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Last updated on July 24th, 2020 at 12:22 pm

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.

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


Grayton Beach

best small beach towns in florida: grayton beach
Best small beach towns in Florida: Grayton Beach. (Photo © Ryan Murphy)

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, expected to reopen in summer 2020 (pandemic rules permitting), after renovations due to fire damage. Even without Red Bar, though, this is a prime beach destination.

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. 

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Pass-A-Grille

Best Florida beach towns: Paradise Grille on Pass-A-Grille beach.
Best little Florida beach towns: 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.

A beach vibe runs throughout the town, and there’s a strong sense of isolation without 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 only 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.

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Coronado (Flagler Ave, New Smyrna Beach)

beachscape new smyrna beach david ferry The best little beach towns in Florida
Best little beach towns in Florida: New Smyrna Beach. (Photo © David S Ferry III)

A premier destination for surfers, you’ll find the surf shops, art galleries, eateries and charming 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.

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

Flagler 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 outdoor 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.

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Coconuts Beach

Best Florida beach towns: Coconuts Beach in Downtown Cocoa Beach
Best Florida beach towns: “Coconuts Beach” in Cocoa Beach. (Photo © 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 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 it’s 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.

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Nokomis Beach on Casey Key

Best Florida beach towns: Nokomis Beach on Casey Key
Best Florida beach towns: Nokomis Beach on Casey Key (Photo by 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. 

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Fort Myers Beach

Best beach towns in Florida: Fort Myers Beach (from the pier.)
Best Florida beach towns: Fort Myers Beach from the pier.

There is Fort Myers, and then there is Fort Myers Beach. You have to go through one to get to the other.

But once you cross the Matanzas Pass Bridge from San Carlos Island, you enter a new world, a mix of the old and the new that somehow retains a small beach village atmosphere at the Gulfside edge of an otherwise sprawling suburbia.

Sure, a few higher-rise resorts have poked their heads above the skyline, but they seem out of place.

Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you’ll find a throwback to an era of unpretentious beach towns with funky bars, T-shirt shops and ice cream parlors, as well as an evening scene with live music and street performers.

The things to do in Fort Myers Beach are all your beach-town favorites. 

Downtown Fort Myers Beach is compact and walkable, and it is an entertaining stroll in the evenings.

Sunset attracts crowds around the pier, and Times Square is busy with street performers, music, strolling families, open-air bars and cafes.

What’s Nearby: 15 minutes south of downtown and connected by trolley, Lovers Key State Park is a must for nature lovers. Comprised of four islands, it’s a great destination for kayaking, hiking, swimming and beach combing. Here’s what folks say about Fort Myers Beach on TripAdvisor.

Places to Stay: Vacation Homes & Cottages

How to get there: Fort Myers Beach is on the barrier island of Estero, accessible from Fort Myers via the Matanzas Pass Bridge or, from the south via Bonita Springs, another nice beach destination.

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Lauderdale-By-The-Sea

Best Florida beach towns: Lauderdale-By-The-Sea
Best Florida beach towns: Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. (Photo by Jorge Molina, all rights reserved)

When you arrive in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, your first reaction is “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 suddenly emerging along the beach, anchored by a colorful little village of traditional beach shops, galleries and cafes unique to the urbanized Southeast Florida 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, Anglin’s fishing pier invites you for a stroll above the sea, or try your luck at pier fishing. Nearby, within a few blocks, you’ll find an eclectic selection of beach shops and sidewalk cafes.

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. Or maybe you’d prefer the more boisterous Aruba Beach Cafe, just across Anglin’s Plaza, the town’s signature gathering place. 

What’s nearby: The venerable Sea Watch restaurant is a short hop 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 Lockhart 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. 

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18 Comments

  1. As a former owner/innkeeper, I would like info about your guest accommodations.

    • Hi Lee,

      We only write about these places. We are not innkeepers. But at your request, I will add links to accommodations for each destination. Check back tomorrow and read this story again.

      — Bob Rountree, publisher

  2. I think that America’s oldest city with St. Augustine Beach falls in this category. I’ve owned a beach rental there for 10 years and everyone tells me they didn’t know little beach towns like that existed in Florida! No high rise hotels and just a handful of chain hotels.

    • Hi Rhonda,

      St. Augustine Beach was on our original list, but I didn’t feel I could write about it intelligently, having never explored the town. I was there once for lunch with friends at the awesome Jack’s BBQ. I definitely got a sense of the town but didn’t explore it. I promise I will go back and write about it.

      — Bob Rountree

  3. My husband and I are both from Baltimore, Maryland. We have lived in Florida since 2006, in the suburbs of Ft Lauderdale on the east coast and on the fabulous Sarasota barrier island, Longboat Key, on the west coast. My husband retired in 2019 and decided to join me in a real estate career. We decided to settle in an oceanfront condo in Lauderdale by the Sea. We love it here and would love to share it with you. Check out our website ( http://www.TeamLoden.com ) or call us for more information. (941 822-9563). Happy beaching, Margie and Rick Loden, Realtors

  4. Priscilla Galit

    I think you missed one of the best!!! Summer Haven in St. Augustine.

    I’d love you to stay in my guest house and review one of Florida’s most beautiful, full of history, undeveloped natural areas.

    Peacefully, blissfully happy in Summer Haven, Priscilla

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