FLORIDA’s GULF COAST: 10 Ideas For a Great Vacation

Colorful beach umbrella on Florida beach

Florida’s Gulf Coast is truly a wonderful place to vacation. Here is a list of 10 ideas for things to do on the west side of the sunshine state.

Colorful umbrella on Florida beach

10 Florida Gulf Coast Ideas

1Go to the beach
2Cruise the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway
3Don Pedro Island
4Myakka River State Park
5Clearwater Marine Aquarium
6Busch Gardens Theme Park
7Explore Boca Grande
8Bike around Siesta Key
9Play golf
10Watch a sunset

1. Hit the beach!

Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches are truly beautiful with their soft-sand and generally calm waters. Up and down the coast from Destin to Clearwater, Sarasota to Fort Myers, you’ll find awesome beaches.

White sandy Florida beach

Hunt for shark teeth near Venice

For some added beach fun, head to a beach near Venice, Florida for some shark teeth hunting. This area is known as the shark tooth capitol of the world!

Shark teeth in palm of hand

My family has spent endless hours hunting for fossilized shark teeth. It’s easy, really. Just wade in the water where the waves break, then scoop up some wet sand and sift through to find them.

Kids digging in sand on Florida beach

Besides Venice beach, other beaches that we’ve had great luck with in finding shark teeth include:

  • Caspersen Beach
  • Casey Key
  • Manasota Key
  • Englewood Beach
Manasota Beach on clear day

Go shelling near Sanibel and Captiva

If hunting for the coolest sea shells – rather than shark’s teeth – sounds like more fun, then for sure head to the beaches of Sanibel Island and Captiva. Those islands rank among the top in the world for shelling.

Woman walking in ocean surf

2. Cruise the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway

For a truly unforgettable day, rent a pontoon, fishing boat, or jet ski and cruise Florida’s Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. These inland waters are a great place to boat because they are protected by land, so much calmer than out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Where to rent a boat

The Intracoastal runs for several hundred miles, so there are boat rental places all up and down the coast. If you happen to be near Englewood, my family has had great experiences renting from both Allure Boat Rentals and Bay Breeze.

In particular, these places have been helpful explaining the markers found in the waterways and how best to navigate them.

View of intercoastal from front of boat

What to do during your boat cruise

Most boat rentals are 4, 6 or 8 hours (jet ski rentals are by the hour) and there is plenty to do during that time. For example, it’s very likely you’ll spot dolphins or manatees as they love these calmer waters.

There are also amazing sandbars to pull up on and explore. Be sure to ask your boat rental guides for a map and best places to stop on your day on the water.

Pontoon docked on Florida beach

3. Kayak or paddleboard to Don Pedro Island

One of my favorite activities in Florida is renting a kayak or paddleboard and exploring the Intracoastal that way. Again, there are lots of rental places but I’ve been thrilled with a place at Stump Pass Beach State Park called Hooked on SUP in Englewood.

This is a half-day activity that is sure to be a highlight of your vacation. You can take a guided tour or go out on your own.

Paddleboards docked on beach

From Stump Pass, you’ll head a short distance to a beautiful lagoon which is only accessible by paddling through a mangrove tunnel. It’s really neat and you are sure to see lots of cool sponges, starfish, and other small sea creatures.

Starfish and shells on sand in clear ocean

Next, paddle to Don Pedro Island. Access to this island and state park is only by car ferry or boat. It has a gorgeous beach! The sheltered pavilion is a great place for a picnic, and the restrooms there are a bonus, too.

Don Pedro Island wooden walkway

4. Myakka River State Park

If you run into a day with not-so-great weather, or just need a break from the beach, Myakka River State Park in Sarasota is a fun place to visit. As one of Florida’s largest parks, you can easily spend an entire day here.

Wildlife Boat and Tram Tours

First, take a wildlife boat tour where you’re sure to see tons of bird and you’ll get up close to alligators. Or, you can take a tram tour that takes you throughout the park. The tours last about an hour and are available throughout the day.

Canopy Walkway

Next, head to the unique Canopy Walkway. Opened in 2000, it’s famous for being the first public treetop trail in North America. Suspended 25 feet above the ground, it’s a cool way to explore the park.

Canopy walkway at Myakka River State Park

Be sure to save your energy for the climb of the 74-foot tower.

Tower structure at Myakka River State Park

The hike up is worth it when you see the spectacular view over the treetops.

View above treetops from Myakka River State Park tower

5. Clearwater Marine Aquarium

A daytrip to Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a must-do. Much more than just an aquarium, this place is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick and injured marine animals. Recently, it completed a multi-million dollar expansion.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium sign and pelican

Made famous by the movies, Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, the rescued dolphin “Winter” brought worldwide attention to the aquarium after injuries caused the loss of her tail, and she was fitted for a prosthetic tail.

Winter the Dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Sadly, after 16 years at the aquarium Winter died in November 2021.

Dolphins playing at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

If you’re a big fan of the Dolphin Tale movies, you can even visit a few of the sets while at Clearwater Marine Aquarium as some scenes were shot there.

6. Busch Gardens Theme Park

Also near Clearwater is Busch Gardens Theme Park located in Tampa. Certainly, the theme parks in Orlando top them all. But, Busch Gardens exceeded my family’s expectations and so I would highly recommend it.

We loved seeing all of the wide variety of animals at this park.

Gorilla playing at Busch Gardens

Plus, the rides are really awesome.

Snake figurine on rollercoaster at Busch Gardens

And, the grounds are beautiful. We visited close to Christmas and, wow, was it lit up for the season!

7. Explore Boca Grande

Not too terribly far from Fort Myers is Boca Grande. This idyllic, “Old Florida-feel,” small town on Gasparilla Island is a wonderful place to spend a day.

Besides the beautiful beaches in Gasparilla Island State Park, there are two picturesque lighthouses, one of which you can tour – the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum (located at the tip of the island). Or, take a stroll through the historical downtown area past quaint homes, churches and stores.

Additionally, there’s a 6.5 mile bike and golf-cart path (rentals available) that runs the length of the island. And finally, I’d recommend lunch at the elite Gasparilla Inn dining room and Pink Elephant Restaurant to experience a place that hosts presidents and celebrities. (Just a heads up: there is a dress code).

Lastly, consider a guided fishing tour off the shores of Boca Grande.

8. Bike around Siesta Key

Named one of the best beaches in Florida year after year is Siesta Key. In fact, in 2020 it was ranked #1 in the U.S. and #11 in the world by TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards. It sits just a short drive from downtown Sarasota.

Florida gulf ocean waves

There is lots to do on Siesta Key, but one fun way to see this 8-mile long island is by bike. Rental places offer regular or electric bikes, or you could rent a scooter or scooter car.

9. Play golf

If you’re a fan of golf, then you’re a fan of Florida. There are 1,300 courses, which is more than any other state!

A few I would recommend are:

The Cove in Port Charlotte is a unique course in that it has lights on nine of its holes, and so it’s open until 9 or 10 p.m. most nights. It’s not a very challenging course, so good for all skill levels.

10. Watch a sunset on Florida’s Gulf Coast

A vacation to Florida’s Gulf Coast would truly not be complete without at least one night of watching a sunset. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, it just never gets old.

The sun sets slowly at first, and then seemingly, it disappears in a matter of moments as if it dropped into the water. Such a magical, awe-inspiring experience!

Florida gulf sunset

Grab your loved ones, a beach chair, and soak up God’s beauty on full display!

Fishing pier at sunset in Florida's Gulf Coast

I hope and pray the memories you make on Florida’s Gulf Coast last a lifetime.

Pin these ideas for later!

Florida's Gulf Coast 10 Vacation Tips

More ideas for Florida’s Gulf Coast vacation.

What do YOU recommend on Florida’s Gulf Coast? An airboat tour through the Everglades, perhaps? Please include your tips in the comments section below

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Tags: Coast, Florida, Gulf, Things to do, Vacation Ideas
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