Nestled at the mouth of the Siuslaw River on the Central Oregon Coast, Florence is one of the most popular coastal towns in the U.S. Various publications often feature it in top-10 lists for beauty, weekend getaway destinations, best small towns in the Northwest, and best harbor towns. All with good reason.
Florence and its surroundings offer some of the greatest experiences of the Oregon coast, along with a wide variety of activities for visitors. From riverside strolls with gorgeous views and fine dining in the Historic Old Town to whale-watching, hiking, playing in the sand on the nearby beaches, and visiting historical sites and wildlife sanctuaries, you’ll find something to do here, no matter your interest.
Things To Do In Florence
1. Stroll Through The Historic Old Town Florence
A visit to Florence should include a stroll through the Historic Old Town. Colorful flower boxes and ornamental street lights line the walkways filled with art galleries, quaint boutique shops, historic architecture, and great restaurants.
Walk into an art gallery or enjoy the unique artwork of Florence in public spaces. Amazing murals, sculptures, and art installations abound in town everywhere you look, all inspired by the natural elements of the Oregon coast, the ocean, sand dunes, rivers, and the wildlife in the area.
Small, local shops sell unique souvenirs and gifts, from antiques to art pieces made from driftwood and blown glass, handcrafted wooden surfboards, kites, and unique packaged local foods.
2. Discover The Siuslaw River And Learn About The Town’s History
Walk along the riverside and stop at the Siuslaw River Interpretive Center to enjoy gorgeous views of the historic bridge and learn about its history. Built between 1934-1936 as part of the Coast Bridges Project, the double-leaf drawbridge features the Art Deco style. If you are there at the right time, you might see it open to let a tall boat pass.
Watch the river with modern-day boat traffic and imagine the ancient dugout canoes the Siuslaw people used as transportation. If you wonder about them and the history of the town, visit the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum, where you can also learn about the early settlers, loggers, and fishermen.
3. Take A Walk To The Dock And The Boardwalk Market
To see or talk to present-day fishermen, walk over to the dock area. Watch them bring in the boats and sell fresh fish right off them. If you are staying in a place with a kitchen or you’re camping, you might even consider buying some to cook for your own dinner.
Stroll along the boardwalk, and enjoy the gorgeous views of the river, boats, and town. If you are visiting on the weekend, check out the Boardwalk Market, where you can find anything local and handmade, from fresh produce and arts and crafts to jewelry and household goods.
4. Visit America’s Largest Sea Lion Cave
You’ll find the state’s top attraction and America’s largest sea cave, the Sea Lion Caves, only 11 miles from Florence. Access to the caves is a long elevator ride to 208 feet underground.
The caves are the year-round home of Steller sea lions, though you might not always find them inside. During breeding season in the spring and summer, they spend more of their time on the rock ledges outside of the caves.
Besides the sea lions, the caves and their surrounding area are home to a wide variety of wildlife. The area is also well-known for birdwatching and whale-watching sites.
Note: Because of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, the Sea Lion Caves are temporarily closed. You can still see the sea lions in the cave’s vicinity on the rocky ledges and visit them virtually via the webcam.
5. Explore Tidepools At The Beach
Drive over to the nearby Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Point and spend time on the beach. Try to be there during low tide and walk out to the tidepools. You’ll find them in shallow pools, rock crevices, and small caves.
Look for their inhabitants, orange sea stars, giant green sea anemones, and purple sea urchins, making the tide pools burst with color. As you explore their homes, be careful not to touch any of the sea creatures. They are very fragile and die if removed or injured.
Pro Tip: Wear good walking shoes, and make sure you don’t slip on the wet rocks or cut your foot on a sharp one. Pay attention to the waves; some can be strong enough to knock you off your feet.
6. Visit The Historic Heceta Head Lighthouse
After exploring the beach, take the trail to the Heceta Head Lighthouse, the most visited and photographed lighthouse on the coast. Its picturesque setting is the primary reason for its fame, but it is also known as one of the most haunted lighthouses in the US. Its ghost is supposedly the wife of a keeper from the 1890s.
Whether the ghost story is fact or fiction, the first keepers had a hard life, cut off from the rest of the world, especially before they had electricity and the connecting highway nearby.
Still in operation, the lighthouse sends its powerful beam, visible 20 miles out into the sea. Part of a state park, the lighthouse has guided tours where you can learn about its history and the harsh lives of its keepers.
Note: Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the lighthouse is temporarily closed for visiting tours, though you can still hike to it.
7. Watch Migrating Whales Off The Coast
The Oregon Coast around Florence is the ideal place for whale watching, as about 18,000 whales migrate through on their way from Alaska to their winter breeding grounds in Mexico and back.
Oregon state parks celebrate the migration twice a year, in December and late March, during Whale Watch Week. Although you’ll see the largest concentration of whales during these weeks, you can spot them on the coast up to late May and June. About 200 whales stay on the Oregon coast through the summer, and if you are lucky, you can spot one in late summer.
The best whale-watching spots closest to Florence are the Sea Lion Caves Turnout, the Heceta Head Lighthouse Scenic Viewpoint, Cape Perpetua, the highest point of the coast, the Devil’s Churn Viewpoint, and Cook’s Chasm Viewpoint.
8. Explore America’s Largest Sand Dunes
Staying in Florence, you have plenty of opportunities to explore the Oregon Sand Dunes, a 40-mile stretch of the beach with sand hills reaching a height of 500 feet. The dunes are always changing due to the constant currents and winds, and they support a thriving ecosystem with freshwater lakes, creeks, and wetlands.
One of the newest activities you can try is sandboarding, and Florence has a park dedicated to it. The Sand Master Park features sculpted sand slopes for all levels, from beginner to advanced.
For the best overviews of the dunes, drive over to Oregon Dunes Overlook, 10 miles south of Florence. Walk out to the viewing platforms above a forested area of the sand dunes overlooking vast expanses of sand. Then take the loop trail out to the ocean.
An extensive area of the sand dunes just south of Florence is open to off-road vehicles, where you can rent sand buggies and ATVs to ride.
9. Learn About The Carnivorous Cobra Lily At Darlingtonia State Park
Florence and its surroundings are not only about sea life and sand dunes. Inland, you’ll find an unusual carnivorous flower in the Darlingtonia State Site. The botanical park preserves and protects this one species of flower, the carnivorous cobra lily.
After parking in the shaded lot, take the trail through the marsh filled with these unusual-looking plants. Stop often and watch the insect-eating plants called Darlingtonia Californica, also known as cobra lily.
The trail through the park is mostly boardwalk, flat and accessible. You can find Darlingtonia on Mercer Lake Road, just east of Hwy 101.
Best Restaurants In Florence
Being on the Pacific Coast, fresh seafood is the culinary adventure of choice in and around Florence. This doesn’t mean you have no other choices; from local, home-grown, organic food choices to classic burgers and pizza, you’ll find something, no matter your preference. The following are just a few of the best.
10. ICM Restaurant
My favorite dining spot in town, the locally owned ICM Restaurant, sits right on the dock in Old Town Florence. You’ll recognize it from the Neptune wood sculpture in front and a large mural on its wall. Once inside, you have many choices of freshly caught seafood (you can watch it arrive on the boat) or Italian dishes.
11. Waterfront Depot
A more upscale choice, the Waterfront Depot is one of the most popular places to eat in Florence, offering a great selection of seafood, such as wild salmon and combination seafood platters. Though the focus, seafood is not your only choice here; soups and salads and meat and vegetarian choices are also available.
12. Homegrown Public House And Brewery
The Homegrown Public House and Brewery focuses on local, organic, homegrown food choices, offering vegan and gluten-free choices along with classic favorites. Their menu is seasonal but always made with fresh ingredients. Owned by a local family and supporting the community, you’ll find it in town, on Laurel Street, a few blocks from the riverfront.
Best Hotels In Florence
With so much to do in and around Florence, it’s natural that you’ll find plenty of accommodations, from beachfront hotels to historic hotels, and everything in between. You can even stay in a lighthouse if you wish. The following are just a few choices in and around town.
13. The Heceta Lighthouse B&B
The Heceta Lighthouse B&B offers rooms in the old lighthouse keeper cottage. Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach and the ocean, you’ll have opportunities to watch the sunset from the porch. Enjoy the stargazing and the antique furnishings in your room, and the seven-course breakfast made with fresh local ingredients.
Note: During the COVID-19 restrictions, the breakfast is replaced by one delivered to your room.
14. The River House Inn
A great choice if you want to stay in Old Town Florence, the picturesque River House Inn offers clean and comfortable rooms right on the Siuslaw River. Its convenient location is within walking distance from the best restaurants, stores, and galleries. Most rooms have a river view and a private balcony to sit and watch life on the river, plus gorgeous sunsets and sunrises.
15. Driftwood Shores Resort And Conference Center
If you’d rather stay at a beach resort, Florence has you covered with the Driftwood Shores Resort and Conference Center. It offers choices of regular rooms, two-room suites with kitchenettes, and three-bedroom condos with full kitchens. It includes an aquatic center and restaurant, and it offers packages to enjoy the surroundings, from horseback rides on the beach to golfing.
Best Camping In Florence
The shoreline and sand dunes in and around Florence offer some of the most picturesque areas for camping. In the summer, the weather is perfect for spending the night outdoors, and there is no shortage of great camping sites, with access to some of the best hiking trails, beaches, and wildlife viewing areas. The following are only a few of the best.
16. Washburn Campground
The campground at the Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park sits on one of the most gorgeous areas of Florence’s coast. It offers spacious campsites, one of them accessible, and two yurts for rent. Trails lead from the campsites to the beach, wildlife-viewing areas, and the Heceta Head lighthouse.
17. Waxmyrtle Campground
Nestled among shore pines, huckleberry, and other coastal shrubs, the Waxmyrtle Campground is 7 miles south of Florence, along the Siltcoos Beach Access Road. Paved parking, drinking water, and flush toilets are available. The best part of this campground is its location, along the Siltcoos river estuary and the Pacific Ocean, offering hiking opportunities and wildlife viewing.
Florence is one of the best destinations on the Central Oregon Coast, especially in the summer months, with perfect weather and opportunities for different activities. The winter months are cold but great for whale watching, though many of the amenities close for the off-season.