With sugar-sand beaches and an abundance of theme parks, Florida destinations have dominated national tourism for decades. Every year, thousands of families flock to famous destinations such as Disney World, Miami Beach, and Panama City to relax and soak up the sun–but sunny beaches and cheerful cartoon mouses aren’t all our state has to offer. Check out the list below for all the hidden gems Florida has up its sleeve, and have your bucket list ready.
1. Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales- Situated on Iron Mountain, one of the highest points in the state, Bok Tower Gardens offers an outdoor experience like none other. The gardens began in 1929 as the vision of humanitarian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Bok, who desired to create a place that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.” Today, visitors can wander 250 acres of beautifully-designed gardens, explore numerous nature trails that offer expansive views of the surrounding bluffs, and tour a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion that has been on-property since the early 30s. The main event, however, lies at the center of the gardens: a 205-feet tall Gothic-Art Deco tower fitted with a 60-bell carillon that plays concerts every afternoon at 1 and 3 PM. The enchanting concerts can be heard almost anywhere on the grounds, but the best place to experience them is by the Reflection Pool, which was specifically designed to offer the most picturesque view of the tower. Combining man-made and natural beauty, Bok Tower Gardens is the perfect destination for art enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
2. Dry Tortugas National Park– If you think you’ve seen eeeeverything in Florida, think again. 70 miles off the coast of Key West lies what is perhaps the nation’s most remote and least-visited national park. Comprising no more than seven tiny islands and a handful of beautiful, protected reefs discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, Dry Tortugas National Park is for those who truly want to get away from it all. The main attraction of the park is Fort Jefferson, a Civil War fortress on Garden Key that once housed union deserters and traitors, including one Doctor Mudd who was accused of aiding John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. On Loggerhead Key, visitors can find a remote lighthouse and sight numerous sea turtles. Loggerhead Reef is the final resting place of the 1875 ship Windjammer, and is a popular dive spot. Dry Tortugas’ remoteness makes it a great option for the adventurous (it can only be accessed by boat or seaplane), and its history and natural beauty makes the trek more than worth it.
3. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach– Truly a hidden gem on the Treasure Coast, Morikami is a thriving center of Japanese culture and art. In the early 1900s, a group of innovative Japanese farmers arrived in what is now northern Boca Raton and began Yamato Colony, where they hoped to revolutionize the agricultural industry with their experiments. The project failed, but in the mid-70s one of the last remaining settlers, George Sukeji Morikami, donated his land to the county in the hope that it would become a testament to the erstwhile colony he helped build. Today, property houses an elegant museum filled with thousands of pieces of Japanese art (including a 500-piece tea ceremony collection) and serves as the grounds for six individually-styled gardens. Morikami frequently hosts exciting cultural events and workshops, including an annual springtime Hatsume Fair, taiko drumming shows, and monthly tea ceremony.
4. Devil’s Den, Williston– Central Florida is famous for its natural springs, but Devil’s Den is certainly the most unique in that it’s housed in an underground dry cave. Shafts of sunlight reach the cave from an overhead chimney opening, revealing an otherworldly, enclosed natural pool with limestone walls and sapphire-blue water. Free-swimming is not permitted, but Devil’s Den is a haven for divers and snorkelers. Explore the deeper underwater caves, or strap on a mask and view the fish and ancient fossil beds that abound in the spring.
5. Solomon’s Castle, Ona- What’s a Florida bucket list without a healthy dose of weird? Solomon’s Castle in Ona, Florida began as one man’s artistic dream in 1974 when sculptor Harold Solomon started work on a castle made from aluminum printing plates discarded by the local newspaper. It has since then grown to a three-story tall, 12,000 square foot palace gleaming brightly in the Florida sunshine, complete with a courtyard showcasing Mr. Solomon’s metal sculptures. There’s even a 60-foot replica of a 16th century Portuguese galleon, which also doubles as a fully-functioning restaurant which serves home-cooked favorites like chili, chicken pot pie, and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Solomon’s Castle is the Florida destination for art lovers, upcyclers, and anyone who embraces our state’s special brand of quirky.
6. Torreya State Park, Bristol– Located in the Panhandle, Torreya stands out among Florida’s numerous parks not only for its high plateaus and spectacular views of the Apalachicola River, but also for its extremely rare species of Torreya tree that can only be found on the river’s bluffs. Thanks to its abundance of hardwood trees, Torreya is also one of the few places in Florida where you can see autumn foliage. The park also features the historic Gregory Plantation House, which is open for tours. There are also abundant hiking and camping facilities, and bird watching is a popular Torreya activity, as over 100 species have been spotted in the park.
7. The Ghost Town of Ellaville, Madison– If you’re into urban exploring, the ghost town called Ellaville just outside of Madison should top your list of Florida destinations. The town sprung up around a post-Civil War sawmill on the banks of the Suwanee and soon became home to one of the biggest sawmills in the state. The population boomed during Reconstruction, but the mill burned down in 1898, and the town flooded frequently at the turn of the century, causing people to leave in droves for better job opportunities. The last resident finally left in the late 40s, rendering the once-bustling industrial mecca a ghost town. Today a hiking trail runs near the town, and the foundations of the mill owner’s manor still remain along with several old buildings, the founders’ family cemetery, and the crumbling remains of a bridge. There are several historical markers delineating the boundaries of the town. However, there have been reports of people taking up residence in the long-abandoned buildings, so enter at your own risk.
8. The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg– Looking for a mind-blowing experience on the West Coast? Head down to St. Petersburg and check out the Dali Museum, the largest collection of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s works outside of his native Spain. Here you can view some his most famous, brain-bending works and enjoy the equally surreal architecture of the museum itself, which includes a flowing central spiral staircase and massive bubble-like skylights. The museum also frequently hosts exhibitions of similar artists including Andy Warhol and Picasso.
9. Sailfish Capital of the World, Stuart- Number nine on Esquire’s 2015 list of “The Coolest Small Towns in America,” Stuart is known by locals as the sailfish capital of the world. Its crystal clear waters, pristine beaches, and abundance of sailfish attract year-round visitors and sportspeople, and the unique downtown area full of locally-owned shops and restaurants jealously guards Stuart’s small-town atmosphere. Stuart also has the distinction of featuring the most bio-diverse lagoon in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’re looking for the perfect spot to soak up some sun, catch some fish, or just spend some quality family time, Stuart is the place to be.