The REAL Florida – A Native’s Guide For Tourists

Having traveled around the world, I’m always amazed at what people think Florida is…I suppose I should be used to it by now, but it still confounds me.

Tourists generally go to the beaches or Disney and rarely venture out into the real Florida. We are certainly proud of our beaches – I believe our best can hold their own versus almost any beaches in the world – but they are only a small part of what Florida has to offer. Even people who have moved here (aka ‘transplants’) usually don’t even understand the real Florida. If you don’t get out of the big cities, venture away from the coast, you’ll never find it.

The real Florida is so much more than the concrete jungles around the coast and natives are decidedly southern. There is an inherent love of nature and a passion for enjoying it. To have a real Florida experience during your next trip, here are a few suggestions:

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1. Befriend a local and ask them where they go out to eat.  Note – a local isn’t someone who moved here from Michigan or someone who has only lived in a big city…They’re likely to own a john boat or know someone who does – LOL.  (I realize this one is reaching a bit for most people, but I’ve had the best travel experiences around the world employing this concept).

2. Deep sea fishing is popular with lots of tourists, but try fishing in a little boat instead. Go to a lake, a river, or in and around our marshes. Maybe even go out in the ocean and float about picking up scallops off the sea floor. Just don’t go the commercial route. You’ll see plant and animal life up close, experience a slower pace of day, and perhaps start to see why we love our land so much.  Rivers to try – Manatee, Ichatuchnee, Rainbow, Crystal. 

3. Stop at a roadside fruit stand. We have such good locally grown fruit and veg, it doesn’t get much better. In February or March, stop at a u-pick strawberry field for the best berries you’ll ever have.

4. Go to the Keys but spend a few days on one other than Key West.

5. Visit St. Augustine (it’s on your way to Orlando).  It’s the oldest city in the nation!

6.  Take a break from Disney and go to Weeki Watchee – a classic Florida attraction opened in the 40’s, located an hour north of Tampa.  From their website, “Weeki Wachee is an enchanted spring — the only one of its kind in the world — and one of Florida’s oldest and most unique roadside attractions. For almost 60 years, the fun, family oriented park has lured in visitors with beautiful mermaids who swim in the cool, clear spring waters. Weeki Wachee Springs is a magical entrance into a mysterious blue underwater world of mermaids, manatees, turtles and bubbles. Sitting in the Mermaid Theater, visitors feel like they are inside the flowing spring, and are transported back to simpler times, before super theme parks and super highways appeared.”

7.  Go to a local festival.  The best is Gasparilla – a celebration of our pirate history complete with a pirate ship flotilla invasion of the bay (  Here are some to choose from: Rattlesnake Festival (just outside my hometown, Dade City!), Watermelon Festival (in the panhandle), Strawberry Festival (Plant City), Greek Festival (St. Augustine)…There’s even a Possum Festival, but then that might be taking it a bit too far!

8.  Go to a baseball or football game and eat boiled peanuts (Go Gators!).  Check out the Florida Marlins, minor league baseball, UF, FSU, USF, and Miami games.

9.  Take a break from the beach and go to Ginnie Springs, or another park similar for unparalleled outdoor experiences (and at $12/head is much cheaper than Busch Gardens).  Another option is to camp at Grayton Beach in the panhandle, simply georgeous.

I have the great fortune to be a seventh generation Floridian so I know it in a way many others never will. As a kid we went arrowhead hunting in old Indian sand dunes, tubed weekly down the river we lived on, went on my first lake fishing trip when I was a baby, learned to drive on limestone dirt roads, and much more. 

To me, these things represent the great wealth of Florida yet so many people have no idea they exist.  I think it is a good rule for any vacation…get to know where you are. The resort where you are staying isn’t authentic, strike out and find it on your own! You’ll have an experience and memories that you’ll never forget.

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