What to Do in Daytona Beach: Manatees, Race Cars & Biking on the Sand

Jan 20, 2017

While Daytona Beach is synonymous with the famed NASCAR race that celebrates its 59th year in 2017, there's much more to this area than fast cars.

In recent years, the area has emerged as an affordable winter vacation option for couples and families to relax in the sunshine on Florida's East Coast.

It's a good bet you'll find something here that's your speed. Here's why you should visit ...

1. This is one of America's most famous beaches.

Whether you explore on two feet, two or four wheels -- the beach should be on your itinerary. And yes, you can drive your car and ride bikes on the beach.

Daytona Beach's 23 miles of hard-packed sand first welcomed automobile and motorcycle races in 1902. The professionals have moved on to the Daytona International Speedway, but regular drivers are allowed along designated sections of the sand for a $10 parking fee during the day. (Click here for a map.) Pull your beach chairs right out of the trunk, instead of lugging them through the sand.

If you prefer the old-fashioned way, there are also plenty of no-drive areas with beachfront parks and off-beach parking provided.

2. Watch the big race -- or ride shotgun in a race car.

For a serious racing fan, a trip to Daytona Beach is a pilgrimage to see the iconic speedway and the race cars that thunder along its steep banked turns and straightaways at 200 mph. Tickets for the Daytona 500 (Feb. 26) are on sale now. Even if you can't make the big race, events start a week before on Feb. 18 and this is a year-round draw, including the 10,000-square-foot Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Feel the need for speed? With the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway, visitors can choose to drive or ride shotgun inside a 600-horsepower NASCAR race car.

3. Look for manatees, turtles and scrub jays.

With daytime temps in the 60s and low 70s, January through April is a great time to hike and bike over 33 miles of nature trails in the Daytona Beach area.

The trails at Lyonia Preserve give hikers a chance to encounter a Florida scrub jay, a threatened bird species that isn't shy about getting close to humans. Visit the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve to ride along the paths on horseback.

At the Marine Science Center in nearby Ponce Inlet, one of the main goals is to rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles. These include hatchlings, freshwater turtles, land tortoises and wash backs, the terms for newly hatched baby sea turtles that are washed back to shore by rough seas. Guests can overlook seven turtle hospital pools from the Turtle Terrace. The center is also home to a stingray touch pool.

One of the best ways to see nature up close without disturbing their habitats is to take an eco-tour. With a small number of passengers riding on a flat-bottom boat, you can cruise the Intracoastal Waterway while searching for dolphins, sting rays, manatees, sea turtles and other sea life.

An especially good spot to find manatees during the winter months is Blue Spring State Park on the St. Johns River.

4. You'll become BFFs with the water.

It should be no surprise that there are a number of activities in the Daytona Beach area to get you in the water. Aside from swimming and snorkeling, there's also this:

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5. Free chocolate.

Since 1925, Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory has been producing chocolates and candies in Daytona Beach. Visitors can take a free 20-minute factory tour to view the old-fashioned process and receive free samples at the end.

6. Take a break from the sunshine.

The Museum of Arts & Sciences (MOAS) is a Smithsonian Affiliate and the area's largest museum. Located on a 90-acre Florida nature preserve, the museum is home to more than 30,000 objects including American, Chinese, Cuban, African and African-American art as well as a planetarium and a children's museum full of interactive exhibits.

On the same campus, the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art offers the world's most extensive collection of Florida art. Upcoming exhibits include NASA innovations and artifacts (Feb. 4 – May 7) as well as American prints from the 1930s through the 1980s (Feb. 4 – April 30).

It's free to get into Florida's only museum dedicated to photography, located on the Daytona State College campus. Current exhibits at the Southeast Museum of Photography include Everglades restoration as well as the life and work of Berenice Abbott.

7. Climb Florida's tallest lighthouse.

In operation since 1887, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark. Serious photographers will want to climb the 203 steps for 360-degree views of the Atlantic and Intracoastal.

8. Historic homes.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation Home showcases Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, a child of former slaves who rose to become a world-renowned educator, civil rights leader and advisor to five U.S. presidents. Her former home on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University contains a large collection of personal artifacts.

The Casements in Ormond Beach is the one-time winter home of John D. Rockefeller that has been restored to include memorabilia as well as nine acres of gardens along the Halifax River.

The Dummett Sugar Mill Ruins and Bulow Plantation Ruins are historic sites in state parks that give a glimpse into the sugar cane industry that thrived in the early 19th century in this part of Florida.

9. Golf so good, the LPGA tees off here.

Daytona Beach is one of the country's top golf destinations and headquarters of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

LPGA International has two 4-star courses (Hills & Jones) that were named by Golf Digest in their list of Florida's top public courses in 2015. More than 20 courses in the area offer up a ton of tee times and varying levels of difficulty.

10. Go for a ride on 'The Loop'.

The Ormond Scenic Loop (aka "The Loop") is a 30-mile National Scenic Byway that takes you through state parks, barrier islands, dunes, forests, marshes and just about everything in between.

You can let the professionals speed through Daytona Beach -- this is one drive or bike ride you won't want to rush through.

Getting there. Interstate 95 brings a lot of travelers into the area from points north and south, but it's also easy to fly into town. Nonstop flights are available to Daytona Beach International from JFK on JetBlue. Delta flights go via Atlanta and American Airlines flights go via Charlotte. Another option is Orlando International Airport, which is about an hour's drive away from Daytona Beach on Interstate 4.

Ready to go? Look for hotel deals in the Daytona Beach area. Book a midweek stay for the best prices at hotels.

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