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The best little beach towns in Florida

The best Florida beach towns are cozy and quaint, reflecting an Old Florida ambience, and they are often more affordable than Florida’s beach resort epicenters.

Everything you need or want is within walking distance of your motel room or cottage.

Each town has its own special charms. To us, they are all No. 1.

1. Grayton Beach

grayton beach best little beach towns
Grayton Beach is a tiny village surrounded by a state park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

A tiny village in South Walton County surrounded by towering dunes and coastal lakes, Grayton Beach has lots of credibility as one of Florida’s best little beach towns.

Grayton Beach State Park, which wraps around this beachside jewel, was named No. 1 beach in America in 2020 by Dr. Beach. How’s that for beach-town credentials?

The village is in the center of a 20-mile-long (32 km) string of coastal dune lakes and adjacent to its largest, Western Lake, a rare natural phenomena found in only a handful of locations around the world, and the town is wedged against the Gulf of Mexico by Grayton Beach State Park and Point Washington State Forest.

The Shops of Grayton‘s pocket art galleries and retail hub are out on Scenic Highway 30a, as are a handful of cute cafes and restaurants (try A.J.’s), but the real treat is to follow Defuniak Street into the village and explore its eclectic mix of cottages and sand-swept streets to enjoy the beach. A must stop is the iconic Red Bar at a prime beach location.

It is here where you will find a fun selection of vacation rentals, family-owned motels, or book a campsite or cottage in adjacent Grayton Beach State Park.

What’s nearby? The colorful beachside communities of Watercolor and Seaside are three miles east, and Destin, another popular, though more developed Panhandle destination, is 20 miles west. Here’s what folks say on TripAdvisor

Places to stay: Vacation homes & cottages

How to get there:  Just off Scenic Highway 30a, a loop road running parallel U.S. 98.

Editor’s Note: Some links in this article go to Florida Rambler stories, VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), or TripAdvisor reviews.

2. Pass-A-Grille

Best Florida beach towns: Paradise Grille on Pass-A-Grille beach.
Paradise Grille on Pass-A-Grille beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Like any worthy beach town, Pass-A-Grille is hard to find unless you are looking for it. You’ll have to steer south onto Gulf Boulevard and past the proudly pink and historic Don CeSar Hotel. 

Pass-a-Grille has more cute bungalows than mansions or hotels, and there are no condo towers.

The core of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a block wide, with a broad beach on the Gulf side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other.

In the middle of the beach area, Pass-a-Grille has a cluster of restaurants, art galleries and shops surrounded by historic inns, beach houses, bungalows and small boutique hotels.

Favorite restaurants include the beachfront Paradise Inn, the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant’s rooftop bar and dining on the second floor balcony at Brass Monkey. The Paradise Grille offers food, beverages and live music right on the sand of the beach.

A beach vibe runs throughout the town, and there’s a sense of isolation because of the lack of through traffic — Pass-A-Grille is a dead end at the bottom of St. Pete Beach.

What’s nearby? Fort De Soto Park, which boasts a popular county-run campground and one of the state’s premier beaches, is a short drive or bike ride away off the Pinellas Bayway. Shell Creek Preserve is an undeveloped barrier island notable for shelling and birding at the mouth of Tampa Bay, accessible by boat. Paddle in your kayak, or take the shuttle that runs out of Pass-A-Grille’s Merry Pier. Here’s what folks say about Pass-A-Grille on TripAdvisor

Places to stay: Vacation homes & cottages

How to get there: From Interstate 275, take the Pinellas Bayway (toll) all the way west to the pink Don CeSar Hotel and turn left.

Guide to Pass-a-Grille from Florida Rambler.

3. New Smyrna Beach

best florida beach towns nsb toniandjoespatio The best little beach towns in Florida
Toni and Joe’s beachfront patio bar in New Smyrna Beach. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

A premier destination for surfers, you’ll find the surf shops, art galleries, eateries and cottage businesses that give New Smyrna Beach its charm along Flagler Avenue in Coronado.

This beachside village, historically known as Coronado before being incorporated into its mainland parent, is bypassed by the all main highways, U.S. 1, State Road 44, and the iconic A1A.

Coronado is off the beaten path, and you’ll be thankful for that.

Flagler Avenue runs right out onto the beach, where driving north on the beach takes you to the boardwalks of Smyrna Dunes Park and the jetty at Ponce Inlet, where veteran surfers make the rounds on the incoming waves.

Two precautions here: When you get to the jetty, don’t park or turn around in soft sand. You will get stuck. And stay out of the water. This is the beach near the inlet that earns New Smyrna its reputation as the shark-bite capitol of Florida.

Do your swimming closer to Flagler Avenue, or even farther south.

Flagler is where you’ll find most of the action, anyway, with its boardwalk and landmark oceanfront bars, The Breakers and Toni and Joe’s beach patio (south of the lifeguard station). Also on Flagler, you can hardly do better than spending a few nights at the Riverview Hotel or the Inn on the Avenue.

What’s nearby: Six miles south of Flagler Avenue is the north entrance to Canaveral National Seashore and tiny Bethune Beach, which is steeped in Black history and home to JB’s Fish Camp. Here’s what folks say on TripAdvisor

Places to stay: Vacation homes & cottages

Getting to Coronado: From U.S. 1, go east on Washington Street to the North Causeway, which crosses an island and lands on Flagler Avenue. From State Road 44, go left on Peninsula Avenue after crossing the South Causeway bridge past Bouchelle Island.

Guide to New Smyrna Beach from Florida Rambler.

4. Coconuts Beach in Cocoa Beach

Best Florida beach towns: Coconuts Beach in Downtown Cocoa Beach
Best Florida beach towns: “Coconuts Beach” in Cocoa Beach. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

There are two Cocoa Beaches.

The Cocoa Beach everybody knows, the touristy section where high-rise hotels look down on the pier and the legendary Ron Jon Surf Shop, and then there is the area known by locals as “Coconuts Beach,” about four miles south on State Road A1A.

This is actually the historic town center, left to stand on its own, a relatively tourist-free beach town atmosphere despite a small cluster of beach bars, eclectic restaurants, art galleries and beach shops surrounded by mom-and-pop motels and a half-dozen surfing schools, including Surfet for women and NexGen for kids.

At the crossroads of Minuteman Causeway and State Road A1A, this cluster of beach businesses looks more like the Cocoa Beach of the ’60s than the more popular pier area.

Walking out to the beach here is a rite of passage between two notorious watering holes — Coconuts on the Beach with its sprawling outdoor deck and bikini parade, and the Beach Shack, a dive bar that favors locals. 

Street parking is scarce in this section of Cocoa Beach, but a new parking garage at 25 S. Orlando Ave. (Southbound A1A) adds 241 spaces.

Better yet, get a room at a nearby mom-and-pop motel and walk wherever you need to go. Everything you need is within a few blocks.

What’s nearby: Port Canaveral, home of the popular beachfront Jetty Park, and “Fish Shack Row,” a promenade of funky seafood restaurants that line the south bank of port, next to the cruise terminal. Here’s what folks say on TripAdvisor about things to do in Cocoa Beach.

Places to stay: Vacation Homes & Cottages

How to get there: State Road A1A, about four miles south of the Cocoa Beach pier or six miles north of Patrick Air Force Base and Satellite Beach.

Guide to Cocoa Beach from Florida Rambler.

5. Nokomis Beach on Casey Key

The North Jetty on Casey Key as the afternoon wanes. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The North Jetty on Casey Key as the afternoon wanes. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Casey Key is not all that special — a pretty beach with low-key development. There used to be dozens of beachfront towns like this. What is special is that Casey Key is it’s still there, and it hasn’t changed.

Nokomis Beach is on the south end of Casey Key, home to a half-dozen mom-and-pop motels on the beach, cottages and vacation rentals, a few casual restaurants and beach shops across the sand-swept street from the main public beach, and that’s about it.

Beach parking is free.

As you work your way to the beach on the network of boardwalks, make a note of the pavilion at Nokomis Beach – it was built in the 1950s, designed by Jack West, of the renowned Sarasota School of Architecture.

On Wednesday and Saturday evenings, drummers, musicians and dancers congregate at the beach about two hours before sunset, drawing an audience that can reach a few hundred.

Like Venice Beach to the south, Nokomis Beach is popular with shark-tooth hunters.

Bring a bicycle. Although streets are narrow, traffic is light and you can ride for miles on picturesque Casey Key, or hop over to the Laurel Road access for the popular Legacy Trail.

What’s nearby: A half-mile south of Nokomis Beach is North Jetty Park on Venice Inlet, a popular destination for fishers, beachgoers, kayakers, picnickers and dolphins who entertain at the inlet. On the north end of Casey Key, at the Blackburn Point bridge, enjoy dining at the Casey Key Fish House overlooking the Intracoastal. Here’s what folks say about Nokomis Beach on TripAdvisor

Places to stay: Vacation Homes & Cottages

How to get there: Nokomis is just north of Venice. From Interstate 75, take the Laurel Road exit and go west to Tamiami Trail, then south to Albee Road, then west again across the Intracoastal Bridge and you’re there.

Guide to Casey Key from Florida Rambler.

6. Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include admiring the cute cottages that dot the island.
Cute, often historic cottages dot Anna Maria Island, giving it an Old Florida feel. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s a surprise and a delight to find places like this still around – a low-rise beach town where a few quaint cottages survive in a largely residential community. It’s a low-key place. There are no high-rises, few chain restaurants, or other signs that paradise has been lost.

The beaches here are as outstanding as you can find in Florida. The sand is powdery and blindingly white; it squeaks when you walk on it. You can find seashells here, as well as spot dolphin right off shore. There are hundreds of shorebirds. The water is clear and aquamarine. Be aware, though, Anna Maria Island has had a tough time in 2022 with Red Tide. Check our red tide report for conditions.

Anna Maria Island is seven miles long and there are three communities on it: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and at the northern tip, the municipality of Anna Maria Island. It’s all lovely, but the island gets maybe a bit more charming in the upper section that is Anna Maria Island.

The island is connected to Bradenton on the mainland by two bridges. To the south, a bridge takes you to Longboat Key, and about 11 miles south, to Sarasota.

What’s nearby: Ten minutes east of Anna Maria Island on the Cortez Road, you’ll find the historic fishing village of Cortez. We’ve written a whole guide to Cortez. Cortez started as a rural community of fishing families in the 1890s. Descendants of those settlers still live here and there are still commercial fishing operations here, dating back many decades.

If you visit Cortez, you can tour the small, free Florida Maritime Museum and wander a neighborhood of cute, historic cottages. The best thing to do, though, is to eat seafood at a classic Florida fish shack. Our favorite is the Star Fish restaurant, an outgrowth of the adjacent large seafood wholesale company founded in the 1920s, although there are several others here.

How to get there: Anna Maria Island is an hour south of Tampa or a 20-minute drive due west from Bradenton. It is accessible via I-75 (Exit 220) from points north and south, and I-275 (toll road) from the north. From the mainland, you arrive by the Cortez (SR 684) or Manatee Avenue (SR 64) bridges.

Guide to Anna Maria Island from Florida Rambler.

7. Lauderdale-By-The-Sea

The Lauderdale-by-the-Sea plaza at the heart of the beach area is an appealing place to have a seat under an umbrella. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Lauderdale-by-the-Sea plaza at the heart of the beach area is an appealing place to have a seat under an umbrella. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When you arrive in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, your first reaction might be: “Where am I?”

To the north and south, towering condos dominate the beach area. Yet the beach towers suddenly stop, revealing a pocket of low-rise mom-and-pop motels emerging along the beach, anchored by a colorful little village of traditional beach shops, galleries and cafes unique to Southeast Florida urbanized coast.

This beachfront oasis is Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, not at all to be confused with iconic Fort Lauderdale to its south.

Here you can get a reasonably priced room on the beach in a two-story family-run motel with a pool and a path to golden sands dotted with palm trees. An inviting beach, to be sure.

An off-shore reef invites divers and snorkelers to paddle out in kayaks or SUP and explore a sunken shipwreck or net a spiny lobster for dinner (in season).

In the center of town is Anglin’s fishing pier, which is partially closed due to hurricane damage. Nearby, within a few blocks, you’ll find an eclectic selection of beach shops, sidewalk cafes and pedestrian mall.

At the foot of the pier, I have often enjoyed breakfast or lunch with out-of-town guests on the patio of Anglin’s Beach Cafe, a light breeze brushing past while we enjoyed the ocean view. (The cafe is open even though the pier is closed.) Or maybe you’d prefer the popular Aruba Beach Cafe, just across Anglin’s Square, the town’s signature gathering place.

Other top rated restaurants within a block or two of the ocan are Even Keel Fish Shack and Billy Jack’s Shack.

Nearby, the venerable Sea Watch restaurant is just north of town on State Road A1A. In my opinion, Sea Watch is the best seafood restaurant in Southeast Florida and my first choice for special occasions. Drive south on A1A to Fort Lauderdale’s famous Strip to gawk. Drive west on Commercial Blvd., past I-95, to the brand new DRV PNK Stadium for major league soccer (in season). Here’s what folks have to say on TripAdvisor about Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.

Places to stay: Vacation Homes & Cottages

How to get there: From Interstate 95, take the Commercial Boulevard exit straight to the beach, and you’re there.

More stories about Florida beaches

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Richard A Fix

Friday 3rd of March 2023

Some of the towns sound nice. The reason I’m looking at towns on the west coast are these. After 14 years in Fort Myers, the area's fun feeling is going. It started with Margaritaville, now Ian has made it ready for million dollar condos, there is no more Ft Myers Beach. Then in the last 14 years, red tide has the water unfit to use. Which of the towns listed would be like the old ft Myers beach.

Bob Rountree

Friday 3rd of March 2023

Recognizing that growth is impacting the entire state, I think New Smyrna Beach and Flagler Beach are your best bets. Both retain Old Florida charm and have decent control over growth. St. Augustine Beach is also decent.

Joy E Flood

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

I was to be vacationing in Ft Myers Beach when Ian hit. I was flying with Allegiant Air. They only fly to certain areas in Florida from my hometown in Pa.

Alliegant Air gave me a credit for my flight in which we have to use by June 2023.

So my question is can someone give me an idea of where to go that would be like Fort Myers beach?

Bob Rountree

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

New Smyrna Beach would be a good choice. You should also read this: Five Florida islands to discover while Sanibel rebuilds


Friday 15th of April 2022

Nobody calls it Coronado Beach.

Donald Laegel

Sunday 15th of August 2021

Great write up on my home - Fort Myers Beach. We take our lawn chairs for the free concert on Friday nights in "Times Square" and usually eat a gyro at Plaka. Very walkable with so many restaurants and bars to choose from. Always festive and people are always so happy just to be here. I should add, they just broke ground on a 6 acre Margaritaville resort that will add some commercial aspect to the area. Reception locally is about 50/50.


Friday 23rd of July 2021

I live in St. Petersburg, Florida. These are really great recommendations with my personal favorite being Pass-a-Grille Beach. The Paradise Grille there wasn't mentioned but it is the center piece of town with sunset gatherings and live music; all outdoor seating with a fantastic panoramic view right on the Gulf and easy beach access.

Bonnie Gross

Friday 23rd of July 2021

Thanks Karen. We fell in love with the Paradise Grille too! It's the scene pictured with the blurb about Pass-a-Grille.

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