AOL Travel
Print

Best Things To Do in Daytona Beach

AOL PICK from our Editors

While it’s not all about the beach, it is mostly about the beach; recreation in Daytona is either in the water, on the water or near the water. There are some notable exceptions—auto racing at the Speedway and a few museums—but most visitors come to the area to relax and catch some rays. And there are lots of ways and places to do just that.

Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens

Neighborhood: Port Orange

Historic in at least two different eras, the Sugar Mill is now a 12-acre botanical garden. The mill was built in the early-19th century and destroyed during the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835. The grounds are now home to the preserved stone ruins of the mill and a collection of dinosaur statues, remnants of a theme park called “Bongoland” that once operated here. The ruins were enclosed with a shed roof a few years ago to protect them from further weathering, and the interpretive signs and guided tours give a good picture of what life was like on the Florida frontier in the 1830s.

More Details on

Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens  

Marineland of Florida

Neighborhood: Marineland

When Marineland opened in 1938 more than 20,000 tourists lined up in their cars along Highway AIA to get a glimpse of marine life face to face. It was the biggest opening day yet for a Florida tourist attraction and would be for years to come. Ironically, Marineland was started not as an attraction but as a place to film marine life, an “undersea” studio for moviemakers. The original partners were cousins Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and W. Douglas Burden, the grandsons of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the grandson of Count Leo Tolstoy ("War and Peace"), Ilia Tolstoy. As Whitney’s money was poured into the concrete sealife tanks and into gas for the boats used to capture marine animals, they realized they needed another source of cash and came up with the idea of opening Marineland to the public. They had no idea it would be so popular. Spectators came to gawk at the sharks, rays and other critters. And film producers came, too. Parts of several Tarzan movies and other films were shot in the tanks. The original structures were torn down a few years ago to make way for a “new” Marineland, which serves as the home for a dolphin swim experience. The north side of nearby Matanzas Inlet—site of a Spanish massacre of French Protestants in 1565—has a wonderful, often-deserted beach you can get to by turning off of AIA just past Marineland. If you want to swim with dolphins and get some sun, a day trip up the beach, with the Atlantic scrolling past your window as you blast up the narrow coastal highway, is wonderful. Afterward, you can go a little farther and visit Fort Matanzas National Monument, an actual Spanish outpost built in 1742, to see how the conquistadors lived. 

More Details on

Marineland of Florida  

Jackie Robinson Ballpark & Statue

Neighborhood: Mainland

The first black man to play in the American major leagues played in the first racially integrated spring training game in Daytona Beach in 1946, starting for the Montreal Royals AAA club. A year later, he was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and eventually was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame. There’s a statue of Robinson at the field and it’s a great place to catch a spring-training game with the Daytona Cubs, the Chicago Cubs Florida League team.

Atlantic Center for the Arts

Neighborhood: New Smyrna Beach

Only in recent years has the ACA been a place for visitors. It was created in the 1970s as an artists' colony: Three master artists are invited to live at the center for three weeks and each of them selects associate artists from a large pool of applicants to work with them during their residency. The idea is for the masters to help the associates evolve. Master artists may be painters, sculptors, playwrights, novelists, composers, choreographers or any other visual or performance artist. In the past, they’ve included James Dickey ("Deliverance"), Carl Hiaasen ("Striptease," "Tourist Season"), Robert Rauschenberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti ("Coney Island of the Mind"), Alan Ginsberg ("Howl") and Elvin Jones, among many others. Two visual arts galleries have been added, with installations that feature works by Master Artists, as well as traveling exhibitions and special shows.

More Details on

Atlantic Center for the Arts  

The Casements

Neighborhood: Ormond Beach

Want to see how the other half really lived? This is the former home of John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate who spent winters in Ormond Beach and it’s where he died in 1937. The rambling home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and wound up in the hands of the City of Ormond Beach. Converted to a civic center, it underwent a massive restoration in 2009 and is now open to the public, who can tour its grand rooms and massive gardens overlooking the Halifax River.

Museum of Arts & Sciences

Neighborhood: Mainland

This is a great rainy-day treat, especially if you have kids. The MOAS has a surprisingly diverse collection of exhibits, ranging from physical phenomenon to African and Cuban art, along with a planetarium and a children’s section with lots of hands-on exhibits, including a Harley Davidson motorcycle, build-a-racing-vehicle station and tennis ball launcher.

More Details on

Museum of Arts & Sciences  

Daytona International Speedway

Neighborhood: Mainland

This is what makes Daytona Daytona. NASCAR was born here. It was conceived on the hard-packed sand that once served as a racetrack and delivered by “Big Bill” France, a stock car driver and shrewd businessman who united the drivers and formed NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). The France family still controls NASCAR; its current CEO is Big Bill’s grandson, Brian France. Daytona had been the scene of racing and land speed record attempts since the 1920s, but France organized the activity into a sport with a governing body, rules and—eventually—multi-million dollar sponsorships. France built the Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Since then, it has become one of the shrines of racing and host to two of the most important stock car races, the Daytona 500 (in February) and the Coke Zero 400 (July 4 weekend). It also hosts two Rolex Grand Am events and other races throughout the year. The complex is enormous—nearly a square mile—and can hold more than 147,000 fans. Its layout is unique; fans actually park and camp in the interior of the track, with the cars whizzing around them 360 degrees. The six major race weekends are festivals, with families driving from all over the U.S. to camp out and see the spectacle. In addition to auto racing, the track is the site of major motorcycle races. Even if the cars aren’t running, people flock to the track to visit the Daytona Experience—a multimedia museum with an IMAX theater showing “NASCAR 3D,” exhibits of winning cars, historic artifacts, racing simulators, a tour of the track and facilities and more. If the “more” they want includes actually burning some rubber, there’s the Richard Petty Driving Experience that lets fans drive an actual NASCAR racecar on the track at high speed.

More Details on

Daytona International Speedway »

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Neighborhood: Ponce Inlet

This is what makes Daytona Daytona. NASCAR was born here. It was conceived on the hard-packed sand that once served as a race track and delivered by “Big Bill” France, a stock car driver and shrewd businessman who united the drivers and formed NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). The France family still controls NASCAR; its current CEO is Big Bill’s grandson, Brian France. Daytona had been the scene of racing and land speed record attempts since the 1920s, but France organized the activity into a sport with a governing body, rules and—eventually—multi-million dollar sponsorships. France built the Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Since then, it has become one of the shrines of racing and host to two of the most important stock car races, the Daytona 500 (in February) and the Coke Zero 400 (July 4th weekend). It also hosts two Rolex Grand Am events and other races throughout the year. The complex is enormous—nearly a square mile—and can hold more than 147,000 fans. Its layout is unique; fans actually park and camp in the interior of the track, with the cars whizzing around them 360 degrees. The six major race weekends are festivals, with families driving from all over the U.S. to camp out and see the spectacle. In addition to auto racing, the track is the site of major motorcycle races. Even if the cars aren’t running, people flock to the track to visit the Daytona Experience—a multimedia museum with an IMAX theater showing “NASCAR 3D,” exhibits of winning cars, historic artifacts, racing simulators, a tour of the track and facilities and more. If the “more” they want includes actually burning some rubber, there’s the Richard Petty Driving Experience that lets fans drive an actual NASCAR racecar on the track at high speed.

More Details on

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse »

Southeast Museum of Photography

Neighborhood: Mainland

This is the state’s official museum of photography, one of only 13 in the United States. Its collection includes works of such renowned photographers as Andre Kertesz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Webb, Susan Meiselas and Steve McCurry, along with works by its own faculty and former students. The galleries are impressive, and you’re never sure what you’ll see next—dreamy black and white visions of the Florida wilderness are juxtaposed against urban streetscapes and Weston’s sublime black and white images from the 1930s.

More Details on

Southeast Museum of Photography  

St. Augustine

Neighborhood: St. Augustine

About an hour north of Daytona, St. Augustine is a tasty blend of Spanish Colonial and beach town funk. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1565 as a bulwark against French settlements in Florida and to protect Spanish treasure fleets on their way from Havana, Cuba, back to Spain. It is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America. After the city was burned by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and again by pirate Captain John Davis in 1668, a massive stone fort covering 20 acres, the Castillo de San Marcos, was built. The Castillo remains in pristine condition today and is the oldest masonry fort in America. Run by the National Park Service, it gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the early settlers. The top of walls are mounted with cannons, some captured in various 19th-century battles by U.S. forces. Nearby, several blocks of Spanish buildings have been reconstructed along St. George Street. Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, built his first hotels in Florida in St. Augustine—the beginning point of modern tourism in the state—in the 1880s. One of the earliest hotels, the Casa Monica, has been restored and reopened with gracious rooms and a stellar restaurant, 95 Cordova. The beach at Anastasia Island, just over the bridge from the Old City, is a favorite with residents.

More Details on

St. Augustine  

The Beach

Neighborhood: Daytona Beach Shores

 There are 23 miles of beach along the barrier island, and its character and inhabitants depend on where you happen to be. This is one of the few places in Florida where you can drive a car on the beach (though not all 23 miles are open to vehicular traffic). There’s no long trek over the dunes, burdened down with chairs, coolers, umbrellas, bags, strollers, sunscreen and sand shovels. You toss everything in the back of the car, find a nice space to park, and then just pull out what you need when you need it. The traffic lanes and parking are close to the seawall, so at low tide there’s a pretty good strip of beach without cars. The most-crowded areas of the beach are from Main Street down to the stretch north and south of the Silver Beach Street access ramp. The crowds normally thin out in Daytona Beach Shores, with Wilbur-By-The-Sea and Ponce Inlet being the least crowded. The action picks up again on the north end of New Smyrna, but thins out pretty quickly as you go south. For the least-crowded beaches, head for Canaveral National Seashore; there’s a visitors center several miles south of Bethune Beach. There’s no driving on the beach, naturally, so you park in lots behind the dunes, then follow a walkway up and over to the beach. If it’s not summer or a holiday weekend, you could be the only one there.

 

Beach Cautions: In recent years, several people have been run over by cars while on the beach, including two small children. If you have kids with you be sure you know where they are at all times. That should be standard procedure when you’re at the beach anyway. Don’t set up your chairs and blankets too close to the traffic lanes in case someone strays. Your best bet is to get down close to the water; the cars are less likely to come down there. When swimming, the usual precautions apply.

Longshore currents and runouts (riptides) affect virtually all of the beachfront at times. They’re especially dangerous when there’s high surf, but potentially dangerous at all times. The longshore current will sweep you down the beach to a runout zone where you’ll suddenly find yourself being pushed out to sea. If that happens, swim parallel to the beach until you’re out of the seaward current and then swim back in toward the beach. Volusia County beaches are patrolled by lifeguards and there are lifeguard towers along the beach. If you’re at all nervous or have children with you, consider setting yourself up near one of the towers where help will be available quickly. Even strong, experienced ocean swimmers can get into trouble when the waves are up and the currents are running.

The area around the mouth of Ponce Inlet, especially on the south side near the jetty, seems to attract a lot of sharks. Most likely, they swim in the outflow from the Inlet looking for fish being pushed out by the current and mistake people for food. The area has the highest incidence of shark bites in Florida—24 in 2008—and nearly all of them occur near the South Jetty, many suffered by surfers. The bites are rarely very serious, though some require stitches. Fatalities from shark bites are extremely rare: The percentage of fatalities from shark bites in the last 100 years is less than 1 percent. The sharks don’t normally come into the shallow surf zone near shore; those that do are usually small.

More Details on

The Beach  
See All Daytona Beach Things To Do »
ADVERTISEMENT