Unique Experiences You Can Only Have In Florida

Florida is the only state in America with a tropical climate, endowing it with the astounding, alluring natural beauty of plants and animals found nowhere else in the country. That beauty seduces people from all over the world, resulting in a unique culture influenced by the American South, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Snowbelt snowbirds, and so much more. Combine that ecological and cultural diversity with theme parks, spaceships, swamps, skyscrapers, and endless tropical beaches — sometimes within striking distance of one another — and you have a state full of one-of-a-kind experiences.

We've compiled some experiences you can only have in Florida. Some are truly singular, like dancing mermaids or Hemingway lookalike festivals. Others are unique simply because they have that It Factor, that confluence of quality, quantity, and magic. You can go to all kinds of theme parks, but there's only one Walt Disney World. Nightclubs abound, but there's only one South Beach. And there are a lot of wonderful warm places in the world, but there's only one Florida.

We start in the northeast of the state, in ancient, quirky St. Augustine, and travel clockwise around the large peninsula, enjoying flamingos, dolphins, salsa, mangroves, and mermaids, until we end in a warm, aquamarine spring, swimming next to a manatee. Without further ado, here are some experiences you can only find in the Sunshine State.

Visit the oldest city in America

First on the list is the nation's first city. St. Augustine was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565 and is the oldest continually occupied city in the United States. When you're around for over 450 years, unique gems are bound to crop up everywhere. Visitors can stroll down Aviles Street, the cobblestone street full of shops, restaurants, and galleries considered the nation's oldest public road. Or they can squeeze through Treasury Street, the narrowest street in the country, supposedly just wide enough for two men to transport a chest full of gold. Visitors searching for another superlative can marvel at the 2,400-year-old ancient Egyptian Sacred Cat Rug, one of the oldest existing rugs in the world. It's perhaps ironic that the main attraction of a city so famous for its age is the mythical Fountain of Youth, the object of obsession for Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Léon because it (supposedly) guarantees eternal youth. Today, visitors can stay forever young by tasting the famous water and also enjoy the surrounding Archaeological Museum that tells the story of life in the 16th-century Spanish settlement.

Inevitably, the oldest city in America is also rumored to be one of its most haunted. Embark on one of the trolley ghost tours at night to hear about the supernatural beings watching over the grand Ponce de Léon Hotel, the Old Jail, and Potter's Wax Museum, the oldest museum of its kind in the nation.

Visit an alligator park

What's more Florida — and Florida man — than zip-lining over an alligator lagoon? St. Augustine is home to one of the state's many alligator parks. Both the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park and Orlando's 110-acre Gatorland offer visitors this adrenaline-filled rush. At Gatorland, visitors can also board a gritty 12-foot monster vehicle on the Stompin' Gator Off-Road Adventure that thunders through a gator-infested marsh.

If you're feeling brave enough for both alligators and Florida in August, visit the Hatching Festival at Gatorama in Palmdale. You may get the chance to become an honorary alligator parent by helping a baby alligator peel out of its egg and be the first thing it sees in the world. The alligator love fest continues at the Alligator & Wildlife Discovery Center in Madeira Beach, one of the few places you can kiss a gator and live to tell the tale.

These are just a few of the many alligator parks all around the state offering shows, tours, and opportunities to pose with and hold the gators. Many of them, especially the ones in the Everglades, also offer a variety of other wildlife, including turtles, birds, cranes, snakes, and more.

Let your imagination run wild at Walt Disney World

Forget Florida — the most iconic theme park in the state, and arguably the world, is an entire universe unto itself, brimming with experiences you can find nowhere else. Where else can you go on a safari in the day and the night, climb Mount Everest, fight intergalactic battles, and sit in the Oval Office all on the same day? The 43-square-mile theme park is the same size as San Francisco and offers just as many attractions. 

There are endless rides, which are some of the most elaborate and thrilling in the world. Feel your stomach drop as you free-fall in the Tower of Terror, travel inside the middle of a "Star Wars" battle in Rise of the Resistance, or sail through the icy caves of Frozen Ever After, to name just a few. But guests can also scuba dive in front of a tank full of visitors at EPCOT's DiveQuest, visit a recreation of Walt Disney's childhood bedroom, attend Sangria University, pull the sword from the stone King Arthur-style, or dine in a literal space station at the Space 220 restaurant, named because it's supposedly 220 miles above earth.

Grab a front-row seat to a rocket launch

There are 35 spaceports around the world capable of launching rockets into outer space, but only one is located just an hour away from the theme park capital of the world. The Kennedy Space Center has blended an active NASA facility with just the right amount of Orlando showmanship to make rocket launches and outer space as entertaining and accessible as possible. The center allows visitors to get just a couple miles away from the launch at Cape Canaveral, closer than any other rocket launch viewing point in the world. In some ways, it's not all that different from watching a sports game. Guests purchase tickets, sit in bleachers, and listen to live expert commentary.

Even if you don't catch a launch, you can still enjoy plenty of out-of-this-world thrills. Visitors can travel inside Atlantis, a former space shuttle that made 33 missions and orbited the Earth over 4,000 times, and experience the brief thrill of zero gravity. Visitors can also take the Kennedy Center Space Center Bus Tour to visit restricted NASA facilities, see where rockets are assembled, and even see Apollo 8, the first human spaceflight to reach the moon. You can even touch a piece of the moon brought back by astronauts.

Marvel at Florida wildlife

There are plenty of zoos in Florida and around the world, but only one spot is dedicated to the unique, dazzling flora and fauna native to the state's unique subtropical ecosystems. Visitors can enjoy everything from alligators to otters to panthers, but the main star is the fabulous, bright pink icon of Florida: the flamingo. Flamingo Gardens is a 60-acre botanical garden and wildlife sanctuary located in Davie, just outside the Everglades and 30 miles north of Miami.

As its name indicates, it is best known for its Flamingo Pond, where a large flamboyance of flamingos (yes, that is the scientific name) squawks, stands on one leg and competes with peacocks for attention and adoration. Flamingo Gardens is also a botanical garden featuring over 3,000 species of rare tropical plants. It also features a wildlife sanctuary for Florida animals like cougars, black bears, and panthers who are either injured or unable to return to the wild. The 25,000-square-foot aviary hosts over 250 birds from 45 species native to Florida, one of the largest collections of wading birds in America. Nearby, Floridian owls, eagles, and hawks swoop around the Birds of Prey Center while alligators and crocodiles swim around a nearby pond.

Visitors interested in rural Florida life in the 1920s and '30s will enjoy the Wray Home, where founders Floyd and Jane Wray started the collection of rare tropical plants that eventually grew into Flamingo Gardens.

Party in South Beach

When someone mentions Miami, many immediately think of one particular Miami Beach neighborhood: South Beach. Equal parts glitzy, glamorous, and raucous, this pulsing peninsula is one of the world's premiere capitals for partying under palm trees. For an unforgettable night, head down to the iconic Art Deco District along Ocean Drive, where beautiful pastel-colored Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and '30s have been refurbished into world-class hotels, galleries, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Particularly famous clubs around this district include Exchange, Voodoo Lounge, Basement, Mango's Tropical Café, and Do Not Sit On The Furniture. For a famously eclectic crowd, consider Mac's Club Deuce, or for a rooftop pool, try Strawberry Moon. If you want to party right on the beach, head to Nikki Beach.

After the sun comes up and the hangover subsides, South Beach is chock full of amazing things to do. Of course, there are plenty of gorgeous, palm-strewn beaches on all sides of this narrow peninsula, including South Beach, Lummus Park Beach, and, at the very southern tip, South Pointe Park. For world-class shopping, head to Lincoln Road Mall, an eight-block pedestrian mall brimming with plants, public art, and over 200 boutiques and restaurants, or the charming Española Way, a European-style pedestrian road full of cafés, galleries, and boutiques inside beautiful old Mediterranean buildings.

Play dominoes and smoke cigars in Little Havana

Roughly 1.4 million Cubans have left their homeland since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and many of them landed in Little Havana, a neighborhood that has blossomed into one of the preeminent capitals of Latin American culture in the U.S. This "National Treasure" is teeming with music, murals, and some of the best Cuban food, drink, and entertainment anywhere. For just a small sampling, try the Little Havana Food & Cultural Tour for some of the best croquetas, tostones, pastelitos, and coladas, served out of the famous "ventanitas" windows. Some of the best include Versailles, a cultural hub that calls itself "the world's most famous Cuban restaurant;" Azucar Ice Cream Company, which boasts treats like rum-spiked flan ice cream; and Sanguich de Miami, known for its Cuban sandwiches and milkshakes.

Most of these treasures are located along Calle Ocho, the neighborhood's iconic main drag. You'll see bakeries, restaurants, dozens of brightly-colored rooster sculptures, and the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame, which honors Cuban and Latino celebrities. For a real fiesta, visit on the third Friday of the month to experience the Viernes Culturales, a festival full of exhibits, pachanga music, and dancing. Calle Ocho is also home to the fabulous 1930s salsa club Ball & Chain, the Little Havana Cigar Factory, where premium cigars are hand-rolled and enjoyed in a smoking lounge, and Máximo Gómez (Domino) Park, where generations enjoy those cigars over the clacking of domino tiles.

Take an airboat through the Everglades

The airboat to Everglades National Park is what the gondola is to Venice. These boats and their large propellers may not be the greenest or quietest way to get around the 1.5-million-acre park, but many would say that no trip along the "River of Grass" is complete without one. Numerous tours offer rides that spend about an hour gliding through the sawgrass marsh, cypress swamp, and mangrove forests that constitute the enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve at the state's southern tip. Airboat tours often feature a knowledgeable driver pointing out nearby alligators, egrets, herons, or any of the other hundreds of species of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles who call this wetland wonderland home.

When it comes to fully exploring the Everglades, an airboat is just the tip of the sawgrass. For a slower, quieter pace, visitors should consider a ranger-guided kayak or canoe tour. For a much wetter experience, brave visitors can consider wading through the wetlands on a ranger-guided Slough Slogging tour. For an altogether drier experience, the park offers dozens of walking trails. The Anhinga Trail is your best bet if you are looking for alligators. For the magic of birds inside a dense forest, try the Pineland Trail or Mahogany Hammock Trail. For a completely magical experience, take a two-hour pontoon boat to Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a large chain of deserted islands home to dolphins, manatees, and mangroves.

Attend a wacky festival in the Keys

As soon as you start driving the elevated Overseas Highway en route to the southernmost point in the continental United States, you'll know you're in a special, slightly eccentric part of the world. But attend one of the many kooky festivals for which the Florida Keys are known, and you'll truly learn what unique means.

Key lime pie gets its name from the limes that thrive in the archipelago, so it's only natural that this iconic dish should get its own festival in Key West. Celebrate the tangy sweetness each July with the famous Key Lime Festival, which includes the Key Lime Pie Eating Championship, the Key Lime Hop, and the Key Lime Cocktail Sip and Stroll around town. A few weeks later, Key West celebrates its other icon with Hemingway Days, a full-blown celebration of the famous author who once lived there. Groups of bearded "papas" dress in khaki safari clothes and turtleneck sweaters and head down to Sloppy Joe's Bar, the former Hemingway haunt, for a lookalike competition. Hemingway Days also boasts a marlin fishing competition, a short story writing competition, and numerous readings and literary discussions.

The Keys also boast the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, marking the anniversary of when the archipelago briefly considered seceding from the US and forming an independent republic; the raucous, costumed Fantasy Fest; the lobster-themed Lobsterfest; the Key West Mermaid Festival, the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, and many more.

Snorkel through an abandoned prison and military fort

After exuberant festivals in the Keys, you may be craving some peace and quiet. That's exactly what you'll get at the Dry Tortugas National Park, a chain of seven remote islands 70 miles west of Key West. As 99% of those islands are underwater, the park is only accessible by boat or expensive, solidly-booked ferries and seaplanes, which makes Dry Tortugas one of the country's least-visited national parks. So, while it may be tricky to get there, visitors who make the effort will be rewarded with a car-free, unspoiled tropical paradise almost entirely to themselves.

The most popular island is Garden Key, the site of the striking, imposing, unfinished Fort Jefferson. This abandoned 19th-century military structure and prison is the largest brick building in the United States. Its 16 million bricks form a hexagon that wraps around most of the island, fortified by a moat. The crystal clear, calm, shallow water around the moat wall is perfect for snorkelers of any level. As you swim around a piece of history, you'll enjoy the wonders of the world's third-largest barrier reef, teeming with tropical fish and historical artifacts.

Nearby, the remains of two docks for 19th-century coal ships have created another vibrant coral reef full of beautiful fish, turtles, octopi, lobsters, and even the occasional shark. Once night falls, Garden Key offers a camping site with toilets, charcoal grills, picnic tables, and a staggeringly beautiful night sky.

Watch mermaids dance underwater

You may have seen "The Little Mermaid," but chances are you haven't seen it performed by actual mermaids underneath the deepest freshwater cave system in the country. The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee have been dancing in the turquoise waters of the Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947, making them one of Florida's oldest attractions. They train for over a year to learn a series of hypnotic synchronized dances and even put on full musical shows like "The Little Mermaid" to a 400-seat auditorium, all while breathing through an invisible hose.

After enjoying one of Florida's oldest shows, visitors can delight in one of its newest state parks. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located just over an hour north of Tampa, consists of a brilliantly clear, aquamarine freshwater spring meandering through a beautiful wetland forest and a dense cave network. Visitors can rent kayaks, canoes, or take a guided boat tour and marvel at the alligators, manatees, and rare birds nearby. Kids will delight in Buccaneer Bay, a spring-fed water park consisting of a white sand beach, an onsite restaurant, concession stands, picnic tables, an outdoor amphitheater, a playground, and two large water slides propelling them deep into the springs.

Swim with manatees

In addition to dancing mermaids, the clear, warm springs of West Florida have another famous resident: the manatee.

These 10-foot-long, 1,000-pound "gentle giants," distantly related to elephants, swim up in large numbers each winter for the warm waters of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, dubbed the "Manatee Capital of the World" and designed specifically to protect them. It is the only spot in the United States where you can swim with manatees, and numerous local tour companies receive licenses to bring visitors out to meet these sweet and social mammals. Depending on your interest, you can swim, snorkel, kayak, or paddleboard in designated spots, with trained guides providing guidance and gear.

It's important to stay within the designated spots. Many parts of the springs are critical nesting grounds for the endangered species, and venturing into restricted areas can come with a hefty fine or even jail time. Guides also emphasize "passive interaction," or, more simply, "look, don't touch." Swimmers should keep a comfortable distance and avoid chasing manatees, particularly those that are still and resting. Luckily, manatees are friendly, playful, curious, and completely harmless — they're herbivores who eat mostly seagrass and don't have predators or prey. They will often come to swimmers and glide alongside them, a truly profound and totally Florida experience.