The Best Road Trips is a weekly summer series highlighting our favorite getaways from major cities all over the United States.
With a thriving arts scene, diverse shopping districts, the NFL’s Buccaneers, and a rich local history, the Floridian city of Tampa has a lot to offer itself. The beaches along Tampa Bay are lovely spots to take a dip and — after exploring such attractions as Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium, and the historic Ybor City (once the bustling center of America’s cigar industry, and now a great shopping area and artistic haven) — a welcome respite at the end of the day. With average temperatures staying at a nice 75° to 80° Fahrenheit nearly year round, it must be hard to convince Tampanians to part from the Big Guava. But Buccaneers are known to set sail, and while the whip can’t take you off to sea, it can certainly get you to some great land locales. So pack your bags, crank the A.C., and hop in the car — we’ve got some miles to cover.
Road Trip #1: Tampa to Jacksonville, FL
- Total Driving Time: 3 hours, 50 minutes
- Distance Covered: 226 miles
- Take This Trip If: You’re looking to hit the links (and maybe the shops).
With a lively arts scene, a great downtown district, and some of the country’s best golf courses, Jacksonville is a hidden gem located in Northern Florida. But since the weather is a bit crisper upstate (winters are too cold to play on the sand), the conditions make for ideal golf weather. And with a less-crowded beach scene, this once underrated seaside city has become a vibrant spot, with an NFL team to boot. Those seeking a luxury experience should head straight to the One Ocean Resort Hotel & Spa. Situated directly on a clean, white-sand beach, this resort has a fantastic on-site spa (great for girls’ weekends or couples’ vacations), contemporary decor, and bathrooms with double shower heads. Or, save a bundle and book a space at the Holiday Inn Express Jacksonville Beach, a value hotel that offers awesome freebies like Wi-Fi, breakfast, and self-parking. Rooms are clean, the pool is relaxed, and the prices are great. And although you’re just a few minutes drive from the beach, that won’t matter — you’ve got the whip with you.
- Top Driving Tip: While taking I-75N is faster, we recommend sticking it out an extra 15 minutes or so in the car. Take I-4E to I-95; you’ll pass right through Orlando — and maybe stop for a few roller coaster rides.
Road Trip #2: Tampa to Panama City Beach, FL
- Total Driving Time: 6 hours, 19 minutes
- Distance Covered: 336 miles
- Take This Trip If: You want to let loose, Spring-Break style — and don’t mind spending some serious time in the car.
Known as the “Spring Break Capital of the World,” Panama City Beach is the liveliest beach community on the Florida Panhandle. Over half a million college students pack the beaches here come March and April, but the party continues year round, too. Free beachside concerts, internationally renowned DJ sets, and glow-in-the-dark parties are just some of the city’s normal happenings. There are, obviously, plenty of places to get your booze on, such as Spinnaker’s Beach Club, Hammerhead Fred’s, Harpoon Harry’s, and even a Coyote Ugly Saloon (Remember that movie?), but there are also a good number of shops (including Brew Thru, the only drive-thru in Panama City where you can purchase beer, wine, soda, snacks, and t-shirts) and restaurants. And that’s not to mention the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and powdery white-sand beaches. For a more upscale stay, visit Calypso Resort & Towers. Private beach access will give you a respite from the party and rooms, which are stylishly appointed and can sleep up to 6 people, come equipped with full kitchens, dishwashers, and a washer/dryer. Cabana Cay by Oaseas Resorts, on the other hand, offers an excellent pool and location for the budget-conscious. Rooms are showing some wear and tear, and the view isn’t much to speak of, but it’s a great jumping off spot for families or couples looking for good value over posh service.
- Top Driving Tip: U.S. 98 hugs the Western coastline, promising some great views — especially as it passes through Apalachicola National Forest during the second half of your trip.
Road Trip #3: Tampa to Fort Lauderdale, FL
- Total Driving Time: 4 hours, 11 minutes
- Distance Covered: 265 miles
- Take This Trip If: A dock for your yacht would be nice, too, thank you.
Once a major Spring Break hub, Fort Lauderdale has traded in its wet t-shirt contests for luxury yacht parties in the last few years. Though attracting a more affluent crowd seeking quiet days by the beach or cruising the city’s intricate canal systems — Fort Lauderdale is nicknamed the “Venice of America” — the area is still rife with bars, restaurants, and shops. The hard partiers, however, have moved elsewhere (probably to Panama City). And, as the rich have rolled in, so have a few luxury hotels, several sophisticated bars, and a handful of fine-dining options. (But, if you do want a night of wild partying, Miami is only another half hour south.) The sexiest — and most luxurious — of the city’s grand dames is undoubtedly the W Fort Lauderdale. Featuring stunning design elements, two pool decks, a happening scene at three bars (including the famous Whiskey Blue, whose original branch is in NYC), a steak restaurant, and a Bliss Spa, the W delivers on amenities, if it lags a bit on service. For budget travelers, the Ocean Manor Resort is a solid pick. Though the hotel has been unevenly renovated (some rooms are modern and appealing with rates to match, others have dated decor and few amenities), it does offer free Wi-Fi, a nice pool, and airport shuttle transfers. Located on a beautiful beach, its Tiki Bar also attracts guests and locals alike for good cheap eats.
- Top Driving Tip: I-75 is the most direct route — it’ll shave a few minutes from your trip and take you through Big Cypress National Preserve along the way.