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Florida road trip; East Coast Itinerary

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With more and more families choosing road trips over other types of travel this year, I wanted to put together a road trip for those looking to spend some time in Florida. This is an East Coast Florida road trip following the A1A down from Amelia Island to the Florida Keys, with some of my favorite stops along the way. If you’re planning a Florida road trip on the East Coast, then this itinerary is for you!

This road trip begins in Amelia Island and ends in the Florida Keys, with a stop in seven places on the way. Of course, more time can be spent in each place, you can add on or skip places as you like, this is just a suggestion for some great places to stop that I don’t think should be missed on a Florida road trip down the East Coast. 

I also think since the last drive to the Keys is a long one, some time should definitely be spent exploring the Keys while you’re down there; it’s a very long drive to just spend a day! You could then come back up the West coast and see the Gulf side of the state, which has a completely different feel to the Atlantic side. 

If you’re spending longer in Florida and want to spend some time in Orlando as well, check out my Local Guide to Orlando for this Floridian’s guide to where to go, what to do and most importantly, where to eat in Central Florida! 

If you’re visiting the West Coast, take a look at the best things to do in Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

Amelia Island
Drive time 1 hour 30 minutes
St Augustine
Drive time 1 hour 30 minutes
Canaveral National Seashore
Drive time 45 minutes
Cocoa Beach
Drive time 1 hour
Vero Beach
Drive time 2 hours 15 minutes
Florida National Parks
Drive time 1 hour 15 mins to Key Largo, an additional 2 hours to Key West
Florida Keys

Covid-19 disclaimer: with state restrictions and government mandates changing daily, everything is subject to change and I would strongly encourage anyone thinking of a Florida road trip to double check all of the locations to make sure everything they want to see is available. Please respect local mask ordinances and quarantine restrictions when you travel within Florida; all local Florida travel info is available here. 

Amelia Island

Amelia Island is one of our favorite places in Florida, and it conveniently falls right at the start of A1A. With miles of white sandy beaches, a quaint downtown area with great shops and restaurants, and a chill laid back vibe, visiting Amelia Island with kids is a great first stop.  

If you’re flying into Florida, then the closest airport to Amelia Island is Jacksonville (JAX) which is about a 30 minute drive away.  

Where to stay in Amelia Island:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

We always stay at the Seaside Amelia Inn, a locally owned boutique hotel right on the beach. The hotel offers complimentary breakfast, as well as free beach chair and umbrella rental once on the beach (which is literally steps from the hotel entrance). 

As well as being able to walk to the beach, you can walk to a local playground and some great restaurants. You’re also a short drive from downtown Fernandina which offers great shopping and dining.

What to do in Amelia Island:

Amelia Island has over 13 miles of white sandy beach with more than 40 points of beach access, so hitting the beach should definitely be your first stop. If you stay at the Seaside Amelia Inn, you can literally drop your bags and walk straight onto the beach!

We’ve always found these beaches to be really quiet, so there’s no fighting for space. The waves can be a little bigger and the water a little cooler because you’re on the Atlantic, but the water was always calm enough that my kids could play safely. 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

The beaches of Amelia Island are some of the best places in Florida to look for shells and shark teeth. We’ve had really good luck finding shark teeth on the beach, but you need to know what you’re looking for; I always thought shark teeth would be white but they’re actually black and pretty small. We had the best luck finding them earlier in the day.

A short drive from the hotel is Fort Clinch State Park where you can experience nature and history all in one 1400 square foot park. The historic fort features galleries and rooms to explore, and you climb up to walk along the top of the fort and see the cannons overlooking the St Mary’s River into Georgia. 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Once you’ve explored the fort itself, the park has more to offer with beaches (we found some great shark teeth here too), Florida wildlife (we’ve seen gopher tortoises in the park and spotted dolphins off the coast) and a great shaded playground. 

In the evening we usually head to downtown Fernandina for boutique shops and locally owned restaurants. One of my favorite bookstores, The Book Loft, offers fantastic books for adults and kids, and there are plenty of places to buy locally made products as well as beach toys like buckets and spades.

Where to eat in Amelia Island

Florida Road Trip East Coast

If you want casual dining on the beach, our favorite restaurant is Sliders Seaside Grill. The restaurant is literally right on the beach, and offers really good casual food and drinks; I can recommend the fried calamari and a frozen strawberry daiquiri! There’s also a great playground to keep the kids busy while you wait on the food.

For a really nice – but still family friendly – dinner overlooking the water, we love Brett’s Waterway Cafe, where we always ask for an outside table to watch the boats in the marina and the pelicans swooping overhead. They have amazing fresh seafood and a great wine and beer list as well.

A more casual fresh seafood option that’s great for kids is Timoti’s Seafood Shak; this is a walk up restaurant with outdoor seating and again, a fantastic kids playground. I’ve always gotten fish and chips or the shrimp basket, but last time I tried the lobster roll and it was one of the best I’ve ever had!

St Augustine 

St Augustine is about an hour and a half down the coast from Amelia Island, and has a lot of the same quaint, old Florida feel that Amelia Island has. It’s the oldest city in the United States and has an amazing history with plenty of places to explore.

Where to stay in St Augustine

Florida Road Trip East Coast
Image courtesy of St George’s Inn

Right in the center of it all is St George’s Inn, which is the perfect location for exploring the city. We chose the hotel for the location, but we were pleasantly surprised by the charming elegance of the hotel and the fantastic service we received, especially when visiting with kids. 

From the hotel you can park your car and explore many of St Augustine’s major attractions on foot or on the trolley, so no need to use the car again (a nice break on a road trip!)

What to do in St Augustine:

While you can walk around much of St Augustine on foot, to see all of the major sites the easiest way to get around is to use the Old Town Trolley Service. You can buy your tickets online in advance and download a map so then you can just walk to the nearest stop to go wherever you like – and there’s a lot to see and do in St Augustine!

The great thing about the trolley is that you can just hop on and hop off as you like so if you see something that looks fun, just jump off at the next stop to go and check it out. Some of our favorite stops include the Old Jail (where you can hear stories of inmates housed there from 1891 to 1953), the San Sebastian Winery (which offers tastings of their wines), the Colonial Quarter (which offers interactive historical demonstrations). 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

One of our other favorite places is Castillo de San Marcos, which is one of my favorite Florida National Parks to visit with kids. The fort is currently closed to the public with no reopening date, but you can walk around the outside of the fort and still see it from the outside. I probably wouldn’t stop specifically at the fort just to walk around the outside, but if you’re passing by it’s pretty cool to see.  

Florida Road Trip East Coast

The other thing you have to do while in St Augustine is see the famous St Augustine lighthouse. The lighthouse is part of a maritime museum, or you can just climb the lighthouse. The climb is pretty steep and a bit cramped but I think most kids would manage it – and the views are worth the climb!

Where to eat in St Augustine

Florida Road Trip East Coast

A short walk from St George Inn’s is the St Augustine Seafood Company, which offers fantastic fresh seafood options. I got their chowder fries, which are fries smothered in seafood chowder (something I’ve been dreaming about since!) but the person at the next table got the fish and chips burrito which I really wish I’d tried, it looked so good!

Also a short walk from the hotel is Prohibition Kitchen. We didn’t get chance to eat there but so many of the locals told us to try it that we’ll have to eat there next time. We were told that they make really good fried chicken sandwiches there and I’ve seen pictures of some crazy looking milkshakes as well!

If you’re heading to the beach in the evening, then just across the street is Sunset Grille, which offers great outdoor seating on their balcony. I loved their coconut shrimp, and they had some great cocktails on offer.  

Canaveral National Seashore

Canaveral National Seashore is a barrier island with Mosquito Lagoon on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It’s a much more rural part of Florida with some of the best opportunities to see wildlife (and avoid other people!)

Where to stay in Canaveral National Seashore

Florida Road Trip East Coast

If you’re visiting Canaveral National Seashore as part of this road trip, I would actually suggest staying in Cocoa Beach, which is going to be the next stop. It’s less than an hour’s drive from there to the seashore and it means one less time packing everything up and moving to a new hotel.

What to do in Canaveral National Seashore:

I would suggest entering the park at the Playalinda Beach entrance in Titusville. Entrance to the park is $15 per vehicle but we have the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass and this National Park was included. There are 13 beach access points (just FYI, number 13 leads onto a nude beach!) so pick a spot to park and hit the sand!

Florida Road Trip East Coast

This is the place to come to chill out and relax on the ocean for a few hours. Facilities are very, very limited (like, one very basic bathroom and that’s it!) and there’s nowhere to buy food or rent any kind of beach equipment. There are plenty of places nearby to pick up food for picnic, and just make sure you pack things like towels and beach chairs if you know you’ll need them.

Outside of the State Park, a short drive away is the Kennedy Space Center (if you’re there during a shuttle launch, definitely make sure you make time for this – it’s an incredible thing to see!) which is one of our favorite museums for kids in USA. This is a great place to spend a day, and you really do need an entire day to see the whole thing.

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Not far from Canaveral National Seashore is the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, which has some of the most amazing wildlife in Florida. We recently tried bioluminescent kayaking here and it was one of the best experiences of my life! I’ve written a whole post with the details of our Florida bioluminescent kayaking trip but getting to be out on the water with dolphins, manatees and alligators as the water glows around you is truly incredible.

Where to eat in Canaveral National Seashore:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Canaveral National Seashore doesn’t have much around it in terms of restaurants, so it’s going to be a bit of a drive to find food. If you are staying in Cocoa Beach, I’d recommend eating there instead but you could also drive up the coast a little to New Smyrna Beach or into Titusville as well. 

Cocoa Beach

Not far from Canaveral National Seashore is Cocoa Beach. This is one of the more touristy beaches in Florida, and one of the best beaches close to Walt Disney World, but if you know where to go you can avoid the crowds.

Where to stay in Cocoa Beach:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Last year we stayed at the Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort and absolutely loved it. The resort is in a great location on the beach and there’s a complimentary trolley tour up to the Cocoa Beach Pier. The rooms are villas with a full kitchen and plenty of space, which is always a nice find when traveling with kids.

The resort also has an amazing water park with a lazy river and a splash pad that my kids could have played in all day! This is a great base for exploring Cocoa Beach, but would also make a great place to have a little down time and just chill out at the resort for a bit. 

What to do in Cocoa Beach:

Cocoa Beach can sometimes feel crowded, especially up by the pier, but we’ve always been able to walk a little way down and found plenty of space. If you do stay at the Westgate Resort, the beach in front of that resort was always pretty empty with plenty of space to set up chairs and let the kids play. 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

This part of the Atlantic is known for some pretty big waves so if you’ve ever wanted surfing lessons, this is the place to give it a try; Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier offers lessons for all abilities. You can also go fishing on the pier and there’s plenty of shopping and dining available. 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Speaking of shopping, you really can’t visit Cocoa Beach without going to the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop. The huge two story store is open 24 hours a day, and has pretty much every thing you could ever need for a trip to the beach. We went in “just to look around” and came out over $100 poorer laden down with clothes, beach toys, and even a few pieces of home decor. You can of course buy their famous surfboards there as well if you’ve got a really big car to get it home! 

Where to eat in Cocoa Beach:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Our favorite place to eat in Cocoa Beach is Pelican’s Bar and Grill on Cocoa Beach Pier. The restaurant is on the pier so you sit overlooking the water and it’s a great place to watch the surfers or the sunset. The food is fantastic, particularly the seafood and be sure to try one of their cocktails – they come with pasta straws to help keep the beaches plastic free!

Another great place to get fresh seafood is Florida’s Seafood Bar and Grill, which has one of the best seafood cioppinos I’ve ever had. The restaurant gets busy and it’s pretty small so get there early and be prepared for a bit of a wait.

Coconuts on the Beach is a fun, casual locally owned restaurant that’s great if you want dinner without having to dress up. The seafood is here is great, especially the coconut shrimp, but the location right on the beach overlooking the Atlantic is what really makes this restaurant. 

Vero Beach

Vero Beach is somewhere that often gets overlooked on the East Coast but it’s actually a fantastic stop on a Florida road trip. It’s a quiet town without too many tourists, and has some of the most peaceful, beautiful beaches on the East Coast. 

We’ve actually spent most of our time in Vero Beach in an area called Wabasso Beach, which is a little north of Vero Beach itself. This is even less touristy, and we’ve seen the most amazing wildlife in this area.

Where to stay in Vero Beach:

Florida Road Trip East Coast
Image courtesy of Disney’s Vero Beach Resort

Did you know that Disney has a beach resort in Vero Beach?! Well it does, and it’s actually in the perfect place; right on the beach in a very quiet area. There’s not much within walking distance to the resort so if you’re looking to be surrounded by restaurants and shops then this might be too quiet, but if you want to be in a relaxing, quiet spot then this is perfect.

Disney’s Vero Beach Resort is right on the beach but also features a pool and a splash pad as well. There are a couple of different restaurants and bars as well as a merchandise shop and general market to buy some groceries.

They offer limited activities right now so there’s not a huge amount of entertainment, but when you can walk out of your room and basically straight onto the beach, how much other entertainment do you need?!

What to do in Vero Beach:

This has been the absolute best place in Florida that we’ve found for Florida wildlife. If you want to see dolphins, manatees, alligators and sea turtles, then you’ve come to the right place!

First up is the beach itself. We’ve found the beaches here to be virtually empty all summer, especially early in the morning. If you do stay at the Disney Resort then there are beach chairs and umbrellas available, but otherwise you’ll want to bring your own.

The other thing you’ll need on Vero Beach, especially at dawn and dusk, is a good bug spray – there are so many little gnats that you won’t necessarily see, but you’ll certainly feel them later! 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

When strolling the beach in the evening we’d often see dolphins out in the ocean, but the most amazing sighting was getting to see baby turtles hatch in the early hours one morning! I’ve written a post on watching turtles hatch so if this is on your bucket list like it was on mine, definitely go and read that!

It was the most incredible experience to see these little babies dig their way out of the nest and head down to the beach and then straight out into the ocean, I still can’t believe we got to see it! Turtle nesting season is typically early summer and hatchlings usually emerge late July to September so those are the best times to see them, but it really is luck of the draw; we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re in Vero Beach at that time of year though, hit the beach early in the day and you might be in luck!

Florida Road Trip East Coast

The other place we saw incredible wildlife was Sebastian Inlet State Park. We first visited here because they have a fantastic tide pool that is perfect for kids just learning how to snorkel; the water is calm enough that it’s easy for kids to practice but there’s enough exciting marine life for them to look at.

We saw so many crabs and fish during the day, but coming back at night we saw dolphins and even manatees! I have a post about our time at Sebastian Inlet State Park with kids too which covers everything you need to know about visiting the park. 

One final place I’d recommend going is Riverside Park, which is about a 20 minute drive south down A1A from the Disney Resort. Not only does this park have a great playground and a well laid out running track, but it is hands down one of the best places to see the sunset in Vero Beach – in fact, probably one of the best sunsets in Florida

Where to eat in Vero Beach:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

If you’re staying at Disney’s Vero Beach, we like Wind and Waves Grill, which is a casual restaurant serving classic American food with an emphasis on fresh seafood and local produce. They make one of the best shrimp and grits I’ve ever had, and the bartender made a really good Kentucky Mule! 

Red Onion Eatery makes really great sandwiches, and their lobster roll with sweet potato fries is incredible. 

A few more minutes drive and you come to Smiley Riley’s, which makes the absolute best peanut butter sundae I’ve ever had, and their portions are very generous; my large milkshake was the size of my head, it basically came in a bucket! Grayson also loved their strawberry ice cream, and that kid knows his ice cream!

Florida National Parks

It’s a bit of a drive from Vero Beach down to the next stop near Miami, but I’m just not a huge fan of the stops in between those places to suggest stopping there. If you do want to break that trip up then you could stop in West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale, but honestly I’d suggest just driving straight through to Miami.

I haven’t spent much time in Miami itself, but it makes a perfect base for visiting some of my other favorite places in the South of Florida: Florida’s three National Parks. Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park are all in this area and the Miami area makes for the perfect place to get out and explore them.

Where to stay near Florida National Parks:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

There’s no shortage of places to stay in Miami, but if you’re looking to explore the National Parks then you actually don’t want to be in the city center itself. The best places to stay are actually Kendall or Homestead, or you could camp in one of the parks itself.

We stayed at the Hilton Miami Dadeland, which is close to Kendall and a great place with which to explore the parks. The hotel was reasonably priced, clean, had a fantastic outdoor pool, and was in a great location surrounded by restaurants. 

If you want to camp within the parks, you have numerous options depending on which park you choose: there is camping at Everglades National Park and camping at Biscayne National Park. Since Dry Tortugas is off the Florida coast, I wouldn’t recommend having that as your base since it’s not easy to get back to the mainland, but you could certainly camp there overnight while exploring that park – in fact, I would definitely recommending staying the night there.

What to do in the Florida National Parks:

Everglades National Park is the third largest National Park in the lower 48 states, and covers over 1.5 million acres in South Florida. I visited Everglades National Park with kids in February and we absolutely loved it; we got to see so much amazing wildlife (more alligators than we’d ever seen in our lives!) and learned so much about the ecosystem that is so essential to all of Florida.

There are four different visitor centers in Everglades National Park and they are not at all close together; in fact some are over an hour apart. Our favorite was Shark Valley Visitor Center; we found some great, easy trails for the kids to hike here (there was also a tram tour), and we saw the most alligators in this location (including a mommy and her babies!) 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Where the Florida Everglades make up a huge part of South Florida, Biscayne National Park takes up very little land; in fact 95% of the park is under water. The best way to see the park is from the water; if you have your own vessel then you can certainly explore that way but if you don’t, there are various guided tours that show off the best of the parks.

I’d recommend trying one that encompasses both kayaking and snorkeling in order to see as much of the park as possible. Biscayne National Park Institute offers a variety of different tours so take a look at their website to see what is currently on offer. I would strongly recommend either choosing a tour that includes an opportunity to snorkel or finding time to do so on your own since it’s really the best way to see the incredible marine life the park has to offer.

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Dry Tortugas National Park is actually located off the Florida coast and you need at least an entire day to see the park, although I’d recommend spending at least a couple of days camping overnight. The only way to get to Dry Tortugas is by boat or by seaplane; boat trips are generally a cheaper option but will take longer while the plane trip is faster but quite a bite more expensive.

Dry Tortugas is an all day activity so you need to bring everything you might need with you, including food (there is food on the ferry if you choose that option but it’s pretty basic), bathing suits, snorkeling gear, etc. The park can be explored on foot but I think it’s best seen from under the water, and the snorkeling at Dry Tortugas is incredible. 

If you can spend the night camping at the park, it’s the best way to really get the most of your visit. The ferry and plane trips don’t give you more than a few hours at the parks and the only people allowed to stay overnight are the campers so it’s a really unique experience. 

Where to eat near Florida National Parks:

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Winners in the South Beach Wine and Food Festival two years in a row, Chefs on the Run was recommended to me as the best place to get burgers in the Homestead area by the concierge at our hotel – and he was right! My black and blue burger was amazing, but they had a much more varied menu with tacos, Caribbean inspired bowls, Mofungo, sandwiches and salads. 

You also need to visit Robert Is Here, a fruit and farm stand with the best milkshake I have ever had! This is a stop by the side of the road kind of place and always busy, but it’s worth the wait. As well as the milkshakes (I got the banana and it was so good), you can pick up locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables from here as well (they peeled and sliced the mangoes for us and they were delicious!)

Florida Keys

The Florida Keys mark the end of a Florida road trip down the East Coast, but it’s a pretty great place to end a journey. A short drive from the Florida National Parks is Key Largo, which marks the beginning of the Keys, and then from there you can drive as far south as you like until you hit Key West.

Where to stay in the Florida Keys

Florida Road Trip East Coast

If you decide to stay in Key Largo, then a friend stayed at Ocean Point Suites and highly recommended it. These suites are spacious (which I think is nice on a road trip when you might all be a bit sick of each other after being cooped up in a car!) and the resort is right on the water with views over the Atlantic. 

If you want to go a bit further south without going all the way to Key West then you could stay in Marathon, which is about the halfway point and right before you come to the Seven Mile Bridge. Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel and Resort is a gorgeous 4 star hotel in Marathon with the most amazing views over the water, and the private standalone beach houses are completely private (so no sharing hallways or elevators with anyone else!) 

If you do make it down to Key West, then we’ve stayed at the Casa Marina Key West, which is a spectacular hotel right on the beach. This hotel is certainly a splurge but at the end of a long drive, it felt really nice to relax in a bit of luxury for a few days. Despite being a nicer hotel, it was very kid friendly and being right on the beach was really convenient. 

What to do in the Florida Keys

There’s no shortage of things to do in the Florida Keys, depending where you choose as your base. It involves a bit of driving, but you really can drive explore and see all of the Keys in one day.

One of the most iconic things to do is to drive over the Seven Mile Bridge. This is exactly what it sounds like: a seven mile bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys. The drive is stunning and is a great place to take photos (not while driving, obviously!) – you can even get out and walk a section of the bridge. 

Florida Road Trip East Coast

Getting out on the water is also a must in the Florida Keys since you’re surrounded by so much of it. You could take a glass bottom boat trip from Key largo, rent kayaks to paddle with the manatees, or go on a eco friendly, ethical dolphin watching trip in Key West; either way you’re sure to be in some of the clearest water you’ve ever seen!

Florida Road Trip East Coast

If you do make it down to Key West, then you absolutely have to watch an iconic Key West sunset. Mallory Square is the most famous place to watch this from, but it does get busy so either arrive early to stake out a good spot or head over to Fort Zach instead, which has the same views with a lot less tourists. 

Read this post for more ideas on how to spend a weekend in Key West.

Where to eat in the Florida Keys

Florida Road Trip East Coast

The Florida Keys have no shortage of fantastic restaurants and with so many on the water with outdoor seating, they’re perfect for eating out right now.

Bayside Grille in Key Largo literally has tables right in the sand on the beach, and if you time it right you’ll be able to sit and watch the sunset as you eat. Kids can play on the beach while you wait for the food, which has an emphasis on fresh seafood. 

Hot Tin Roof in the Ocean Key Resort is a great alternative to watching the sunset in Mallory Square; the resort is right next door and you can sit and watch the sunset from the comfort of your table without having to jostle for space.

You can’t go all the way to the Florida Keys without trying Key Lime Pie! There are so many places to try Key Lime Pie, and not just in pie form; you can get Key Lime donuts, ice cream, chocolates, and of course cocktails! We opted for chocolate dipped Key Lime Pie on a stick from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, which was the best Key Lime anything I had the whole trip.