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Showcasing the best of Florida’s yesteryear charm, there are a handful of cities found throughout the Sunshine State that pre-date our big-ticket attractions. It’s in these places that you can avoid the crowds and soak up the natural beauty of Florida with a day of hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling and fishing. From small-town gems to unspoiled landscapes, here are the best places you can still experience Old Florida.
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Nicknamed “The Little Town That Time Forgot”, Micanopy is one of Florida’s most underrated tiny towns, where visitors can experience the beauty of Old Florida through its quaint mix of charming shops and beautiful natural wonders. Meander along the downtown area to stroll past sidewalk cafes and boutiques, then make a pit stop at Pearl’s Country Store for some of the best barbecue in the state, located inside a gas station. Day trips to nearby Paynes Prairie State Park are encouraged, where you can get the chance to see wild bison and horses roaming its lands from a 50-foot observation tower.
Boasting a population of less than 300, St. Marks is a city often passed up by travelers heading to the theme park attractions. Its Old Florida ambiance is not to be missed, however, as its abundance of alluring natural attractions and waterfront village served as an important early port in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. History enthusiasts will want to visit the archeological displays at San Marcos de Apalache Historic Park and the second oldest light station in Florida, while you can also explore the salt marshes and natural habitats at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
Cedar Key is a historic city in Florida, showcasing Old Florida on the Nature Coast with its ’50’s-style motels, quaint shops and a lack of chain restaurants. Cedar Key’s quiet Hemingway-esque fishing village offers an abundance of outdoor adventures for nature lovers, from fishing excursions to sunset cruises. Its rustic ambiance and slower pace of life are highlighted by its quaint mom and pop shops and landscapes filled with fishing boats. Spend a day at the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, or pop into Tony’s Seafood Restaurant for a creamy bowl of clam chowder.
Famous for its fresh seafood offerings, Apalachicola is a friendly fishing town that boasts a wonderful rustic charm. There are over 900 historic listings here, from small cottages to stained glass churches, and its lack of traffic or city noise makes it a laid-back slice of Old Florida. Relax in waterfront parks and watch as shrimp boats reel in the day’s catch, go on a kayaking tour of the waterways, or hit the trails in the Apalachicola National Forest. Make sure to stop by Up the Creek Raw Bar, where you can sample world-renowned oysters on its open-air decks overlooking the water.
Considered one of the last authentic fishing villages in the Sunshine State, Cortez is like a living museum full to the brim with Southern charm. Fish houses date back to the original founding families, a gorgeous 95-acre wildlife preserve offers a glimpse of local wildlife, while the Florida Maritime Museum is housed in a historic schoolhouse from 1912. An authentic look at Old Florida, you mean meander down the waterfront and explore the area’s beaches and fishing piers, then fuel up with freshly caught seafood sold in no-frills joints like Star Fish Company Dockside Restaurant.
Boasting Old Florida vibes, Safety Harbor is a charming town nestled in Pinellas County next to Tampa and St. Pete. Its picturesque, brick-lined streets, quaint bed and breakfast accommodations and towering moss-covered oaks serve as the setting for this historic area. Take a stroll past small boutiques and restaurants on Main Street, then visit Philippe Park to picnic under the hardwood trees or cast a line out the Safety Harbor Fishing Pier. Home to the world-famous Safety Harbor Resort and Spa that is also a U.S. Historic Landmark, this area is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Captiva captures the essence of postcard-perfect surroundings, as this 10-square-mile island is considered a paradise for seashell collectors. Stay in a cottage that sits in the beachside Captiva Village, and soak up the water landscapes with the beach on one side and the bay on the other. The island is covered in exquisitely beautiful seashells and subtropical vegetation, where you can spend your day’s biking, sailing and birdwatching, while those who want to get up-close to local wildlife can explore J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Wrap up your day with a decadent dessert in the Bubble Room.
An eclectic community that sits at the south end of the Clearwater peninsula, Gulfport is a small town with a colorful personality. With a slogan like “Keep Gulfport Weird”, it’s hard not to love this city, but its small independent shops, brick paved streets and charming cottages make it a perfect excursion to take the entire family. Capture a sunset view at Williams Pier, see the artists and musicians at the monthly Gulfport Art Walks, or explore the Waterfront District, while those in need of a dose of nature can head to nearby Clam Bayou Nature Preserve.
It’s all about fishing and boating on Cabbage Key, where you’ll find a delightful reminder of Old Florida with its 100 acres of under-developed paradise. Made famous as the inspiration behind Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” it’s an area that is only reachable by boat. Lined with old wooden cottages and an abundance of cabbage palms, visit the historic Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant to see the collection of famed dollar bills taped to the ceiling. If you’re looking for a beach stop, head to nearby Cayo Costa State Park for miles of secluded natural beaches.
Considered the gateway to Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Fort White is the place to go to be one with nature. Drawing visitors in from around the state, you can climb in an inner tube and drift gently down the crystal clear waters under the shade of leafy hammocks. Declared a National Natural Landmark, you’ll find plenty of wildlife viewing, scuba diving and picnic opportunities in one of Florida’s most pristine environments. Those who are up for a bit of adventure can go cave diving in the Blue Hole Spring, where it’s underwater passageways are shaped like a cone.