by Terry Ward | January 4, 2024

Florida’s Charming Small Towns You Don’t Know

Stray off the beaten path and discover these small-town treasures brimming with bespoke adventures and natural beauty.

Shop, dine and stroll at the Beaches Town Center in Atlantic Beach. Photography courtesy of Word Marketing Co.

The best travel surprises often pop up where you least expect them. Detour off the main highways and venture away from coastal arteries to find the most memorable and unexpected adventures. Follow our lead to some of Florida’s most charming small towns that are well worth putting into the GPS for those serendipitous travel moments you’ll wish you could bottle up forever.

Atlantic Beach

Jacksonville Beach gets most of the name recognition in Northeast Florida, but locals know that the Jax Beaches encompass several friendly surf-centric neighborhoods, including the largely residential hamlet of Atlantic Beach. Here, healthy dunes carpeted with sea oats and wildflowers protect custom homes. There are just a couple independent hotels to have on your radar in Atlantic Beach for a stay, including the oceanfront One Ocean Resort & Spa and the retro Hotel Palms boutique motorcourt hotel, tucked just a few blocks off the beach. Atlantic Beach is perfect for renting a beach cruiser and pedaling north to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park or perusing the picturesque town center that shares a corner with neighboring Neptune Beach. You’ll find independent restaurants and shops like Southern Grounds (a coffee lovers go-to), a local favorite Italian spot Mezza Luna and Jaffi’s women’s boutique, with everything to get you beachside or downtown ready, from maxi dresses and mules to yoga sets and graphic tees.

Fellsmere's Frog Leg Festival, putting the small town on the map as the Frog Leg Capital of the World. Photography courtesy of Visit Indian River County.

Fellsmere

Head just inland from Vero Beach to find the sweet little country town of Fellsmere, famous for its annual Frog Leg Festival held every January (and for being the Frog Leg Capital of the World, too–it’s true, they taste a lot like chicken). If you’re visiting outside of the amphibious festival, you can try Florida specialties like gator tail and swamp cabbage at Fellsmere’s historic Marsh Landing Restaurant, located inside a building that dates to 1926 and was once the Florida Crystal Sugar Company’s headquarters. Or family-owned Yami’s Ice Cream for homemade treats like popsicles and ice cream bars in Florida flavors like mango, mamey and guava. Anglers should set their sights on Blue Cypress Lake, known for its largemouth bass as well as its pristine, largely undeveloped shoreline thick with towering cypress trees that provide vital habitat for nesting osprey.

The charming town of Sebring is over 100 years old. Photography courtesy of Visit Sebring.

Sebring

Less than two hours south of Orlando lies a waterfront village famous for its storied racing history. Sebring is home to the Sebring International Raceway, the oldest permanent road racing facility in North America. Established in 1950, the raceway hosts events throughout the year, the most important of which is the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. The 12-hour endurance race takes place every March on the track’s 17-turn circuit and attracts racing fans and celebrities such as James Brolin and Patrick Dempsey. When the engines have cooled, it's time to pop some tops at Florida’s Fizziest Festival. The Sebring Soda Festival takes place every spring and draws more than 20,000 people to sample hundreds of craft sodas, listen to live music, relax at a beer garden and more. True blue Florida nature is at your doorstep in Sebring, too, out on the boardwalks and nature trails at Highlands Hammock State Park. Book some boat time with Airboat Wildlife Adventures to spot gators lurking in the 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga. Or keep things low-key sipping sangria made with Florida muscadine wine at Secret Gardens Winery and Farm.

Feed giraffes at Dade City's Giraffe Ranch. Photography by David Fowles.

Dade City

Located an hour’s drive northeast of Tampa, unassuming Dade City is home to a menagerie of animals, historic tales and exotic fruits.  The Kumquat Festival, held every January, is one of those only-in-Florida festivals where you sample truly local terroir, which includes kumquat jams, jellies, pies and even kumquat beers and wines. Or pay a visit to Giraffe Ranch, where you can drive your own car on a self-guided wildlife safari or roll past zebras, pygmy hippos, ostrich and other African animals during guided camel and segway safaris. Dade City is also home to the Pioneer Florida Museum,  which hosts cane syrup-making demonstrations and is the site of several historic buildings, including a two-story farm dwelling from the pioneer era, the Overstreet House. It dates to the 1860s and is made of native Florida heart pine, giving a real glimpse into how rustic life here used to be.

Historic Everglades City Hall surrounded by palm trees on a sunny day. Photography courtesy of Paradise Coast.

Everglades City

Most visitors to Everglades National Park arrive via the main entrance in Homestead. But if you’re coming to see the park via its Gulf Coast entrance, southeast of Naples and Marco Island, you’ll get the pleasure of experiencing the historic Florida town of Everglades City. Try Florida’s favorite sustainable crustacean at City Seafood’s rustic waterfront cafe market, where they’re offloaded from fishing boats right onto the restaurant’s docks—and make sure to visit from Oct. 15 to May 1 for stone crab season!  Everglades Area Tours can guide you on kayak eco tours into the surrounding maze of waterways and mangrove islets and sandy islands that make up the Ten Thousand Islands. And the historic Rod & Gun Club, a former private club turned resort, offers simple rooms plus two bar lounges and a restaurant with fish Reuben sandwiches and atmospheric river views.