14 Budget-Friendly Destinations for Your Next Florida Vacation

Family walking on beautiful Florida beach.


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Family walking on beautiful Florida beach.

Sunshine State on a Budget

Move over, Disney. There's no need to spend several thousand on a Florida dream vacation. While theme parks and fancy resorts snag a large chunk of tourists’ attention (and dollars), the Sunshine State has plenty of getaways that won't drain your wallet. Here are 14 under-the-radar destinations to add to your Florida bucket list.

Related: Florida Mansions You Can Book as Vacation Rentals

Lakeland, Florida, USA
Sean Pavone/istockphoto

For Romantics: Lakeland

Right off I-4 but without the traffic headaches of Orlando, Lakeland offers a taste of authentic Central Florida. Start your morning picking fresh fruit at local farms. Then spend the rest of the day soaking up the romance: Awaiting are the neo-classical Hollis Garden, the free Polk Museum of Art, and the world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, free for self-guided tours. 

Related: Romantic Vacation Rentals Across America

Turquoise waterfront of Florida Keys in Marathon, Florida

For Beach Bums: Marathon

Key West might monopolize the Florida Keys spotlight, but budget-minded travelers can often stay in Marathon, halfway down the archipelago, for less. It has some of the best beaches, too, like scenic Sombrero Beach and nearby Bahia Honda State Park. For sweeping ocean views, walk part of the Old Seven Mile Bridge — a 2.2-mile stretch just reopened in January.

Related: Gorgeous Airbnb Yacht Rentals in Florida

Brooksville water tower and Country Depot collectibles store
Sunshower Shots/istockphoto
Fort Myers Beach Fishing Pier 10

For Beachcombers: Fort Myers

Sanibel Island is famous for shelling, but you can find budget-friendly digs on the mainland and easily hop across the bridge when you’re ready. There are also seashells in Fort Myers Beach, plus an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound. And don't miss the unusual Shell Factory, the largest gift shop of its kind in the world.

Athens Theater Deland Florida
Athens Theater Deland Florida by Frank DiBona (CC BY-NC-ND)

For Art Lovers: DeLand

Easily one of the prettiest downtowns in the state, DeLand is decked with murals and sculptures galore. See a show at the 1920s Athens Theatre, visit a museum or, if it’s Friday night, swing by Artisan Alley to marvel at local masterpieces. The city hosts at least four major art fairs, but their fall festival, drawing over 180 juried artists every November, is the biggest.

Related: Small Towns With Big Art Scenes

Gainesville, Florida, USA downtown
Sean Pavone/istockphoto

For Thrill-Seekers: Gainesville

If you haven't splashed into crystal-clear springs that stay a refreshing 72 degrees year-round, you're missing out on a classic (and affordable) Florida experience. You can tube, paddle, snorkel and even cave dive in this area known as The Gateway to the Springs. In town, find rock climbing, off-road biking, escape games and an indoor air sports park.

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A grumman F14 Tom Cat

For History Buffs: Pensacola

Little-known fact: Pensacola is America’s first multi-year European settlement, dating to 1559. Travel back in time at the 8.5-acre Historic Pensacola Village, the Finding 1821 Trail, the history museum and sprawling Fort Pickens, completed in 1834. For history in the air, visit the Naval Aviation Museum (the world’s largest) and catch a free air show by the Blue Angels.

Four Horses & A Pond

For Equine Enthusiasts: Ocala

The Horse Capital of the World is in Marion County, Florida, home to the most horses in the country, plenty of them prize champions over the years. Ride the shady equestrian trails or simply explore the parks, a herd of colorful horse statues and the 387,000-acre Ocala National Forest with its limpid springs and diverse wildlife.

Jacksonville Florida skyline at night

For Partiers: Jacksonville

Want big-city nightlife without South Florida prices? Head to the biggest burg in the state: not Miami — Jacksonville. Listen to live music at Underbelly. Shoot pool for 25 cents beachside at Pete's Bar. Grab cocktails at the speakeasy-style Volstead. With dance clubs, comedy clubs, a dozen rooftop bars and a downtown entertainment district that doesn’t sleep, you won’t want to either.

Florida's Forgotten Coast
Florida's Forgotten Coast by anoldent (CC BY-SA)

For Nature Lovers: The Forgotten Coast

This 100-mile stretch of the Florida panhandle east of Panama City is often overlooked by tourists, but if you enjoy the outdoors, it’s heaven. Over 80% of the county is wilderness waiting to be explored. Kayak pristine rivers, hike a national forest, or camp on an island state park. The lighthouses and near-deserted beaches look like scenes from a postcard. 

Related: Spectacular Lighthouses Across America

Brevard Zoo, Melbourne Florida

For Families: Melbourne

If you’re looking for a more off-the-beaten-path place to stay on the Space Coast, try Melbourne. It’s got it all: airboat rides, animal exhibits, two state parks, and cook-your-own pancakes at Backwater with the toppings kids dream of (cotton candy, anyone?). And you’re still under an hour from Cocoa Beach and the thrills of Cape Canaveral, including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park sign

For Animal Lovers: Citrus County

This is the only place in the country you can legally swim with manatees. Take a guided tour in winter to get up close to these gentle giants or watch from a floating observatory. Spot other aquatic wildlife — alligators, turtles, fish — year-round or go birding on one of the 20 designated birding trails. Bringing Fido? There are dog parks and even pet-friendly boat tours.

Everglades: Observation Tower - II

For Outdoor Adventurers: Everglades National Park

The Everglades span some 1.5 million acres, so don’t expect to “do it all” in a day. Fortunately, your pass lasts a week. From the east coast entrance, hike the Anhinga Trail to spot otters, alligators, herons and more. From the west, tour the Ten Thousand Islands. Crave more adventure? Try slough slogging, a knee-deep guided wade through the famed River of Grass. Bonus: Save on admission with fee-free days.

Cedar Key Waterfront

For Anglers: Cedar Key

In a state beleaguered by tourists, few places escape the hustle and bustle, but Cedar Key, an island city with no traffic lights and no high rises, is about as laid-back as it gets. For incredible Gulf Coast fishing, head to the pier off Dock Street. Then stop into the nautically themed Steamers next-door for dinner. They’ll even cook your catch. 

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