17 Best Florida Gulf Coast Beaches

Florida’s dazzling Gulf Coast is a delight for beach lovers.

Mile upon mile of white sand and pretty shells makes this a popular destination for visitors from across the world. A laidback vibe ensures this is the ideal place to come if you just want to kick back and relax, but if you’re feeling more active, the warm water’s a pleasure for swimming and water sports such as stand up paddle boarding, kite surfing and kayaking.

There’s a beach for everyone: from upscale Naples to unspoilt Caladesi Island, the soft sands of Siesta Key and the famous shells of Sanibel.

You shouldn’t need persuading to come, but if you’re keen to work out which part is the right fit for you, check out this roundup of the best beaches along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Best Florida Gulf Coast Beaches

Naples Beach

Naples Florida Gulf Coast Beach

Upmarket Naples boasts one of the most breathtaking beaches along the Gulf Coast.

One of the best places to appreciate it is from the town’s historic wooden pier. Stroll along the weathered deck boards, the breeze caressing your cheeks, as you keep an eye out for the playful dolphins that weave in and out beneath it. Naples’ first pier was erected in 1888, but over the years, storms, hurricanes and even a fire have taken their toll.

Today’s structure is longer and more robust than the original and a popular spot for local fishermen and visiting tourists alike.

Beside it, lazy waves tease egrets in the shallows while squadrons of pelicans cruise the shoreline in the hope of dive-bombing a meal.

The beach itself is a joy, with white sand as far as the eye can see backed by the mansions of the rich and famous, half-concealed behind stands of palm trees. 

Barefoot Beach Preserve, Bonita Springs

Gentle surf and shallow water make Bonita Beach Park a shoe-in for family fun.

With cookout grills, volleyball courts and other amenities, it’s a fun place to spend the day. But if you’re looking for something that feels a little more off the beaten track, try its quieter neighbour.

Barefoot Beach Preserve is an unspoilt gem that’s just 15 minutes drive from 1-75 but a world apart from the noise of the highway. It offers a mile of pristine sand frequented mostly by locals.

Sea oats anchor the dunes while behind them, gopher tortoises and loggerhead turtles amble about in the shade provided by sabal palms, gumbo limbo and sea grape trees.

Watch out for sting rays during the summer months, when it’s wise to adopt a shuffle rather than a stride to avoid an unexpected encounter with one of their barbed tails.

Rent a kayak and follow tidal creeks to quiet mangrove swamps and a tranquil lagoon where anglers come to idle away their leisure time in the hope of a bite. 

Estero Island

Estero Island Gulf Coast Beaches

Estero Island is where you’ll find the town of Fort Myers Beach, which boasts a long, sandy beach.

Not far away is the Mound House, situated on the bay side of this narrow sliver of land. At this fascinating museum you can learn about the lives of the Calusa, a prehistoric Native American civilisation who thrived in this area for more than 2000 years.

They left behind their signature shell mounds; an easy stroll through the lush vegetation will unlock this ancient story.

Alternatively, book a place on a tour to navigate the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail with an expert guide. This wildlife-rich locale is also the place to catch a glimpse of manatees, dolphins and fish as well as myriad birdlife.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel has a number of excellent beaches, from the easily accessible Tarpon Bay Beach to the quieter Bowman’s Beach.

The island is renowned for its shells, which collect here because it’s one of the few islands to run perpendicular to the Florida coast instead of parallel to it.

As a result, one of the essential island experiences is what’s known as the “Sanibel stoop”, the hunched over profile you’ll get as you bend down to look at the sand in the hope of a rare find.

Time your visit for early in the day, preferably after high tide or a powerful storm – that’s when the waves will have unburdened themselves of a load of more unusual and sought-after varieties.

The rarest and most highly prized is the junonia with its unmistakable spotted shell, but you’ll have to trawl through heaps of scallop, cockle and coquina shells to find one.   

Captiva Island

Captiva Island is Sanibel’s overlooked, sleepier neighbour.

The first beach you come to after crossing Blind Pass Bridge, which connects the two, is Turner Beach. Unspoilt and undeveloped, it’s the perfect place to enjoy nature.

Further on, you’ll come to west-facing Alison Hagerup Beach. Hagerup worked tirelessly for the Captiva Erosion Prevention District, advocating for beach replenishment schemes; it’s partly because of her that the island’s in such good shape.

The magnificent beach that bears her name is ideally positioned to catch the sunset, making it one of the Gulf’s most romantic spots for travelling couples.

When you’re getting peckish, it’s also within easy strolling distance of some unfussy casual dining eateries where you can fill up on shrimp and Key Lime Pie. 

Manasota Key

Some of the least crowded beaches in Sarasota County can be found on Manasota Key. Nowhere is that truer than at Stump Pass Beach at the southern end of Manasota Key.

This paradisiacal place is a good bet if you’re hoping to see dolphins, manatees or the many loggerhead sea turtles that come here to nest in late spring through to summer.

Guided paddle board or kayak tours with one of the local tour operators are an excellent way to get a different perspective on this coastal landscape, which is also popular with hikers and picnickers.

Nature lovers will also appreciate Blind Pass Beach, where on the bay side of the road you can follow the Fred Duisberg Nature Trail as it meanders past sea grapes and mangrove forest – keep an eye out for mangrove crabs – to look out over a secluded cove. 

Venice Beach

Venice bills itself as Florida’s shark tooth capital.

Ten million years ago, what’s now Florida was underwater and sharks were commonplace. Each shark grows many thousands of teeth in their lifetime, some of which would have been left behind as the waters receded.

Today, these fossilized teeth form a layer more than ten meters deep and often wash up onto the beach. Eagle-eyed collectors sometimes also find pieces of whale jawbone and fragments of dugong ribs.

The best place to find such treasures is south of Venice jetty, though you’ll still need a bit of luck.

Mosey on down to Papa’s Bait Shop, halfway down the fishing pier, and buy yourself a Florida snow shovel, which comes with a basket on the bottom to help you sift out any finds from the sand.

Nearby you’ll find a couple of volleyball courts, a golf course and Brohard Paw Park, the only dog-friendly beach in the area.

Siesta Key

Siesta Key Beach

The sand at Siesta Key Beach is as soft as powdered sugar, which means it’s no surprise this place features regularly on “best beach” roundups. It is one of the best beaches on Florida’s Gulf coast.

As you take off your shoes and wiggle your toes, you’ll immediately understand why people love its ultra-fine quartz-crystal sand. It’s hard to believe this idyllic place was once plagued by mosquitoes, infested with snakes and inhabited by wild pigs.

But just over a century ago, canny developers spotted its potential and today, Siesta Key draws day-trippers and holidaymakers in their thousands. The beach extends for eight miles, a long thin barrier island off the Sarasota shore.

Behind the beach, there’s a cluster of shops and eateries, the ideal place to cool off with an ice-cream or enjoy a long leisurely lunch. 

Lido Key

Lido Key is a barrier island connected to of a small cluster of islets which link Longboat Key to Sarasota on the mainland.

It’s best known for its aquarium. Arguably the biggest draw of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is a pair of manatees, Hugh and Buffett. This charismatic duo is most animated when it’s feeding time, when the hungry creatures devour endless heads of Romaine lettuce.

Stick around and you’ll also be delighted by the antics of Mote’s playful sea otters, get to see some purposeful sharks and learn more about some of the other marine residents of the Florida coast.

Nearby, you’ll be able to enjoy the shell-encrusted ivory sand at Lido Key’s handful of beaches.

Longboat Key

Sleepy Longboat Key, squeezed between Lido Key and Anna Maria Island, is all about the beach.

Though a few resorts and a handful of restaurants line this barrier island, the 12 mile long strip of dazzling white sand is the main attraction.

Lapped by the calm waves of the Gulf of Mexico, the beach is backed by gently swaying sea oats, the perennial grasses that anchor its low-rise dunes.

Couples stroll along the hard-packed sand beside the water, passing fishermen patiently waiting for a bite and kids building sandcastles while their parents soak up the sun.

Beyond the beach, there are opportunities to play tennis and golf, if you can bear to drag yourself away. 

Anna Maria Island

Several great beaches lure visitors to Anna Maria Island, located just to the north of Longboat Key.

The first is Coquina Beach, where a broad strip of sand is backed by Australian pines, green buttonwoods, black olive trees and gumbo limbos. A mile north is Cortez Beach.

At first, you might find the sight of the concrete breakwaters a little off-putting, but they’ve been put there to protect the beach from strong waves and that calmer water within them is a boon for swimmers.  The impact of those piers as they deflect the breakers makes this a good spot for surfers too.

Ample public parking and facilities such as volleyball nets make Manatee Public Beach in the center of the island a good choice for those looking for somewhere lively, while to the north, Bean Point is a more secluded spot for those in need of a bit of peace and quiet.

St Pete Beach

In 2021, St Pete Beach topped a TripAdvisor poll, coming in at number 1 on the Travellers’ Choice Best Beaches in the US category. That shouldn’t come as a shock to those who know it well.

This broad swath of pale sand is a fan favorite because of its laidback, unpretentious vibe – what you see is what you get.

It’s as easy to arrange kite boarding, windsurfing, parasailing, and stand-up paddle boarding in the crystal-clear water, as it is to simply rent a sunbed for the day. 

Even if you don’t plan to stay there you should still check out the Don Cesar. This heritage hotel, built in 1928, is a bubblegum pink palace right on the beach and a much loved local landmark. It’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. 

Clearwater Beach

Glorious Clearwater Beach is a family favourite.

The sea gleams vibrant turquoise under an azure sky and the snowy white of the vast beach is the perfect complement. The warm shallow water is ideal for the little ones and beach lifeguards patrol year-round providing extra reassurance.

Cyclists, roller bladers and walkers share a winding beachfront promenade, while anglers hog Pier 60, a wooden fishing pier that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Another tourist attraction that you won’t want to miss is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where you can learn about Winter, a rescued bottlenose dolphin with a prosthetic tail who starred in the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. She sadly died in 2021, but her legacy lives on. 

Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island

Don’t be fooled: this island isn’t just for newlyweds.

That’s where the name comes from though – when Clinton Washburn was telling the editor of Life magazine about the island he’d just purchased, he enthused how the place would be ideal for honeymooners. The editor ran with the idea, and after the story was published, the name stuck. 

Accessed via the Dunedin Causeway north of Clearwater, today it offers visitors four breathtaking miles of beaches. It’s also a prime location for wildlife viewing.

Hike the Osprey Trail into a tranche of virgin slash pine woodland. Look up to see eagles and osprey; on the ground, you might encounter gopher tortoises, raccoons and armadillos.

Honeymoon Island and nearby Caladesi Island were once a single piece of land called Hog Island. Since the hurricane of 1921, which split the island in two, the only way to reach Caladesi Island has been by boat.

Live oaks, slash pines and the historic Scharrer Homestead await those who hop aboard, inland from the island’s pristine beaches. 

Seaside

Florida’s Gulf Coast extends to the Panhandle, and this remarkable beach town is one of its gems. It’s no secret, however, thanks to the success of a 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey.

The Truman Show highlighted how picture-perfect the place is, so if you tire of building sandcastles on its fabulous beach, head inland and take a look at the cottage on Natchez Street that put this town on the map.

Together with Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach, about 8 miles east, Seaside is one of a trio of purpose-built communities which were designed in what’s known as the New Urbanism style of planning.

Destin-Fort Walton Beach

This part of Florida used to be referred to as the Playground of the Gulf Coast but is now sometimes affectionately dubbed the Emerald Coast, thanks to the vivid colour of the sea on a sunny day.

The sand on its dune-backed beaches started out, many thousands of years ago, as Appalachian quartz, and seems to glitter in the sunshine.

Among the best are those reached by boardwalk at Henderson Beach State Park or on Okaloosa Island. Many visitors come here to fish – they even call Destin “the world’s luckiest fishing village”.

Each October, it hosts the Destin Fishing Rodeo, but no matter when you come, it’s straightforward to charter a boat or join a day-long excursion.

Beachfront dining’s also a big deal here, and watching the sun puddle into the water as day fades into night is one of the most beautiful things you’ll see anywhere in the state.

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola was voted number 1 by USA Today readers in a 2018 poll of Florida’s best beaches.

This eight mile long barrier island stunner is one of the most westerly strips of sand in the state, located close to the Alabama border. 

Its Footprints In The Sand Eco Trail guides visitors to the top wildlife spotting opportunities in the area. There’s a chance, for instance, of seeing loggerhead turtles, one of three types of sea turtles that nest here in season. Hermit crabs scuttle in the sand and great blue herons potter around in the shallows.

Bottlenose dolphins frolic in the water and a plethora of birds soar overhead, including the notorious laughing gull, so named because it screeches with joy when it steals food – keep a close eye on your picnic.

Don’t pack your bags until you’ve spent at least a day in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a protected reserve nearby.