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  • On a birding hike in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey, Florida
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    Florida's Sports Coast: Antiquing, Birding and Wine

  • Watching the sunset from Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach, Florida
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    St. Pete/Clearwater: Dolphin Cruises, Sunset Celebrations and Waterfront Cafes

  • Paddleboarding alongside the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa, Florida
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    Tampa Bay: Adventure and Dining on the Downtown Riverwalk

  • Kayaking in the mangrove waterways surrounding Captiva Island, Florida
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    The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel: Outdoor Adventure and Historic Charm

  • Hiking along a boardwalk in the Florida Everglades near Naples
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    Bonus Leg, Part 1: Naples for Upscale Beaches and the Everglades

  • A family sailing trip on the waterways of Fort Lauderdale, Florida
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    Bonus Leg, Part 2: Greater Fort Lauderdale’s Dining, Beach and Boat Culture

Driving a convertible with the top down in Clearwater Beach, Florida
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Small Towns, Big Cities and Beaches: Driving Florida’s Gulf Coast and Beyond

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
    705.00
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

Tranquil beaches, chic cities, beautiful nature, foodie destinations and bucket-list attractions – is there anything Florida can’t do?

When you visit the Sunshine State, don’t stop at just one attraction. Florida’s easy-to-navigate terrain makes for the perfect road trip. This one begins in Tampa and ends in Fort Lauderdale, with stops along that way that give you a glimpse into Florida’s many personalities.

01
On a birding hike in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey, Florida
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Florida's Sports Coast: Antiquing, Birding and Wine

Tampa International Airport (TPA) is a modern and convenient entry point for your Florida driving adventure. From Tampa and for your first foray into Florida’s unique cities and towns, rent a car and drive to Pasco County, about 45 minutes north of the airport. Known for its abundance of sporty activities from biking to skydiving, the region known as Florida's Sports Coast also caters to shopping fanatics, history buffs and beer connoisseurs. In downtown Dade City, browse locally owned shops for that perfect gift to take home. Sugar Creek Too and Tampa Bay Salvage are full of one-of-a-kind treasures and are especially fun to explore. At Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, look for 177 species of birds on Audubon Society-designated nature trails. As the day draws to a close, enjoy a drink and dinner in downtown New Port Richey. One local favorite is Sip, a wine bar with live music that serves savory charcuterie and cheese plates. Chain hotels offer affordable accommodations before your drive south for more fun in the sun.

98 km
1 hour by car
02
Watching the sunset from Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach, Florida
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St. Pete/Clearwater: Dolphin Cruises, Sunset Celebrations and Waterfront Cafes

The short drive from Pasco County transports you to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico Coast and the beach towns of St. Pete/Clearwater. There’s room to spread out along 56 kilometers of dazzling white-sand beaches that are regularly voted among the top beaches in the USA. For lunch on your way into town, grab a table on the water at Olde Bay Café & Dunedin Fish Market at the Dunedin Marina. The seared scallops, shrimp tacos and Dunedin-style Greek salad with a scoop of potato salad in the middle are all popular dishes. Then, make your way to Clearwater Beach, and hop on board the high-speed Sea Screamer dolphin tour. Chances are you’ll get to watch dolphins jump and frolic in the boat’s wake. There’s no better place to end the day than at Clearwater Beach’s Pier 60. A nightly festival of street performers, musicians and artisans livens up the beach as the sun sets over the Gulf. There are also free outdoor movies on Fridays and Saturdays. Settle in for a classic film or explore the beachy restaurants and bars.

37 km
0.75 hours by car
03
Paddleboarding alongside the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa, Florida
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Tampa Bay: Adventure and Dining on the Downtown Riverwalk

Thirty minutes away from the beach is big-city Tampa, which offers a plethora of activities for anyone in your crew: water recreation on Tampa Bay, family fun at the Florida Aquarium, arts and culture at Tampa Museum of Art, living history in Ybor City and thrilling nightlife downtown. Take your adventures to the water on a hydro-cycle – a bicycle you pedal on water – down the Hillsborough River, or climb aboard the Pirate Water Taxi, which stops at popular attractions throughout downtown Tampa. Stroll along Riverwalk for tranquil water views and end the day at American Social Bar & Kitchen. Located on Harbour Island across from the Tampa Convention Center, American Social has a great happy hour menu, signature cocktails and craft beer. Your next stop is another festive beach escape.

201 km
2 hours by car
04
Kayaking in the mangrove waterways surrounding Captiva Island, Florida
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The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel: Outdoor Adventure and Historic Charm

Take Highway 41/Tamiami Trail for the scenic route to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel (or take Interstate 75 south for the quickest option). Both upscale and laid-back, the region features historical attractions, shopping and, of course, fabulous beaches. Look for turtles, otters and colorful birds as you stroll the boardwalk trails at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates preserve the 19th century homes of legendary inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who forged a friendship here back when Fort Myers had a population of 349 residents. Ready for some shopping and dining? The Fort Myers River District is the place to go for boutiques, art galleries, theaters and sidewalk cafes. Neighboring Captiva Island is a can’t-miss foray into Florida’s stunning coastal keys. Rent a kayak from a local outfitter and paddle from Captiva to tiny Buck Key, where you can get up close for wonderful photos of mangroves and wildlife.

69 km
1 hour by car
05
Hiking along a boardwalk in the Florida Everglades near Naples
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Bonus Leg, Part 1: Naples for Upscale Beaches and the Everglades

Can you spare a day to experience the Everglades? Then allow for a bonus trip to Naples, just an hour south of Fort Myers. Downtown Naples is made for eclectic shopping and al fresco dining. For beaches, top picks include Barefoot Beach, Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park and Marco Island. Spread out a towel to soak in the sun, go stand-up paddle boarding, try jet skiing, hunt for seashells and watch for dolphins in the water. Experience a journey full of exotic wildlife and outdoor activities at Big Cypress National Preserve, the western entrance to Everglades National Park. Have your camera handy because you might see bald eagles, great blue herons, manatees and plenty of alligators. Continue east to extend your Florida stay a little longer.

177 km
1.75 hours by car
06
A family sailing trip on the waterways of Fort Lauderdale, Florida
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Bonus Leg, Part 2: Greater Fort Lauderdale’s Dining, Beach and Boat Culture

The stretch of Interstate 75 that connects the west to the east coast is known as Alligator Alley and is one of the most iconic drives in Florida. The expansive views demonstrate why the Everglades is known as the “River of Grass.” Follow it all the way to Greater Fort Lauderdale, nicknamed both the “Yachting Capital of the World” and the “Venice of America.” Book a boat tour to see exotic boats and waterside mansions along Millionaires’ Row. You can also explore the city via Water Taxi, offering 12 convenient stops in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. Check out Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Dania Beach to see how different the Atlantic Ocean coast is from the Gulf. Pose for a picture at the famous “wave wall” in Fort Lauderdale beach, where Las Olas Boulevard meets the beachfront. Then, browse the 1.6-kilometer boulevard, lined with shops, bars, restaurants, galleries and museums. This is a good place to sample local cuisine ranging from steakhouses to vegan restaurants to international eateries. Catch your return flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL).

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