Florida’s state motto used to be “the rules are different here,” and it is truly a special and unique place to visit. As a vacation destination, it is almost unrivaled, with great weather year-round, beautiful beaches across the length and breadth of the state, and an amazing array of exciting experiences and magical locations to discover.
But there are some places in particular that are unique to Florida, offering things to do that you just can’t find anywhere else in the world. These wonderful spots, some hidden away and undiscovered, and some world-famous, are what make the Sunshine State such an amazing place to be.
To really get a feel for Florida, and to fully explore everything that this wonderful state has to offer, you might need to get off the beaten path and search for places a little under the radar. With that in mind, here are 14 of the most exciting, unusual, and amazing places to visit and things to do that you can only find in Florida.
Cool off in a swimming hole
The natural mineral springs of North Florida are one of the state’s most attractive natural wonders, and hands down the best places to cool off in the heat of the summer. These natural swimming holes are a wonderful way to get back to nature and offer a unique swimming experience, as well as beautiful scenery and fascinating flora and fauna.
Places like Blue Springs and Ginnie Springs on the Santa Fe River offer extraordinary sparkling blue pools with water so clear you can see your shadow on the sandy bottom. Alternatively, the emerald green waters of places like Poe Springs and Rum Island Springs offer a more surreal visual experience.
See glow-in-the-dark water
The breathtakingly beautiful and truly magical phenomenon of bioluminescence is one of nature’s greatest wonders, and can only be found in a few places in the world…of which Florida is one! Take a kayak tour on the famous Indian River Lagoon, and discover waters that literally light up with an almost neon glow with every stroke of your paddle.
This remarkable nighttime experience, made even more spectacular by the addition of transparent kayaks, will genuinely leave you breathless. If you go during the winter months, you might even see the mysterious comb jellies glowing their way alongside your boat.
Check out a rocket launch
Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre has been the launchpad for some of the most important and historic space missions in the history of the USA, and the entire world. Visitors have been able to tour the grounds and explore the amazing displays and exhibitions celebrating the remarkable history of space exploration in Florida.
More recently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX program has taken over the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the site has been revitalized as an active launch site again. Check out the SpaceX launch schedule, and try to arrange your visit to coincide with liftoff. The experience of watching a rocket blast off into space is unlike anything else.
The natural springs and aquifers of North Florida are not just great places to cool off in the heat of the summer. They also offer the amazing experience of being able to scuba dive underground! Springs like Little River Springs, Blue Hole, and Wes Skiles Peacock Springs offer experienced divers the chance to explore the gorgeous and atmospheric caverns and passages that crisscross Columbia County and the rest of North Florida and feed the natural springs above.
Wes Skiles Peacock Springs is world-famous as one of the best cave diving experiences around, with 33,000 feet of interconnected caverns to explore. Blue Hole is the headspring of Ichetucknee Springs State Park and is a magnificent sight with its deep, dark blue entrance. Little River Springs empties into the Suwannee River, but also offers 1,200 feet of underground passageways to explore, for anyone brave enough to venture inside!
Snorkel in the Caribbean
The Florida Keys is a pretty special part of Florida all by itself, but one spot, in particular, is truly mind-blowing. Dry Tortugas is an astonishing location, flung out into the Caribbean off the coast of Key West. The history of this place is fairly astounding. Discovered in 1513 by Ponce de Leon when there was nothing there but sea turtles, it has been a refueling point for transatlantic shipping, a notable spot for shipwrecks, and a prison.
The main attraction is the splendid old fortress, Fort Jefferson, constructed in 1847 to help counter the threat of piracy in the Caribbean. These days it makes for a splendid snorkeling location, as the fort is abandoned and crumbling, and you can swim right up to the ramparts. The surrounding sea is also full of maritime relics, including 17th-century galleons, rusting cannons, and glistening bottles.
Ride an airboat
Exploring the Everglades is a quintessential Florida experience, and there is no better way to do it than on board an airboat! A Florida icon, airboats can be found the length and breadth of the magnificent Everglades National Park, from Jacksonville on the northern border all the way down to the southern reaches of the state.
Jumping aboard one of these light exciting crafts is an experience in itself, and is definitely the best way to explore the beautiful waterways of the Everglades, and get up close and personal with the unique flora and fauna that are native to them. From giant alligators and swamp snakes to wading birds and snapping turtles, a trip into the mangrove forests of Florida on an airboat is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Swim with manatees
These bizarrely beautiful, gentle sea creatures are one of Florida’s most beloved residents. Believed to be the explanation for (presumably short-sighted) sailors’ legends about mermaids, they are incredibly amiable animals, and remarkably tolerant of humans.
While seeing manatees in their natural habitat is a pretty special experience, swimming or snorkeling with them is another level of excitement altogether. There are two locations in North Florida where you can dive into the water with these lovely animals, the Crystal River and Blue Springs State Park. Both locations offer snorkeling tours, and the opportunity is not one to miss out on!
Hit up the theme parks
Very much not under the radar or off the beaten track, but Orlando’s theme parks are still one of the most exciting things you can do in Florida, and one of the state’s most iconic destinations. Visiting Florida and not heading to Orlando, especially if you have kids, would be a shame.
Obviously, the biggest name when it comes to Orlando’s theme parks is Disney World (and it is magnificent, of course), but there are also loads of other options to explore. Fun Spot America is home to the only wooden roller coaster in Florida, while Universal Studios lets you discover the magic of Cinema from behind the scenes.
See the oldest city in the USA
Founded by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, St Augustine began life back in the early 1500s, and remains an extraordinarily charming and historic spot, almost unchanged in parts for over 500 years.
St Augustine boasts a wide variety of historic attractions and delightful places to explore, including the most authentic collection of pirate artifacts in the world at the Pirate and Treasure Museum, and the magnificent 1880s Ponce de Leon Hotel, complete with Tiffany stained glass and Edison electricity. But the most atmospheric and exciting thing you can do in this ancient town is to explore the myriad haunted houses that are scattered across the city, including several hotels and B&Bs that you can spend the night in…if you dare!
Come face-to-face with mermaids
If you weren’t convinced by the manatee/mermaid comparison, you might want to check out the real thing instead. Just north of Tampa, one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions has been delighting visitors with ‘live mermaid shows’ since the 1940s, long before Disney World opened its gates.
Weeki Wachee is the City of Live Mermaids, set in the deepest naturally formed spring in North America, and the shows remain captivating, with live performers swimming and dancing in an amazing underwater theater 20 ft below the surface. This is a real glimpse into the whimsy and charm of Old Florida, and something that you really won’t find anywhere else in the US.
See life on stilts
About a mile off the coast of Biscayne Bay, a tiny, unique community hover above the surface of the water, accessible only by boat. This is Stiltsville, a group of wooden homes on stilts, built in the 1930s as a way to get around the Prohibition Era laws – they originally were places where you could drink, gamble and party free from the landlubbers’ laws.
These days only seven of these almost dream-like structures remain, thanks to accidental fires and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. But visiting this community and getting a feel for life just a few feet above the ocean waves is something quite moving, and well worth experiencing.
Swim in a Listed swimming pool
Modeled on a Venetian grotto, and built with the aim of bringing Mediterranean style to the United States, the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables is the kind of destination that is uniquely Floridian, and really expresses the eccentric character of this marvelous part of the world.
The Venetian Pool is the largest freshwater pool in the US, as well as the only swimming pool in the country listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is emptied and refilled daily and is an extraordinarily elegant and stylish, albeit somewhat overblown place to swim. Built out of the remains of an abandoned coral rock quarry, the natural grotto caves offer another exciting element that swimmers can explore.
Sleep with the fish
While there are a few hotels around the world that offer ‘underwater views’, with windows or glass floor panels that take you beneath the ocean waves, none of them are quite as comprehensive an experience as the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo.
Appropriately named after Jules Verne, you have to literally put on a scuba suit to get to your bedroom, situated two fathoms down on the ocean floor! While the ambiance is more ‘upmarket submarine berth’ than ‘luxury hotel’, the serenity and isolation of this unusual hotel room is just the ticket to escape the stresses and strains of everyday life and offers a genuinely one-of-a-kind experience for adventurous travelers willing to take the plunge.
Discover the Fountain of Youth
While St Augustine might be the oldest city in the USA, it is also (possibly) the location of the most youthful experience in the entire world, the literal Fountain of Youth! Ok, this may be an unverifiable claim, but it was supposedly what Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for when he founded the city back in 1513.
Today, you can visit the 15-acre Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, on the site where the Spanish explorer first landed, founded back in 1904. While the artifacts and archaeological discoveries here might be a little suspect (the well that is supposedly the Fountain of Youth is housed in what looks suspiciously like a salt cellar), the park is a charming and enjoyable tribute to the origins of the city.
As vacation destinations go, you will struggle to find anywhere as weird and wonderful as Florida. The Sunshine State really does have it all, from polished theme parks and gorgeous golden beaches to bizarre roadside attractions and unique cultural curiosities. Wherever you choose to go across the length and breadth of Florida, you are guaranteed to find something that couldn’t possibly exist anywhere else in the world. Happy travels!