12 Best Florida Gulf Coast Vacations for Sand and Sunshine

Florida tops the list as a vacation destination for many families, but there are so many fun places to choose from — how can you pick? Sure Orlando has enough to offer to stay a month, St. Augustine has its history, and Amelia Island is a perfect blend of Florida with southern hospitality. But I’m still a sucker for Florida Gulf Coast vacations with those white sand beaches and calm gulf waters.

Florida’s gulf coast covers over 5,000 miles, so it is still a lot of ground to cover and each community has a different personality and attracts a different style of visitors. So unless you have a couple of months to spend exploring the coast, you will need to pick and choose. Of course, you can also be like us and pick a new destination to explore each time.

Sunset on Clearwater Beach
Sunset on Clearwater Beach

Favorite Florida Gulf Coast Vacations

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Here are our favorite Florida gulf coast vacations, with everything from the best Gulf Coast beaches to the nicest resorts and most family-friendly towns.

Florida Gulf Coast Map

1. Marco Island

Located just over one hour south of the Southwest Florida Airport in Fort Myers, Marco Island is also a popular destination for South Floridians that cut across Alligator Alley to enjoy the west coast. This beach resort offers wide beaches of white sand and is popular for dolphin watching, kayaking, and other water sports.

Because of its proximity to the Everglades, Marco Island is also a great jumping-off point for exploring the natural ecosystem and local history. An airboat or swamp tour makes for a great day trip! See other things to do in Marco Island.

Where to stay on Marco Island: JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort

2. Naples

Lowdermilk Beach Naples FL
Lowdermilk Beach in Naples, FL

If you are looking for an upscale destination that offers fine dining and plenty of activities and entertainment, Naples is the place. Located an hour south of Fort Myers airport, Naples is a popular destination for snowbirds, vacationers, and year-round residents. There is also great shopping in Naples if you are looking for some retail therapy.

It is also a great location for spotting dolphins and catching gorgeous sunsets from the Naples Pier. See more things to do in Naples.

Where to stay in Naples: Naples Grande Beach Resort, Edgewater Beach Hotel, LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort

3. Bonita Springs

If you are looking for a resort destination for relaxation and fun, head to Bonita Springs, just north of Naples. Whether you swim or kayak at Lover’s Key State Park or enjoy the waterslides at the Hyatt Regency resort.

Bonita Springs is home to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center. Dog lovers will also want to bring Fido to Dog Beach Park, one of Florida’s only no-leash beaches.

Where to stay in Bonita Springs: Hyatt Regency Coconut Point

4. Sanibel & Captiva Islands

two dolphins jumping out of the water
Dolphin watching in Captiva

Sanibel and Captiva are two islands connected to the mainland and Fort Myers by the Sanibel Causeway, making it a great destination when you want to hit the beach as soon as you land. Combined, the islands have 15 miles of beaches, 25 miles of bike paths, and zero traffic lights.

Both islands are best known for the best shelling on the coast. Home to a nature preserve, it is also easy to spot dolphins and manatees, especially when kayaking through the mangroves.

Where to stay in Captiva Island: Seven Seas Island Resort

5. Cape Coral

Located on the mainland on a peninsula across from Fort Myers and protected by the barrier islands, Cape Coral is ideal for families looking for an active vacation. There are over 400 miles of canals to enjoy boating, fishing, and water sports.

Cape Coral is also home to verdant golf courses and family attractions like the popular Sun Splash Family Waterpark. There are also tennis courts, athletic parks and nature preserves to enjoy.

Where to stay in Cape Coral: Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village

6. Siesta Key

Siesta Key is located just south of Sarasota and about an hour and a half north of Fort Myers. This is one of the most popular gulf coast beaches, with free beach access, gorgeous sugar-soft sand, and beautiful turquoise water.

The beach itself is a boon for families with picnic areas, tennis courts, volleyball, and a massive playground. Just be sure to get there early to find free parking spots. You can also kayak or rent a boat at Blind Pass Lagoon, which is a channel that is connected to the gulf. Don’t miss the weekly drumming circle that happens on the beach on every Sunday evening. See what you need to know before visiting Siesta Key beach.

Where to stay in Siesta Key: Find a vacation rental on vrbo

cabanas on the beach in Marco Island
Marco Island, FL

7. Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria Island is about 20 minutes north of Sarasota airport and 1.25 hours south of Tampa Bay. Its soft, white sand beaches are some of the most beautiful on the Gulf Coast. The beach, especially along Manatee Public Beach and the Beach Bistro near 64th street, is one of the best places to enjoy a Florida sunset.

It is the ideal spot for those that just want to relax at a beach rental, sip some boat drinks, and enjoy delicious seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you can take a fishing charter, search for dolphins, or take on some water sports. Find out more cool things to do in Anna Maria Island.

Where to stay on Anna Maria Island: Find a vacation rental on VRBO

8. Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay area is great for families looking to keep busy — and eat well. You can even pair a few days in Tampa with some time spent relaxing on Clearwater Beach. Tampa is jam-packed with attractions from Busch Gardens, ZooTampa, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Florida Aquarium. You will probably want to grab a CityPASS for savings.

Tampa has recently become known for its up-and-coming dining scene and craft breweries. Grown-ups will enjoy sipping a beverage while strolling the Riverwalk or popping over to St. Pete Beach and a visit to the Chihuly Collection. See more things to do in Tampa.

Where to stay in Tampa: Le Meridien Tampa

9. Clearwater Beach

Clearwater Beach cabanas and hotels
Clearwater Beach

Just across from Clearwater and north of St. Petersburg, Clearwater Beach is certainly one of my favorite Florida beaches, although with its strip of high-rise hotels, it can get a little crowded. The sugar sand beaches are so appreciated, they created a whole festival to celebrate it.

Of course, there is more to do in Clearwater than just the beach — from pirate booze cruises, dolphin watches, and sunset festivals with free outdoor movies.

Where to stay in Clearwater Beach: Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach

10. Panama City Beach

Shell Island Panama City Beach FL
Shell Island, Panama City Beach

If you can get a good flight into Florida Northwest Beaches airport (see my tips for planning a budget trip to Florida), Panama City Beach in Florida’s panhandle beckons more than just spring breakers. All 27 miles of Panama City Beach offer plenty to do for beach lovers, water sports enthusiasts, and action junkies.

Don’t miss taking an eco-tour out to Shell Island or exploring St. Andrews State Park. See more things to do in Panama City Beach or what to do off the beach in Panama City.

Where to stay in Panama City Beach: Marriott’s Legends Edge at Bay Point

11. Seaside

Located 45 minutes north of Panama City Beach near Santa Rosa, the sleeping town of Seaside is not the “redneck riviera” that some used to call the Florida Panhandle. In fact, Seaside may be best known as the location for the film The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey.

This picture-book town on the Emerald Coast offers sun and surf, but also shopping in the charming boutiques and biking along the beach road.

Where to stay in Seaside: Watercolor Inn

12. Destin

Located midway between Pensacola and the Northwest Florida Beaches airport, Destin offers stunning white beaches, world-famous fishing, challenging golf, and tons of family-friendly attractions and activities.

Kids love the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, Big Kahuna’s water park, pirate cruises, banana boat rides, and of course, cheeseburgers in paradise at LuLu’s. See more amazing things to do in Destin.

Where to stay in Destin: Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa

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Publish Date: November 24, 2022

4 thoughts on “12 Best Florida Gulf Coast Vacations for Sand and Sunshine”

  1. Fantastic list of Florida Gulf Coast destinations! I’m pinning this post for a family trip later this year.

  2. Catherine Brady

    Great list of Gulf Coast destinations! We were just in southern Florida, in February and really enjoyed our time. I am itching to get back, and we’ll be sure to consider some of your recommendations.

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