Sadly, Orlando doesn’t have any beaches of its own. But the Atlantic coast is only about an hour away, and the Gulf coast is less than two hours away. So there are tons of beaches that make for a quick and easy day trip from the City Beautiful. You can even head to the east coast for an oceanfront sunrise, then drive back across the state to see a legendary Gulf coast sunset, all in the same day.
Although each beach has its own personality, there are some general differences between east coast Florida beaches and west coast Florida beaches. The east coast has bigger waves and harder-packed sand, while the west coast has calmer, warmer waters and more powdery sand. But either way you go, you’re sure to find some of that classic Florida sunshine.
Cocoa Beach – Best Surf Beach
Driving time: 58 minutes
Cocoa Beach is the quickest and easiest beach to get to from Orlando. Just get on on State Road 528 (watch out for tolls!) and drive until you hit the beach.
Known for its surfing culture, the 6-mile stretch of sand is home to the largest Ron Jon Surf Shop in the world. It’s 52,000 square feet stuffed full of beach gear like T-shirts, swimsuits, seashells, surfboards and tons of souvenirs. You can take part in the city’s surf culture with a lesson from the Ron Jon Surf School.
Then there’s the Cocoa Beach pier. It’s an 800-foot historic landmark with restaurants, bars and gift shops. This is where the spring breakers hang out to enjoy beach volleyball and live music.
If you’re looking for something a little quieter, head a few minutes south to Lori Wilson Park. It’s more family friendly and has free parking, public restrooms and outdoor showers.
If you’ve got a little extra time for shopping or eating out, head to tiny Cocoa Village, just inland from the beach. It’s a historic section of town with quaint, tree-lined streets filled with charming little shops, art galleries and restaurants. And it’s right next to the 10-acre Riverfront Park, a gorgeous greenway with sweeping views of the Indian River.
Daytona Beach – Best Boardwalk Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 2 minutes
Daytona Beach isn’t just for sweaty folks who like watching cars drive around in a circle rull fast-like. (I’m talking about NASCAR, y’all.) Did you know that NASCAR is actually an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing? Seems a bit repetitive to me. “Car Auto”? How about just the National Association for Stock Car Racing? But NASCR just makes me think of the ermahgerd meme. Eh, I guess they can keep it the way it is. It’s only been that way for like 70 years.
Anyway, back to Orlando area beaches. Daytona Beach is a straight shot up I-4 from Orlando (no tolls!), so it’s pretty easy to get to. Not to get back into the NASCAR stuff, but this city is ALL ABOUT cars. They’ve got a drive-in church, and you’re allowed to drive your car right onto the the beach. The hard packed sand was popular for racers looking to set land speed records back in the 1920s (the first record of a person going over 200 mph was set at Daytona Beach).
The Daytona Beach boardwalk, located right beside the Main Street Pier, is a classic American beach boardwalk. It has amusement rides (including a Ferris wheel with awesome views), go karts, arcades and street performers. There’s also plenty of restaurants and bars. And the historic Daytona Beach Bandshell is just north of the boardwalk. The city puts on free summer concerts and movies at the bandshell, often with fireworks afterwards.
New Smyrna Beach – Best Small Town Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Just south of Daytona Beach you’ll fined New Smyrna Beach, a quieter alternative. The 13 mile smooth stretch of sand makes for great bike riding (rent one from Salty Rentals), and the waves are perfect for surfing (you can rent a board from Red Dog Surf Shop). Plus, New Smyrna Beach has won a ton of awards for everything from “Best Beach” to being named one of the “100 Best Small Art Towns in America.”
The city is the second oldest in America after St. Augustine – they’re celebrating their 250th birthday in 2018. And they’re keeping the historic, small town feel – you won’t find any chain restaurants here. Everything is locally owned.
If you want quirky shops and restaurants, they’ve got it. Stroll along the five historic blocks of Flagler Avenue, running from the ocean to the Indian River, for plenty of local boutiques, shops and delicious eateries. Try Third Wave Cafe for a gourmet meal paired with global wines and craft beers. Or check out Flagler Tavern for more laid back burgers and seafood.
Like Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach allows you to drive straight onto the sand. But unlike Daytona Beach, they’ve got unobstructed views of hundreds of different bird species flying overhead. Bird-watching is fun, but remember, what goes up must come down. So keep your mouth closed while staring at the sky unless you want a mouthful of doo doo.
Canaveral National Seashore – Best Deserted Island Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Head east from Orlando, through the lovely town of Christmas, on to Titusville, and then over the Indian River to the largest expanse of pristine sand in the entire state. The thin ribbon of barrier island features a tranquil, windswept beach and tons of wildlife. Bird-watching is huge here, and you’ll also find manatees, dolphins and thousands of sea turtle nests.
The north end of the seashore is known as Apollo Beach. The middle is Klondike Beach (what would you dooooo for a Klondike Beach?), and the south end is Playalinda Beach. It’s all separated from the Florida mainland by Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River. Although nudity isn’t legally permitted, Playalinda is known for its clothing-optional status. The whole area is completely undeveloped, so be sure to bring your own water and snacks.
Just south of Playalinda Beach is the Kennedy Space Center. Watching a rocket launch into space from the beach is a pretty epic experience. And if you’re into stuff like the mind-blowing vastness of space and the awe-inspiring missions humans have taken to explore it, it’s worth making a trip to the Visitor Complex. They have actual rockets just chilling on the lawn and exhibits on the moon landing and a future journey to Mars. Dope.
St. Augustine Beach – Best Old World Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Take a quick drive over on I-4 and up I-95 to find arguably the most charming coastal town in all of Florida – St. Augustine. It’s definitely the oldest city, not just in Florida but in the entire U.S., established way back in 1565.
The historic district contains cobblestone streets lined with unique shops, adorable cafes and trendy bars. If you have time, stop by the St. Augustine Distillery for premium spirits, Crave Food Truck for delicious sandwiches and smoothies, and The Hyppo for gourmet ice pops, perfect after a hot day at the beach (or before).
But it’s beaches we’re after. Cross over the Bridge of Lions (pray the drawbridge isn’t up since it causes major traffic delays) to Anastasia Island for the area’s gorgeous white sand beaches.
Anastasia State Park has the most gorgeous beach in the area with five miles of pristine sand nestled in 1,600 acres of protected lands. The park features nature trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, concessions, a volleyball court and camping. They also rent beach chairs, umbrellas, bikes, canoes and kayaks.
St. Augustine Beach is just south of Anastasia State Park and features the St. Johns County Pier and surrounding park. There’s a playground, splash pad, restrooms with outdoor showers, volleyball courts and a gift shop with souvenirs, refreshments and beach chair rentals. They often hold events at the pavilion, including concerts, arts and crafts shows and farmer’s markets.
One last spot to check out before heading back to Orlando is the St. Augustine Lighthouse. It’s 219 steps to the top of the picturesque, stripey building. But more interesting is the history of paranormal activity. That’s right, g-g-g-ghosts! Folks have experienced everything from disembodied voices to shadowy figures and unexplained footsteps. See for yourself on one of their ghost tours.
St. Pete Beach – Best Powdery Soft Sand Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
We’re heading to the Gulf Coast now! Visitors to St. Pete Beach from Orlando typically take I-4 west to I-275, down into the city of St. Petersburg (The Dali Museum is worth a stop), cutting over to the beach on Pasadena Avenue. Going that way will take you straight into the Corey Avenue shopping district of St. Pete Beach, a great place to stop and grab a bite to eat or wander through the specialty shops and boutiques.
From Corey Avenue, St. Pete Beach’s public parking and beach access is about 1.5 miles south. There’s public restrooms, water fountains and outdoor showers. Cross over the dunes on one of the three boardwalks and you’ll see why TripAdvisor’s reviewers put this in the top ten beaches in the U.S.
The white sand is as powdery soft as… insert something really soft here. A baby’s butt? Sounds weird. Feathers? Sounds buggy. A fluffy white cloud? Clouds aren’t actually soft – they’re just water vapor. Ehhh, you get the point. The sand is REALLY SOFT. And the water is warm and clear. It’s great for beach bumming if you just want to soak up the sun (they get 361 days of it per year) or for trying a variety of watersports like parasailing, paddleboarding or windsurfing.
That area is the main access point for St. Pete Beach, so it can get a little crowded at times. If you want something quieter, head a couple of miles further south to Hurley Park. There’s free parking (although it’s limited), public restrooms, a playground and a picnic pavilion. Beach access is right across the street.
Madeira Beach – Best Laid Back + Lively Combo Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Did you know that the locals call Madeira Beach “Mad Beach” because it was founded by a mad scientist who something crazy? No? That’s because it’s not true. They call it that because it’s easier to say, duh!
Since Madeira Beach is just north of St. Pete Beach, it’s just as beautiful. But the area is more residential than commercial, making it a bit more low-key. The 2.5 miles of white sand beachfront perfectly frame the emerald-turquoise Gulf of Mexico. It’s an excellent spot for simply swimming and sunning.
When you get your fill of the beach bum life, head to the southern tip of Madeira Beach to visit John’s Pass, a boardwalk village with over 100 shops and restaurants overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. There are plenty of shops selling souvenirs and knick-knacks, plus lots of bars and eateries offering fresh seafood and cold drinks. Try Mad Beach Brewing for gourmet pub food and craft beers as well as pool, corn hole and air hockey. Or head to The Boardwalk Grill, a great hole-in-the-wall spot serving seafood, burgers and beer.
If you’ve got some extra time, go on one of the dolphin tours or sunset cruises that depart from John’s Pass. There’s also a pirate ship cruise that’s super fun for kids, and you can go parasailing or rent waverunners from places like Woody’s Watersports.
Clearwater Beach – Best Total Package Beach
Driving time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Located on the Gulf Coast just north of St. Pete Beach, Clearwater Beach is often ranked one of the best beaches in the U.S. The sand is like powdered sugar and the waters are calm and crystal clear (yes, it’s appropriately named). The shallow water makes it great for families, and the main beach access area has drinking fountains and outdoor showers to rinse off.
Smack in the middle of the beach is Pier 60, site of the nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 festival. Beginning two hours before sunset, the festival features street performers, live music and local artists selling things like jewelry, crafts and unique gifts. The pier also has a snack bar and souvenir shop.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars lining the beach should you start to feel rumbly in your tumbly. Badfins Food Brew is a good spot for tacos, beer and other pub fare. Or head to Salty’s Island Bar & Grille for seafood and scrumptious frozen cocktails.
If that’s not enough for you, there are also plenty of shops, boat tour operators and watersports rentals within walking distance of the beach.
How to Choose the Best Orlando Area Beach
No matter which one you choose, you’re bound to have a good time. And with over 1,300 miles of coastline, Florida has plenty of options.