Orlando is an entertainment capital of the US. It hosts dozens of different theme parks, e.g. Walt Disney World (including Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and 2 water parks), Universal Orlando (Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter).
If you’re looking for some shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities, Old Town is a good place to go. But none of these things were on our plan because we got a taste (both entertaining and pricy) of this in Los Angeles. We chose to only quickly walk in the Lake Eola Park and drive to our next destinations. The City of Orlando is nicknamed “The City Beautiful” and its symbol is the fountain at Lake Eola.
Orlando Lake Eola Park
Stop 2: St. Augustine, FL
This is one of my favorite stops. The city was founded in 16th century by Spanish people who named it St Augustine.The city was the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years. Currently Spanish architecture and beautiful historical character attract a lot of tourists. The best places to see are Castillo de san Marcos and Lightner Museum. Simply spending some time walking around this small cozy town is a very pleasant experience.
Jacksonville is a large business and cultural center, it has many art museums and galleries and cultural offerings. The downtown skyline was built along the St. Johns River. There are pedestrian river walks on both sides of the river and several bridges of various styles and colors across the river.
Stop 4: Savannah, GA
As we arrived late we didn’t go out, we explored Savannah the next day. We needed some more sleep as well 🙂
This day we explored Miami city and Miami Beach. The best part of Miami is that their water in December is much warmer than in California during the summer 🙂 Miami is a big business, financial and cultural center. It also has an international hub airport (I wish I lived close to such airport to be able to travel to different parts of the world 🙂 ). One of the best places to visit in Miami is their Bayfront Park. Beware of any special events there which make parking difficult and expensive.
Miami Beach is located across the Miami City. If is famous for its glamorous South Beach, offering white sand, lots of restaurants and nightclubs.
Key Biscayne is a nice area. While driving there, you can stop and take some pics of Miami. There are also nice parks and Cape Florida state park.
We then drove to Orlando to sleep there and explore it next morning.
The Florida Keys is a set of tropical islands connected by a ~120 mi highway. At first, it may seem that it will take ~2 h to drive through the Florida Keys, but because of their low-speed limits, it takes ~3-3.5 h to go one way. Our first stop was Marathon beach (free with a lot of parking). Then we drove to the most touristic area – Key West. We wanted to see John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, but unfortunately, we couldn’t spare more time. We wanted to take glass bottom boat tour there (2.5 h $25).
Tip: make a research about “Sunpass” Florida’s toll system and potentially you can save some money and your time if you buy a portable receiver.
The main attraction of Key West is the Southernmost Point. People line up in a very long queue to take a picture there. If you don’t mind walking you can easily find free parking in 0.5 mi from the point. From there you can walk to the Mallory Square and get some fresh coconut milk on your way.
On your way you will see an old broken bridge and it will make you wonder what’s its history is. Here are some details. And if you have more time and are not afraid of the heat you can ride a bicycle there.
After exploring Key West, we had to drive all that distance back to get to Miami. I think that traffic around Miami is one of the worst, lots of speeding and inadequate lane changing on their highways.
This day was devoted to the Everglades National Park. We first entered from the Everglades city side to take a boat tour around ten thousand islands. It cost ~$37 for 1.5 h. During that tour, you can see different birds and dolphins. Views are mostly the same, it’s just a nice relaxing ride.
After that, we entered the park from the Homestead side. We went to the Anhinga trail (gators and birds) and then made several stops on the way to the Flamingo area.Most of the time we were fighting with mosquitoes. At the end, we gave up our last walk because of them.
Ask for a map in the visitor center. All national parks have great maps with all points of interest highlighted. Depending on the time available visitor center employees can advise you what to see and do. Also, you can find all the details about this national park on their website (including any weather and roads status alerts): http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm
Ten thousand islands
Ten thousand islands
We also stayed overnight in Homestead to go to Key West next morning. Homestead is a middle point between Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. It is primarily an agricultural area.
This was a very intense day as we planned to see different animals and also make several stops. Three Sisters Springs is a small state park where manatees come during the winter seeking for a warmer water. To get into the park you need to take a shuttle from this location 915 N Suncoast Blvd Crystal River, FL 34429 (no need to go to the visitor center which is ~5 min drive). In the park there are 2 pathways, it will be enough to spend there 30 min to catch the next shuttle to take you back. Park has a lot of volunteers who will tell you different facts about the park and manatees. You can also take kayaking or snorkeling tour to get closer to the animals, but you are not allowed to come too close. Animals are resting there, don’t disturb them.
Three Sisters Springs, resting manatees
Three Sisters Springs, diving with manatees
Three Sisters Springs
Stop 2: Homosassa Springs, FL
Nice place to see hippos, gators and some birds. From the visitor center you will take either a boat or a tram to access the park. If you take a boat you can see gators and some birds on your way.
Homosassa Springs, going on a boat
Gators can be also seen outside the park
Stop 3: Tampa, FL
Tampa has a nice riverwalk park. A good place to stop after a long drive for a short walk and coffee. Tampa is Florida’s major business center, it has several museums (art, science) and amusement parks. The city was built by Spanish and Cuban workers in the 20th century.
Stop 4: St. Petersburg, FL
We were so lucky to see Escher exhibition at the Dali Museum! I would recommend this museum and walk in the area around it. There are also Museum of Fine Artsand Mahaffey Orchestra Theater. The town also has plans to build a massive pier with different entertainments, but it will be completed around 2018.
Stop 5: Venice Beach, FL
We arrived there when it was already dark, but we enjoyed their main street with lots of life, restaurants and shops. We walked to the beach where they had a free concert. Very nice buildings as well, looks like a nice place to retire 🙂 Apparently the town is known for its beaches and warm climate.
Stop 6: Naples, FL
We picked this stop to sleep and be close to the Everglades National Park.
After we explored Pensacola Beach more in the morning we started our journey to Crystal River. We knew there will be not many things to see on the way and selected only 1 stop – Panama City Beach.
Stop 1: Panama City Beach
The name by itself says that there are beautiful miles of beaches. The town also offers different shopping, theme parks and entertainment and looks like a great place for summer family vacation. Again, we were not lucky with the weather.
As I mentioned on Day 1 page, we walked in the French Quarter again, then drove around the Garden District and walked in the City Park.
Stop 2: Biloxi, MS
Clone of a clone city – felt like being in a smaller version of Las Vegas. Lots of people arrived to all the casinos, but we just spent ~30 min walking along the beach and staring at those casinos and people.
We arrived when it was already dark and unfortunately couldn’t come close to the Battle Ship. We enjoyed the view from far away and continued our journey to the final destination for the day. If you have some time you can walk in the downtown, explore Fort Conde, Battleship Memorial Park, Bellingrath Gardens, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bragg-Mitchell Mansion.
Stop 4: Pensacola Beach, FL
Small town with nice beaches (unfortunately it was heavily raining during our stay) and a few old bars where it is allowed to smoke inside. Another strange thing in Florida is that you need to pay an entrance fee to walk on their piers.