Driving around Florida is arguably the best and only way to truly see the Sunshine State and is, in my opinion, one of the best trips for first times to the United States. It is amazing to think that Florida is larger than many countries, and with its amazing wildlife and conservation area, incredible beaches and happening cities, a Florida road trip is sure to be a trip of a lifetime.
With the state being so large, there’s no way you can cover every square inch of the state, so here is a fun itinerary for a road trip in Florida devised to get you to see some of the most unique sites both natural and manmade around the Sunshine State. Here I am offering a guide on how to organize your road trip, where to stay, where to stop, and what to see and many other tips to ensure an unforgettable experience – as well as some other must know tips for visiting the United States.
Getting to Florida
If you’re within the United States already, you can either fly to Orlando or drive there if you’re in a state close by. If you’re outside the United States you can look out for cheap flights to Orlando by searching on Skyscanner, creating a Google Flight alert or signing up to The Points Guy or Scotts Cheap Flights as their newsletters often list the best flight deals.
Applying for a visa
One of the most important things to do before any trip to the United States is to look up if you need a visa or not and be sure to apply well in advance. The US is known to be very strict and you simply will not be allowed to even board your flight to the United States without proof of a tourist visa.
Being from Ireland, I had to apply for ESTA – this is a mandatory travel authorization which allows me (and many other nationalities) to travel to the USA without a US visa. It’s quick and easy to apply online, and should not take more than a few days to be approved. You can find more information about what the ESTA visa is here, so there is no confusion.
To find out of your country is eligible for ESTA and thus visa free travel to the USA, Wikipedia has a full list here.
Florida Road Trip Days 1 to 3: Arriving in Orlando
Orlando is a trip in and of itself, but with a huge airport and the most car rental options I chose to begin this wonderful journey here. Almost everyone comes to Orlando for the theme parks.
For the thrill- seeker, this is absolute heaven! However, Orlando also is a great place to shop, there are a plethora of outlets and shopping malls.
Depending on what you fancy, whether that is feeling as if you are in the movies with Harry Potter World at Universal Studios or getting the rush of meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time at Disney World there is something for everyone here.
If you want a less obvious experience in Orlando, Florida, I would head over to Gatorland. The real O.G. of theme parks Floridians love to call this the Original Theme Park in Orlando. You can’t go to Florida without going gator-spotting, or encountering one in the wild- so come here to learn life saving tips and techniques in case you ever encounter one on your trip! There are 1.25 million alligators, so there definitely is a chance!
Pro tip: Get a Hotel with a shuttle to and from the parks, a perk that most offer for free. This will save you on gas and parking!
Where to Stay in Orlando
While Orlando offers a lot more than the theme parks, I would suggest to stay close to them to save time on traffic and be close by to dip in the pool after a long day exploring in the heat. If you want to splurge stay directly on Disney or Universal Property, but if you want to stay someplace more economical any hotel along International Drive will put you dead center in the middle of a bunch of restaurants, bars, and theme parks. There are many budget and mid range hotels, but also luxurious options.
On the Way: Blue Spring State Park
The drive to St. Augustine is about 1 hour and 45 minutes, so why not break it up by taking a dip at one of the most beautiful natural springs in Florida? Blue Spring State Park is home to manatees that come to the springs for the consistent warm temperatures. Here from April until November you can swim, paddleboard, and kayak this state park with clear blue waters. It costs only $5 dollars per vehicle and there is camping here if you wish to extend your trip!
Florida Itinerary Day 4-5: St Augustine
First stop is the United States oldest city, St. Augustine settled by the Spanish in 1565. Known for its Spanish Colonial Architecture and the Fountain of Youth, this city will have your heart from the moment you step foot here. Walk the narrow and gorgeous St. George Street lined with small shops and restaurants, see the Oldest Wooden School House in North America, tour the Old Spanish Fort Castillo de San Marcos, and explore the unspoiled beaches of Anastasia Island State Park.
The Castillo De San Marcos National Museum is the highlight of St. Augustine in my opinion. The Spanish Fort has phenomenal views of the ocean and city.
Pro tip: Getting a historical background of Florida’s beginning is the perfect foundation and Old Town Trolley tours allow you to see the city efficiently without breaking a sweat!
Where to Stay in St Augustine
Economical: Stay in St. Augustine Beach if you want beach culture, nature, camping, bars and partying, The St. Augustine Beach KOA Campground is the perfect place to park your RV or pitch your tent. With waterfront cabins available you could also come here without a tent. Perfect to get close to nature!
Mid-Range:The Historic District is the perfect place to be in the middle of all the action, with a variety of restaurants, tours, and attractions. Also, you will be in walking distance to everything, which is helpful since parking is so hard to find. Check out St. George Inn to stay inside the old city walls.
Luxury:If waking up in the middle of a natural preserve with quiet beaches and some amazing seafood is more your thing, head to Vilano or Ponte Vedra Beach. The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club is a AAA Five-Diamond rated resort and is perfect for the golf and quiet beach lover.
On the way: Daytona Beach
From St. Augustine take Route 1 or A1A, the twin highway that runs up and down the east coast all the way to Key West. An hour south will take you to Daytona Beach the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Beach”. But guys it is true they have a massive sign stating it! Daytona Beach is famous for being the spring break destination for countless college spring breakers over the years, and of course the Daytona Speedway.
Stop here for lunch or a break and literally drive onto the beach for $20 before heading to Cocoa Beach.
Florida Itinerary Day 5-6: Cocoa Beach/ Kennedy Space Center
Between Daytona and Cocoa Beach is the famous Space Coast, a 95 mile section of Route 1 that’s home to the Kennedy Space Center. It is a full day trip to the Kennedy Space Center, which is why I recommend staying in Cocoa Beach for the night.
The Kennedy Space Center is a huge complex and you need ample time to see it all, catch shuttles, and experience everything. From touring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, to seeing the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibition to get nose to nose with the last shuttle to fly a NASA mission. The Adult Pass will set you back $57 USD, and $47 for Children. However, it is an out of this world experience not to be missed.
Currently you may get lucky to view one of many SpaceX launches from Kennedy Center or Cocoa Beach. Cocoa Beach is a surfers paradise, with decent waves and the largest Ron Jon Surf Shop in the world open 24/7. There are a number of amazing spots whether eating on Cocoa Beach Pier, or go shopping in the Historic Victorian Cocoa Village.
Pro tip: Stop in Manatee Sanctuary Park, parking and entrance are free near Cape Canaveral and the Space Center. The park includes a playground, a boardwalk and mile long walking trail where you can spot manatees gather during the winter/spring months.
Where to Stay in Cocoa Beach?
Economical: Quality Inn and Suites at around $100 is close to Kennedy Space Center, the highway, the beach, and in the center of everything. Perfect for the budget traveler.
Mid-Range: Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort is the perfect family friendly resort, with waterpark features like a lazy river and being right on the ocean there will never be a moment of boredom. Starting at $175 and up.
Luxury: Hilton Cocoa Beach is a full blown resort located 30 minutes away from Kennedy Space Center. It offers on site restaurants, a tiki bar, on- site surfing lessons, and a beautiful oceanfront deck. Definitely a splurge at $200 – 300, but one of the best hotels in the area.
On the way: The Breakers at Palm Beach
Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, The Breakers is a hotel full of the grandeur and glitz of South Florida. The railroad tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler developed the property in 1896, basing it off of the Italian Renaissance style at Villa Medici of the 1400s.
Head to The Circle Brunch Room for one of the most opulent brunches of your life or just to take a great picture. This place is a perfect resting spot before heading to Fort Lauderdale.
Day 6-7: Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale is Miami’s young hip sister. Fort Lauderdale Beach is a hidden Florida treasure, since many tourists drive by it to get straight to Miami. With a four mile stretch of sand that is entirely open to the public, and playing host to many great beachside cafes, shops, and an equally great nightlife Fort Lauderdale is definitely great to stop, relax, and soak it all in. It is the perfect time to relax enjoy the beach, roam around beach and Las Olas Boulevard on one of the many electrical scooters, and partake in some watersports.
Also, the culture and arts scene are blowing up here so do not forget to stop at Fat Village. Fat Village is a creative enclave, community center, art gallery, and hosts a sweet art walk. If you happen to be here on the last Saturday of the month the art walk consists of galleries showcasing local artists, artisans selling gifts, and new exhibits.
There is entertainment and great food here too. While you are there check out Brew Urban Café an open-air café that opens up to the train tracks in the back and inspiring street art. A must to do in the Fort Lauderdale or what locals like to call “The Venice of America” is a boat tour.
There are a few options whether you want a day pass for The Water Taxi that goes throughout the many canals or take a sightseeing tour with Jungle Queen Riverboats that have tours from 3- 4 hours with entertainment.
Pro tip: There are two companies that provide electric scooters in the area and they both require you to download the app. Both Lime and Bird scooters are in Fort Lauderdale area, you can unlock the scooters by your smart phone with the app. It makes it easy to see the city/beach because you can stop, pause, and zoom around the city however your please.
Where to Stay in Fort Lauderdale?
Economical: Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina Is a beautiful hotel that is right on one of the many canals of the Fort Lauderdale Marina. It offers all the necessary amenities and is only a short drive from the beach. Starting at $130 USD it is well worth the money and works for many budgets.
Mid-Range: Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach Newly renovated, laid-back, with sweeping beach views it is no wonder they won the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence. Starting at $160 USD it is luxury at half the cost.
Luxury: W Fort Lauderdale has the best rooftop pool in Fort Lauderdale. It is right on the waterfront and is where luxury lounges. Starting at $300 USD and up, be sure to get the best of the best here.
Florida Road Trip Day 7-9: Miami
Miami is much more than South Beach, it has a unique Latin flavor and Caribbean feel that makes you feel like you have left the USA. The people and the beaches are beautiful. The city is so extra, just sitting at one of the many cafes along Ocean Drive you could people watch and see some of the world’s most exotic cars in the world. First and foremost, Miami has long been known for its’ nightlife and beaches, but it also has a very culturally rich art and food scene due to its’ melting pot of cultures. Below I have broken up the three areas that are a must on any trip to Miami.
South Beach/Art Deco District
During the day be sure to walk along South Beach to see the iconic Lifeguard Towers that have become a symbol of Miami. All are designed by various artists, architects, and musicians in different colors, sizes, and shapes. Then head inland to the Art Deco District where you can participate in an Art Deco walk to get a historical background of Miami Beach from an architectural perspective.
A place to go day or night is the Wynwood and Design District. The Wynwood Walls are in Wynwood and represent galleries and walls that have revolving exhibits of street artists from around the world. The place has recently become famous from Instagrammers from around the world snapping up shots here. Also, not to be missed are the multitude of vintage/secondhand shops, upscale shopping, cafes, and bars that are open till the wee hours of the morning.
The Cuban American neighborhood is my favorite place to go for food. You cannot say you have been to Miami without having tried a Cuban Sandwich with a Cubano coffee. The best restaurant in my opinion to get Cuban food is Versailles. Be sure to stop by the Máximo Gómez Park to watch locals play Dominoes an enduring tradition.
Pro tip: Miami offers many free museums and art galleries that are the perfect for rainy days. The Institute of Contemporary Art is always free and in the Design District and is the perfect escape from the often, overwhelming South Beach Neighborhood.
Where to Stay?
Economical: Generator Miami Hostel Starting at $25 US
D and up for a shared dormitory this hostel is one of the best deals on South Beach. It is brand new and has a pool!
Mid-Range: Holiday Miami Beach Oceanfront There are many mid- range hotels to choose from, but here is one that is Oceanfront and not far from the action. Starting at $166 USD it is a great option for a budget minded trip to Miami Beach.
Luxury: There is no shortage of luxury options in Miami Beach, but some the best in my opinion are: 1 Hotel South Beach, Loews Miami Beach Hotel, and SLS South Beach. All start in the high $300s USD and low $400s USD.
On the Way: Bahia Honda State Park
The park encompasses over 500 acres, and an offshore island that offers some of the best snorkeling in the world. Bahia Honda’s award-winning beaches and historic bridge make it a must see a long the amazing route to Key West from Miami. The park is open from sunup to sun down and costs $8 USD per vehicle to enter.
Day 9- 11: Key West
Key West, is a well-preserved enclave of Victorian Era houses and Conch Cottages that surround Duval Street- the center of life on Key West. Allow at least a day if you’ve driven this far, to take it all in. Whether that means tasting the key lime pie, checking out Hemingway’s House, checking out the shops, or experiencing some exhilarating watersports such as Parasailing.
When sunset rolls around, head to Mallory Square where it turns into a carnival of street performers and drinks along the pier as everyone waits for the best sunset in the world.
Also, this is a road trip after all and you made it to the end of Route 1 so take a photo at mile marker 0! Not only this you have made it to the Southernmost point of the continental USA.
Pro tip: Book an Airbnb ahead of time if you do not want to pay exorbitant prices on hotels. Ever since Hurricane Irma prices have skyrocketed. Also, if you want to go to Dry Tortugas National Park save a whole day for that and be prepared to budget $250 dollars per person to get there.
Where to stay in Key West?
Not Your Average Hostel is one of two hostels in Key West. It starts at $65 USD for a 4-bed dorm. This hostel has the amenities of a resort, but still is the best place to meet solo travelers.
Airbnb is where it is at for nice accommodations at a reasonable price.
Casa Marina Key West Waldorf Astoria Luxury is the most luxurious hotel in Key West. Rooms starting from $200 in low season to $500 USD in high season. Established in the 1920s this place is a gem in and of itself.
On the Way: Everglades
As you drive across the state to the West Coast on the Tamiami Trail (highway that connects Miami to Tampa), you will come across two entrances to the Everglades National Park.
The Everglades was originally viewed as a worthless swamp, however activists such as Majory Stoneman Douglas showed the world how important the Everglades was for the debate of preserving nature for generations to come. Fun fact the Flamingo Visitors center at Everglades National Park is the only place to see the American Crocodile!
Take an airboat ride to see the alligators and have some fried frog legs in Coopertown.
Day 12- 13 Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is a quiet respite and the perfect place to relax before you start wrapping up your road trip. The island’s turquoise waters, pearl white sand, and shells galore will have you think you are in a Caribbean Paradise.
Come check out the Flamingos at J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. Cost $5.00 per vehicle.There is a four-mile wildlife drive that you can bike, hike, or drive around. Just a friendly note the park is closed on Fridays. Head to see one of Florida’s historic lighthouses and visit Sanibel Lighthouse. It is perfect for Sunset!
Pro Tip: Head to Sea Breeze Cafe where you will have the perfect vistas of the ocean breakfast, lunch or dinner. With Happy Hour from 4pm-6pm and Margarita Mondays 6pm-10pm this is the place to be!
Where to stay?
Kona Kai Motelis a no frills hotel that has a pool and is not far from the beach. It is great for a night stay and it doesn’t break the bank. Starts from $110 USD and up.
Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa, right before the toll bridge the hotel is in the harbor on the mainland however it is beautiful and gives you luxury at a reasonable price. The rooms start from $200 USD and up.
Casa Ybel Beach Resort is a beautiful oceanfront resort and makes every part of your experience feel like paradise. Starting from $500 USD and up.
Day 13- 14: Clearwater Beach/Tampa
After a relaxing time at the beach it is time to pack up once more to the last destination on your Florida road trip to Tampa, Florida. Tampa City was built around Ybor City, the historical immigrant community that included Cubans, Europeans, and Jewish Communities that mainly centered around the cigar making industry.
Today you can come to learn about the history of Ybor City, have amazing Cuban food at places like the Columbia Restaurant and see flamenco dancers. While the cigar factories have closed, you can still see locals rolling Cuban Cigars from the windows of their stores.
An up and coming city in Florida there is a lot to do. Whether you want to catch an NHL or NFL game, or you want to go to museums like the Museum of Modern Art and shopping in Hyde Park neighborhood, there is something for every type of traveler. If the beach is still calling your name you can drive a half hour to Clearwater Beach- recently named the #1 Beach in the United States by TripAdvisor in the USA in 2019.
Pro tip: The historical trolley is free! It runs from Downtown to Ybor City, so you can keep your car parked because there is virtually no need for it other than if you want to head to the beach.
Where to stay in Tampa?
The Barrymore Hotel is the most economical hotel in Tampa City Center with prices starting at $100 USD.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Convention Center is affordable in the city center and a block down from the free trolley. The prices start at $200 USD and up.
Le Meridian Tampa A Marriot hotel in the Downtown City Center along the water, close to the Riverwalk this former Federal Court House is now an architectural gem that is a hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Starting in the $400s USD it is definitely a luxurious option in Tampa.
Day 14: Head back to the Orlando Airport
That’s a wrap, after 14 days you earned the rest before your drive back to Orlando International Airport.