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Best Places to Live in Florida

February 21, 2013
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Looking for a new place to call home? Here are our top picks from around the state that might be perfect for you — go ahead and take a peek!

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Northwest Florida Coastal Beach Towns FTL file photo

Panama City. Port St. Joe. Rosemary Beach. Santa Rosa Beach. Seaside towns along a secret stretch of Northwest Florida offer laid-back living. This part of Florida has discernible seasons. You’ll feel a nip in the air come December, but those 60- degree daytime temperatures only last a few months. High season here is summer when temperatures hover around the 80s and 90s and attract family vacationers. A mix of beach towns and building-height restrictions along much of this stretch of coast gives the area its laid-back feel. Pine trees outnumber palms here, and wind-swept dunes punctuated by sea grass add elevation to the shore.

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The Upper Keys: Key Largo & Islamorada Gary Bogdon

Once you reach the end of the 18-mile stretch of asphalt tethering the Florida Keys to the rest of the world, you’ll find that life moves to the tempo of a reggae song. The archipelago is perched on an ancient coral reef, nestled between the aquamarine waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay. Small-town island living is both what initially draws people here and, later, what anchors them. Most residents, after they tell you how they came and fell in love with the Keys, will conclude: “I just never left.” The enchantment starts in Key Largo and Islamorada. Known as the Upper Keys, these islands sit at the top of the chain, which is connected by a series of 42 bridges. Needless to say, water is the attraction.

The 33-mile-long island of Key Largo is bordered by John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to the east, which is home to North America’s only living barrier reef and is a big draw for divers. To the west is Everglades National Park, easily accessible to boaters. A look in the canals that weave around the islands reveals manatees, spiny lobsters and mangrove snappers. (Read more about the Upper Keys)

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Panama City Beach FTL file photo

A spectacular shoreline extends for 27 miles and the emerald-green water captivates the eye. This is Panama City Beach. But the Gulf of Mexico city in Northwest Florida is aesthetically pleasing on and of its crystal-white sand. Residents who cherish Southern hospitality — something that infuses life here — say the location is perfect, but so is the dining and shopping, as well as the practical day-in-and-day-out aspects of a city that make it feel like home.

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Clearwater FTL file photo

Some places can convince even the most grounded visitors that they really ought to up and move. Clearwater, especially its Gulf-front barrier island, is one of those places. Though most know the area by the sand and surf that is Clearwater Beach, the city limits extend inland to Tampa Bay, encompassing a 26-mile sweep of barrier islands, a mainland downtown atop a bay-front bluff, a historic neighborhood and the commercialized corridor of State Road 60 and Highway 19.

Notoriety and change found Clearwater in 2011, thanks to the big-screen release of Dolphin Tale, the true life story of Winter, Clearwater Marine Aquarium‘s tailless dolphin. (Read more on living in Clearwater)

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Sanibel Island FTL file photo

Residents of Sanibel Island know they’re lucky that nature lets them live here. On this 17 1/2-square-mile barrier island near Fort Myers, people (all 5,700 of them) are out- numbered by wildlife, including poodle-size raccoons that hide in tangles of dense brush and blue herons that forage for dinner in the mangrove fringes along Tarpon Bay. It’s this unique environment — Gulf of Mexico beaches and untamed Florida wilderness — coupled with the small-town ambience.

More popular hangouts include the pastel-painted Sunset Grill and the tiny Lazy Flamingo. But the foodie favorite is the Mad Hatter, where a sign announces the nightly sunset right down to the minute. (Read more on living in Sanibel Island)

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Jacksonville Beach FTL file photo

Jacksonville Beach, which stretches from its southernmost point, Ponte Vedra, to its northernmost point at Neptune Beach, is touted as northeast Florida’s best-kept secret. Residents aren’t surprised. They happily boast about the surf, sand and the overall lifestyle. Located about 20 miles east of downtown Jacksonville, this barrier island has a population nearing 23,000 that’s attracted by the area’s hard-packed white sandy beaches, family-friendly ambience, eclectic shopping and an evolving dining scene.

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Boca Raton FTL file photo

Halfway between Deerfield Beach to the north and Delray Beach to the south, Boca, as the locals call it, owes much of its existence to Addison Mizner, a California transplant who became the epitome of a society architect when he began building Palm Beach resort homes.

Gated communities and country clubs are truly de rigueur in Boca. According to Forbes magazine, the metropolis claims three of the 10 most expensive gated communities in the United States. (Read more on living in Boca Raton)

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Vero Beach FTL file photo

While the local kids may gravitate to Vero Beach’s 25 miles of oceanfront on the Atlantic, their parents favor the 28-mile barrier island’s western shores, where the Indian River, not a man-made channel, forms Vero Beach’s portion of the Intracoastal Waterway. Fingers of land extend into the waterway, expanding water-front options, yet the ocean is less than 15 minutes away from the riverfront homes here.

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Scenic 30A FTL file photo

Only a few resort communities possess an entirely original vibe. Northwest Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A — or just 30A, as residents call it — is such a place. This meandering 19-mile stretch of panhandle road, tucked between Destin and Panama City, is actually a string of small beach towns. Deliberately arranged fixtures — from a grove of live oaks to a promontory overlooking the Gulf of Mexico — are what set 30A apart.

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Sarasota FTL file photo

Sarasota has long lured the gifted and creative to its Gulf of Mexico shores. Perhaps it’s the turquoise-tinged water, the white-sand beaches or maybe those coastline-hugging barrier islands that inspire the imagination and even lead to reinvention.

Its earliest pioneers arrived in the 1840s, tempted by water teeming with fish and prospects of cattle and citrus farming. Soon the city began enticing wealthy wintertime residents like John and Mable Ringling. The circus king of America was an avid land developer of the Sarasota Keys in the 1920s; the Ringlings were also passionate art collectors. Their bayside home, Cà d’Zan, and the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art remain city landmarks. More on Sarasota.

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West Palm Beach FTL file photo

Often over-shadowed by the glitz of Palm Beach, its sister city to the east, the diverse and vibrant West Palm Beach set along the Intracoastal Waterway offers an urban lifestyle as well as the nationally acclaimed Antique Row, the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Art Museum and two core destinations—Clematis Street and City Place—with great shops, eateries and nightlife.

With 15 designated historic districts, architectural preservation is a focus of this 55-square-mile city flanked by Riviera Beach to the north and Lake Worth to the south. (More on West Palm Beach)

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Naples FTL file photo

Naples, it seems, isn’t often found by design. People tend to come to it serendipitously: Newcomers are often introduced during a getaway from Florida’s other coast or while visiting friends. Naples quietly works her magic, revealing a lifestyle that’s slower paced than, say, Miami or Fort Lauderdale, but just as glamorous and vibrant. The city’s Gulf of Mexico backdrop mesmerizes, and with its small-town attitude and big-league amenities it offers the best of both worlds.

The city’s Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 1985, is often credited with giving Naples its luster. Its founders saw Naples as a little town on the verge of greatness, close to a brand-new international airport in Fort Myers and positioned along the newly completed Interstate 75, connecting Michigan’s Canadian border all the way to Miami. (More on Naples)

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Delray Beach FTL file photo

A city totaling fewer than 65,000, Delray Beach has a far-reaching appeal. Oceanfront McMansions are few and far between here (you see more in neighboring Highland Beach to the south), but occasional funky beach-house enclaves where you stroll out the door right onto the sand still exist.

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Fort Lauderdale FTL file photo

Water — the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal and the city’s 165 miles of canals — is Fort Lauderdale’s star attraction, and obviously the main reason both seasonal and full-time residents choose the city. Another reason is the working downtown, with its own financial district, performing arts center and museums, which provides a cosmopolitan vibe.

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Coral Gables FTL file photo

Drive along the banyan-ruled streets of Coral Gables past bubbling fountains and Mediterranean piazzas, and chances are you’ll forget you’re in the center of Florida’s largest metropolis.

Encompassing 37 square miles, Coral Gables sits between West Flagler Avenue and the Deering Bay Golf Course to the north and south, respectively, and LeJeune and Red roads to the east and west. Thirty percent of land here is dedicated green space.

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South Beach FTL file photo

The multicultural hot spot known as South Beach is a world unto itself. Not just because of the beautiful weather, beautiful people and beautiful beaches, but also because it lives up to its reputation as a super-cool city that moves at a dazzling pace. SoBe (its omnipresent nickname) stands for sun, fun and glam.

This is a town where fashion, celebrity and nightlife go hand in hand. Besides its popularity as a travel destination, lots of people call Miami Beach’s southernmost 23 blocks home — some seasonally, some year-round.

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Gainesville FTL file photo

Come to Gainesville on a Saturday in fall, and you will see the Gator Nation in a blue- and-orange sea of tailgating bliss. A football game is about to start in the “swamp” (aka Ben Hill Griffin Stadium), and alums have made the pilgrimage back to this northeastern town for kickoff.

Gainesville also has an impressive medical community that includes the VA Medical Center and Shands, a UF teaching hospital considered one of the best in the nation.

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Daytona Beach FTL file photo

Since Ransom Olds and Louis Chevrolet raced along its hardpacked sands in the early 1900s, Daytona Beach has felt the need for speed. Land-speed records have been broken — and broken again — along the barrier island’s 23 miles of sand and surf, where today the Daytona International Speedway looms large and celebrity sightings are measured by their proximity to NASCAR.

This Atlantic coastal town, however, is also a complex melting pot. It’s a place where bars for bikers and beach goers coexist with top-shelf restaurants, and three-story profiles of ancient motels — holdovers from the construction boom — provide a stark contrast to looming high-rise towers. Daytona Beach and its surroundings — a sweep of the Atlantic Ocean, island and mainland from Ormond Beach south to Ponce Inlet — is an eclectic mix of people and places.

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