Florida Beach Insider's own Top 10 Florida beaches

Everyone has a list of the best beaches in the Sunshine State, so we created one, too. Here's a look at beaches for every occasion.

Grayton Beach State Park may have gotten accolades this year, but we think there are more categories to explore. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
Grayton Beach State Park may have gotten accolades this year, but we think there are more categories to explore. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

If there’s one thing to remember about “best of” lists, it’s that it’s often best not to play favorites.

Dr. Beach has his annual list of the best beaches in the United States, and Florida always manages to be in the Top 10. This year, Grayton Beach State Park in the panhandle landed at No. 3, while Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin was No. 7.

His list depends on meeting 50 criteria, including sand quality and air temperature. But as your online guide to the Sunshine State’s best beaches, FloridaBeachInsider.com has plenty to say on the subject.

We think picking the best beaches comes down to deciding what you want out of a trip to the surf and sand. It’s not so easy choosing an overall winner, but you certainly can find a place that is the best at something important to you.

Here’s a look at 10 Florida beaches that excel in a wide range of categories:

Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas Park is an ideal place for your pooch. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Best beach for your dog

There are a limited number of beaches that allow dogs, and most of those require you to keep Rover on a leash. Rover doesn’t want that. Rover wants to run free! And Rover can do that at Fort De Soto Park south of St. Petersburg. A 400-yard stretch of sand is available for off-leash frolicking, and there’s a fenced-off area to let the pups run wild on land. There are picnic tables and water fountains for humans and canines alike. Plus, you know, access to what is probably the best county park in the entire state.

Honorable mention: Jupiter Beach has 2 ½ miles of beach set aside for pooches, and an annual festival dedicated to four-legged friends.

Best beach for camping

There are lots of overnighting options around the coasts, some with more amenities than others, but the best balance for us is T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in St. Joe. The panhandle park features access to St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and offers excellent paddling and bird-watching opportunities. The white-sand beach is a major draw, and there’s plenty of space for everyone. Plus: There are both tent and RV sites available across two campgrounds.

Honorable mention: If you want to try your hand at sleeping on the sand, we recommend primitive camping on Shell Key off Tierra Verde. There are no amenities at all, so pack your boat well.

Best beach to bike

If you’re looking to ride a bike on the sand, Jacksonville Beach features several bike rental shops that rent wide-tired cruisers. You won’t run out of beach, with over 20 miles to bike. Plus, there are lots of bike trails nearby to keep you occupied off the sand.

Honorable Mention: In addition to having great camping, St. Joseph’s Peninsula allows bikers along the sand during low tide, or you can stick to the road along the beach.

Best beach to surf

New Smyrna Beach is credited to having the best waves for surfers, who will find the best water in the inlet. Just drive onto the beach and head out with your surfboard to find killer waves. Just keep in mind that it just so happens NSB is also the shark attack capital of the world. National Geographic says that anyone who has ever swam in NSB waters has come within 10 feet of a shark.

Honorable mention: Cocoa Beach, just south of NSB, is a world-famous spot for surf competitions and pro surfers, including native son Kelly Slater.

Best beach food

Sure, you could hit Miami or Tampa Bay for some better-known restaurants, but we’re talking the best place to eat right off the beach. For that you’ll have to head up to Seaside in the panhandle, about halfway between Destin and Panama City Beach. Adjacent to the Seaside Amphitheater along Highway 30A is a collection of vintage Airstream travel trailers that have been converted into myriad eateries, serving fare ranging from grilled cheese to barbecue to dessert, across the street from the sand. (There are bunches of traditional brick-and-mortar bars and restaurants along Central Square, too.)

Honorable mention: Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island has a surprising number of quality haunts, including Florida’s oldest continuously operated saloon (which doesn’t serve food) and a burger joint in a converted gas station (which obviously does serve food).

The Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach's South Beach light up the strip at night. [Scott Keeler | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Best beach to see and be seen

This is a no-brainer, right? We all know that South Beach in Miami Beach is the end-all, be-all of the social set. Nightclubs, restaurants, overpriced drinks, Art Deco hotels and towering beach resorts define Florida for millions of visitors from across the world. Keep in mind that the quality of the actual beach is secondary. And if you need a break, head up the island a smidge and get all the same stuff without the crowds in North Beach.

Honorable mention: Fort Lauderdale isn’t as fancy as its neighbor to the south, but it’s a long beach with a lot of bars that fuel the social scene.

Best beach to party

If you want a true Spring Breakers-meets-The Hangover experience, pack plenty of water and head to Key West. The town is regularly credited as having the most bars per capita in the entire country. Begin your evening at the nightly Mallory Square Sunset Celebration, featuring a full slate of street performers, then head to Duval Street, famous for its nightlife. And if you really want to be part of a one-of-a-kind party, visit Key West in October for its annual Fantasy Fest. It’s a 10-day wild celebration filled with parades and costumes — and a whole lot of drinking.

Honorable Mention: Panama City Beach is the place to be for Spring Break, even as local government has cracked down on the partying recently with special Spring Break laws that apply only during the month of March.

Best beach for couples

Many of the more secluded beaches in Florida scream romance, but one in particular has everything you need for the ideal couple’s getaway. Destin, in the panhandle, has spaces far from the crowds, with powdery sand and turquoise waters that add to the romantic feel. Couples can cruise through town during the day, have candlelit dinners on the beach and take private sailing charters at sunset.

Honorable Mention: With its laid-back vibe and rich history as the oldest city in the U.S., St. Augustine can put anyone in a lovey-dovey mood.

Best beach for kids

When we say “best beach for kids,” we mean a place full of stuff to keep them occupied. As if visiting a giant sandbox weren’t enough, it’s always fun when there are things for the tykes to do. That’s why Daytona Beach wins the top spot for us, with a cluster of fun-filled attractions right by Main Street Pier. The boardwalk features an amusement park, an arcade, a park, a pizza joint, a candy store and scads of resorts and watersports rental places. Mind the schedule so you know if there’s a motorcycle rally or auto race in town.

Honorable mention: Clearwater Beach features a lively pier scene with lots of festivals and amusements, and frankly, the sand and surf are better.

Best beach to get away from it all

Whether you’ve had a tough week at work or one of your in-laws got on your nerves, Caladesi Island State Park off the coast of Dunedin is the perfect place to escape from the stress. The only way to get to the island is by boat; The easiest way is to take the ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park to the north. The soundtrack here is limited to the waves and the wildlife. It is just the beach and you.

Honorable Mention: Much farther south is Bahia Honda State Park, an undeveloped oasis in the middle of the Keys. Because the park is relatively small, you often won’t find too many people there at once, offering some respite from more crowded islands.

This article was written by one or more Florida Beach Insider staff members.