As a third-generation Miami resident, I have the great fortune of really, REALLY knowing the area and discovering hundreds of hidden gems in South Florida.
Last year, 2021, marked the 70th anniversary of my mother’s family first arrival in Miami-Dade County. My father’s family arrived a few years later and they actually lived in the Everglades for 25 years. Yes, THE EVERGLADES.
As a travel writer, I intentionally seek hidden gems, secret places, and quirky attractions. I will NOT be listing popular beaches and places to visit in South Florida. Some of these Miami hidden gems are secrets even to longtime residents.
Most of these secret spots in South Florida are in right in the middle of major tourist destinations yet remain hidden gems. Did you know that South Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles naturally co-exist in the same space? Add manatees, sharks, dolphins, roseate spoonbills, and trees found nowhere else in the US to the list of unique things in South Florida!
I cannot possibly share every South Florida secret place and hidden gem but this article includes many fascinating options. Please check out these Florida hidden gems on your future South Florida trips. And let me know of any fun, cool, and happy places you discover and enjoy.
Time to explore the secret hidden gems in South Florida.
Where is South Florida?
I define South Florida as the portion of Florida along and below the imaginary line from the northern tip of Anna Maria Island on the Florida Gulf Coast through Sebring on the Florida East Coast.
Bean Point (Anna Maria Island) and Fort Pierce Inlet are natural northern boundaries of South Florida for this theme. And Key West is the southern edge of South Florida.
My Top 11 Favorite Secret Hidden Gems in South Florida
1. Florida Everglades Secret Spot
In general, the Everglades is my top hidden gem in South Florida. Most Everglades visitors merely scratch the surface and it is easy to quickly get off the beaten path. Very few visitors make it to Everglades City and only a portion of those intrepid travelers cross the bridge to Chokoloskee.
When you visit Chokoloskee, by all means eat at Havana Cafe (on of the best grouper sandwiches in Florida), visit Smallwood Store, and join an Everglades eco boat tour. All fun stuff. But my top secret spot and hidden gem in South Florida is on the way back to highway 41 (Tamiami Trail) in Everglades City.
The fascinating Museum of the Everglades has amazing historical artifacts from early development efforts, remarkable photo exhibits, a cool alligator bicycle rack in front, and much more—but I never get over the magnificent floor. It was built in the 1930s of Dade County pine and is simply magnificent.
After a hurricane filled the building with several feet of mud (see the marks on the walls), recovery efforts included restoring the floor. There are certainly older floors in South Florida but none more beautiful. Perhaps one day I will publish a #Floorida article about phenomenal floors in Florida.
But do see my article about fun things to do in the Everglades.
If you find another article mentioning the floor of this museum as a unique thing to see in Florida, let me know and I will refund your McCool Travel annual fee. Also check out our nearby favorite places to eat in Naples Florida.
2. Palm Beach County Hidden Gem
I love trees and cannot lie!
South Florida is chock full of amazing trees, from oaks to royal poincianas to Australian pines to banyans and of course palms. My favorite South Florida tree is probably the giant kapok tree, a tropical tree native to South America and Africa, later imported to Asia and Florida.
The kapok tree can reach 230 feet in height and is the tallest tree in the Amazon and in Africa. Kapok tree bark is covered with thorns lending to its nickname in St Croix and other places of “monkey no climb.”
My favorite kapok tree in South Florida is along the walkway next to the croquet field at Boca Resort. The kapok tree dominates the area and yet most guests do not even realize it is there. Take a moment or an afternoon to appreciate this phenomenal being and for a romantic break look for the nearby hidden swing.
See below for more tremendous trees in South Florida (#treemendous).
3. Two Top Miami Secret Spots
South Florida is jam packed with secrets and I love finding non touristy things to do in Miami.
But none of them are buried in the Historic Coconut Grove Cemetery, which dates to the early 1900s with burials including Bahamian settlers of this portion of South Florida. The unique tombstones and gorgeous trees may look familiar, because they were prominently featured in the iconic The Thriller music video by Michael Jackson.
After your visit to the Historic Coconut Grove Cemetery be sure to check out another favorite Florida hidden gem in Miami. Just a mile and a half away is the gorgeous Miami City Hall. The historic building served as the headquarters and terminal for Pan Am seaplane flights in the 1930s and 1940s. Be sure to see the multi-ton globe in the lobby, another favorite Florida floor, countless other art deco elements, and the history of flight murals.
Also see my article with dozens of Miami hidden gems, including the oldest building in the New World (western hemisphere), USA’s smallest post office, $50 million houses, spectacular Miami Scenic Drives, and so many more unique things to do in Florida.
4. Favorite Fort Lauderdale Secret Spot for Spectacular Sunrises
Some of the best sunrise photos spots on the East coast will be found in South Florida. The below sunrise spot is at Vista Park in Fort Lauderdale, which is tucked into a neighborhood just south of Oakland Park Blvd. I love the setting because there are multiple perspectives.
Catch the sunrise on the beach, while sitting on this bench, or combine the bench or palm tree or other elements. Loggerhead Park is a little further south in the same neighborhood and both parks are my favorite hidden gems in Broward County.
This stretch of beach is fronted with residential houses, rather than the ginormous condo buildings that dominate the shoreline in both directions. See below for more Broward county hidden gems.
5. Paddle a Clear Bottom Kayak in Gasparilla Sound
Admire the impossibly gorgeous turquoise water of Gasparilla Sound while driving across the Boca Grande Causeway. The causeway continues the length of Gasparilla Island, a hidden gem Florida Gulf barrier island.
For a real local favorite secret, rent a clear kayak and explore the waters around the Boca Grande Sandbar, Dog Island, Boca Grande Fishing Pier, and the old train bridge. It is a super quirky liquid road trip experience to be able to see the water below and all around you.
McCool Travel note: the kayaks at Glass Bottom Rentals are now clear only on the bottom, compared to the entire kayak when the above photo is taken. This hidden gem Florida liquid road trip experience will still be amazing.
See also our favorite Things to Do in Punta Gorda Florida.
6. Amazing Non-Touristy South Florida Adventure
Another phenomenal #LiquidRoadTrip hidden gem experience is found further south around Fort Myers Beach. The 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway explores the islands (Captiva Island, Sanibel Island, Pine Island, Cayo Costa, and many more), around Estero Bay, and up the Caloosahatchee River. Frequent sightings of dolphins, manatees, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, and other magnificent Florida Gulf Coast wildlife are nearly a certainty.
7. Savor This Secret Bradenton Beach
Beer Can Island (aka Greer Island) is a lobster claw shaped patch of land extending from the top of Longboat Key. Massive driftwood trees create stellar Florida photo spots. Swimmers might share the water with manatees and dolphins. Most Beer Can Island visitors arrive by boat because public parking is limited—best spot is at the beach entrance on North Shore Road).
See also our article about Cool Things to Do in Anna Maria Island Florida.
8. Seek Shark Teeth at This Sarasota Hidden Gem
With darker sand and wild natural habitats, Caspersen Beach is a contrast to the typical manicured pure white sugar sand beaches along the US Gulf Coast. Caspersen Beach is the less popular sister of the popular Sarasota County beaches—Siesta Key, Longboat Key, and Venice Beach—but the reason to visit is to find shark teeth. A lot of shark teeth! Caspersen Beach also has a nature trail among wonderful coastal hammocks (more trees!).
Finding shark teeth on Caspersen Beach is one of our favorite cool activities on the US Gulf Coast.
After finding your shark teeth, try these other Things to Do in Sarasota Florida.
9. Florida Keys Hidden Gem: Sombrero Beach
My favorite hidden gem in the Conch Republic is in my opinion the best beach in the Florida Keys. With wide and clean soft sand, palm trees, plenty of free parking, restroom facilities, and picnic areas, Sombrero Beach in Marathon makes a fantastic, memorable, and convenient stop on the drive between Miami and Key West.
See below for more secret spots in the Florida Keys.
10. Tunnel of Trees in Martin County
Check out the magnificent double stretch of tree tunnels between Beach Blvd (A1A) off Jupiter Island at Hobe Sound Beach heading west along Bridge Street. The total length is less than one mile but it is a spectacular scenic secret spot in South Florida well worth a visit and some photos.
This phenomenal scene is not the only tree tunnel in Martin County. Two others are several miles of Martin County Scenic Highway (aka The Grade) and a banyan tree tunnel along St Lucie Blvd in Port Salerno.
11. Discover Your Own South Florida Secret Spots
95% of the above South Florida secret spots are on or within 1/4 mile of the water. That is no secret as the beaches and coastline are Florida’s most popular attraction. But, my friends, there is so much to discover, uncover, and explore in Florida’s interior. Discover your own South Florida hidden gems simply by getting off the beaten path. Countless waterways empower liquid road trip funness.
Here follows a day trip I created when I wanted to skip interstate 75 highway between Naples and Ft Lauderdale. This scenic drive experiences Old Florida wilderness and skirts the northern Everglades through Collier and Hendry counties. Passing ranches and wildlife management areas, including the edge of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, you will see free-range gators, flying predators, and other wildlife. Recommended route is basically Golden Gate Blvd east from Naples to Desoto Blvd (north) to Oil Well Rd / highway 858 (east) to Countyline Rd (north) to Clewiston Exchange / 846 to 833 to Evercane Rd / 835 into Clewiston.
For more beautiful scenery a little further south, see my Everglades Scenic Drive section in 6 Sensational Miami Scenic Drives.
Outdoor Hidden Gems in South Florida: Trees and Parks
Although the following did not make my top South Florida hidden gems list, they might make yours.
One of the largest trees in Florida is a Baobab in Hollywood in Young Circle. Nearby, the Council Oak Tree on the Seminole Tribe of Florida reservation is magnificent and on the National Register of Historic Places. A Cluster Fig and Panama Tree are among the Florida Champion trees at Flamingo Gardens. McCool Travel tip: about two miles from Flamingo Gardens is Flamingo Road Nursery, featuring an amazing variety of fresh tropical fruit smoothies.
Long Key Natural Area is one of several phenomenal parks in Davie. Others include Tree Tops Park, Robbins Preserve, and Pine Island Ridge Natural Area (at 29 feet, the highest elevation in Broward county). Nearer the beaches, wonderful parks include Anne Kolb Nature Center, Johnson State Park, and Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Dania Beach Pier is a fantastic sunrise spot.
Deering Estate in South Miami houses some of Florida’s oldest and largest trees. And if you love trees, explore the Vizcaya grounds and across the street (former Miami Museum of Science), along Brickell Avenue, and around Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. More favorite Miami parks are covered in Fun Miami Hidden Gems.
Over on the Florida Gulf Coast, find gorgeous banyan trees all around downtown Naples. At Desoto National Monument in Bradenton, the magnificent Gumbo Limbo tree is one of Florida’s oldest and largest trees. Amazing trees at Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers include a huge kapok tree and a humongous banyan.
Some favorite secret spots in Naples for nature include Corkscrew Sanctuary, Gordon River Greenway (try the sneaky parking area through the Naples Zoo parking lot), and the Freedom Park nature preserve.
Secret Spots for Best Key Lime Pie in South Florida
Looking for the best key lime pie in Florida? Head to world-famous Versailles on Calle Ocho (SW 8the Street) in South Miami. By no means is this iconic Cuban restaurant a hidden Florida gem but its key lime pie might be.
A unique key lime pie experience is the no-bake, original recipe, version at Cabbage Key. Best way to get there is on a Captiva Cruise from South Seas Island Resort—South Seas is also wonderful for spotting manatees and kayaking.
My third key lime pie secret spot is a produce stand in Davie called New River Groves. Located on Griffin Road just west of the Florida Turnpike, the Grove is one of my first stops after flying into Ft Lauderdale Airport.
McCool Travel tip: I like to exit FLL airport on US 1 south, turn on Old Griffin Road, and stop after about a half mile. From the dirt parking area, across from the bright pink house, I usually see manatees. Or, sometimes I exit FLL on US 1 north and drive about three miles to Tom Jenkins for South Florida’s best BBQ—other than my brother’s spare ribs.
Anyway, try any of those three key lime pies and let me know if you have had better key lime pie.
More South Florida Secret Spots: Atlantic Coast
After driving through the above tree tunnels, visit Martin County’s oldest building. Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge lifesaving station dates back to 1876 and is the only remaining such building.
The most remote South Florida hidden gem is the Florida Trail, one of only 11 National Scenic Trails. The southern terminus is at the Oasis Visitor Center in Ochopee. Explore any or all of the 125 miles from the southern end to Lake Okeechobee.
The quickest Everglades day trips from Ft. Lauderdale are Everglades Holiday Park and Sawgrass Recreation. Everglades Holiday is all the way west on Griffin Road and I prefer their airboat rides. Sawgrass Recreation is on 27 about two miles north of I-75 and cover a different part of the Everglades. So try both and decide which you like!
Johnny Depp attended Miramar High School and (fun McCool fact) a cousin appeared with him on 21 Jump Street. Supposedly, he worked on many homes in Miramar as part of his construction job. Countless other celebrities and superstars are from South Florida, including the world’s richest person.
After visiting Miramar, Davie, or other western Broward county spots, pick up some local favorite hidden gem food.
McCool Travel tip: Some favorite South Florida local favorite foods include Romeau’s Cuban in Southwest Ranches, garlic rolls from Steve’s Pizza or Cuban pastries from Vicky Bakery in Cooper City, or breakfast from Mayor’s Cafe in Pembroke Pines. All over South Florida, you will find amazing Cuban and Caribbean food, bagels and diners, Italian, and Jewish delis.
The Little Red Schoolhouse in Palm Beach was the first schoolhouse in southeast Florida. In this 1886 building, a 16-year-old young woman taught seven students.
More Southwest Florida Hidden Gems
Florida Gulf Coast visitors often only experience the beaches, restaurants, and shopping areas. When you crave some hidden places in Southwest Florida, check out these.
Find secret places in Florida Keys by exploring side roads off the main road. Some favorite include the National Key Deer Refuge, Blue Hole (within the refuge), Bahia Honda, Anne’s Beach, Card Sound Road, Turtle Hospital, and Pigeon Key. Also see our Key West Tips.
Babcock Ranch Preserve is the largest single land preservation purchase in Florida history. On more than 70,000 acres, visitors can hike, fish, hunt, explore, and take a swamp eco-tour. Black bear, Florida panther, Osceola wild turkey, and many other animals roam this remote hidden gem of South Florida.
See magnificent original (pre-1870) wooden floors in the historic homestead at Old Spanish Point in Osprey. They are another entry on my list of favorite Florida floors (#Floorida). South Florida’s oldest residence is probably the Oldest House Museum in Key West (built 1829).
Get off the beaten path nearby in Oscar Scherer State Park. Hike one of the largest remaining Florida scrub habitats and kayak on oak-lined South Creek.
While exploring the highway 27 corridor, visit the fascinating Lake Placid murals, take a picture in Venus, and explore the Lake Wales Ridge WEA. There find native denizens like the scrub jay, sandhill crane, owls, and tortoise.
Further west, along highway 17, visit Arcadia and paddle on the Peace River. Peace River spills into the Charlotte Harbor in Punta Gorda where the remarkable Peace River Seafood is a must stop.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park was recognized as the first Dark Sky Park in Florida. Its remoteness from urban lights and noise makes it a peaceful South Florida secret spot.
Even More South Florida Secret Spots
Okeechobee Waterway, Fort Myers on the Gulf to Stuart on the Atlantic. Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake entirely within a state and the second largest (after Lake Michigan). Take a couple of days liquid road trip to travel the 154 miles across the state. Along the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers through the “Big Water” and then St Lucie River into Stuart. Stop as desired among several old Florida destinations with marinas along the way.
There are so many other South Florida secret places and hidden gems that can be listed but I hope this is a good start. Please let us know of any favorites of yours.
11 Favorite Secret Hidden Gems in South Florida was originally published on McCool Travel in 2020.