When the weather starts turning cold, we start dreaming about an escape to the Sunshine State. We asked TravelAwaits writers to tell us about their favorite beach in Florida and what makes it the best, in their opinion.
There are so many beaches in Florida that picking a favorite is an almost impossible task, so some writers told us about two or three. They also let us in on some nearby places of interest. From the quartz crystal sands of the panhandle to the dunes on Florida’s “Space Coast,” here are the best beaches in Florida according to our writers.
1. Panama City Beach
“Panama City Beach is a little bit misleading because there are actually 27 miles of beaches to choose from including one in Panama City,” Tampa resident and TravelAwaits editor Tom Wuckovich tells us. “The northwest Florida beaches — some bleached bone-white by the sun and mostly composed of quartz crystals — stretch along the beautiful Gulf of Mexico with dozens of access points for visitors, all of them featuring entertainment options, waterfront restaurants, and even seclusion.”
“The beach along Panama City itself is a mecca for all ages and interests,” he continues. “It is a party atmosphere along Gulf Drive, with many bars and restaurants offering local seafood and Southern delights. Live music and varying types of beach-related contests are held nonstop along with festivals like Schooners Lobster Festival & Tournament, the largest lobster festival in the Southeast. The gulf waters are noted for fishing and further down the coast in Apalachicola Bay, the oysters are legendary. The best way to pick which beach to lay your blanket down is to drive along Highway 30 and check them all out.”
2. Mexico Beach
“Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle is the Florida comeback story,” attests freelance writer/photographer Fred Mays, who lives across the state in Satellite Beach. “Literally wiped out by the winds and storm surge of category five Hurricane Michael in 2018, Mexico Beach was in ruins. Nearly every structure in town was destroyed or damaged beyond repair,” Mays describes.
“But, three years later, new construction of homes, condos, and hotels is evident everywhere in town. Crowds are slowly coming back. Most of the beachgoers come here from Alabama, Georgia, and the southeast,” says Mays. “It is part of what is known as the ‘Red Neck Riviera.'”
“There isn’t much to do in Mexico other than the beach,” he tells us. “Much of the town is still being rebuilt and there is a shortage of restaurants and shopping. But oh, those beaches are beautiful. Typical of panhandle beaches, Mexico Beach’s shoreline is gleaming white sand and high dunes. If your goal is to get away from it all, Mexico Beach is a place to do it.”
3. St. George Island
Road trip enthusiast and author of the Wild About Florida series Kathleen Walls’ favorite Floridian beach is a barrier island in the panhandle. St. George Island is part of “The Forgotten Coast,” the part of the Gulf Coast so-named for its stretch of unspoiled, pristine beaches. What you will find: an uncrowded, white-sand beach. What you won’t find: high rises and strip malls.
Dr. Beach agrees with Walls, naming St. George Island as one of the best beaches in the U.S. in 2021. “It has one of the most beautiful lighthouses in Florida, Cape St. George Lighthouse,” says Walls. On the shore of Apalachicola Bay, the quaint Florida beach town of Apalachicola offers plenty to see and do. “Downtown is a shopper’s paradise with individually owned boutiques, galleries, and shops, and no chains,” says Walls. Dining in this incredibly charming small town “ranges from places like Carrabelle Junction to my favorite, Fathom’s Steam Room and Raw Bar, with a deck overlooking the river,” she describes.
“Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center displays the unique sea life of the Apalachicola Bay and Gulf,” Walls tells us. “With its steel beams instead of a masonry building, Crooked River Lighthouse is another draw of the many on the Forgotten Coast.”
4. Clearwater Beach
“I lean toward Clearwater Beach because it’s close by and has some of the best sand you’ll ever sift between your toes,” says Wuckovich, who lives in the Tampa Bay Area. “The waves are gentle, the water an Alice blue, and there are amenities to entertain every member of the family. The magnificent Pier 60 is over 1,000 feet long and features a bait house and a telescope for viewing the glorious sunsets. Recreational options nearby include a playground for the little ones, craft shows, musicians, and jugglers.”
“In a testament to the beach’s enormous popularity and stature, it twice has been named the top beach in Tripadvisor‘s Top 25 Travelers’ Choice Awards in 2016 and again in 2019,” Wuckovich attests. “Spring breakers discovered the beach a few years ago and the exodus to the Florida West Coast paradise is a given in March of every year. Beachgoers are plentiful year round, but the March Madness is something to behold.”
5. Anna Maria Island
Located on the south side of Tampa Bay, Anna Maria Island is a low-lying barrier island with three beach communities: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and Anna Maria. For many years, Anna Maria has been Florida resident Mays’s go-to beach for a relaxing getaway.
“Anna Maria used to be a small, laid-back beach town with single-family residential neighborhoods and a few mom and pop motels. It is located just across the Skyway Bridge from St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay’s population growth has brought expensive beach mansions to Anna Marie’s shores. There are still some small, older motels, but their bargain rates have changed,” Mays tells us.
“The beach at Anna Maria is wide with pure white sand, fronting on the usually peaceful waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Because it is a residential beach town, without high rises, the crowds on the beach are generally small, mostly locals and day trip visitors from Tampa Bay,” says Mays. He calls Anna Maria island “the perfect place to put your toes in the sand and relax.”
6. Lido Key Beach
Pennsylvania-based freelance travel writer Jeanine Consoli’s favorite Florida beach is Lido Key Beach in Sarasota. Its 3,000 feet of soft white sand meets the Gulf of Mexico’s calm, warm water, attracting shorebirds and snowbirds alike. Consoli and her husband spent a couple of weeks there in early 2020.
“The sand is soft white powder, and the water is turquoise blue. It almost feels as if you’ve traveled to the Caribbean,” says Consoli. “The weather in January reached temperatures of around 78 degrees, so we visited the beach several times. We even swam in the water, which was still warm.”
“Even though plenty of people know about Lido, it’s never crowded and it’s always such a lovely place to spend time,” she says. With fewer people than nearby Siesta Key, Lido makes for a relaxing beach day. However, do note that there are no lifeguards on duty.
“We stopped by to have one last evening to watch the sunset before we left to go back home to face winter in Pennsylvania,” recalls Consoli. “The sunsets over this beach are breathtaking.”
7. Siesta Key Beach
Siesta Key, the barrier island next door to Lido Beach, won our 2021 Best of Travel Award for Best Beach. It also tops the list of best beaches in Florida for Wuckovich. “The widest beach in Sarasota County is recognized as having the whitest and most powdery sand in the world. Comprised mostly of quartz, the sand feels refreshing even on the steamiest of days. You can easily spend a day here, if not a week,” he says.
“Witness dolphins, seagulls, and shorebirds putting on a show. Watersports of all kinds are readily available, from jet skiing and parasailing to boat rentals and tours. Every Sunday at sunset, locals, and visitors gather for the festive and now-renowned drum circle. Afterward, take the short walk to Siesta Key Village, a quirky jumble of cafes, boutiques, and bars,” Wuckovich advises.
“Hugging the gentle waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Siesta Key Beach offers year-round lifeguard protection, concession stands, restrooms, showers, tennis courts, volleyball, playground, and fitness trail,” he tells us. “Arrive early,” Wuckovich adds, “the parking area at this most popular beach tends to fill up fast, particularly during high season.”
8. Sanibel Island
“I adore Sanibel Island’s expansive and quiet beaches not only for their soft white sand but for their extraordinary opportunities for shelling,” exclaims Colorado-based freelance writer Kara Williams. “Sanibel is known worldwide for the treasures that wash up on its shores. There’s even a name for the hunched-over look many take on while walking the beach and combing for shells: the ‘Sanibel Stoop.'”
“Sanibel Island’s laid-back charm is endearing; you won’t find sprawling hotel high-rises here, as no buildings are taller than the largest palm tree,” says Williams. “Family-owned lodges and quaint cottages are typical accommodations.”
“Biking, fishing, and kayaking are all popular activities on Sanibel,” she explains. “A must-visit: the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge for spotting and learning all about the birds and animals that make their home in the estuary and mangrove forest.”
“Not only is Sanibel Island one of the best ‘shelling’ beaches in the world, but it also has lovely white sands and a slew of activities that go beyond simple beachcombing,” adds TravelAwaits contributor Heide Brandes. She agrees that “the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Tarpon Bay are perfect for kayaking and fishing for the infamous tarpon. The island is extremely walkable, and it’s no surprise to spot an alligator in some of the swamp waters along the sidewalks.”
“The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum connects people to the natural world through their love of shells and the animals that create them,” says Brandes. Birders from all over the world visit Sanibel and Captiva Island for such birds as the roseate spoonbill crane and the yellow-crowned night heron. Plus, the plethora of fish in the waters around Sanibel’s shoreline attracts dolphins year round.”
9. South Beach
Miami’s South Beach is the best Florida beach in blogger and traveler Inka Piegsa-Quischotte’s opinion. “Two and a half miles of white, fine sand invite swimming and water sports of all kinds,” she says, “whilst a palm tree-lined boardwalk allows you to walk and run.”
South Beach is adjacent to the famous art deco district, where pastel buildings stand along Ocean Drive. “You can sit in cafes and watch the beautiful people and vintage cars of Miami glide by,” says Piegsa-Quischotte. She calls South Beach a “shopping paradise” and suggests visiting the art galleries and museums along the pedestrian area of Lincoln Road. “Downtown Miami is not far away,” she notes, “just across a causeway with cool Brickell area and the HistoryMiami Museum.”
10. Surfside Beach
“I adore any beach,” remarks freelance and travel writer Robin O’Neal Smith, “but my favorite beach in Florida is Surfside Beach. I adore it because it is less crowded, very clean, and very family-friendly. You can enjoy one solid mile of peaceful and quiet pristine beach.”
“I love the soft, white sand,” she remarks. “The separate walking trail and wider biking trail along the beach is an added bonus. It isn’t as commercialized as most beaches. Surfside is a small town, only eight blocks long, hidden between Miami and Bal Harbour. It is a hidden gem away from the hustle and bustle.”
11. Cocoa Beach
Professor-turned-nomad Robyne Stevenson is a big fan of Cocoa Beach on Florida’s Space Coast. “The beach at Lori Wilson Park has natural dunes that lead to a wide beach. There are picnic tables and benches set in the dunes around the sea oats, sea grape trees, and palmetto bushes,” she describes.
“You may see crabs and turtles, and beach birds are plentiful. Pole fishing is popular as is surfing (when there are good waves). The beach has soft sand as well as hard-packed sand near the shoreline. There are beach chairs and floats for rent on the beach. Parking is free at the park and there are restrooms, outdoor rinse showers, and a food truck,” says Stevenson. Thinking of going during the holidays? Check out Stevenson’s article, 8 Reasons To Visit Cocoa Beach, Florida Around Christmas.