The Santa Barbara of Florida -- does it exist?
March 10, 2014 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Aside from Miami, does Florida have any place that has a culture not predominantly catering to retirees, families, or tourists? I'm an early thirties guy looking to spend a weekend somewhere in the state with a friend that's interesting, authentic, and youthful. Being near water is a nice to have, but not a requirement.

Despite my googling and searching of past Ask MeFi questions, I can't seem to find a place in Florida with the qualities I'm looking for.

-- has a unique culture, not all strip malls & chains
-- youthful, not predominantly seniors nor families
-- something to do other than golf or shop
-- fun restaurant & bar scene
-- within a few hours drive of Orlando

Open to hearing of cities/towns, areas, or even parts of Miami.

Myself and my best friend (both early 30's dudes) are looking for a place to spend a fun, relaxing weekend away from the theme parks, golf courses, and retirement homes. I know, I know, wrong state. But there's got to be a Santa Barbara like place, doesn't there?

Thanks in advance!
posted by graytona to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Key West / South Miami Beach. I don't know if they are like Santa Barbara because I've never been there but they are fun areas.
posted by elf27 at 9:14 PM on March 10, 2014

Try Tampa, and Ybor City / Channelside / SoHo, or St. Petersburg. I'm more familiar with the former than the latter. Key West fits the bill, but is not for everyone, and is NOT "within a few hours drive of Orlando."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:16 PM on March 10, 2014

IMO the obvious Floridan Santa Barbara is St. Augustine. But I don't think that is what you want. Santa Barbara also caters to retirees, families, golfers, shoppers and tourists so you're kinda sending mixed signals.

I would go to South Beach.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:17 PM on March 10, 2014

Wayl, you could base yourself in Gainesville and spend your days floating down the Ichetucknee, swimming in other localish springs, and soaking up some of the much more southern atmosphere that's very different you get south of I-4, or a day trip to St. Augustine (if the DQ in Palatka is still open, stop for ice cream and thank the Creator that you don't have to live in Palatka) and your nights drinking away in any of approximately nine trillion establishments that cater to youthful pinheads. Were you to do this during summer or UF's spring break, you might even find that the pinheaddiest of the pinheads had taken their pinheadery elsewhere.

Otherwise I would have said just taking a trip to beaches populated primarily by other Floridians, like St. Augustine and the few immediately to the south like Crescent. But they're very boringly family-oriented. The Castillo de san Marcos is mice though.

St. Petersburg

Have things changed in the past 20 years so that St. Petersburg is not basically one giant retirement home? Asking sincerely, not snarking.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sarasota has Ringling College of Art and Design, as well as families, old people, tourists, etc. Santa Barbara has lots of old rich people--Julia Child's nursing home was there.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:28 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

In my experience, no.
posted by dudleian at 12:19 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

St. Pete is where the hip alums from my nearby college move to after graduation. I don't know if it has a similar vibe to Santa Barbara since I've never been there, but it's a more happening city than Sarasota, for sure, which is overwhelmingly rich retirees.
posted by Papagayo at 2:00 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Tampa Bay area. Downtown St Pete is a really nice area, and Ybor City in Tampa is one of the biggest party areas in the state.

Have things changed in the past 20 years so that St. Petersburg is not basically one giant retirement home?
Yes, St Pete is very different than 20 years ago. The Tampa Bay Rays are right downtown now. USF has a major campus about 500 yards from the Pier, so there are plenty of young college age kids in the area now. St Pete is much more than a big retirement community these days.
posted by Flood at 4:25 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

St. Augustine reminds me of that sort of place, kind of like Savannah.

Gasparilla Island?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:20 AM on March 11, 2014

Cocoa Beach is an hour from Orlando. It's a drinking town with a surfing problem, and it has a bit of space history if you know where to look. During spring break the average age goes from 85 to 75, which is pretty young for FL.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:44 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just returned from Key West. Most of the older people there are drinking themselves to death, otherwise there is a lot of authentic culture, you just have to look for it.
posted by Xurando at 5:48 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aside from Miami, does Florida have any place that has a culture not predominantly catering to retirees, families, or tourists?

I don't think you can go anywhere in Florida that's not at least somewhat catering to tourists. Well, I'm sure there are some small towns in the middle of the state that this applies to, but none of those places would be a worthy travel destination.

With that being said, I recommend looking into Panama City/Destin area. That part of the gulf coast is beautiful (white sands, clear, blue water), and since it's in the panhandle, it may be less overrun by tourists. It's been a few years since I've been there, but Panama City definitely has some fun restaurants and bars, and Destin should as well, although I'm less familiar with them. If you're going down in March, you may run into some "Spring Breakers" around there, but I haven't visited this time of year so I can't say for sure.

Close to Destin, there's this nice little community called Seaside (and nearby Watercolor, as well) where you can usually rent condos to stay for a couple nights or longer. The whole community is right on the beach, and it's got this quaint, laid back vibe, and some good restaurants. Fun fact: Seaside was used as the location for the filming of The Truman Show. Maybe this would be too low key, though? Also, it will probably be about a 6 hour drive from Orlando, but frankly, Florida is a big state, so you'll most likely have to do a decent amount of driving no matter where you decide to go.

I haven't been there myself, but Key West may also be what you're looking for.
posted by litera scripta manet at 5:48 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to Key West and I can't recommend it. It'll be about an eight hour drive from Orlando, and that's if you haul ass down the turnpike.

When you get there, it's completely touristy! T-Shirt shops all up and down Duval Street. Bars whose T-shrits you've seen on every Tom, Dick and Harry.

It is beautiful, in nooks and crannies, but I always thought Key West tried too hard. Chickens wandering around (roosters in the morning are a PAIN IN THE ASS!) Overpriced food, cruise ships disgorging passengers, the Conch Train.

There is the Mel Fisher musuem, or the Little White House, or Hemmingway House.

You mostly go to Key West to dive or to lay around and get sunburnt and drunk.

Not my cup of tea, may be yours.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:55 AM on March 11, 2014

The Santa Barbara of Florida -- does it exist?

posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:11 AM on March 11, 2014

Native Floridian here -- I would say no. Haven't seen it and I've been everywhere in Florida.

You might try New Smyrna Beach. It's less touristy than Daytona Beach, it has a few good restaurants. Canal Street is quaint, Flagler Avenue has a bar scene, albeit kind of grungy in my opinion. Lots of natural beauty and stuff to do around the area.
posted by Fairchild at 6:36 AM on March 11, 2014

What about driving north? Savannah, GA is only four hours from Orlando.
posted by something something at 6:43 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, no.

I'd go with Ybor city. For 15 bucks you can take Amtrak to Tampa from Orlando, land about a walkable mile from Ybor city, stay at the Hampton (which is next to the trolley yard), and walk about town to the bars and restaurants and movies and cigar bars and such.

If you purchase ahead of time, you can mail order bus and trolley passes for getting around the area.

If its in the next month or so, pay attention to the warnings on the Amtrak site - there are some construction delays that are mucking with the schedules.
posted by tilde at 6:46 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a little confused at exactly what you're looking for. I've been to Santa Barbara a couple of times and it was beautiful but seemed like a place for shopping and pretty touristy. Granted, my stays have been short.

You said a few hours from Orlando, but I saw someone mention Destin and Panama City. If you're even thinking of driving that far, I'd say Pensacola would a much better place to visit. Destin is beautiful, but it's just a beach town. Panama City is the very definition of touristy and over developed.

Pensacola certainly has it's share of tourist and elderly, but downtown is pretty awesome right now. There's great bars, restaurants, wine bars, and a brewery all within walking distance, and none of them chains. The crowd is young, and the area is beautiful. In fact, Palafox was chosen as one of the Great Streets of America in 2013.

Probably too far from you, but fits most of your criteria. (Downtown is small, but for a weekend definitely big enough).
posted by justgary at 7:52 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was going to write some stuff about how Orlando isn't all that bad these days, there's actually plenty to fill a weekend that doesn't involve the ridiculousness that is the theme parks and their surroundings, you just have to look for the good parts, but then I reread your question and got the impression you live there already. If so, you know what Florida is like because you have a sampling of all it's different characters in the area.
posted by wierdo at 8:54 AM on March 11, 2014

My brother just moved to North Beach, Miami. It's definitely got unique culture. The majority of the residents are from Argentina and many of the local shops and restaurants are Argentine as well. There are a lot of interesting Latin restaurants all over the place and as far as I can tell it is more youthful oriented than for families. It does however seem to be lacking a decent bar scene, but South Beach is ten minutes away. I believe the surfing is pretty good for FL as well.
posted by Che boludo! at 9:29 AM on March 11, 2014

Since you're in Orlando it might be fun to go to the Improv Comedy Club one night and do the I-Drive thing. That's fun. That area where the comedy club is located is nice and updated and geared toward adults.
posted by Fairchild at 10:27 AM on March 11, 2014

Another native here, have lived in various areas mentioned.

Downtown St. Pete has become a very cool place in the last few years, to answer ROU...s question above. A group of us had a guys' weekend there last year and it was way more fun than I expected. Great restaurants, great bars, good music if you plan your visit around something at Ruby Diamond or Jannus Landing. Ft. DeSoto is a great place to hit the water, at the tip of the peninsula.

Areas around Gainesville are fun if you're a nature type, but the bar scene in town trends Ryan Lochte-esque. Though maybe that's what you want? The least touristy of all options I see thrown out there in this thread.

I love St. Augustine as a couples' spot, if you like history. There are families/tourists galore, though.

Seaside and 30A might best fit your requirements except you are a long way from Orlando. (On review, maybe not -- "golf and shop" are perhaps too much of the scene in Seaside for you.)

What you seek may not exist after all.
posted by easement1 at 7:57 PM on March 11, 2014

Oh... and since I got married in the area I'd be remiss in not mentioning Fernandina Beach & Amelia Island, north of Jacksonville. Lots of golf and beaches, but other stuff too. If you have time and a car, combine with a night or two in Savannah GA.
posted by easement1 at 8:00 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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