June 6, 2015 — This is part 2 of our series on the “Funky Towns of Florida”. Part 1 explored unusual towns of this stripe in the Northern, Central, and Western reaches of the Sunshine State. In this edition we concentrate on the Eastern and Southern regions, plus one additional town from Florida Central. As always we want to know your suggestions for more “funky Florida” towns, which we define as communities that are interesting, have potential but are perhaps a bit down at the heels, and cater to a slightly more bohemian crowd.
Fernandina Beach is the biggest town on Amelia island at the northeastern tip of Florida. It has about 11,000 people with an average age of about 46. There is a charming downtown with an artsy feel, a bustling waterfront with shrimp boats, a working lighthouse, and many quiet neighborhoods featuring Victorian homes. There are cute shops and many interesting restaurants and bars. There is a 50 block area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
New Smyrna Beach New Smyrna Beach is a peaceful beach community of 23,000 located in the northern portion of Florida’s east coast. It prides itself on being a laid back coastal community, free of crowds and pollution. The city incorporates the city of Coronado Beach. New Smyrna Beach was the center of intense real estate speculation during the 1920’s; about 800 buildings from that era survive.
Indiantown, population 5,600, is part of Port St. Lucie. S. Davies Warfield, who planned on making Indiantown the southern hub of the Seaboard rail line, planned Indiantown as a model city, laying out streets and building a school, housing, and a railroad station. Warfield also built the Seminole Inn, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the Seminole Inn is virtually all that remains of the 1920s boom. Payson Park is a top Thoroughbred racing facility.
Jensen Beach is a low key town on the Intracoastal that runs down Florida’s east coast. It is located just below St. Lucie and adjacent to much more affluent Stuart. People like the slightly funky Jensen Beach downtown for its restaurants, shops, galleries, and casual atmosphere. What is unusual about the town is the tremendous number of mobile home and RV parks that are situated right along the Intracoastal, which gives retirees a broad choice of affordable housing. There is a very big snowbird contingent here.
St. Petersburg has long been a synonym for retirement community, which does not tell the real story. This city on a long peninsula has a lot going for it. For one, it has a bustling, big city downtown with thriving businesses and lots to do. For another, it’s a peninsula with beaches and water just about everywhere. Then it has many funky neighborhoods and villages, like definitely funky Gulfport and its famous dancehall Casino.
Tarpon Springs is a fascinating little town on the West Coast above Tampa and St. Pete. What makes it unique is its Greek heritage – descendants of earlier immigrants who came here for sponge gathering are still here fishing and operating Greek restaurants for tourists. Another unique feature of Tarpon Springs is that is has 2 downtowns. The main one has a nice area with shops, restaurants, and the old train station. It is charming, but a bit frayed around the edges like a funky town should be. The waterfront area a mile away offers an array of Greek restaurants and views of fishing and shrimp boats.
Boca Grande is hard to describe as funky because it is so wealthy, but it is extremely interesting. Located on Gasparilla Island on Florida’s southwest coast, it is hard to get to, which probably adds to the charm. There is the lovely old luxury resort, the Gasparilla Inn, which attracts notables like the Presidents Bush. There are beaches, quite canals, and plenty of water. The town is quite small but does have some good restaurants and high end shops.
Key West is by many people’s opinion the grandmother of all Florida funky towns, although it is less so than it used to be. Once the wealthiest city in Florida, it has created fortunes over the centuries from shipwreck treasures, turtles, sponges fishing, and cigars. Most recently its economy is based on the tourist trade and folks looking for a warm and bohemian place to spend the winter. “The Conch Republic” as it is known attracts artists, musicians, and gays – plus people of every type under the rainbow – for its relaxed atmosphere and beautiful setting among picture postcard Victorian homes.
In Part 1 we covered many more funky FL towns from the Central part of the state, but here is one more:
Lakeland is a larger town which has its passionate devotees. It was an important town during the Florida land boom and many of its historic structures date from that period including the Terrace Hotel, New Florida Hotel (Regency Towers), Polk Theatre, Promenade of Lake Mirror, and the former Lakeland Public Library There are plenty of lakes (hence the name!). Frank Lloyd Wright’s “A Child of the Sun” project for Florida Southern College is the largest one-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world. Many people think the nearby (and smaller) town of Winter Haven as offering a similar kind of experience, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the same level of funkiness that you will find in Lakeland.
Comments? Do you know some funky or interesting towns in Florida that we didn’t mention? By all means share them in the Comments section below, along with why you think they are interesting.