Planning a trip to Florida and considering a road trip down Florida’s West Coast? You’re in luck! In this “Road Trip Down Florida West Coast” guide, I’ve gathered plenty of the information that you’ll need to make this trip to the Sunshine State happen. Florida can sometimes get a bad rep, but there are plenty of unique and exciting things to do here—especially down Florida’s gulf coast.
The entire Florida West coast, also known as the Gulf Coast, is technically a 660 mile stretch of road that starts in Pensacola and goes all the way down to Everglades City and even Key West. Along the drive, you’ll see world-class beaches, beach towns, fun downtowns, wildlife refuges, mangroves and much more. If you wanted to do the entire gulf coast road trip to Key West, it would take you about 12 hours. If you went straight to Everglades City, it would take you about 9 hours.
While the entire road trip down the coast covers some incredible places, in this blog, I’m going to take you from a flight into the Orlando area to a drive down to Fort Myers. This total drive is about 5 hours if you were to drive straight, but I recommend taking at least 7-10 days, if not more, to make the entire trip and allow plenty of time in each location.
The best times to visit Florida, according to many experts, is March through May and September through November. This will ensure you avoid crowds, but also avoid extreme heat and bugs. I personally went at the end of February because I wanted to see the manatees. They typically come out in the winter/spring and the weather in February was excellent! Especially since it’s freezing in February where I’m from in Idaho. If you do travel to Florida in the winter, here’s my guide on what to pack.
Start Your Trip in the Orlando Area
Bear with me when I tell you to start your trip in Orlando and rent a car here. I realize there are plenty of places you can fly into like Tampa or St. Pete that will take you down the West Coast of Florida and be a great place to start your Florida gulf coast road trip. However, I found this to be a great entry point to start my trip because it was a straight shot, with no backtracks, to the Cyrstal River area.
I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Orlando. However, if you want to spend some time here and you haven’t experienced Disney World, I highly recommend it. Grab yourself a Disney World Theme Park ticket for the day and spend some time exploring the 4 different parks. One of the most fun activities is drinking around the world at Epcot! Another great option is walking around the Universal CityWalk. It’s very entertaining and I loved the food at Antojitos Authentic Mexican. Lastly, if you love Harry Potter, like me, check out Harry Potter World. It’s pretty amazing—although the rest of Universal Studios could be skipped in my opinion.
Visit Winter Garden
Winter Garden is a cute, tiny town right on the outskirts of Orlando (about a 20 minutes drive). I recommend taking your bike or renting bikes and heading on the famous West Orange Trail that goes right through Winter Garden. If you want to make an afternoon out of it, be sure to check out the cute Main Street and eat on the rooftop at The Whole Enchilada.
Crystal River and Homosassa
If you’re driving from Orlando to Crystal River, it will be about a 1.5-hour drive. Again, you can also fly into St. Pete, but then you’ll just need to backtrack a bit. If you can, try not to skip this area! Crystal River and Homosassa were highlights for me, mainly because I came to Florida to see manatees!
Head up here to dive in fresh water at Devil’s Den or the Blue Grotto! Devil’s Den was my first time diving in fresh water and it was so cool. If you don’t dive, you can snorkel here as well. Just keep in mind it is self-led diving and snorkeling like many places are in Florida. This means there won’t be a divemaster there to help guide your dive and you’ll be setting up your gear and everything on your own. I went with some friends which made me feel a lot more comfortable. Just know this is freshwater diving and it is pretty dark down there, so plan your weights and gear accordingly and bring a flashlight. I also recommend getting there early to get your dive in. If you want to do two dives in one day, check out Blue Grotto about a 10-minute drive away.
Rent a Pontoon and Bar Hop
One of my favorite things we did in Homosassa, besides swimming with manatees, was bar-hop on a pontoon! We were lucky because the friends I was with knew someone with a boat who took us around. You can also rent one! Just watch out for manatees while you’re out on the water. I recommend driving around and checking out the homes along the water, the monkey island, and stopping by the Manatee Pub and Crump’s Landing for a drink and the full Homosassa experience.
This was the highlight of my entire trip. I recommend going on the early tour on Crystal River with Bird’s Underwater. They were a wonderful tour and very ethical (unlike some other tours). Learn about my entire experience with Bird’s Underwater here. If time permits, you can also go to the Rainbow River or Weeki Wachee to do some more swimming with these gentle giants. This entire area of southwest Florida loves manatees and there are manatee mailboxes, sculptures, and manatee murals all over the place. If you’re a manatee fan, this is a must for you!
After swimming with manatees, we made a pit stop at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park to check out the manatee sanctuary. This is where all of the manatees that get hurt from boats, nets, and other things, go for rehab. We also got to see some more of the local wildlife. You can easily just walk in if you’re planning a visit. They are open from 9 am – 5:30 pm every day, but note that the ticket counter closes at 4:45 pm. The cost for one adult is $13.
Where to Eat and Drink in Crystal River and Homosassa
I recommend going to the Manatee Pub and Crump’s Landing for the full Homosassa experience. Manatee Pub is a rustic dive bar right on the water and Crump’s is a large tiki bar-style restaurant. They also have live music on the weekends.
Stop in for breakfast at one of the best breakfast/lunch joints in Crystal River. You should definitely try “The Grandpa” biscuits breakfast sandwich. All southern breakfast lovers also love to dig into their famous crab cakes and eggs with a side of steaming biscuits.
This is a 50-year-old eco-friendly resort with comfortable accommodations and lots of activities offered such as golf, boating, and fishing. It’s also surrounded by the Kings Bay natural springs. See current prices here.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn because we were barely at the hotel, so if you’re looking for a cheaper option, this was a good one in a good location. See current prices here.
About an hour from Crystal River you’ll stumble upon the quirky town of Tarpon Springs. It’s a great little spot along the water known for its sponges and Greek population. Take a walk downtown, check out the famous sponge docks, go on a sunset cruise, or take a boat tour to watch the sponge divers. I also recommend getting some Greek food while you’re here since they have the largest Greek population in the USA. Try Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery for a great Greek meal.
I was blown away by how amazing the Dunedin area was during my visit. Not only is the town of Dunedin charming, walkable, and extremely bike-friendly, but the surrounding areas have some of the best beaches in the world. They might just blow your mind.
What to do in the Dunedin Area
Talk about a beautiful island! Honeymoon Island is a quiet place to get some beach time in. There’s plenty of varieties of wildlife, lots of birds, some nature trails and beautiful white-sand beaches. The sunset here is also spectacular! The Honeymoon Island State Park is open from 8 am to sundown daily and costs $8 to enter.
Caladesi Island was awarded one of the top 10 beaches in America, for good reason! The white sand beaches here just can’t be beat and it isn’t overbuilt or overcrowded like many beaches in the USA. Caladesi Island is only accessible by boat or ferry (or a long walk from Clearwater Beach). I recommend renting a kayak from Sail Honeymoon for the day. If it’s not too windy, you can pick one up and paddle over to Caladesi Island. You can always take the 10-minute ferry from Honeymoon State Park over to Caladesi if paddling isn’t in the cards. There is also a three-mile kayak trail through some mangroves and a three-mile nature trail through the island.
Take a Stroll Around Main Street Dunedin
I loved just strolling down the charming downtown of Dunedin! It’s especially great after a long day at the beach. There are a bunch of cute shops, restaurants, and activities to experience. This tiny town is actually a sister city to Stirling, Scotland so you might notice a bit of Scottish influence here and since there aren’t chains in this part of town, most of the places you’ll see are locally owned.
This trail was awesome! We brought our bikes and I thought it was a great way to get some exercise. The trail is 39 miles and all paved. It actually used to be a railway! If you want to go to Honeymoon Island from downtown Dunedin you can take the paved trail all the way to Dunedin Causeway (6 miles). You can also rent bikes in town and if you’re feeling up for it, you can ride all the way to Tarpon Springs or even Clearwater Beach. It’s a great trail and very much worth checking out.
Known for its sushi, Pisces is super popular among locals and tourists. The restaurant is a modern, casual fine dining spot and has all sorts of dishes—not just sushi. It’s yummy and definitely worth a visit.
This hotel is in the perfect location! It’s easy to walk downtown and is right across the street from the Clearwater Harbor. The coolest part is that they have bikes for guests to use whenever they want. See current prices here.
I recommend spending at least 2 days in St Petersburg to check it out. It’s such an unassuming, artsy, and chill city and I just fell in love once I got here! Check out my full guide to St. Petersburg, FL here.
What to Do in St. Petersburg
Central Arts District
I honestly could have spent the majority of my time in the Central Arts District! It’s such a cute neighborhood that has the best shops and restaurants. I loved going to see all of the street art and people watching. I highly recommend walking down Central Avenue North for all of the shops and restaurants and then going into the back alleys to see all of the murals and art! They also do tours of these murals if that’s your thing.
This park is comprised of 5 islands off the coast of St Petersburg and has beaches that span for 7 miles. You can get here by car to check out the beaches, trails, and historic Fort. This is perfect for people who want to get out of the city and have an outdoorsy day!
Go to St. Pete Beach
Talk about a beautiful sunset! Upon entering St. Pete we got to watch the sunset from this beach and it was epic. Also, on this side of town, one of the first things you’ll notice is the giant pink hotel, The Don CeSar, on the water. It was remarkable! This beach is beautiful and I highly recommend going if you have time to spend.
I’m not typically a huge museum-goer, but the Dali Museum was gorgeous and I couldn’t say no. In fact, St. Petersburg is full of amazing museums, so I knew I needed to go to at least one! Plus, this museum was short and sweet, but also full of Salvador Dali’s incredible works of art. I recommend going because it will only take you an hour or two to get through. Stop in the gardens outside to get some different views and photos of the museum. Book your tickets here.
Where to Stay in St. Pete
I stayed in the Old Northeast neighborhood and loved the old homes. This was mycute Airbnbwithin walking distance to North Shore Park and downtown St Pete. It’s tiny, but I thought it was perfect and even had a little kitchen.
This is one of the better aquariums I’ve been to in my life. I also got to go diving with sharks in their coral reef aquarium and it was EPIC! I highly recommend doing this if you’re a diver (you can swim too) and want a unique diving experience. See recent prices here.
I loved biking along the Tampa Riverwalk and stopping at the Armature Works for lunch! It’s about a 2.6 mile path along the Hillsborough River waterfront and goes near some of downtown’s major attractions. You’ll find it also has some pretty amazing views of the city.
This place was so cool, I couldn’t believe I just stumbled upon it. Basically, it’s a 73K square-foot building and mixed-use space. This means there are restaurants inside, communal seating, and bars. It’s a great place to hang out right on the Hillsborough River. Many times they’ll also have live music on the front lawn!
Ybor City is by far the best place for Cuban food in Tampa. I recommend going on a food tour of the area, especially if you’re a first-time visitor to learn a bit about the history of Ybor City and the food scene. This area also has some crazy-fun bars if you’re in the mood for going out in Tampa.
This is one of the most unique restaurants in Tampa. It’s right on the riverfront near AmatureWorks and is a brewery and restaurant with native-inspired foods. Most of them were prepared over a barbacoa grill. There’s also a great beer garden which is a nice spot to watch the sunset!
If you want to eat somewhere with views of the water, but similar vibes to a food hall, go here. There are seven different food stands to choose from. Plus there are lawn games and great views of the water. It’s a great place to hang out with friends in the evening because there are so many options.
If you love Spanish food, you’ll love this spot. Columbia started in Ybor City in 1905 and now they have multiple locations in Florida. It’s a bit pricier, but worth it for the classic recipes. Keep in mind the portions here are pretty large, so it might be worth sharing!
This hotel has a very Instagram-worthy vibe! The lobby has a rotating art gallery and fun egg chairs. It’s also been recently renovated so everything is looking great. One of the coolest parts is they have a free shuttle that will take you anywhere within 3-miles of the hotel—including the Tampa Airport. See current prices here.
Hotel Haya is a unique, boutique hotel in two historic buildings in Ybor City. The whole hotel has local Cuban art accenting the space. There’s also a cool bar and outdoor pool. If you want to get to downtown Tampa, just hop on a streetcar. See current prices here.
Sarasota is a gem of a city on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s beautiful, super relaxed, and has much less traffic than you’ll find in Tampa and St. Pete. The beaches here are incredible and there are fun cultural activities and historical landmarks around the city. I definitely recommend a stop here on your trip!
I promise you will be blown away by the beauty of the grounds here. The Ca’ d’Zan is John and Mable Ringling’s mansion and museums. You’ll notice the Venetian-inspired architecture including a dock for a gondola! If you’re short on time, consider just exploring the grounds. If you have a bit more time check out the museums!
Anna Maria Island is a barrier island located off the coast of Tampa Bay and is one of the best day trips from Sarasota. Once you arrive you’ll be transported to another place where you’ll find white sand beaches, fun restaurants, and amazing crystal clear water. There really is a lot to do here, so make sure you have plenty of time to get all the relaxation in. You’ll also want to check out Bean Point for the sunset viewing spot. This point is special because it’s where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Looking for a bit of wilderness? Check out Myakka River State Park! It’s about 20 minutes outside of Sarasota, but it’s a different world out there. You can see alligators from a safe place away and there are some cool trail hikes and bike rides near the river.
The pure white sand here is incredible. It’s a magical place but can get busy and hard to find a parking spot. I recommend getting here a bit early to snag a spot. Enjoy the powdered sugar sand that doesn’t ever get hot under your feet and stare in awe at the perfectly turquoise water!
I love SUPing and what better way to try it out than through mangroves! You can rent boards and kayaks or take a guided tour and paddle through these incredible mangrove tunnels. Look out for birds on the way. You might even see manatees or dolphins while you’re out!
Check Out the Painted Bicycles Around the City
One quirky thing about Sarasota is that there are painted and uniquely decorated bikes all over the place. Try and find all 36 of the bikes around the city and read the full history of the fun bikes here.
Looking to stay near the beach? This is a perfect option for you. Sarasota is famous for its keys: Lido Key, Siesta Key, and Longboat Key. This hotel is beachfront and located right on Longboat Key. There’s an amazing pool, a private beach, and free parking. Perfect for a relaxing vacation. See current prices here.
Looking for more of a design hotel? This luxury boutique hotel might fit the bill. The interior is super modern and minimalistic without sacrificing the calm feeling you want when you enter a hotel. They have a great pool as well! See current prices here.
Fort Myers is the perfect quirky small-town with a beachy, tropical vibe. There are tons of great activities to do near the water and so many wildlife spottings to be had! The water is turquoise, the sand is white, and it’s the perfect, eclectic seaside town.
Stop here if you’re interested in a bit of history. Thomas Edison used to own this property back in 1885 and would come stay here in the wintertime. You can tour the grounds and the houses and even learn about his inventions and the people behind them. It’s super fascinating and a stunning way to spend the morning.
This is a must-see in Fort Myers if you’re a nature lover. JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers 6,400 acres of pure wilderness. You can drive in and see tons of different types of birds, water animals, and alligators. Many people say it’s best if you go in the morning or later at night to see the most wildlife, but definitely add it to your list.
This is definitely one of the best restaurants in Fort Myers Beach. It actually used to be an old fish market and was turned into a restaurant/bar with amazing seafood dishes. Order all the seafood, some craft beers and don’t forget to try the fried green tomatoes!
This place is amazing! Locals call it SOB and despite the name, they don’t actually brew beer. It’s got a beach town vibe like many of the restaurants around here and has a great laid-back atmosphere. There’s also live music here quite a lot. Try the scallops or the garlic crabs!
This is rated the best hotel in Fort Myers but you will pay for that. If you want to be close-ish to the action of Fort Myers I recommend booking your stay here to truly enjoy the amenities and the oceanfront! See current prices here.
This is a gorgeous property and has great views of downtown. If you have your pet with you, it’s pet-friendly and it’s a short walk to popular attractions and restaurants in Fort Myers. See current prices here.
Everglades National Park
If you want to extend your trip to the Everglades, I recommend visiting by car! On your way, it might also be worth stopping in Naples or Marco Island if you have time.
Note that cell reception isn’t great in the park, so make sure you download your maps ahead of time or grab a paper map.
This park has so many unique ecosystems and there are so many wonderful walking and hiking paths. You can take a ranger-led tour, or airboat tour and see all sorts of wildlife like manatees, dolphins, and birds! There aren’t accommodations inside the park except camping so you’ll have to stay somewhere nearby. Everglades City is a popular option.
If you want to continue your trip, you can keep going down to the Florida Keys! I spent most of my time in Key Largo where the best scuba diving is located in the Keys, but all of the Keys have something fun to offer. Check out my Instagram story highlights here to see more about my trip. Here’s my full guide to Key Largo as well.
You could also drive down to Miami if you’re in for a treat! Keep in mind Key West has an airport if you’d like to drop your car down there and fly out after your trip!
Hopefully, this helps you plan your road trip down Florida’s West Coast. Please let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed that I can add to the list for the next time I visit! Also, let’s be friends on Instagram!
Welcome to the Traveling Spud! I’m Katie, a 30 something from Idaho who quit her marketing job in San Francisco, California to travel the world for a year. After a trip around the world, my heart chose Idaho. I'm addicted to outdoor adventures, photography, and inspiring others to get out of their comfort zones and cross experiences off of their bucket lists. Let's explore together! Read more here.