New Smyrna Beach
New Smyrna Beach is a favorite of Orlando locals. At approximately an hour’s drive from the city, it’s a quick getaway from inland Florida to the beautiful coast. Though it has been a popular tourist destination for years, the city still has an “untouched” quality, where visitors can find miles and miles of clean, soft sand beaches. The activity choices in the area are similar to other beach towns: swimming in the ocean, surfing, and boating top the list. It’s also an active community; it’s not unusual to see residents and tourists alike running or biking along the water. The surrounding area of New Smyrna Beach also has an added draw during the summer and early fall: getting to view baby turtles hatching and making their way to the ocean, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Daytona Beach is a name that’s familiar to many people – even before they arrive in the Central Florida area – largely because of the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s 500-mile-long (804.6 kilometers) motor race held at the Daytona International Speedway. Daytona Beach is also a popular tourist spot for visitors to Orlando: it takes approximately an hour to get to this coastal city. Just like New Smyrna Beach, it has several typical beach activities to choose from, along with a boardwalk perfect for satisfying your junk food craving, hitting the arcades, and shopping for new bathing suits. You can also sign up for driving experiences and ride-alongs at the speedway.
St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, is a history lover’s dream. The town, quiet and peaceful, is famous for its Spanish architecture and has beaches, a wildlife sanctuary, and even a stone fortress, making it a really unique city for a visit. Visitors can take a ride on the hop-on, hop-off trolley, visit the distillery or take a secret ghost tour. There are also plenty of museums where you can spend the day. If all else fails, just walking around St. Augustine is a treat in and of itself: meeting the local business owners and residents, stopping in the charming cafés, and sitting down for a delicious meal are great ways to spend the day in the city. The drive from Orlando takes just under two hours.
Sarasota, Florida, at just over two hours from Orlando, is known as a city of culture. The famous Ringling Museum of Art calls the city home, and visitors can view everything from classical to modern art. The city also has a classic car museum and an art center, with loads of different exhibits on view. Close to some of Florida’s most pristine and well-known beaches, such as Siesta Key and Lido Beach, you can also drive through Sarasota to get to Anna Maria Island, a quaint beach town with vintage shops and lots of vibrancy.
Mount Dora, just 40 minutes from the heart of Orlando, is another of Florida’s sweet historic towns. Here, guests can visit the calm Lake Dora, a gorgeous natural oasis, or one of the city’s biggest draws, the Renninger’s Antique Center & Farmer’s Flea Market. Anything that your heart can dream up, you’ll find at Renninger’s. The market has fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers as well as different types of art and even antiques. They also occasionally have events throughout the year to attract even more visitors.
Homosassa, despite its unusual name, pulls tourists in year after year because of its namesake state park, the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Here, visitors will get the chance to see almost all of the wildlife that Florida has to offer: everything from Florida’s state animal, the panther, to the “unofficial” state bird, the flamingo, and everything in between. There are also aquatic friends to meet, like otters and alligators. Several trails through the property allow visitors to walk around and take their time. Inside the education center, the little ones will get a chance to check out the hands-on exhibits. The drive from Orlando takes approximately 90 minutes.
Speaking of aquatic friends, nature lovers who visit Crystal River will have the time of their lives. In the Crystal River (for which the town is named, of course), tourists can go swimming with manatees in their natural habitats. Tours are given by experts so that visitors don’t disturb these endangered animals – sometimes called “sea cows” – and know exactly how to behave. The best time to go is from the beginning of winter through the spring. If you don’t want to go swimming with the manatees, you can just go to see them at the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. It takes approximately an hour and a half to get there from Orlando.
Heading to Central Florida for a visit doesn’t just mean spending multiple days at expensive theme parks. For those adventurous enough to venture out of the main Orlando area, there’s a lot to see and do, and you won’t be disappointed by the gorgeous Florida locale all around you.