While many people flock to Florida for its beaches and theme parks, a good number of locals and visitors long for the quaint communities located throughout the Sunshine State. Away from the towering rides and oil-basted beaches are small towns that mix traditional Southern charm with tropical flavors and colors. These small pockets have managed to retain much of the character the community has had for over 100 years. Below, check out our list of amazing small towns in Florida that will make you feel like you're a world away from the big beats of Miami's nightclubs and the endless lines at Epcot.
Anna Maria Island
The seven-mile-long Anna Maria Island surfaces between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The area was officially settled in the beginning of the 20th century, but discovered long before by Native American tribes and the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Early on, the barrier island was home to Cuban fishermen, and numerous marine biologists have studied the region’s animal life over the years. Now, tourism is Anna Maria Island’s major business, with events such Symphony on the Sand and the family-friendly Bayfest (which includes a classic car show and craft sellers). Several of the local beaches still retain an “Old Florida” vibe and Anna Maria Bayfront Park has panoramic views of Tampa Bay.
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In the 1530s, when Spanish explorers happened on the area now known as White Springs, the Timucuan tribe members claimed that the nearby sulfur-smelling water had healing and protective powers. Centuries later, after the Civil War, resorts flourished in the northern Florida town, catering to health-seekers who also played lawn tennis and skated. The springs grew into the state’s first tourist attraction. Today, the famous waters have notably slowed their flow, but the Victorian homes and hotels from the town’s glory days still stand. Visitors from around the country come for the Florida Folk Festival, which hosts notable Florida musicians like Jim Stafford and also celebrates the local Native American culture. Other annual events include the Wild Azalea Festival and Antique Tractor and Engine Show.
Located on the shore of a Gulf of Mexico inlet, Apalachicola was once a British trading post and busy shipping port. Today, it’s home to fascinating and quaint bits of American culture. The 1837 Trinity Episcopal Church, built in a Greek Revival style, was one of the first prefabricated buildings in the United States. In 1850, local physician Dr. John Gorrie patented the ice machine. There’s now a replica of the original at the John Gorrie Museum. Tourists enjoy the local seafood (90 percent of Florida’s oysters come from Apalachicola Bay), top-notch fishing, and well-preserved, Greek Revival-style B&Bs. Fun fact: Apalachicola is also name-checked in songs by both Bing Crosby and Tom Waits.
Encompassing six of the Florida Keys, Islamorada is a long, thin stretch of land has several beautiful beaches and parks. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park is filled with fossilized coral that was once used to build a railroad and craft decorative jewelry. Now, tourists can get up close to the fascinating material and the equipment used to mine it. Meanwhile, the small and memorable History of Diving Museum shows how the equipment used for underwater exploration has changed over the years. It also exhibits a 16th-century treasure chest. For those who want to dive, there are numerous reefs to explore. Visitors can also go sport fishing, golfing, and boating. Pop culture trivia: Much of the Netflix show “Bloodline” was filmed in Islamorada.
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An enclave for bohemian artists, Matlacha is a town where the local shacks and shops are painted in canary yellow and fluorescent green. Galleries sell handmade pottery, paintings, jewelry, and wind chimes. The small territory within the Pine Island group of communities has a reputation for its fishing and food. The Old Fish House Marina Restaurant serves up large plates of deep-fried seafood to people sitting at picnic tables, and the Saltwater Smokehouse offers generous portions of Southern barbecue. For a look at local history, the Museum of the Islands has seashells from around the world and ancient Native American artifacts.
Built on the banks of the St. Johns River, Welaka describes itself as the “Bass Fishing Capital of the World.” Although originally settled by the Timucua tribe around 1200 A.D., the town’s modern incarnation was incorporated in 1887. After the Civil War, the number of local residents dwindled to 20, but Welaka grew into a resort town with its healing mineral water as a major draw. In addition to sport fishing, a big local attraction is the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, which houses several exotic and native forms of marine life. Visitors can also see deer, rabbits, and turkeys on the ground.
Mount Dora takes great pride in its small-town status. First established in the mid-1800s by a homesteader, the central Florida destination grew into a winter getaway for hunters and fishermen. Soon after, hotels like the two-story Alexander House opened. Several of the Victorian houses that were built during Mount Dora’s boom years, in the late 19th and early 20th century, still stand today. Numerous antique stores and the local lake’s freshwater lighthouse add to the town’s old-timey character. Travelers who like small-town events can stop by the annual Christmas lighting festival or one of the craft fairs.
According to McIntosh’s local lore, the town hasn’t changed much since the 1930s and the residents like it that way. Agriculture has long been the backbone of McIntosh’s economy, with orange farms being a specialty. Tourists often come from the north to bask in the mild climate and fish in Orange Lake. Many of the McIntosh’s current families proudly trace their genealogy to original settlers. Most of the year, McIntosh’s population is in the mid-three figures, but its 1890s Festival (in October) draws about 40,000 craft and antique fans from around the country.
Known as the home of the manatee, Crystal River is located northeast of a Gulf of Mexico inlet. The springs that feed into the region’s water system, Kings Bay, keep the town’s temperature at 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. Many people come to watch and even swim alongside the 400 or so manatees that migrate to the region when the Gulf of Mexico water cools. Deep-sea sport fishing is also a popular pastime, with plenty of local boats available for chartering. Hunters who want try their hand at something a bit more tame may be interested in knowing that scalloping season starts in June and ends in September. Plus, given that Walt Disney World and Orlando are only 90 miles away, both can easily be part of one trip.
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Cedar Key, a town that’s part of the Cedar Keys cluster of islands, is home to under 1,000 full-time residents and has quite a rich history. Archaeologists have found remnants of human civilization dating back to 500 B.C. here. Plus, the Cedar Keys have played a role in the Seminole Wars, the slave trade, and the Civil War. In the early 20th century, Cedar Key was a major fishing hub, but after 1909, the oyster beds were depleted. To bring back the local wildlife population, President Herbert Hoover created the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the destination is one of the top nurseries for farm-raised clams and is home to several notable seafood restaurants.
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