Stuff to Do in Florida That Aren’t Amusement Parks or Beaches


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Do you associate Florida with Disney World and beaches? If so, I don’t blame you. If you set aside politics and Florida Man, that’s what Florida is best known for. However, if amusement parks and beaches aren’t your cup of tea, there’s stuff to do in Florida besides that. Here’s a few out of many attractions you can visit if you’re thinking about escaping the winter weather up north for a bit:

1. Visit the Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park is a vast and unique ecosystem that offers visitors a chance to experience a variety of wildlife and natural beauty. This UNESCO World Heritage site spans 1.5 million acres of wetlands and is home to numerous endangered species, such as the American crocodile, West Indian manatee, and the elusive Florida panther.

Visitors can explore the park through various means, including walking trails, canoeing, kayaking, and airboat tours. One of the most popular activities is taking an airboat ride, which allows you to glide over the water and see the park’s diverse habitats up close. These tours are often led by knowledgeable guides who provide insights into the park’s ecology and wildlife.

Hiking and biking are also great ways to experience the Everglades. The Anhinga Trail, located near the park’s main entrance, is a short but scenic trail that offers excellent opportunities to see alligators, herons, and other wildlife. For a more immersive experience, the 15-mile Long Pine Key Trail provides a more challenging route through pinelands and sawgrass prairies.

For those interested in photography, the Everglades offers stunning landscapes and wildlife photography opportunities. Sunrise and sunset are particularly beautiful times to visit, as the light casts a golden glow over the wetlands. Birdwatchers will also find the park to be a paradise, with over 360 species of birds recorded in the area.

Camping is available within the park, with both frontcountry and backcountry options. Staying overnight allows you to experience the Everglades’ serene beauty away from the daytime crowds. Whether you’re an avid outdoors enthusiast or just looking for a peaceful escape, the Everglades National Park offers a unique and memorable experience.

2. Explore the Kennedy Space Center

Located on Florida’s Space Coast, the Kennedy Space Center offers an out-of-this-world experience for visitors interested in space exploration. The center has been the primary launch site for human spaceflight since 1968 and continues to be a hub for NASA’s space missions.

One of the highlights of a visit to the Kennedy Space Center is the Shuttle Launch Experience. This simulator takes you through the sights, sounds, and sensations of a real shuttle launch, providing a thrilling and educational experience. The center also features the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, where you can get up close to the iconic spacecraft and learn about its missions.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is another must-see attraction within the complex. Here, you can explore a massive Saturn V rocket, the type that took astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions. The exhibit includes interactive displays, artifacts, and a detailed look at the history of the space program.

Visitors can also meet real astronauts during special events and programs. These encounters offer a unique opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of space travel and gain insights into the challenges and triumphs of human spaceflight. The Astronaut Memorial and the Heroes & Legends exhibit pay tribute to the men and women who have contributed to space exploration.

For those looking to deepen their knowledge, the Kennedy Space Center offers various tours and educational programs. The Launch Control Center tour provides a behind-the-scenes look at mission control, while the Astronaut Training Experience allows participants to engage in realistic astronaut training simulations. Whether you’re a space enthusiast or just curious about the cosmos, the Kennedy Space Center offers a fascinating and inspiring visit.

You could have a chance to meet an astronaut with the “Lunch with an Astronaut” event.

For the best experience, go on a day when there’s going to be a rocket launch. You can buy tickets for the viewing stands at Kennedy Space Center or watch from the nearby Cocoa Beach. Be sure to check the launch schedule before you go. Rocket launches can, unfortunately, be canceled or delayed. Often, this is due to weather or a technical glitch. However, it’s a fun experience when they do launch.

One thing to note about Kennedy Space Center is that it has wide stretches of natural land around it. Much of this is known as Merritt Island Natural Wildlife Refuge. The first time I was there, one of the bus drivers who go back and forth between the visitor center’s main campus and the Apollo/Saturn 5 center made jokes about the resident alligators. She said the alligators were part of the complex’s security plan.

(I wouldn’t worry too much about alligators, though. They’re just something to be aware of if you do some of the aquatic activities or go to the state or local parks. Yes, they are sometimes found at golf courses too.)

3. Discover St. Augustine’s Historic District

St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the United States, is a treasure trove of history and culture. The city’s historic district is filled with well-preserved architecture, charming streets, and fascinating museums, making it a delightful destination for history buffs and casual visitors alike.

Start your exploration at the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Built by the Spanish in the late 17th century, the fort offers impressive views of the city and the Matanzas River. Guided tours and reenactments provide insights into the fort’s history and its role in defending St. Augustine from various attacks.

The historic district’s cobblestone streets are lined with beautifully preserved buildings, many of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Take a leisurely stroll along St. George Street, where you’ll find an array of shops, restaurants, and galleries housed in historic structures. Don’t miss the Colonial Quarter, an interactive living history museum that brings the city’s colonial past to life through reenactments and hands-on activities.

Visit the Lightner Museum, located in the former Alcazar Hotel, a grand 19th-century building. The museum houses an eclectic collection of art, antiques, and curiosities, providing a glimpse into the opulence of the Gilded Age. Another must-see is the Flagler College, originally built as the Ponce de Leon Hotel by railroad magnate Henry Flagler. The college’s stunning Spanish Renaissance architecture and lavish interior, including a beautiful Tiffany glass ceiling, are open for guided tours.

For a unique perspective on St. Augustine’s history, take a ride on the Old Town Trolley or the Ghosts & Gravestones tour. These tours offer entertaining and informative commentary on the city’s landmarks, legends, and lore. Whether you’re exploring during the day or night, St. Augustine’s historic district is sure to captivate you with its rich heritage and charming atmosphere.

4. Tour the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg

Art lovers should not miss the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. This museum boasts the most comprehensive collection of Dalí’s work outside of Europe, featuring over 2,400 pieces, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs.

The museum’s architecture is as striking as the art it houses, with a modern design that includes a large glass structure known as the “Enigma.” Inside, you’ll find a chronological display of Dalí’s work, from his early impressionist pieces to his later surrealist masterpieces. Highlights of the collection include “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” and “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.”

Guided tours and audio guides provide in-depth insights into Dalí’s life and artistic evolution. The museum also offers various educational programs, workshops, and lectures that delve into the techniques and themes of Dalí’s art. These programs are designed to engage visitors of all ages and deepen their appreciation for Dalí’s innovative and often eccentric style.

The museum’s Avant-garden is another delightful feature. This outdoor space includes a labyrinth, sculptures, and a reflecting pool, offering a peaceful place to relax and reflect on the art you’ve seen. The garden’s design complements Dalí’s surrealist themes, creating a cohesive and immersive experience.

Special exhibitions and events are regularly held at the Salvador Dalí Museum, showcasing works by Dalí and other contemporary artists. These exhibitions provide fresh perspectives and new contexts for understanding Dalí’s influence on modern art. Whether you’re a seasoned art aficionado or simply curious about surrealism, the Salvador Dalí Museum offers a captivating and enriching visit.

5. Explore the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is a cultural gem that offers a diverse array of exhibits and experiences. The museum, part of the Ringling Estate, includes an art museum, a historic mansion, a circus museum, and beautiful gardens.

The art museum houses a significant collection of European paintings, including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Velázquez. The collection spans several centuries and includes an impressive array of sculptures, decorative arts, and contemporary pieces. The museum’s architecture, inspired by Italian Renaissance design, adds to the elegance of the setting.

One of the estate’s highlights is Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling’s opulent mansion. This 56-room Venetian Gothic palace reflects the Ringlings’ love for Italian art and architecture. Guided tours provide a glimpse into the luxurious lifestyle of the Ringling family and the mansion’s exquisite interiors, including marble floors, stained glass windows, and antique furnishings.

The Circus Museum offers a fascinating look at the history of the American circus, with exhibits on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The museum features an extensive collection of circus memorabilia, including posters, costumes, and props. One of the standout attractions is the Howard Bros. Circus Model, a meticulously detailed miniature replica of a circus from the early 20th century.

The Ringling Estate’s gardens are a serene and picturesque setting for a leisurely stroll. The grounds include a rose garden, a banyan grove, and the Mable Ringling Memorial Fountain. The gardens’ lush landscaping and tranquil atmosphere provide a perfect complement to the estate’s artistic and cultural offerings.

Throughout the year, the Ringling Museum hosts various events, performances, and educational programs. These activities enhance the visitor experience and offer additional opportunities to engage with the arts. Whether you’re interested in fine art, history, or simply enjoying a beautiful setting, the Ringling Museum of Art is a must-visit destination in Florida.

6. Dive into History at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami

The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami is a stunning example of early 20th-century architecture and design. Built as the winter residence of industrialist James Deering, Vizcaya offers visitors a glimpse into the opulence and elegance of the Gilded Age.

The main house, inspired by Italian Renaissance villas, is filled with European antiques, art, and decorative pieces. Each room is meticulously designed to reflect different historical periods and styles, creating a rich and immersive experience. Guided tours provide detailed insights into the house’s architecture, furnishings, and the lifestyle of its original inhabitants.

The gardens at Vizcaya are equally impressive, featuring formal Italianate designs, native plants, and stunning views of Biscayne Bay. The gardens are divided into various themed areas, including a secret garden, a maze garden, and the main garden with

its striking central fountain. The lush landscaping and tranquil ambiance make the gardens a perfect place for a relaxing stroll or a contemplative visit.

In addition to its architectural and horticultural beauty, Vizcaya hosts a variety of cultural events, including concerts, art exhibitions, and educational programs. These events bring the estate to life and offer visitors new ways to engage with its history and beauty.

Vizcaya’s location in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood adds to its appeal. The surrounding area is known for its bohemian charm, with tree-lined streets, eclectic shops, and excellent dining options. A visit to Vizcaya can easily be combined with exploring Coconut Grove’s vibrant arts scene and historic sites.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an architecture lover, or simply looking for a beautiful and peaceful retreat, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens offers a unique and enriching experience. Its blend of art, history, and natural beauty makes it one of Miami’s most treasured landmarks.

7. Experience the Charm of Key West

Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, is a vibrant and eclectic island known for its laid-back atmosphere, rich history, and lively arts scene. The island’s compact size makes it easy to explore on foot, by bike, or by scooter, and there’s no shortage of things to see and do.

One of the island’s most famous attractions is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. This historic house was the residence of the renowned author for over a decade, and it offers a fascinating glimpse into his life and work. The house is also home to a colony of six-toed cats, descendants of Hemingway’s own pets. Guided tours provide insights into Hemingway’s writing, his adventures, and the history of the house.

Another must-visit site is the Harry S. Truman Little White House, which served as the winter White House for President Truman. The house is now a museum, and guided tours offer a look at Truman’s time in Key West and the significant decisions he made while staying there. The house is preserved much as it was during Truman’s visits, providing a unique historical experience.

Key West’s Old Town is a charming area filled with colorful houses, art galleries, and unique shops. Duval Street, the main thoroughfare, is known for its lively bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues. A visit to Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a favorite haunt of Hemingway, is a quintessential Key West experience. The bar offers live music, a festive atmosphere, and a taste of Key West’s vibrant nightlife.

For those interested in maritime history, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a must-see. The museum houses treasures from shipwrecks, including the famous Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Exhibits include artifacts such as gold and silver coins, jewelry, and navigational instruments, providing a fascinating look at the age of exploration and the perilous journeys of treasure hunters.

Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. This indoor garden is home to hundreds of butterflies, tropical birds, and exotic plants. The conservatory offers a peaceful and enchanting experience, with the opportunity to observe these beautiful creatures up close in a lush, tropical setting.

8. Visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is a protected marine area that encompasses the waters surrounding the Florida Keys. It offers a wealth of activities for visitors interested in marine life, conservation, and water sports. The sanctuary protects the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and is home to a diverse array of marine species.

One of the most popular activities in the sanctuary is snorkeling. The crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life make it an ideal destination for snorkelers of all skill levels. Popular snorkeling spots include the reefs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the underwater Christ of the Abyss statue. These locations offer the chance to see colorful corals, tropical fish, and other marine creatures in their natural habitat.

For a more immersive experience, scuba diving is another excellent way to explore the sanctuary. Divers can explore shipwrecks, coral reefs, and underwater caves. The sanctuary is home to several notable wrecks, including the USS Spiegel Grove and the USNS Vandenberg, which have become artificial reefs teeming with marine life. Dive operators in the Keys offer guided dives and training courses for divers of all levels.

Kayaking and paddleboarding are also popular activities in the sanctuary. The calm, shallow waters of the Florida Bay and the mangrove-lined channels provide a serene setting for paddling. These activities offer a unique perspective on the sanctuary’s ecosystems and the opportunity to see wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, and various bird species.

Fishing is another popular pastime in the Florida Keys, and the sanctuary offers excellent opportunities for both inshore and offshore fishing. Anglers can target a variety of species, including tarpon, bonefish, and sailfish. Guided fishing charters are available for those looking to maximize their chances of landing a big catch.

The sanctuary also plays a crucial role in marine conservation and education. Visitors can learn about the efforts to protect and preserve the fragile ecosystems through programs and exhibits at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. The center offers interactive displays, educational programs, and a theater showcasing films about the sanctuary and its inhabitants.

9. Explore the Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens, located in Lake Wales, is a National Historic Landmark known for its stunning landscapes and serene atmosphere. The gardens were established by Edward W. Bok, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and philanthropist, and they feature a 205-foot neo-Gothic Singing Tower carillon.

The centerpiece of the gardens is the Singing Tower, which houses a carillon with 60 bells. Daily concerts fill the gardens with beautiful music, creating a tranquil and uplifting experience. Visitors can also take guided tours to learn about the carillon’s history, construction, and the art of bell ringing.

The gardens themselves are a masterpiece of landscape design, featuring a variety of plant species, including azaleas, camellias, and magnolias. The gardens are designed to offer a different visual experience in each season, with blooming flowers, lush greenery, and vibrant fall colors. Walking trails wind through the gardens, offering scenic views and peaceful spots for reflection.

One of the highlights of Bok Tower Gardens is the Pine Ridge Nature Trail. This 3/4-mile trail takes visitors through a natural Florida ecosystem, showcasing native plants and wildlife. Interpretive signs along the trail provide information about the area’s flora and fauna, making it an educational as well as a recreational experience.

The gardens also include the Pinewood Estate, a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion built in the 1930s. The estate is open for tours, allowing visitors to explore its beautifully preserved interiors and learn about its history and architecture. The mansion is surrounded by formal gardens, adding to its charm and allure.

Throughout the year, Bok Tower Gardens hosts a variety of events, including garden tours, horticultural workshops, and seasonal festivals. These events offer additional ways to engage with the gardens and learn about gardening, conservation, and the natural world. Whether you’re a nature lover, a history enthusiast, or simply looking for a peaceful retreat, Bok Tower Gardens offers a delightful and enriching experience.

10. Discover the Wonders of the Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park, located about 70 miles west of Key West, is a remote and pristine paradise that offers a unique blend of history, wildlife, and natural beauty. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is made up of seven small islands and the surrounding coral reefs.

One of the park’s main attractions is Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th-century coastal fortress that covers nearly all of Garden Key, one of the park’s islands. Visitors can explore the fort’s well-preserved walls, moat, and interior rooms, learning about its history as a military outpost and its use during the Civil War. Guided tours provide detailed insights into the fort’s construction, strategic importance, and the lives of the soldiers stationed there.

Snorkeling and diving are popular activities in the clear, turquoise waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas. The coral reefs are home to a vibrant array of marine life, including colorful fish, sea turtles, and rays. Snorkelers can explore the shallow reefs and the remains of shipwrecks, while divers can venture deeper to see the underwater wonders up close.

Birdwatching is another highlight of the park, which serves as a critical stopover for migratory birds. The park’s islands provide nesting grounds for species such as sooty terns, brown noddies, and masked boobies. The best time for birdwatching is during the spring migration, when thousands of birds pass through the area.

Camping on Garden Key offers a unique way to experience the park’s remote beauty. The campground is located near the fort, and campers can enjoy stunning sunsets, stargazing, and the tranquility of the islands. The limited number of campsites ensures a peaceful and uncrowded experience.

Kayaking and paddleboarding are also great ways to explore the park’s waters and coastline. These activities offer a different perspective on the islands and allow visitors to see wildlife such as dolphins and sea turtles. The park’s remote location and limited visitor access make it a pristine and unspoiled destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Each of these ten activities showcases a different aspect of Florida’s rich and diverse offerings beyond its famous amusement parks and beaches. From natural wonders and historical sites to art museums and unique cultural experiences, Florida has something for everyone to enjoy.

For the best experience, be sure to plan well in advance. Don’t forget your Florida travel guide.

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