One of the most iconic road trip experiences you can have in the USA is to hop in your car and explore the best that the west coast of Florida has to offer. From world-class beaches, remote islands, trendy downtowns, lush state parks, mangrove forests and everything in between, this route offers something for everyone.
The overall purview of this route can be defined as a 660 mile stretch of road that starts in Pensacola, way up in the Florida Panhandle, and follows the Gulf coast all the way to Everglades City.
It includes iconic places like Panama City Beach, Crystal River, Tampa, St Petersburg, Sarasota, Fort Myers and so much more.
While it might only take you 9 hours to drive the route straight through, you could spend weeks diving into the best it has to offer. We took 9 days to highlight the best on offer along the St Petersburg to Fort Myers stretch of the drive.
Additionally, this guide will also offer some information on expanding your trip to include the Florida Panhandle, Crystal River, and Everglades City, should you want to add more days to your Florida road trip.
Ultimate West Coast Florida Road Trip Itinerary
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: Above you’ll find a map of our highlights in Key West, Florida. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places we mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version.
The map above features all of the things to do, places to stay, and places to eat that are recommended in this guide.
St Petersburg Area
Our west coast Florida road trip started off in St Petersburg, a place that offers a perfect blend of culture, beach, and city life. The bulk of our time was spent digging into the downtown area and enjoying St Pete Beach, rather than traveling further afield.
That said, this area is fascinating and offers a variety of towns that each offer their own flare.
You could spend a week here and only scratch the surface. We’re offering you our highlights as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to venture further afield during your visit.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to the St Petersburg area, click here to watch our St Petersburg Instagram stories
St Pete Highlights & Activities
Fort Desoto Park
Located not too far south of St Pete Beach is the largest park within Pinnellas County, Fort Desoto. The park spans more than 1,000 acres and offers 5 interconnected islands to explore.
It offers some spectacular beaches, mangroves, wetlands, and wildlife opportunities, among other natural environments to admire.
Most notably, it offers the chance to tour the decommissioned historic Fort Desoto. Constructed in the late 1800s, this fort has played a key strategic role through many conflicts and occupations of the land it sits on.
Be sure to check out the many cannons and wander to the top of the fort where you’ll be awarded with panoramic views over the ocean and Tampa Bay.
Speed Boat Adventures
One of the coolest ways to get out on the water in St Petersburg is by joining a follow the leader style speed boat tour with Speed Boat Adventures.
You’ll get your own speed boat that can seat up to 3 people, meaning you get to be the captain and are in full control of the boat.
You’ll follow a guide who will take you through several bays, under bridges and past dolphins while narrating the trip through speakers installed in each boat.
We had so much fun speeding around, looking at the beaches, wildlife, and areas around Tampa, Clearwater, and St Petersburg. Being in control of your own boat without having to worry about navigating unfamiliar waters makes this a thrilling adventure.
Don Cesar Day Pass
The Don Cesar is the most iconic hotel in St Petersburg and its commanding presence sits right on a spectacular stretch of powdery white sand on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the perfect place to recharge and relax when traveling down the west coast of Florida.
If you’re not staying there it’s possible to purchase a day pass that will give you access to the pool area and beach. You’ll also be able to book spa appointments and enjoy a few other amenities during your visit. The day pass costs $75 per person and is available for purchase online or at the resort.
If you’d like to stay at the Don Cesar during your time in St Pete, consider booking the Life’s Reward Package. This includes a 2-night stay in a Dan-approved luxury suite with complimentary resort fees, complimentary Lionfish Larry valet parking and all of the Pink Palace perks.
You’ll also enjoy a daily $150 food and beverage credit to spoil yourself with coastal cocktails, beachside eats, fine dining, and a $250 recreation credit to treat yourself at the spa or go jet skiing on the Gulf of Mexico. You can book this package directly with the Don Cesar resort here, using the promo code REWARDS.
Bike Around Pass A Grille
Some of the best stretches of beach in St Petersburg can be found around Pass A Grille and one of the best ways to explore them is by bike.
We rented bikes and cruised from the Don Cesar all the way to the end and back one afternoon. This gave us the freedom to stop whenever we wanted without worrying about parking, which can be a headache.
In doing this we were able to see several different places in the area and enjoy the different boardwalks too. Be sure to pack a beach towel so you can spend some time relaxing and playing in the waves too.
The James Museum
The James Museum is one of those museums that you’re not sure you’ll like and then it totally surprises you. We spent 2 hours here because the art is incredible. Not only is the detail unreal, but each piece tells the story of the people it features.
The work in this museum is mesmerizing, telling stories of the Native Americans and how they used the land across North America. Of course, the art also carries you through history, from before colonial times, during, and after, taking you on an emotional journey.
Personally, if you only have time for one museum when you visit St Petersburg, I’d recommend this one, even though there are others in town.
The Dali Museum is home to the largest collection of artist Salvador Dali’s work outside of Spain. A surrealist known for his technical skill and bizarre images; his work will take you on a bit of a magic carpet ride.
This museum offers large, tall ceiling galleries with ample room to observe and reflect on the pieces that are on display.
During our visit, we also had the opportunity to experience the temporary Van Gogh Alive exhibit. This display brought many of the works of the famed artist to a larger-than-life-size set to music from the era, as well as narrations from Van Gogh’s journals.
St Pete Pier
New to the St Petersburg landscape is the St Pete Pier. A place where people can come together to enjoy the water and culture of this area. One of the things we loved about the pier was that is mainly pedestrian, so you’re not competing for space with vehicles.
Locals utilize the pier for biking, walking, and rollerblading. It offers a few restaurants, a bar, a beach, and numerous grassy parks. We visited the pier in the evening, intent on exploring in the golden light and watching the sun go down.
Not only did we get a spectacular sunset, but we enjoyed watching dolphins swim in the waters right off the pier, too!
Participate in the Gulp Coast Challenge
If you like craft beer (who doesn’t?), then you’ll want to join in on the Gulp Coast Challenge during your visit to the west coast of Florida. Before you start, stop in at any craft brewery or tourism office to pick up your passport.
This book outlines all of the participating breweries and what you can expect to find there. Each offers a unique spin on beer and an opportunity to connect with local brewers.
We personally enjoyed the varying atmosphere at each brewery we visited, with each one offering its own form of city oasis to enjoy.
Where to Eat in the St Pete Area
- IL Ritorno – This Italian restaurant features homemade pasta and traditional Italian dishes with a seafood flair. Everything we ordered here was delicious and we highly recommend you eat here during your visit to St Petersburg. It is a busy place, so be sure to make reservations.
- The Society Table – Located at the Don Cesar hotel, this poolside café offers a variety of seafood dishes and sandwiches in a relaxed setting.
- Snapper’s Sea Grill – If you’re looking for fresh-caught seafood, then you’ll want to put this place on your list! Affectionately known as the ‘Gem of St. Pete Beach Restaurants’, you really cannot go wrong.
- Bodega – This place offers traditional Cuban dishes in a street setting and it is wildly popular. We suggest ordering the Cuban and a hibiscus soda Fresca.
- Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille – This place is all about the atmosphere as it’s located on the water along St Pete Pier. Serving up some amazing seafood dishes, the signature Yucatan shrimp are to die for, you can order any type of rum-inspired drink, too.
Where to Stay in the St Pete Area
Accommodation options are really endless, from city life spaces to beachside getaways. We opted for a VRBO vacation rental versus a hotel during our stay in St Petersburg and were able to find the perfect balance by staying on St Pete’s Beach. We could walk to the beach and were only a short drive to downtown St Petersburg.
Our vacation rental was a super cute, newly remodeled studio in a complex that offered a great pool and free parking.
Sarasota Area – Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip
If you’re looking for a destination with a lot to do but that also offers diversity, Sarasota is a good one. The area offers a rich history paired with stunning beaches and a very upscale vibe.
Getting out of the city affords the chance to discover smaller communities like Venice, where you can search the beaches for shark teeth, or Englewood, where you can enjoy tasty food and a quieter atmosphere.
We loved that we were able to bounce easily between city life and nature here, which gives a fantastic balance for any road trip. Below you’ll find our highlights from 3 days in the area to get you started on your own planning.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to the Sarasota area, click here to watch our Sarasota Instagram stories
Sarasota Highlights & Activities
The Ringling Museum
The first thing we did when we arrived in Sarasota was head straight for the Ringling Museum! This museum that is dedicated to the history of the circus sits on what was once the massive personal estate of John Ringling.
Give yourself several hours to visit, as the grounds feature the circus museum, personal residence of John Ringling known as the Ca’ d’Zan, a massive art museum, and several acres of lush gardens to explore.
Sunset on Siesta Key
When the sun sets in Sarasota, the place to be is on Siesta Key. It is here that you’ll find miles of gorgeous white sand beaches that set the perfect stage for sunsets that melt into the water.
Sprinkle in some palm trees, colorful lifeguard stations, lapping ocean waves and you have the perfect place to end your day. We recommend getting there early, around 1 hour or more before sunset to ensure that you can find a nice location that is close to the water.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
You don’t have to be a plant aficionado to appreciate all that you can find in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. However, you will find yourself in awe at the stunning collection of orchids that it offers. This is the only botanical garden in the world that is dedicated to the display and study of epiphytes.
Being part of the Smithsonian Affiliate Network means this place is popular. If your schedule allows it, head to the gardens in the morning, right when they open. This will give you a chance to stay ahead of the crowds and the heat.
Mangrove Tunnel Kayaking on Lido Key
To put a bit of adventure into your itinerary and get you out on the water, we’d highly recommend that you book a mangrove tunnel kayaking trip with Kayaking SRQ on Lido Key.
We spent 2 hours paddling the calm, protected waters on the Northside of Lido Key where we explored both open water and mangrove forests. The highlight, of course, is being able to paddle along a narrow and shallow channel tunnel within the mangrove trees.
Not only do you get an up-close look at some of the flora and fauna found along the west coast of Florida, but you’ll be led by a local guide that will offer some insight on what you are seeing both in the water and on land.
Search for Shark Teeth on Venice Beach
You cannot take a road trip along Florida’s Gulf coast without stopping in Venice to search for fossilized shark teeth on the beach! Before you head to the waters, start your day by stopping in at Shark Frenzy, a small shop located right in downtown Venice.
Here, you’ll want to rent or purchase a sifter and scoop. To increase your chances of good finds, you’ll need this stuff, trust us. The staff will show you how to use the tools and provide you with some insight on how to find areas that will provide a good opportunity for finding teeth.
Once on the beach, be sure to use sunscreen, wear UPF clothing, and stay hydrated. Looking for shark teeth is addicting, and you’ll find that hours have gone by without you even noticing. It’s easy to get burnt or dehydrated when you’re having so much fun mining teeth from the ocean.
We found more than 50 teeth the day we were in Venice and easily highlight this activity as one of our favorites out of 2 months spent road tripping through Florida.
Sarasota Ghost Tour
If you like to hear tales of ghosts, then we’d recommend you join a ghost tour with Discover Sarasota Tours.
This 90-minute tour cruises around the city sharing all the fables, folklore, and ghost tales that Sarasota has to offer. It also includes complimentary beer or wine before your departure, so get there early!
We thought this tour was really fun as the hostess is very animated and personally connected to some of the stories that are shared about strange encounters in the city. We also liked the history aspect, shedding some light on how Sarasota was established.
Where to Eat in the Sarasota Area
- Duval’s – Located in the heart of downtown Sarasota, this restaurant offers high-end seafood dishes with its own twist. Be sure to ask for a table outside to soak in the atmosphere of the city while you dine.
- Blu Kouzina – If you want authentic Greek food, look no further. Eating at this restaurant will transport you to Greece with each bite. Be sure to order a Greek salad, it is to die for!
- Sharky’s on the Pier – Who doesn’t love a beachside restaurant? Tropical drinks and seafood abound with fantastic views of Venice Beach.
- Farlow’s on the Water – This place is a bit of a gem and a total hidden oasis. Located in Englewood, it’s worth the drive from Sarasota. Be sure to ask for a table on the water.
Where to Stay in the Sarasota Area
Location is everything in Sarasota and you’ll have plenty of options from beachside to downtown. We chose to be just outside of the downtown, which was an ideal location for things both in the city and on the islands.
Sticking with our vacation rental theme we opted for another VRBO property and were able to score a super cool studio apartment in a historic Ringling building.
Fort Myers Area – Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip
Have you ever jived with a place even though you have never visited? This was Fort Myers for us. We’ve always known, somehow, that we would love this place and we totally did.
Why? Well, Fort Myers is a place that caters to outdoor and nature lovers. You can spend your time on the water, on remote islands, in state parks, hiking along trails, or paddling ancient waterways.
But not only that, it balances all of that with a social beach town and entertaining downtown area. You really can’t go wrong spending your time in the Fort Myers area.
We spent 4 days here, could easily spend a week or more, and are offering our highlights for you below.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to the Fort Myers area, click here to watch our Fort Myers Instagram stories
Fort Myers Highlights & Activities
Edison and Ford Winter Estates
The first place we stopped in Fort Myers was the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Not only is it a lovely estate, but you have the chance to immerse yourself into the lifestyle of the famed inventors.
Thomas Edison purchased the property in 1885, when he decided to start relocating to southwest Florida for the winter. A visit includes the opportunity to tour the grounds, houses, and learn more about the people behind the inventions.
We both found this visit fascinating and insightful; it was an experience that humanized the lightbulb and automobile for us. The property is stunning, including huge gardens that overlook the water. It’s a fantastic place to spend a morning and make sure you don’t miss the museum.
Sunset Wildlife Cruise
One of the best ways to experience Fort Myers is by getting out on the water at sunset. It is at this time that you can see thousands of seabirds flying to the various islands in the area to roost for the night. This makes for good sightings and prime light for photography opportunities.
It’s also a great way to see dolphins, as they frequent the waters close to shore where they hunt for fish.
You have a lot of options for cruises, so choosing one comes down to your preferences. We decided on a pontoon-style boat as it offers more stability and room for photography. This is how we ended up with Adventures in Paradise.
The motorized pontoon offered plenty of space for people that wanted to have drinks and enjoy the view while others focused on photography.
Jet Ski Dolphin Tour
The morning we spent jet skiing with Wind and Water Sports was some of the most fun we’ve had on the water. Not only did we have the thrill of the jet ski, but this motorized eco-tour allowed us to cover a lot of ground and see a lot of wildlife.
There were times when pods of dolphins not only approached our jet skis but also played behind them while we cruised around. We saw giant rays playing in the water and hundreds of fish and bird species during our tour.
We were also able to access the historical midden area near Lovers Key State Park from the water, which is a challenge to access from land.
Our tour left directly from Fort Myers Beach and lasted 2 hours. David and I shared a jet ski and followed our guide, who had his own jet ski. While we didn’t book a private tour, we got one because nobody else had booked for that morning!
Lovers Key State Park
The 712-acre Lovers Key State Park is one of the most beautiful state parks in Florida, offering a wide variety of activities, beaches, trails, and water access. You could easily spend a full day, if not more, exploring all it has to offer. For us, this park was where we were able to exhale and enjoy nature.
If you like to kayak, it’s possible to rent kayaks right in the park and then put in for some paddling on the Great Calusa Blueway. This is a great way to get on the water in a protected area and see Florida’s wildlife up close.
If you have time for nothing else, make a date to be here at sunset. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Florida to walk along the beach and see tall deadwood. Illuminated in the setting sun makes it an otherworldly experience.
Shelling on Sanibel & Captiva
Located just off the coast are the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. If you like to wander the beach looking for ocean treasures, this is the place for you.
With miles and miles of beaches that face the Gulf of Mexico and unique geography that both invites and traps, these islands offer mounds of shells that wash up on its shores every day in the tides.
Of course, you’ll want to get up early to not only beat the crowds but also have a chance for the good finds. Be prepared to pay for parking and bring something to collect shells with. Either a bucket or bag will do fine.
We went early in the morning and drove as far north on Captiva Island as we could. Here we found few people and thousands of shells. As the morning went on, we beach hopped our way back along the Gulf side before heading off to explore other areas of Sanibel Island.
JN Ding Darling Wildlife Drive
If you enjoy spending time in nature and seeing wildlife, as we do, then you’ll want to leave time to visit the 6,400-acre J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. They offer a one-way drive that allows you to pull off anywhere along the way and observe what you see.
We enjoyed this drive so much we actually did it twice! Both times seeing many species of birds, alligators, and water critters. For the best light and wildlife spotting, go when they first open in the morning or later in the evening, when it’s cooler and the animals are on the move.
Something worth noting, if you have an America the Beautiful Annual Pass, it lets you into this reserve like it would any of the national parks in the USA.
Day Trip to Cayo Costa
Our last morning in Fort Myers we wanted to get a bit off-grid, so we booked a day trip out to Cayo Costa, a place that rests 24 miles from Fort Myers and is only accessible by boat. What an adventure that turned out to be.
Not only was our boat the only one there, but we got to experience the thrill of riding out a Florida storm on a remote island. Shortly after we arrived a decent storm system rolled in that brought high winds and completely soaked us.
Lucky for us, it was fleeting, and we spent the remainder of our time searching for large shells and sand dollars in large waves right off the beach. It was both exhausting and rewarding, we actually found a sand dollar!
Leaving the beaches of Cayo Costa we made our way to North Captiva, where we enjoyed lunch at a small beachfront restaurant before making our way back to Fort Myers.
Day Trip to Everglades
If you find yourself with an extra day in Fort Myers, you may want to consider booking a day trip to Everglades National Park and Everglades City. Personally, this area deserves its own set of 2 to 3 days, but if you don’t have that a day trip can be a great way to dip your toes in.
There is a variety of day trips available from Fort Myers that will offer you transportation and a selection of activities. The main ones offer kayaking, a swamp buggy experience, and/or an airboat ride.
Key West Express
Additionally, if you’re in Fort Myers and have the desire to visit the Florida Keys, it is possible to book transport there on the Key West Express. This catamaran-type ferry will have you in Key West in as little as 3.5 hours.
You will then have the option to stay a few hours before returning, making it a day trip, or you can plan ahead and stay a few days in Key West before returning again to Fort Myers. This is a great option if you want to visit the West Coast of Florida and see a bit of Key West too.
Where to Eat in the Fort Myers Area
- Pinchers – while you can find this locally owned seafood chain in a couple of different Fort Myers locations, we walked over to the location next to the Edison & Ford Museum in the downtown area. They are located on the water, so ask for a patio seat and order the seafood tower!
- Snug Harbor – this little place is located in the marina area of Fort Myers Beach, across the street from the more commercial Nervous Nellie’s. They offer a lot of outdoor seating and some creative dishes with a waterfront view.
- Mr. Tequila – if you’re craving Mexican food in Fort Myers Beach, this is the place to go! They serve authentic Mexican dishes, have a great outdoor patio, and endless chips with salsa.
- Salty Crab – for seafood on the beach, this place is a great option. We loved sitting at the picnic tables with our feet in the sand. They have a great menu, order the fish tacos! And an extensive drink menu to go with it.
- Doc Ford’s Sanibel – after enjoying Doc Ford’s in St Petersburg, we had to try it again in Sanibel and it was just as excellent the second time around. Again, order the Yucatan Shrimp, it’s an amazing dish. We also loved the Cuban sandwich and Caprese salad.
Where to Stay in the Fort Myers Area
If you want to be in the center of it all and within walking distance of things, then we would highly recommend you stay in Fort Meyers Beach. We were able to find a nice vacation rental right on the beach that offered free parking in an onsite lot.
Admittedly, it was loud in the evenings and into the night with people partying and loud music. If you’re a light sleeper, you might want to look at a different area.
It also possible to stay over on Sanibel, the mainland or a bit further down from the main area where all the bars and restaurants are. Depending on how you like to travel, this might be a better choice.
Expanding Your Florida West Coast Road Trip
The places highlighted above make up a small section of the wider west coast road trip route and if you find yourself with more time, you may want to expand on that to include more fabulous Florida vacation destinations.
We’ve personally explored more of the west coast and wanted to highlight a few areas that we really enjoyed, especially if you want to get off the beach and explore more of Florida’s natural side.
If you continue heading south beyond Fort Myers, you’ll pass through Naples and eventually end in the small town of Everglades City. This is the end of the road on the west coast and your only option here is to turn back around and head north or head east towards the Atlantic Ocean.
But don’t let that deter you. We absolutely adored Everglades City, it’s funky and the official gateway to the west side of Everglades National Park. That leaves no shortage of things to do when you visit.
We’d recommend spending 2 to 3 days here, if you can, taking the time for a boat tour around the 10,000 islands, a kayak trip to see alligators up close, an airboat ride, and a swamp buggy adventure into the Big Cyprus National Preserve.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to Everglades City, click here to watch our Everglades City Instagram stories
If you want to start at the furthest north part of this drive before continuing south, you’ll find yourself in the Florida Panhandle.
Starting in Pensacola, this section of the drive also traverses through Destin, Fort Walton, Panama City Beach, and the Forgotten Coast of Florida before taking a sharp turn south.
This area has spectacular beaches and crystal-clear water, but it also offers a completely different vibe than what you’ll find in the beach towns in south Florida. That alone makes it worth exploring, in our opinion.
Between the Forgotten Coast and Tampa is one of the most spectacular natural areas in Florida and the jewel of this area is Crystal River.
It is here that hundreds of manatees seek protection in the warm spring waters during the cold winter weather. It’s the only place in North America that you can swim with manatees.
But that’s not all this area offers, and you’ll find a different side to Florida here. Beautiful springs abound, rich indigenous history and plenty of wildlife make it both interesting and enjoyable.
What you won’t find are beaches. But instead, miles of undisturbed natural coastline offer thick mangrove forests and the ecosystems that come with them.
We fell in love with this area on our last visit and to date, is one of our favorite places in Florida. If you can add only a couple of days to your itinerary, add Crystal River. It fits in well as an addition to the St Petersburg to Fort Myers route we highlighted above.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to the Crystal River area, click here to watch our Crystal River Instagram stories
You might also like:
- Essential Packing List for Florida
- How to Plan A Road Trip in 10 Easy Steps
- Ultimate USA Travel Guide
- 38 Beach Essentials: The Ultimate Beach Packing List
- Ultimate Florida Keys Road Trip Planner
Our Florida West Coast road trip was done in partnership with VISIT FLORIDA. All opinions, recommendations, and stories are 100% our own, as always.
2 thoughts on “The Best Stops Along the Gulf Coast of Florida (Ultimate Road Trip Itinerary)”
NOTHING from Ft. Myers to Everglades City? Really??!!
I mean, you could go to Naples and Marco Island, but we opted not to. So rather than write about something we haven’t done, we opted to omit it. Cheers!