From motorcycle rallies to auto racing to Spring Break, the "World's Most Famous Beach" usually has a party crowd on hand — but families are welcome, too.
- Great for bikers. Or race fans. Or college kids.
- Plenty of wide open beach, and not too crowded when there are no events.
- Driving on the beach!
- You may want to keep young children away from the party crowds.
- The sand is not too forgiving on bare feet.
- Driving on the beach.
Whether you’re a motorsports fan, a family looking for a cheap beach vacation or a rabid Spring Breaker, there’s a solid argument that all roads lead to Daytona Beach.
The city likes to refer to itself as the “World’s Most Famous Beach” — an arguably apt nickname that rolled around in the 1920s, following years of high-speed car racing on the local beaches. The wide, hard-packed sand was ideal for testing automobile speed records, leading to Daytona Beach’s reputation for auto racing.
The city’s history goes back to when the area was populated first by the Timucuan tribe and then the Seminoles, both of which fell victim to the often-brutal machinations of British, Spanish and American colonists. For decades the region was a center of cotton, rice, sugar cane and citrus production.
The Daytona Beach area’s modern history picks up when Mansfield, Ohio, businessman Matthias Day bought 3,200 acres in the region around 1870. Daytona Beach was incorporated in 1876, merging with nearby Daytona and Seabreeze in 1926.
By 1936, auto racing had become a big business, starting with the Daytona Beach Road Course in nearby Ponce Inlet at the turn of the century. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing founder Bill France, Sr., opened Daytona International Speedway on the mainland in 1959 to host car and motorcycle racing series. The Speedway is now a city landmark that hosts events like the Daytona 500, the biggest race in NASCAR, and a Bike Week motorcycle road race, the Daytona 200.
Daytona Beach has a raucous and literally freewheeling reputation, thanks to blue-collar roots and several annual events that attract crowds out for a good time. Several times a year the streets will be jammed with crazed college students, devoted racing fans or hundreds of thousands of bikers. The following week, it’s entirely possible the streets will be all but deserted in comparison.
The town itself is split between the mainland and the barrier island where most of the hotels, attractions and kitschy shops are stacked on top of each other. There’s a distinct tension between the high-end revitalization going on at the beach and pockets of town that haven’t quite climbed out of economic depression. We’ll deal primarily with the beachside portion of the city, since that’s where the visitors go.
The beach is unique among Florida’s destinations in that (like much of Volusia County’s shoreline) it allows visitors to drive directly on the sand. That is a fun diversion to anyone willing to plunk down the sizable fee, because really, where else are you going to do that? But it also affects the beach experience, and not always in a positive way.
But that comes down to your definition of fun: The beach here is, if nothing else, up for a party, no matter what you’re into.
Daytona Beach International Airport (DAB) is a small but pleasant airport offering flights from major carriers. Rental cars and shuttle services are available, as are Uber and Lyft. New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport (EVB), also known as Jack Bolt Field, is south of Daytona Beach, while Orlando International Airport (MCO) is to the west.
The city is at the intersection of interstates 4 and 95, although if you’re coming in from Orlando there is a spur that points you to U.S. Highway 92 east into town instead of the I-95 interchange, which is further south.
U.S. 92 becomes International Speedway Boulevard which, as you may have guessed, goes past Daytona International Speedway on the mainland. Coming off the 4/95 interchange you’ll end up on State Road 400, a.k.a. Beville Road.
U.S. 92 is a direct route to the barrier island with the beach, over a causeway that lands in the heart of town, along Atlantic Avenue (A1A in these parts). Try this if getting there the fastest is your concern.
There are other bridges from the mainland, and they can be a smidge confusing.
North of 92, taking Fairview Avenue east over the Halifax River takes you on the Main Street Bridge, where the road become Main Street on the island. This is best if you’re looking for the numerous beachside biker bars.
Take Mason Avenue east and the road splits in two: You head to the ocean one way over a causeway on Oakridge Boulevard. Coming back, you’ll be on Seabreeze Boulevard, which is a block north of Oakridge.
South of 92 is Orange Avenue, which goes past Jackie Robinson Memorial Baseball Park. The bridge here will drop you off in the heart of some beachside neighborhoods.
You don’t technically need a car to get around, but it sure helps if you’re doing anything more than four blocks from your hotel, or between the island and the mainland. Votran, Volusia County’s public transit system, offers several routes over the Halifax River, including a main route on Atlantic Avenue.
Like any tourism-oriented town, parking near Daytona Beach’s beachfront can range from dicey to downright impossible. But there is one very important difference: In Daytona Beach, you can park right next to the Atlantic Ocean.
In an oddity allowed on most of Volusia County’s hard-packed sand, cars are allowed to drive on the beach from sunrise to sunset as long as the tides allow it.
Posted signs will indicate any special conditions when you approach the access ramps at the far east ends of several roads. Volusia County provides a map of these ramps here. Just head down the ramp, pay at the toll booth and head on out.
Once you’re on the beach, watch out for people out enjoying the sand on foot and other cars. You may park near the dunes, but not on them. There are detailed rules and information here; Read our section “Driving on the beach” below.
Daytona Beach is a decent-sized town, so a lot of your paved beach parking options come down to what’s available at your chosen beach approach. Most have lots of their own, and some of the unpaved lots are free. Check the city’s map of more than 3,500 spaces here.
The most popular options are at the center of the action, near the Daytona Beach Pier. There’s an amusement park at the foot of the pier, with an adjacent lot at Ocean and Atlantic avenues that is expensive and crowded.
Another popular option near the pier is the ginormous parking garage on Coats Street between Earl and Ora streets, just off Atlantic Avenue across from the Ocean Walk Shoppes beachfront shopping center. This is a great spot to drop off the car for the day if you can find a spot.
South of the pier you can go to Sun Splash Park, which features a splash pad and a big parking lot. It’s on A1A between Braddock Avenue and Revilo Boulevard.
The world’s most famous beach didn’t earn that nickname by being quiet and low-key.
Big-time events come to town several times per year, notably in shoulder seasons when the water is warm (or warming) and the temps are still somewhat bearable. Spring Break isn’t quite the draw it used to be, but between that and various motorcycle and auto racing events, the sand can be a madhouse in March or April.
There are laid-back portions, of course, especially as you get closer to Daytona Beach Shores in the south and Ormond Beach in the north. But for the most part the beach is the main event for all sorts of visitors, ranging from blue-collar bikers to race fans to college students to families.
In the dead of summer, you can easily have vast stretches of the beach to yourself. Same goes for colder days in the winter, even with all the snowbirds.
The beach itself is incredibly wide at low tide, making it quite a march to get to the water. The sand is densely packed and hard, which is great for driving and throwing a football but can be tough on your keister. Be sure to bring a beach chair.
When the tide is in, the waterline moves up dramatically and shrinks the beach a considerable amount. This can make the beach seem smaller than it really is at certain times of day, and necessitates some maneuvering when trying to avoid the cars that drive onto the beach.
Lifeguards are present throughout much of the day, but they leave when the shadows really start to lengthen.
Most of the action is centered at the Main Street Pier in the middle of the town’s beach. Moneyed types from the high-end hotels mingle with beach bums strolling along the boardwalk.
A ramshackle boardwalk amusement park, Joyland Amusement Center, is just north of the pier, and large pay lots make room for scads of folks stopping by for the day. To be perfectly honest, the park has seen better days. On our last visit, a car on the roller coaster derailed, making us think twice about buying any ride tickets.
The pier itself is occupied largely by a Joe’s Crab Shack outpost and anglers trying their luck. Beachgoers crowd around the footings of the pier for shade, or to treasure hunt underneath the restaurant when the tide is out.
Note that alcohol is prohibited, and only service dogs are allowed on the beach.
Driving your car on the beach isn’t allowed everywhere, but you can on most parts of the oceanfront, which is a feature unique to Volusia County. More on that in the next section ...
DRIVING ON THE BEACH
About 23 miles of Volusia County’s beaches are open for folks who like to drive off the pavement and onto the sand. Many people think the sand is hard-packed and smooth because of the cars, but really, the cars are here because the sand is hard-packed and smooth.
The “road” for cars driving on the beach is limited to two lanes, one in each direction, near the close end of the beach, away from the waterline. There is space for parking next to dunes or hotels or sea walls or what have you (as long as you’re not on the conservation easement).
Small camps of beachgoers tend to set up shop right next to their vehicles. This means drivers and beachgoers have to keep an eye out for each other to make sure they don’t meet at an inopportune time, such as when a sunbather chasing a Frisbee runs in front of a Ford F-150. People staying in beachfront lodging also have a tendency to not pay attention to the traffic lanes.
For a map of where driving is and is not allowed on a consistent basis, see the map here.
Daytona Beach provides several access ramps to drive from A1A to the beach. These ramps are available at just about every beachfront block in town. Golf carts and off-road vehicles end up out there almost as much as cars and trucks.
Hours vary by season and will be posted at the entry points, but the general rule of thumb is roughly sunup to sundown. Read more about the hours here. Annual passes are available, but as of this writing, the daily pass costs $20.
Sometimes access is closed because of high tide, or if wet conditions are making the sand too soft to drive in safely. The speed limit is 10 mph, and drivers in motion must have their headlights on and windows down.
To get a feel for what the experience is like, you can watch our very own trip across Daytona Beach in a 4x4 pickup truck here:
Keep in mind that sometimes sections of the beach are closed, for reasons ranging from weather conditions to events to city ordinances. Parking also is regulated, and lifeguards and patrols will constantly remind you if you’re violating some rules.
PLACES TO STAY
FEATURED HOTEL: HARD ROCK HOTEL DAYTONA BEACH
The Hard Rock brand has landed in Daytona Beach with a splash, renovating the notorious Desert Inn and turning it into a place you’d have no problem taking your kids.
Featuring a prime location on A1A not far from the boardwalk, the Hard Rock doesn’t have a trademark eatery on the inside, although it does have a restaurant, Sessions, and a coffee stand of its own called Constant Grind. Some of the smaller plates are the real stars at Sessions, with the avocado toast and hummus plate being especially memorable.
The hotel does dress up every floor with its signature memorabilia, focusing on beach-centric acts and Florida personalities, ranging from the Beach Boys to Tom Petty. Beyond being able to choose music to have playing in your room at check-in, the hotel also features live bands in the lobby every evening. There’s also a regular calendar of celebrations and convention and event space. At night the Wave Terrace opens up, with music, drinks and fire pits.
The outside patio is a delight, with an adult pool, a guitar-shaped kids pool and splash pad, and a hot tub and two nearby bars. You can roll right from a cabana to the waterfront, which is safe from Daytona Beach’s infamous beach drivers — the hotel successfully lobbied the town to shut down car access on the sand.
The rooms have been cleaned up and modernized, with a funky beach-retro vibe. Beyond the regular rooms, which are comfortable retreats on their own, the hotel offers studio suites and a VIP package with rooms in the middle of the action.
Resort amenities abound, with a spa and salon, a fitness center, complimentary valet parking and even a kid’s lounge with video games, art supplies, air hockey and more.
Probably our favorite perk was the ability to check out record players that come with a small crate of LPs, and even an electric guitar or bass and an amp. You can choose these items at the the front desk and they will magically appear in your room, set up and ready to go (headphones after bedtime, please).
With a new convention center going up a few blocks down the street, the Hard Rock is part of a trend of upscale hotels coming to a traditionally blue-collar beach. It’s a comfortable respite that serves as a quality, self-contained mini-resort. We actually found it tough to leave each day to explore town, which speaks volumes to the quality of the experience.
If you want to be in the thick of things, you’ll either choose here or the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort. We’d pick this one. It marks the northern end of the boardwalk and is next to the Ocean Walk mall, making it close enough to get to the pier to be convenient but far enough away to avoid the throng packed around it. Plus: Daytona Lagoon is across the street, and there’s a bandshell behind the mall.
Timeshares are a fact of life on the beach, and this is one of the better ones. Its 51 units have jacuzzi tubs and balconies, there’s a pool and an activities calendar. There are plenty of ways to make reservations, including right on their website.
Plenty of suites and amenities right on the beach, but won’t break the bank if you’re looking to stay longer than a night or two.
If you don’t mind being off the beach, or actually prefer it, you’ll enjoy this bed and breakfast on Silver Beach Avenue just off the causeway from downtown Daytona Beach. You’ll be a couple blocks from the water, but the massage chairs and hot tub will make up for it.
Be aware of the February NASCAR pilgrimage for “The 500,” as it’s called (or any race day, for that matter). This is the biggest stock car race of the season, with the most prize money, going back to the first one in 1959, which was run to celebrate Daytona International Speedway’s opening. The stands and streets will be packed, and finding a restaurant with open seats will be a chore. But that’s what happens when 100,000 people come to town!
By comparison, half a million people descend on Daytona Beach and environs in March for Bike Week festivities, but that’s spread over 10 days. There’s traditionally the Daytona 200 motorcycle race at the Speedway, which is how Bike Week started in 1937. Lots and lots of bikers clog the streets, with A1A and especially Main Street experiencing bumper to bumper (or fender to fender, as the case may be) traffic jams. People are affable and just having a good time, for the most part, but be aware that few the festivities are truly kid-friendly.
An annual rite of passage for many college students, Spring Break is A Thing here, for sure. Beach parties and bar crawls are a science in March on into April, especially when the university students share space with the Bike Week crowd in mid-March. Like other communities like Miami Beach and Panama City Beach, Daytona has tried to curb the Spring Break crowd, but old habits are hard to break.
The region created this Columbus Day-adjacent fall rally in 1991 to continue to cash in as a biker mecca. Far fewer people come to this one, about 100,000 or so, which may be more to your liking. It lasts a weekend but many bikers come for an entire week.
This November festival attracts about 45,000 people to Riverfront Park downtown for a weekend, benefitting the Museum of Arts and Sciences. Artists sell their wares, the kids have an art tent, and there’s plenty of food to go around.
THINGS TO DO
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this race track is the heart and soul of Daytona Beach. This is the Mother Church of NASCAR, host to the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero Sugar 400, plus motorcycle races, auto shows and more. Anyone with even a passing interest in motorsports should go to an event at least once.
This water park in the heart of Daytona Beach features water slides, a wave pool, go-karts, a climbing wall, and arcade and on and on and on. You can spend an entire day here, without even realizing you’re just steps from the Atlantic Ocean.
The home of African-American educator and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is now small but fascinating museum on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University, which she founded in 1904. Now called the Bethune Foundation, the building showcases her personal library and memorabilia, and documents the visitors who came here, including Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
This small theme park anchors the boardwalk, and is a little run down, to be honest. But there are plenty of midway-style games and fair-type rides to put a smile on the kids’ faces. There are food stands and souvenir shops aplenty.
If you’re a baseball fan, this A-ball farm club for the Cincinnati Reds is a real treat. Besides having one of the better teams (and logos) in the Florida State League, Jackie Robinson Memorial Baseball Park is a true piece of Americana on City Island off Beach Street on the mainland. Opened in 1914, the grandstand-heavy park pays homage to Daytona’s history of being the first Florida city to allow Robinson to play with white players during 1946 spring training.
On the corner of Orange Avenue and Beach Street is this small monument to Brownie, a beloved stray that lived in downtown Daytona from 1939 to 1954. He was considered the entire town’s dog, but was looked after largely by drivers from the Daytona Cab Company, where he spent much of his time. Known for eating ice cream and having his own bank account, Brownie continues to be a mascot of the city, and is buried in the park.
Once upon a time, teenagers roamed the floors of shops filled with rows upon rows of coin-operated game machines. Historians referred to them as “video games,” or perhaps “pinball.” You, too, can experience ages past by paying a flat fee to guide a small, yellow man across fields of dots while being harassed by poltergeists, or even direct a pixelated plumber through a netherworld of sentient mushrooms and killer turtles. Tell your kids!
A rather large museum with a broad variety of exhibits, from old Indy race cars to the second-largest Coca-Cola memorabilia collection in the South. There’s also stuff for the kids, a planetarium, a skeleton of a giant ground sloth and the biggest collection of Florida art under one roof.
WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS
Most of the boating options, from marinas to ramps to rentals, are on the Halifax River and not beachside. There are plenty of choices, however.
Slips, rentals, a store and restaurant (see Caribbean Jack’s) are all available north of downtown. If you’re in the area a lot, consider joining their boat club to check out equipment.
A yacht-friendly marina with transient slips, boats up to 90 feet in length can tie up here. There’s also a tennis club and a fitness center.
Catering more to the houseboat and cruising crowd, this fairly luxe marina has bathhouses, a lounge and laundry. A launch ramp also is available.
Speaking of ramps, the area’s parks also feature places to put in. Bethune Point Park, Riverfront Memorial Park and Seabreeze Park all have places to access the water. City Island Park, near the ballpark, also has a dock for visitors.
Despite the name, this boat rental shop on the Halifax River offers more than just Jet Skis. There are paddlecraft, jet boats, deck boats, fishing boats are more available.
For something a little more laid back, try this shop on Beach Street, known for its vintage-style paddleboard brand and its guided manatee and dolphin tours. You can take a kayak if the paddleboard isn’t working for you, but the guides will give you pointers either way.
For a change of pace, you could try your hand at rowing instead of paddling or motorboating. It may take some planning, but you can learn how to row from a professional coach on two consecutive weekends.
Back on land, there are close to a couple dozen golf courses nearby. The most notable is LPGA International, which is owned by the city and works with the Ladies Professional Golf Association. There are two, 18-hole courses, that are open to the public and host several tournaments each year.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
A mainland family restaurant on the Halifax River, this option offers daily drink specials (including one served in a coconut carved to look like a pirate’s face), live music on the deck and an alligator po’boy. You don’t even need a car, because you can dock right at the Suntex Marina.
Fine dining for people who want to skip the grouper sandwiches but can’t decide between French and Italian. Paul Carpenella has been on the cuisine scene for years in these parts. The beef dishes are especially well prepared. Open only for dinner, closed on Sundays.
An Ocean Walk beachside outpost of the Key West bar and grill/Hemingway shrine. There’s a cheeseburger covered in bacon and sloppy joe that will require a few doses of Pepto to finish, and that’s a point of pride.
A staple BBQ joint across from the Hilton on Atlantic Avenue. If it once oinked, mooed or clucked, you will find it cooked and smoked here. Try the dinner feast if you are tired of being able to move under your own power.
There are a lot of ostensibly blue-collar dive bars on Main Street, frequented often by people who don’t give a whit about an ocean view, but this place is legendary. A half century of live music, bikini contests and relatively cheap drinks draw faithful biker customers, all of whom crowd the gift shop for a t-shirt.
A Seabreeze Boulevard seafood option since 1979, featuring chargrilled oysters, hence the name. There’s a private room and a video arcade, and a seasonal menu for the busiest of weekends.
Live music, food and signature drinks on the Atlantic Ocean, featuring a concoction they like to call “Rasta Sauce.” The bar and grill hosts volleyball tournaments, fun runs and more, and is okay with you just wearing your swimsuit.
A multi-level, open-air mall next to the Wyndham Ocean Walk. There’s a few restaurants and tchotchke shops can kill some time, but there’s also a movie theater, which is packed with resort guests on rainy days.
A Beach Street chocolate shop with windows that look right into the kitchen. Tours are several times a day, but the real treat is picking out what you want to take with you at the end of the trip.
Daytona’s own surf shop, which opened in 1989 and complements/competes with Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, which actually started in New Jersey. Skate and surf gear abounds at the store, which sponsors teams and hosts parties all year around. A good place for an authentic Daytona souvenir.
Another great rainy day activity. You know the drill: Dozens of brand-name shops with marginally marked-down products, many of which won’t be in your size. But you’ll enjoy eating a soft pretzel while sitting on a bench waiting for your family to leave the three different stores they’ve filtered into.
The native brewer on the mainland tends to stay away from the heavier stuff, which is just in tune with the sun and surf attitude of the place. The signature Daytona Blonde is a staple around these parts.
This chain brewpub manages to hit all the finer points of the craft beer scene: bare metal, wood surfaces, exposed ductwork. It’s a decent compromise for people who want something more than Miller Lite and a shrimp basket.
This Port Orange brewery is south of town, but has an outsized presence on grocery and liquor store shelves. They offer an unusually large selection of brews, including one inspired by Elvis Presley’s fondness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
This was actually the first brewery in Volusia County, in sleepier Ormond Beach to the north. They feature things like a mug club and regular events like yoga sessions and open mic nights, plus a broad range of the typical beer styles, most available in cans.