It’s no secret that the Sunshine State is a pretty popular travel destination—and for good reason! Gorgeous scenery, warm weather, plenty of beaches… What more could you want? And because so many of these amazing places are located relatively close to one another, Florida is an ideal spot to do a road trip.
The drive from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale will take you through some of the Central and South Florida’s top cities, including Apollo Beach, Sarasota, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, and Boca Raton. Keep reading to find out how you can get the most out of your time in Florida by taking a road trip and what you don’t want to miss when driving from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale.
Apollo Beach is about 30 minutes south of Tampa, and with a waterfront location alongside Tampa Bay, it’s the perfect place to spend a little quality time with Mother Nature. Among Apollo Beach’s best-known attractions is the Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, open from November through April. If you’re not in town during the right time, don’t worry—there’s still plenty of exploring to be done in Apollo Beach! Another great place to go is the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve, right on the edge of the bay.
Open from sunrise to sunset, the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve is a peaceful, scenic spot to stretch your legs and appreciate some of the coastal beauty that Florida has to offer. With two acres of sandy shoreline, the Nature Preserve might not be huge, but it still has a certain charm to it, especially for visitors who are interested in experiencing the more natural side of the state. Birdwatching, picnicking, and light hiking are the main activities that you’ll find at this secluded retreat on the bay. (Despite there being access to water, please note that swimming is prohibited at the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve.)
A little under an hour south of Tampa, Bradenton is a delightful riverside city that’s brimming with history. Some of the top things to do in Bradenton are the Downtown Riverwalk, the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, Manatee Village Historical Park, DeSoto National Memorial Park, and Robinson Preserve. But one thing you don’t want to miss when in Bradenton is the Village of the Arts, a live-work community that features historic cottages, art galleries, specialty stores, restaurants, and more.
Because of Bradenton’s ties to Old Florida, you can find preserved and restored buildings like early 20th-century residential bungalows and Florida Cracker homes scattered throughout the Village of the Arts. As its name suggests, the neighborhood actively celebrates art in its many forms, and a long list of galleries and studios are headquartered here, including the Baobab Tree Gallery, ReWorked Creations, Fun Girl Art, and Left of Center Gallery. If you’re the kind of person who loves picking up unique souvenirs and one-of-a-kind gifts, then make sure to check out some of the Village’s local shops, which sell everything from antiques and quilts to vinyl records and even live fish! This part of town is also a great place to grab a bite to eat, and the restaurants located within the Village of the Arts include Bird Rock Taco Shack, Arte Caffé Italian Bakery & Market, and Ortygia.
Around an hour south of Tampa, Sarasota is a Gulf Coast hotspot with beaches, parks, museums, and a vibrant arts scene. A few of Sarasota’s most-visited places are Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Siesta Key Beach, and the Sarasota Classic Car Museum. As a city, Sarasota might be best known for serving as the winter home of John Ringling, the 20th-century circus mogul and millionaire who amassed a fortune of an estimated $200 million. Today, Ringling’s legacy in Sarasota lives on, and you can see his diverse collection of art at the Ringling, the state art museum of Florida.
The Ringling Estate, which was seized by the state government in 1946, includes the Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, the Tibbals Learning Center, Ca’ d’Zan (Ringling’s grandiose, Venetian-Gothic-style home), the Historic Asolo Theater, and several gardens. While museum admission includes entry to both the Museum of Art and the Circus Museum, it does not include entry to Ca’ d’Zan. Museum admission is $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 5 to 17. (The Museum of Art is free on Mondays! However, if you want to see the Circus Museum or the Ca’ d’Zan, regular admission prices still apply.)
Seated along the Caloosahatchee River, Fort Myers is a bustling metropolis that’s located about two hours south of Tampa. Some of Fort Myers’ biggest attractions include the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, the IMAG History & Science Center, the Burroughs Home & Gardens, and Manatee Park. Among the most extraordinary places in Fort Myers, however, is undoubtedly the Butterfly Estates in the Downtown River District, where you interact with Florida’s native butterfly species and support their protection, preservation, and continued population.
Operated by the Florida Native Butterfly Society, the Butterfly Estates is a nonprofit educational facility that, unlike most butterfly houses and gardens, does not carry exotic butterflies but, rather, only breeds and showcases butterflies that are native to Florida. The butterflies at the facility are all hand-raised, and when you visit the Butterfly Estates, you can learn about the butterfly life cycle and the important role that the creatures play as pollinators. While the Butterfly Estates invites visitors to see and enjoy its butterflies, because it is a strictly educational facility, it asks that everyone respect its beautiful—yet fragile—residents and is careful to remind you that the butterflies are not here for human enjoyment.
Nicknamed “Florida’s Inland Sea,” Lake Okeechobee is the state’s largest freshwater lake and is the eighth-largest natural freshwater lake in the United States. About two hours east of Fort Myers and a little over an hour east of West Palm Beach, Lake Okeechobee is an ideal stopping place as you make your way from one side of Florida to the other on the drive from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale. Activities that can be enjoyed at Lake Okeechobee include boating, fishing, and hiking, and one of the best ways to experience the lake in all of its grandeur is by taking a walk on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail.
A portion of the much larger Florida National Scenic Trail, Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail is 110 miles and provides visitors with an unparalleled view of the lake, thanks to its 35-foot-high dike. Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding area are rich with wildlife, and some of the animals that you might see include wild turkeys, deer, wild hogs, bobcats, alligators, a wide variety of birds, and even manatees. Of course, you don’t have to walk the whole thing to appreciate just how stunning (and lively) Lake Okeechobee is, but the trail is adorned with campgrounds, resorts, and other accommodations if you want to stay in the area overnight.
West Palm Beach is around an hour north of Fort Lauderdale, and with four retail and entertainment districts (Clematis Street, CityPlace, Northwood Village, and Antique Row)—plus a couple of different beaches—this is one city on Florida’s Atlantic Coast where you’ll definitely want to stop. Among West Palm Beach’s most notable attractions are the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, the South Florida Science Center & Aquarium, the Palm Beach Improv Comedy Theater, and Mounts Botanical Garden. But whether you’re looking to add a touch of culture to your road trip or just in the mood to go somewhere cool, you don’t want to pass up a chance to visit the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens while you’re in West Palm Beach.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens includes the former home and studio of renowned artist Ann Weaver Norton, as well as over 100 pieces of her artwork. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $7 for children over the age of five. The Gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm, October through June.
A little farther down the coast, about a half-hour north of Fort Lauderdale, you’ll find Boca Raton, a beautifully well-rounded city with everything from luxurious golf courses and beaches to family-owned boutiques and restaurants. Some of Boca’s most popular attractions include the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Children’s Science Explorium, and South Beach Park. But if you’re a theater-buff, make sure that you stop by the Wick Theatre to see a show and tour its costume museum!
In addition to bringing classic Broadway shows to Boca Raton, the Wick, which was founded by Marilynn Wick in 2013, doubles as a museum that boasts a comprehensive collection of authentic costumes from Broadway and Hollywood, as well as an array of theater-related artifacts. (Please note that tours of the museum are available by appointment only, but you can easily book one by calling the phone number listed on the theater’s website. Tours usually run seven days a week starting at 11 am.)
Known as “The Heart of the Gold Coast,” Pompano Beach lies around 20 minutes north of Fort Lauderdale, and with beaches, parks, golf courses, and a number of other high-quality attractions, it makes for a fun last stop before finally heading into Fort Lauderdale. The top places to go in and around Pompano Beach include the Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, Fern Forest Nature Center, Butterfly World, and the Sample McDougald House Museum. That being said, no visit to Pompano Beach is complete without a trip to—you guessed it—the beach! And with it, the city’s 1,000-foot-long fishing pier.
Whether you cast a line, stop for some food, or just take a walk, the Pompano Beach Fishing Pier is a city centerpiece that has something for everyone, especially if you appreciate can’t-beat views of the ocean! On the beach itself, you’ll find pavilions, playgrounds, and tons of opportunities for some family fun in the sun.
Fort Lauderdale is situated on South Florida’s Atlantic Coast, a little less than 30 miles north of Miami. Some of the city’s most popular attractions include Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (AKA, Fort Lauderdale’s “Central Park”), the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, the Museum of Discovery and Science, and Fort Lauderdale Beach Park. But whether you hit the shops on East Las Olas Boulevard or spend your days relaxing on the beach, you’re sure to fall in love with this action-packed coastal city that’s sometimes called “The Venice of America.”