Lately it feels like I see a cheap ticket deals to the USA almost every other week, and people often ask me for suggestions on which places to visit there. But most often I get questions about Florida, so may I present you with one article summarizing all my experience in Florida!
One’s trip planning mostly depends on how many days you have, and, if you have more than 3-5 days in one city, I definitely suggest going to other places too! Before buying the tickets you should also check if departing from another city might be cheaper, for example, arriving in Miami and leaving from Orlando, Tampa or even a different state! This could help you save some time so you don’t need to drive back and it is usually possible to return the rental car elsewhere, but sometimes for a surcharge.
Miami is the most visited city in Florida, especially if judging by the number of questions I get about it! And not without a reason, as lately you can get there even as cheaply as only 300 eur for a return ticket from Riga (meal and luggage included). The first question I usually get is about the best time of the year for a visit. Officially the storm season starts June 1st and lasts until November 30th, but it doesn’t mean you can’t visit during this time. If a storm will come, you can always re-plan to visit other cities on the other side of the peninsula, such as Clearwater or Tampa.
I my opinion the best time for a visit is spring or autumn. Winters could be relatively warm too, but not so warm every day to be able to swim. Summers can get extremely hot, I was there once in the middle of September and it was more than thirty degrees Celsius every day. Since springs and summers tend to be not so nice in Eastern and Northern Europe, it would be the perfect time to warm up a little in Florida!
Everyone will like Miami! It’s a lively city where you can go for long walks, shop, enjoy good food, see a museum or two and the city itself. Of course, don’t forget the famous Miami Beach! But, one by one. First thing to start with is the car rental, as without a car it will be very difficult to get around in Miami. I have summarized everything I know about car rental in the USA in this article.
The Beaches of Miami
Already early in the morning the beaches of Miami see many visitors. The shoreline is quite long, so you don’t need to stay close to the big hotels, it’s going to be as good also further away. Beach guards come to work at around 9 am, so if you would like to make a few pictures with the guard towers, come before that! You can leave your car on the street or in a parking lot, but those aren’t free most of the time. Many machines will accept cards as well, but some might only take 25 cent coins. I wouldn’t leave your personal belongings in visible places in the car or on the beach, as the stories of theft are widespread.
Is staying at a beach-side hotel a must? Of course, the sound of waves crashing just outside of window is something not to be missed, but in Miami ocean is close by anyway, so if on a budget, stay more inland! I once stayed in a hotel with a funny name Daddy O Hotel, so border control officers had a lot of fun when checking my address on the entry card! Also, a tip to remember -if you rent a car, check how much the parking costs next to your hotel, just to be sure you don’t end up paying more for that than for the room!
What happens if a wealthy man would like to have his own Italian renaissance castle? He builds one! The grand mansion was build from 1914 til 1922 and gardens completed in 1923. You could say that this is the most European place in whole Miami, used for fashion and wedding photo-shoots! It’s a really nice place for a walk, easy to be reached by car and you should plan 1 hour for the visit. The gardens alone are worth the time!
For those who prefer more quiet beaches, Key Biscayne island is the place to go! There is a lovely lighthouse here (Cape Florida), picknick tables, benches and even raccoons! You will need to pay $8 per car for entrance, but the permit is valid for a day. Be careful to note the signs that limit where you can and cannot walk! The sand is really soft and nice here, but also plenty of seaweed on a windy day, but that doesn’t stop anyone from swimming!
Right next to Key Biscayne is another island, Virginia Key that hosts Miami Seaquarium. Not only you can see large aquariums full of colored fish, but also dolphins show, close up crocodiles and beautiful ara parrots. For a relaxed walk you should plan around 3 hours, checking beforehand what time the shows start. Although it is not as grand as Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, this is a really nice place for families with children, and even for adults, especially if you haven’t been to many aquariums or just happen like them. You can park inside and have a meal here too.
Legendary Latvian Ed Liedskalnins, who supposedly used magnets or supernatural powers to move blocks of coral weighting several tons, to build a castle for the 16 year old Agnese Skuvst who broke his heart, lived in Florida. Initially the castle was build in a different location, but moved in 1936. When I flew in Miami for the second time in two weeks, the guard asked me if I have been to Coral Castle. I wonder if they ask every nationality a special question just they should know?
A chance to see crocodiles up close and ride in the largest mangrove forest in the western hemisphere, that’s Everglades! It’s a park, a protected ecosystem which is becoming more fragile with every centimeter of water level rising. Hundreds of birds nest here, panthers and manatees live here. The best season for visiting this place is winter, when it isn’t so hot, the crowds are not here and less chance to get bitten by any bugs. If you plan on visiting any other national parks in the states, be sure to read my article on how to save money when visiting national parks.
Shopping in Miami
Miami is a very warm place, but you can still get some thicker clothing here as well, but not sooner than around October 15th. If one of your primary destinations in the states is the store, read my article on shopping HERE! I have summarized everything I know from my numerous visits to US that should help you save some money and you still come out with stylish and nice clothing. What I can comment on shopping in Miami is that there is a very large difference between items you can get in the nicer neighborhoods and not so nice ones. Of course, nicer ones have better brands even in outlets and discount stores. Before you go shopping, be sure to write down several stores locations, as well as try to search for it in your navigation, might be that multiple stores have the same address, but each has a separate entrance, you will be able to find it easier if you search in advance!
Eating in Miami
Numerous small and large restaurants, food courts in shopping malls, drive-thru’s and more! Again, I can recommend to read my article on how to eat in the states and not spend too much either.
Florida is the fourth largest state in the USA, so there is plenty to see! Some of the places you can visit in a day’s trip, but I would recommend staying closer to the location, spending time driving while it’s dark and sightseeing while it’s light.
Although you can manage to seem them in a days trip (like I did that), I would sincerely recommend not to repeat my mistakes and stay the night in the Keys rather than drive. We came back to Daddy O shortly before sunrise, completely exhausted, it’s no longer safe or the definition of relaxation.
Florida Keys are numerous small islands that are connected by bridges. The last city on the map is Key West which is the furthest point of the continental states, located only 90 miles from Havana. And you can surely feel that it is almost Cuba here! Relaxed tourists, Cuban coffee, mojito, rum and cigars, and of course, the famous Key Lime Pie! Ernest Hemingway used to live here, president Truman had his own the Little White House, so there must be something in the air here! If you come for a few days, go dive or at least snorkel!
The famous Dry Tortugas National Park is here as well, can be reached only by boat or plane. You can see one of the largest American forts from the 19th century here, dive and snorkel in fantastic blue water. You just cannot manage to see all of the islands and park in one day! Also, there are many stores that sell diving and snorkeling equipment here, but of course, you can rent stuff too. If you plan on visiting the Keys or would like to know how to make key lime pie, read this article.
Orlando is a destination on it’s own, and of course, it is interesting for everyone who has kids, but not just those! Best known as the home of Disneyland. There is no old-town or downtown here that’s worth your time, but if you’re into theme parks, this is a place for you!
There are four parks in Orlando that bear the name Disneyland. Magic Kingdom (the princess’ castle and numerous attractions), Epcot (many “countries” at once or the city of the future), Hollywood Studios (park that’s linked to Hollywood), Animal Kingdom (the newest of the four, the largest in the world and animal themed). Many Americans come to Orlando even for several weeks, so timeshare hotels are popular here. If you are staying in a hotel that offers one, you might get some cash and free breakfast if you agree to listen to a presentation about timeshare hotels ($100!). Interesting for those who work in sales, you can do a checklist to count all of the techniques!
Some families are so obsessed with Disneyland that they go to parks like they go to work. Every day for a week straight, from dusk til dawn. To see all four in one day is impossible not just because of the lack of time but also due to the high cost. Day ticket for a park is roughly $100 and becomes much cheaper only if you buy a 5+ day ticket. You can also get family tickets, several parks combo tickets, get them online, in stores and almost any hotel.
I would suggest visiting one or two parks depending on what interests you. My choices were Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Be sure to stay for the Electrical Parade and fireworks in Magic Kingdom! Prepare that everything in the park is for consuming and buying more and more. The tiny, lovely houses on property? Those are stores selling thousands of Mickey Mouse items. If you come with a kid, agree how much money you will spend, as every next store has yet another type of souvenir to buy. You can rent a stroller for about $15 a day. Even when it’s cold, raining and really not nice, thousands of people will be there. Although in winter parks tend to be less crowded, some of the locations are undergoing repairs, some of the food court areas are closed, so still you will see queues. You will also see hundreds of Disney staff photographers who are ready to jump in and take a picture. Don’t rely on them too much, as every digital download will cost you a fortune.
If you love sea and creatures that live in it, if you would like to feed stingrays, see dolphins, meet Shamu the orca, see how small fish are fed in an enormous tank, this is for you. Seaworld was the first park I ever went to in Orlando and it’s amazing! You should plan a whole day for it alone. The entrance fee is slightly lower than in Disney parks, parking is available in the territory. The best option is to arrive early in the morning when park is just opening.
Another park you can visit in Orlando, I got here by chance, as an event I was attending took place here. Harry Potter area is fantastic! Anyone who has ever seen the movie or read the book, will enjoy it! Olivanders wand shop, numerous other shoppes and attractions. You can also see other movie heroes areas in the park, similarly as Universal Studios in Hollywood. You can definitely spend a whole day here.
Finally, something that is not a park in Orlando! A small town next to Orlando, called Celebration Town. Yet still connected to Disney! There are many rumors and myths connected to it. One says that you can only buy property here if you pass an interview. Others, that this is the town that Stepford Wives was based on. It was developed by Disney initially, and it still has their offices. It’s a nice place to go to in the afternoon after the visit to Seaworld, for example. Eat an ice cream next to the fountain and see how cormorants are drying their wings, then go to Celebration Town Tavern and have a proper meal. Very cosy and calm place, the perfect location that substitutes Orlando downtown.
Orlando is a tourist destination, so there are shops, outlets and shopping malls on every corner. Keyword here is “tourist”, and so are the prices. There is much better choice and prices for clothing in Miami, Clearwater, St. Peterbusrg or Tampa! If you do choose to shop here, check out the flyer stands in your hotel. You might get a coupon booklet for free (which otherwise would have cost you even as much as $5 in the outlet!) or even free ride there. Sometimes you can also print out the coupon books. If shopping is a priority, check out my article on shopping in the states!
If you are done with shopping, dining and theme parks and are ready for some real action, Kennedy Center is for you! Have you ever wanted to see a space shuttle Atlantis up close? Cape Canaveral from Men in Black? Touch a rock from the Moon? Talk to a real astronaut? See the place where they build shuttles, which is so big that clouds form there and it has it’s own climate system? As an added bonus you will also see crocodiles at the sidewalks and USA national bird – bald headed eagle – nest.
A full day tour would be recommended, so you get a chance to really explore and see, as well as shop for souvenirs. This is the place to get the coolest NASA t-shirts “I Need my Space NASA”, astronaut ice-cream, caps and games and everything else in relation tos science and space. By the way, if on the way back from other pavilion the bus driver starts handing out flyers, be sure to grab one! There could be a discount or even freebie with a purchase, such as photograph signed by a real astronaut! Don’t be surprised if you hear Latvian language here. We are everywhere!
If you continue driving up from Orlando, you can reach the city if St.Augustine, which was the first Spanish settlement in the states. This is the first European settlement that was constantly inhabited since 1565. For 200 years it was the capital of the Spanish Florida, and is closely tied to European and USA history. There is a large fort in the center of the city (there is a parking lot right next to it), beautiful walkway, tiny streets (and even a cat themed souvenir shop) and a fancy cathedral. It’s also worth to ride up the lighthouse and see the view form the top. If you would like to eat something tasty, Australian cafe The Kookaburra is a must! We had to wait a bit until we got served, and then it turned out the meal of our choice wasn’t available, so we got another one for free!
I would spend a few hours to walk in this nice town and then head to Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve which is about 20 minutes by car. You can see oysters growing, pelican and cormorants in the water, but be sure to have some rubber boots, as it is very wet here. The dry area has nice pickick tables.
This area of Florida is much more quiet than in Miami, and if you continue driving up north, you will see many coastal towns, parks, islands where it’s really lovely to spend an afternoon. Even further up north is the state of Georgia (which requires a valid international drivers permit!), and is worth a separate travel story, as has Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Tybee island and numerous other places!
Sanibel un Captiva
If you opted to drive to the left from Miami, you will soon reach the gulf of Mexico that has many large and small cities, nature trails and islands. One of the hidden pearls is the Sanibel and Captiva islands duo, the most well known shelling destination in the world. Not only you can see shells here, you are actually allowed to collect them, but as long as you oblige to the rules. You are not allowed to collect sea-stars, sand dollars and anything that still has an inhabitant inside (doesn’t matter, dead or alive). The best time to start shelling is right before maximum low tide, as new and new shells will be visible. This may mean that you would need to come before sunset and shell with a light in your hand! You can also see pelican here, dolphins and enjoy JN Ding Darling refuge. I have a separate article about my experience visiting Sanibel and Captiva. If you continue driving north, you would soon reach Sarasota that has a beautiful yacht club, as well as many small cities on the way.
These three cities are excellent location where to spend a few days at the beach! First of all, Clearwater beach had the warmest water I had ever swam in. A warm August evening, lightning in the distance and water +34 Celsius. Paradise! This is the place to really relax, spend time at the beach or go shopping. These three cities are the best areas to shop in, as prices would be not just for tourists but for locals too.
Have you ever heard of the famous dolphin Winter? Either way, this is the place you can learn about her as well as about other marine animals and the movie Dolphin Tale!
Salvador Dali Museum
The largest collection outside of Europe is located here, in a special place build for Salvador Dali. You can also hang you entrance bracelet at the tree and make a wish. From the 18 most known works, 8 are here, as well as 2000 other works. You can usually see an exhibit by some other artist on the first floor as well. There is a parking lot next to the museum and I would plan roughly three hours for a visit.
If apart from Orlando theme parks you would like to see any other parks elsewhere, Tampa area is good for that as well, as Busch Gardens and Adventure Island parks are here. To be honest, I haven’t been to either, but friends who live in this area go there often and say they are very good. Florida definitely is a state where you can spend a whole week just visiting theme parks.
Sunshine Skyway Bridge
One of the most impressive bridges that I have ever seen is the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Florida. It is so steep that you can get scared riding up or down. Definitely not for those who are afraid of heights! The fisherman pier next to it is really lovely too, you can see pelicans up close! Pelicans, on the other hand, like to see up close whats inside the fishermen buckets!
If you would like to drive up to the very border of Florida, there is a stretch of beaches spanning 200 km where you will cover Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Misisipi! One of the places to see is the St.Marks Refuge. This is the prime location for bird watchers and those who own expensive photography lenses, as people stand knee deep in water waiting for the shot of the century here. Not only birds live here! Would you like to see a crocodile just a few meters from you? What about turtles? Ants live here too, so before standing in grass be sure you aren’t right on the top of the nest. We were, which resulted in very quick removal of shoes and socks.
Santa Rosa Island
There are several Santa Rosa islands in the USA and one of those is in Florida. Unique due to the fact that in some places there are just a few meters of sand on both sides of the road, water almost touching the highway. Looks like paradise – white sand, blue water, some grass and no people. This is an excellent place to spend half a day picnicking, swimming or just quickly drive through. Really nice houses can be found in this area, but most roads there are only for residents, same as stairs to the beach. Parking is limited.
Are you into military aviation or at least the TV series Pensacola? A very impressive aviation museum is located here, and you can hear military planes flying around every few minutes. Pensacola has the same lovely beaches that you will have gotten used to while in Florida!
If you will continue driving even more north-west, you will reach New Orleans, which is also worth to visit for a day or two, especially during Mardi Gras, but not only! States of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi are very worth a separate road-trip!
People say that the primary export source for Florida is it’s climate and not without a reason – many Americans, especially seniors, come to Florida to spend the winter here. But it’s not just if you are older and wiser, Florida is for everyone! You will meet weird homeless people (did I mention it’s warm here? So many more homeless people than in other states), you will see orange groves near the roads, will swim in amazingly warm water and meet Cubans, Mexicans and most likely a Latvian or two! Florida is the place where you can spend a week staying in the same hotel or drive small and big roads, go shelling, say hello to pelicans and enjoy huge theme parks! Florida can also be a place where you depart for your Caribbean cruise, so opportunities are limitless!
You might find useful the following information:
- How to rent and drive in the States
- How to shop efficiently in the USA
- Where to eat on a budget in the States
- How to save some money when visiting national parks
- Amazing Florida Keys
- Sanibel – the shelling paradise of Florida
If you plan on visiting more than one state, you might find useful:
- Reverie Chasers road-trip to the West Coast
- Reverie Chaser Returns to the USA: Washington and more
- Places to see in New York
If you are like me and love a good guidebook for your travels, check out the Lonely Planet Miami & the Keys to help you plan your trip better!
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.