There are myriad reasons to holiday in Florida, from the beautiful weather and stunning scenery to great beaches and world-famous theme parks. However, there are also a multitude of wonderful, lesser-known gems that demand to be visited during your time in the ‘Sunshine State’. Therefore, we have decided to compile the following guide to Florida’s best-kept secrets, highlighting some memorable attractions and locations that you might not have heard of and that should absolutely be on your to-do list while exploring the great state of Florida.
Henry B. Plant Museum
Image credit: Henry B. Plant Museum
For some truly stunning architecture while enjoying your holiday to sunny Florida, the Henry B. Plant Museum is a must-visit. Built in 1888 by railroad mastermind Henry B. Plant, the building is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. After spending time as a hotel in the 1930s, this marvellous construction acts today as a museum and the home of the University of Tampa.
This National Historic Landmark will be one of the finest museum experiences you will find in the state of Florida and should certainly be on your hidden gem to-do list. The Henry B. Plant Museum spoke to us about what makes this such a special attraction and what visitors can expect to enjoy:
“To visit the Plant Museum is to step back in time to the early days of Tampa. It is the nation’s only Victorian railroad resort museum, and houses a wonderful collection of furnishings and artwork from the 1890s.
“Inside the museum visitors get to see original furnishings and artwork from the Tampa Bay Hotel – many of the pieces have been in the building for almost 130 years! Admission includes an excellent audio guide that shares many of the stories from the hotel and its rich history.”
For a slice of Floridian nature during your trip, Leu Gardens in Orlando surely must be visited. With a wide variety of tropical plants, all set in some incredibly picturesque surroundings, Leu Gardens is certainly one of the state’s best-kept secrets.
The property now known as Leu Gardens was once owned by Mr and Mrs Harry P. Leu, who purchased the land and began to plant a plethora of exotic plant life that they had collected from their various travels. Today, the house and gardens are open to the public, having been donated to the City of Orlando after the couple’s deaths. Robert E. Bowden, the executive director of Leu Gardens, told us more about why guests should be looking forward to visiting them during their time in Florida.
“Imagine a tranquil fifty acre green oasis in the middle of a hurried metropolis where exotic tropical flowers bloom every day and pendulous 300-year-old oak trees temper the airless humidity and punishing sunlight. Leu Gardens, the private estate turned public garden of Florida native Harry P. Leu, is located just minutes away from the bustling interstates and theme parks in Orlando. The fifty-seven year-old haven flaunts flowers and trees of every description and hosts an amazing calendar of affordable special events and discovery programs.”
And regarding Orlando itself, Mr Bowden helps describe the scene and why the city is such an attractive prospect, especially for lovers of plant life: “Orlando, by its unique location in the middle of the Florida peninsula, is home to a wide variety of plants from around the world. Colourful bedding plants holding their place beneath distinctive trees and shrubs set the scene for a wonderful visit where our guests can get a taste of old Florida.”
Weeki Wachee Springs
Its name deriving from the Seminole name meaning ‘Little Spring’, Weeki Wachee is a gorgeous spring located along the Weeki Wachee River. The spring was made into an aquarium in 1947 with a waterpark since being added, all combining for a truly enticing water-based attraction. Visitors can enjoy an array of activities as well as witness a variety of impressive performances, including those by mermaids!
Weeki Wachee Springs divulged a little more info to us about what makes this hidden gem so special: “Weeki Wachee is one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions. In fact, we are celebrating our 70th anniversary this year. The history of the mermaid performances, coupled with the fact they swim in a first magnitude spring, makes this place truly magical.
“In addition to the mermaid performances, visitors can enjoy a river boat cruise, where they travel a little further down the river. Also, Park Rangers conduct a wildlife program, bringing out native reptiles for visitors to see up close and personal. There is also a swimming area, where visitors can swim in the spring. On a seasonal basis, the park also provides thrilling water slides for people to enjoy.”
Bok Tower Gardens
Image credit: Bok Tower Gardens
A true hidden gem for those off exploring Central Florida during their travels is certainly Bok Tower Gardens. For a truly tranquil experience throughout your time in Florida, this is an attraction that must be visited, with its beautiful and historic gardens and of course the eye-catching tower.
Bok Tower Gardens told us: “Bok Tower Gardens offers a true glimpse at the beauty of natural Florida. Our historic Olmsted Gardens and Singing Tower have nearly a 90 year tradition of delighting guests with their stunning beauty. Our Gardens offer respite and meditation while our new garden spaces including Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, the Outdoor Kitchen and Garden and the Wild Garden provide plenty of natural exploration and discovery. Daily Carillon concerts at 1pm and 3pm are unique to Central Florida and spotlight our cultural significance. We offer a day like none other and millions of visitors have made Bok Tower Gardens part of their Florida experience.”
To help paint the picture of what to expect even more, Bok Tower Gardens informed us: “Our highlights include the historic Olmsted Gardens, the spectacular Singing Tower, picturesque vistas, rolling hills of citrus, Pine Ridge Preserve Trail, Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, the Outdoor Kitchen, the Wild Garden with a boardwalk and bog and Pinewood Estate – one of the finest examples of Mediterranean Revival Architecture with daily historic tours.”
Suggestions from Travel Pockets
Travel Pockets, a travel blog from sisters Crystal and Candy, specialises in discovering hidden gems and wonderful spots to visit. The two sisters have travelled extensively and were able to offer us some of their top suggestions for travellers to Florida, highlighting some locations and attractions that are bound to delight:
“We love Florida and some of our favourite hidden gems are in Lakeland, Orlando and St. Petersburg.
“801 E. Main in Lakeland is the home of The Poor Porker, Bearcat Big 6 and Calexico. It’s one of the most ‘Instagrammable’ locations in Florida all designed by the talented owner, Robyn. Enjoy homemade beignets, Campfire Coffee (the best iced coffee), vintage shopping and live shows.
“Fort De Soto Park,” the sisters continue, “is located in St. Petersburg and has three miles of gorgeous white sand beaches that are ranked among the best of Florida’s beaches. You can enjoy biking, walk through nature trails and explore remnants of the fort. It was officially a sub-post of Fort Dade, located on Egmont Key, where you can take a ferry to the beautiful island.
And for one final hidden gem to visit during your stay, Crystal and Candy told us: “If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, we highly recommend Animal Kingdom’s Sanna Restaurant in Orlando. You can enjoy delicious African cuisine with Indian flavours while looking out to the safari with wild animals like giraffes, zebras, and ostriches.”
Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens
With a mission to enthral and educate audiences via a presentation of Japanese cultural experiences, Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens is a fascinating centre for art and culture from this Asian country. With tours, a café, a store, and a whole host of interesting exhibits, Morikami in Delray Beach is certainly a grand day out.
Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens went into a little further detail with us about what guests can look forward to at this hidden Florida gem: “Morikami is a cultural oasis, surrounded by 16 immaculate acres of Japanese gardens designed by Hoichu Kurisu to evoke a sense of inner peace and personal reflection.
“Wander through the tranquil grounds and you’ll discover an authentic tea house; large lake; a bamboo grove; koi pond; a wisdom ring; a replica of a 500-year-old Japanese lantern; a tree tunnel; a late rock garden, where rocks sit among rows of carefully raked gravel; a small contemplation pavilion; a bonsai collection; and peaceful waterfalls.
“Inside the museum, world-class exhibits rotate throughout the year. The museum also touts its own research library, and showcases a plethora of classes, workshops, family-friendly events, cultural demonstrations, and interactive tea ceremonies.
“Lunch at the museum’s Cornell Café is a culinary must. Popular with visitors and locals, the restaurant showcases fresh seafood like yellowtail sashimi, dragon rolls stuffed with tempura shrimp, cream cheese, and avocado; and battered fried pork drizzled with a sweet mirin sauce. The alfresco restaurant offers breath-taking lake vistas to enjoy with sweet Mochi ice cream.”
The collection of small islands known as Dry Tortugas, perhaps best known for the historic Fort Jefferson, is a well-known feature in the States. But for those visiting Florida from afar, it might be a location that has gone unnoticed and certainly underappreciated. There is so much to see at Dry Tortugas and it’s not just history that’s on offer – this remote location is truly a hidden gem!
We asked the team behind Dry Tortugas to further describe this wonderful Florida attraction: “Experiencing a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is like a microcosm of everything that makes the Florida Keys a world-class vacation destination. You’ll learn history, unplug from the daily grind, bask in the tropical sunshine, and explore untouched eco-treasures that only a fraction of the world has encountered.
“Just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, seven small islands constitute one of the most remote National Parks in the United States, hosting fewer than 80,000 visitors per year. Guests can only access the park by seaplane, private charter, and once-in-a-lifetime day trips aboard The Yankee Freedom III.”
White sandy beaches and aquamarine water isn’t all that this picturesque location offers. As mentioned, Dry Tortugas National Park is also home to the historic Civil War landmark Fort Jefferson.
“Fort Jefferson, known as the Guardian of the Gulf, is the prime attraction on the Dry Tortugas,” the National Park told us. “The fort’s brick walls are up to 11 feet thick with a surrounding moat as well. During the Civil War the fort acted as a Union prison and at one time housed the infamous Dr Samuel Mudd, convicted as a co-conspirator of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. You can sign up for a guided tour or explore by yourself.”
Further still, “Birders can observe some of the 300 species that migrate through the islands along the main flyway between Cuba and Central America. In fact, in May of 1832 John Jay Audubon spent some time on these islands, watching and painting the nesting birds, such as the Sooty Tern, Brown Booby, and the Brown Noddy. There also are brown pelicans, Black-bellied Plovers, and Magnificent Frigatebirds, with their 85-inch wingspans. Field Guide author Roger Tory Peterson described the Sooty Tern colony on Bush Key, writing that it is ‘The number one ornithological spectacle on the continent. While there are only seven nesting species out here, it’s a must-see for bird fans.’”
Santa Rosa Beach and South Walton
Image credit: Visit South Walton
One of Florida’s best-kept secrets, especially for those outside the US, is certainly the picturesque location of South Walton, with its stunning beaches, state parks, and tranquil local atmosphere. If you’re looking for a Florida day out to remember, perhaps while visiting family before beginning the remainder of your Florida holiday, a visit to one of South Walton’s beautiful beach communities, such as Santa Rosa, is certainly recommended.
“South Walton is most famous for its 26 miles of sparkling white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico,” David Demarest, director of communications at Visit South Walton, told us, “but what really sets the area apart is the balance of conserved land (including four state parks and a state forest. About 40 percent of the land area in South Walton is in state preservation), high end dining and a thriving art scene. That’s a unique blend that’s hard to find anywhere else, and the fact that the neighborhoods are easily walkable and bikeable makes it really easy to just unplug and relax.
“You won’t leave without seeing a beautiful sunset, and spending time on our beaches… the sand here is incredibly white and soft, and wins countless ‘best of’ awards. But I really encourage visitors to take time to explore the entire area. Each neighborhood offers a distinct vibe and often a distinct architectural design, and with trails and walking/biking paths connecting these coastal neighborhoods, you can really go at your own pace and enjoy experiencing both the natural beauty of the area and the shops and restaurants in the towns themselves.”
Marco Island Historical Museum
The Marco Island Historical Museum is famous for its impressive collection of influential North American archaeology. Exploring Southwest Florida’s Calusa Indians by bringing the now vanished civilization to life, this fascinating museum is absolutely one to add to your Florida to-do list. Marco Island Historical Museum spoke to us about what’s on offer, helping to paint the scene of what visitors can look forward to discovering:
“The Marco Island Historical Museum is an award winning, state of the art museum that invites visitors back in time, thousands of years, and introduces the history and heritage of this very special island nestled along the Paradise Coast of Southwest Florida. For a list of special events and upcoming programs please visit us on Facebook or colliermuseums.com.”
The museum added: “Permanent and traveling exhibits trace the settlement of this subtropical island paradise from its early pioneer roots as a fishing village, pineapple plantation and clam cannery, through its explosive growth and development in the 1960s by the Miami-based Deltona Corporation.”
Florida’s hidden gems
These are just some of this wonderful state’s best-kept secrets and lesser-known attractions. There are a vast variety of fascinating locations spread across Florida, each worthy of a visit, but we believe the above are up there with the best the destination has to offer, and we hope that you decide to visit one or two during your next holiday to Florida.