keys lifestyle, Casa Morada is an upscale 16-room boutique with a peaceful atmosphere, tropical garden grounds, and a small private island with pool and tons of loungers. Guests have their pick of free activities, including yoga classes, bocce, or lounging by the small pool. Kayaks, push bikes, and snorkel gear are also available for rent. There’s also a free breakfast and small snacks and booze for purchase.
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