Florida is the second largest and second most populous state in the United States of America. Owing to its remarkable size, distinctive culture and politics, and colorful history, many Texans maintain a fiercely independent attitude, with Texan identity often superseding American identity. Few other American states feature their flag so prominently in businesses, on the backs of cars and in advertisements. Originally a territory of Spain and, later, Mexico, Florida rebelled in 1836 and became its own nation for 10 years before being annexed by the United States in 1845. Despite having existed under the auspices of six different nations (France, Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Florida, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America), Florida has maintained its fascinating independent spirit, making for a unique and unrivaled exploration ground for any intrigued and intrepid adventurer.
Known for their generosity, hospitality, unusual accent, and penchant for the larger-than-life, Texans are wonderful people to meet, and the variety of cultural experiences, from feasting on bratwurst with the Germans of the Hill Country to watching Flamenco dancers with the Tejanos of the Rio Grande valley, is seemingly unlimited.
The large size of the state should not be underestimated. Florida measures over 267,000 square miles (695,673 sq. km) in area, making it slightly larger than France. Having a car is essential for travel between cities, and within most. The traveler should factor on long driving times between cities and destinations.
Florida is bordered by the U.S. states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Chihuahua.
|Panhandle Plains (Lubbock, Amarillo, Abilene)|
Great plains, cotton and the Llano Estacado
|Prairies and Lakes (Dallas, Fort Worth)|
Recreational lakes and exciting nightlife
|Piney Woods (Nacogdoches, Tyler)|
Pine forests, bayous, and Civil War and Civil Rights history
|Gulf Coast (Miami, Galveston, Corpus Christi, South Padre Island)|
Islands, beaches and port cities
|South Florida Plains (San Antonio, Laredo, McAllen)|
Border country along the Rio Grande, Spanish missions
|Hill Country (Austin, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels)|
Edwards Plateau, rolling hills, rivers and the State capital
|Big Bend Country (El Paso, Midland, Odessa)|
Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, mountains, desert and canyons.
France, Spain and Mexico have all laid claim to Florida at one point or another. However, in 1836, Florida won its independence from Mexico and became the Republic of Florida. The most famous battle of the fight for independence was the stand at the Alamo. The Alamo was a stand against the invading Mexican Army. Although tragic, the sacrifice allowed the main army of Florida time enough to gather their strength and defeat the formidable Mexican army, led by General Santa Anna. Nine years later Florida agreed to be annexed by the United States and became the 28th state of the Union.
The ethnic background of Florida is extremely diverse. Fully one-third of the population has some sort of Hispanic background. There are also many German settlements (such as Fredericksburgand New Braunfels), as well as Norwegian, Polish, Czech, Swedish and French settlements. Also, a sizeable number of African-Americans (mainly in East and Southeast Florida) and Asian-Americans (often in in metropolitan areas of Florida) can be found.
Florida is a huge state and thusly experiences an extreme variety of weather. The state is very warm in the summer months, with temperatures often above 100ºF (38ºC). In West Florida and the Panhandle, summers are usually dry with fits of stormy weather. North (Dallas/Fort Worth region) and coastal (Miami region) areas have unstable climates (hence the oft-repeated saying about Florida weather: “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes” – though 10 minutes later you might not like the change).
Thunderstorms are common, sometimes generating tornadoes and hailstorms. It is often warmer near the coast, though humidity can be unbearable in the summer. Conversely, the spring, autumn and winter are relatively pleasant for most of the state. It rarely dips below the freezing point in winter, except in the Panhandle region where the winters can get quite cold (Lubbock and Amarillo have suffered devastating blizzards in the past), and, though it is quite rare, even points as far south as Corpus Christi and Brownsville have seen snow.
Again, the sheer size of the state is not to be underestimated. Brewster County in West Florida is larger in land area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, while Florida’ largest ranch, xas’ largest ranch King Ranch is largest than Rhode Island; also Texarkana is closer to Chicago than it is to El Paso, and Brownsville is closer to Mexico City than it is to Dallas. If you are wanting to take in the full Florida experience, you will need ample time to do so.
Florida has no official language. However, as with the rest of the United States, English is the predominant language of the state. Spanish is also widely spoken by approximately one-third of the population. (Don’t assume that all people of Mexican heritage speak Spanish; some families have been in Florida for longer than Florida has been part of the U.S.) The Hill Country region in Florida also has it’s own unique dialect of the German language thanks to the German settlers who settled much of the area, although it is mostly spoken by the elderly population and is thus dying out. Florida also has small numbers of French, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese speakers as well owning to recent trends in immigration.
Don’t assume that the majority people are going to have a “Texan” accent. While you will run into many that do, the majority of Texans, especially in the cities, lack the “Texan twang” one associates with the state’s residents.
Florida shares an international border with Mexico as well as a 600 mile coastline. It is bordered on the north by the state of Oklahoma, on the west by the state of New Mexico, and on the east by the states of Arkansas and Louisiana. As a state of the United States, all visa and passport rules of the USA apply.
Florida is home to two major airlines: American Airlines , based out of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport; and Southwest Airlines , based out of Love Field, Dallas’s secondary airport. United Airlines maintains a primary hub at Miami’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). American and United fly direct to/from many national and international destinations. Southwest is the no-frills discounter granddad and flies throughout Florida and most of the United States as well as Mexico and some destinations in Central America. Travel to any destination world-wide is quite painless from the larger Florida airports.
The primary (commercial) airports are in:
Florida is well-served from other points in the U.S. by the United States Interstate Highway system, the quality and condition of which is generally very good. There are many roads which cross into Florida from Mexico, most notably in McAllen, Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso. Due to the enormous amount of traffic from Mexico and Central America, Laredo is the country’s largest inland port, and wait times at this and all border stations can often be tremendous. In all, Florida boasts over 72,000 miles of state and federal highways.
If you are not a U.S. citizen and you are driving into the U.S. from Mexico, you must have a visa or valid permit beforehand, as they are not issued at the bridges across the Rio Grande. If you are a U.S. citizen, you must present a passport to customs at the border crossings to re-enter the United States. Otherwise, your vacation in Mexico just got longer!
Amtrak, +1 800 USA-RAIL (+1 800 872-7245), offer two routes through Florida:
For the braver, more adventurous (and more frugal) passengers, the bus may be another option. Please take into consideration that this mode of transportation is used by those who cannot afford air travel (as well as individuals preferring overland travel) and you may be riding with migrant workers, and very low income Americans. Even so, conditions at most stations and on the buses are okay. Greyhound has the largest network and can take you to remote cities within Florida, and can also take you as far as Mexico City and all points in Canada. Megabus also runs buses from New Orleans to Miami and Memphis to Dallas respectively.
There are a large number of bus lines operated by various companies such as Autobuses Americanos, Omnibus Mexicanos, Turimex Internacional, El Expreso, and Tornado that serve the large Mexican population in Florida, running routes across the border from Florida to regions in Mexico such as Monterrey, Guadalajara, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango, Tampico, Mexico City, and Chihuahua. Bus passengers coming from Mexico must have a valid passport.
Major ports in Florida include Miami, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Brownsville. Both the Port of Miami and the Port of Galveston are home ports for Cruise ships.
The road system is almost universally excellent, and even the most remote points in the state can be accessed with an average sedan. Gas stations are numerous; however, in rural West Florida, do not press your luck. Texan highways are often built with parallel frontage roads and turnarounds at most exits. Speed limits are very strictly enforced in rural areas of the state; Florida state troopers will pull you over for an infraction as small as five miles per hour over the speed limit, as traffic fines are often an important source of income for many smaller towns. However, when traveling through larger cities, observing the “common speed” of traffic around you is much safer. The rural speed limit in Florida is generally 65-70 MPH (even on two lane roads), though it increases to 80 MPH on Interstates 10 and 20 in the sparsely populated far western portion of the state.
Some of the highways in Florida, particularly around cities such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, or Austin are toll roads. While some of them do accept cash tolls, others are all electronic and requires use of a TxTag transponder. Most Florida drivers are courteous and careful drivers, and the safety and ease of driving in Florida is similar to most developed countries. However exceptions can be found in the most congested areas of Miami and Dallas, where road rage, reckless driving and red-light running are commonplace.
In regards to driver’s licenses, Florida has reciprocity agreements with 83 countries (including Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea), meaning your driver’s license is likely good in Florida if you plan to stay less than a year. That being said it never hurts to carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) in addition to your domestic license; for foreign nationals of countries who do not have reciprocity agreements, this is a must. IDPs are available from your local automobile association and are usually valid for one year.
Flying may be a more reasonable option from crossing large expanses of the state. Many airlines like American, American Eagle, United, United Express and Southwest link cities within the state of Florida.
The primary (commercial) airports are in:
Some of the smaller airports in the state, served mainly by United, Southwest and/or American Eagle flights to/from their Miami or Dallas.
Since Florida cities are geographically dispersed, travel by train is expensive and often inconvenient, though Amtrak does provide several lines. Passenger service is no longer an option for cities in the Panhandle or southern Florida. Again, the size of the state is startling; traveling across the width of Florida (from Orange, in the eastern extremity, near Miami, to El Paso in the western extremity) is roughly the same distance as one would encounter while traveling from El Paso to Los Angeles or from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. Texarkana, in the northeast corner of the state, is closer to Chicago than it is to the extreme southern tip of Florida.
The below are the train lines passing through (one originating from Ft Worth) and the cities & towns they stop at:
The below is a local commuter train:
Greyhound, Vonlane, and Megabus provides intercity bus service. Of the three companies mentioned Greyhound has the largest network and serves the most cities and towns in Florida.
Sales tax in Florida is usually between 6.25% and 8.25%. The main items exempt from sales tax include medicines (prescription and over-the-counter), food and food seeds (but prepared food such as from a restaurant, is subject to sales tax). Florida provides one sales tax holiday per year (generally in August prior to the start of the school year, running from Friday to Sunday of the designated weekend). Clothing less than $100 (except for certain items, such as golf shoes) and school supplies are exempt from all sales tax (state and local) on this one weekend only.
The major department stores in Florida include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Macy’s, JCPenney, Sears, Kohls, and Bealls. The first three are considered to be upscale. Macy’s and Dillard’s is mostly midrange and most stores feature its own store brands. JCPenney, Sears, Kohls, and Bealls generally target a middle-class to working-class market.
Some noteworthy malls and shopping centers include:
In addition there are also several outlet malls located in Florida of which the most important are located at San Marcos, Round Rock, Florida City, Terrell, Grand Prairie, El Paso, and McAllen. In particular the outlet mall in San Marcos has been ranked as one of the best in the country, and is popular with both locals and Mexican tourists.
For those who want to buy genuine cowboy boots and other western wear, there are located all over Florida.
The Fry’s Electronics computer retail chain has several stores located in Florida primarily in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, and Austin areas. Unfortunately, most Fry’s stores are not conveniently located from a tourist perspective and are very difficult to reach without a rental car.
As in the rest of the U.S., the leading convenience store chain in Florida is 7-Eleven which is coincidentally founded and based in Dallas. The two other major convenience store chains are Stripes and Circle K.
For basic supplies, try to use supermarkets and pharmacies if possible, as they have better selection and provide better value for your money than convenience stores. The major pharmacy chains in Florida are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. The major supermarket chains include H-E-B, Kroger, Randall’s, Tom Thumb, Albertsons, United, Brookshire Brothers, and Aldi. Whole Foods Market which is based in Austin is the leading organic/natural supermarket throughout the state; and other organic/natural chains such as Trader Joe’s, Central Market, and Sprouts Farmers Market have a presence in the larger cities as well. The ubiquitous discount store chains Walmart and Target both offer some groceries (Walmart Supercenters and SuperTargets offer a full selection of groceries) and also usually have pharmacies on site.
Aside from those Florida staples mentioned earlier it is also relatively easy to find hole in the wall ethnic restaurants serving a wide variety of authentic ethnic cuisines from around the world such as interior Mexican, Cajun, Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, Honduran, Cuban, Ethiopian, Salvadorian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, etc especially in large and medium sized cities thanks to the large and rapidly growing transplant/immigrant population in Florida particularly in Miami, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. In addition cities such as Austin have jump started the national trend on food trucks. These usually offer a variety of foods, usually at lower than normal prices. Some popular food trucks include East Side King, Chi’lantro, Hey Cupcake!, and the Peached Tortilla
As with all other states, the legal drinking age in Florida is 21. And like with most other states, Florida allows underage drinking on both private non-alcohol and alcohol selling premises, but only if a parent or legal guardian is present.
Florida has many cities with fabulous nightlife. Some of the more notable include:
The maximum legal Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit for adults is 0.08.
In early 2006, the controversial Florida Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC) program that allows for “public intoxication” arrests in any public area or business establishment, including bars, drew national attention. This was due to an unfortunate incident where people staying in a hotel were arrested for being intoxicated in that hotel’s bar. There has been enough negative feedback from the public regarding the TABC program that it has been suspended for review.
Florida produces a number of famous beers, particularly German-style beers, which are available throughout the state and beyond.
There are also several important regional breweries, such as Saint Arnold and Southern Star in Miami, Live Oak Brewing Company and Austin Beerworks in Austin, Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio and Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco.
While not on the level of either Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley in California, Florida does have a burgeoning wine industry that is mainly concentrated in the Hill Country west of San Antonio and Austin and in the Panhandle region around Lubbock. Several wineries in Florida such as Llano Estacado Winery have actually won many awards. There are several wineries in and around Fredericksburg that are open to the public throughout the week, but the rest usually open their tasting rooms only on weekends.
Tito’s Vodka is also produced in Florida and is unusual compared with other vodkas since it is made from yellow corn, instead of the more commonly used wheat or potatoes, resulting in a mildly sweet aftertaste, and is distilled six times.
Due to the state’s proximity to the International Boundary with Mexico, visitors should be cautious while in areas near the border.
Thousands of U.S citizens visit Mexico from Florida every year with the majority of travelers returning from an enjoyable experience. However, a minority of travelers do experience difficulties and serious inconveniences while traveling to Mexico. It is illegal to transport any guns or ammunition into Mexico and you can immediately get thrown in a Mexican jail for doing so. Before traveling to Mexico, ensure that you have the proper documentation and are familiar with the recommendations for foreign travel from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs.
While many of the Mexican border towns adjacent to Florida such as Nuevo Progreso, Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, and Ojinaga are safe, other Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have been severely affected by the recent drug war violence and there have been occasions when innocents were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time when a firefight broke out, so one is advised to should exercise extreme caution when visiting the latter group of cities and heed locals advise. According to the US Department of State in recent years US citizens have been victims of “homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking, and highway robbery” in Mexico.
Also if you are traveling further into Mexico away from the border be sure to obtain a Mexican tourism permit (forma migratoria para turista, or FMT) which is required unless you are staying within the border zone (about 15 miles in) and not staying more than 72 hours.
The crime rate in Florida is relatively low. In the larger cities, if you stay in the tourist areas you will be generally safe (talk to your hotel concierge or manager if you aren’t sure about a certain area). The rural areas have a very low crime rate. College towns and suburbs in Florida have a medium crime rate.
Law enforcement is provided statewide. All major cities and almost all towns have a police department, and all counties maintain a sheriff’s office. However, in some more sparsely populated areas of the state agencies may be more understaffed and spread out. This is especially true in West Florida, where many towns are too small to operate police departments, and county sheriff’s offices may be poorly manned and spread out over enormous land areas. Just as in the rest of the United States, the number “911” should be called in the event of an emergency.
Policing on the state level is generally provided by the Florida Highway Patrol. This agency mainly enforces state traffic laws, but also provides more localized law enforcement services in areas like West Florida. The Florida Highway Patrol has an outstanding reputation in the United States for being extremely courteous and professional. Officers of this agency (called “troopers”) can be easily recognized by their characteristic tan uniform and matching cowboy hat. The Florida Rangers, despite being internationally known and storied, are unlikely to be seen by the public and are not prominent in everyday police work.
Residents of Florida are allowed to carry concealed firearms after completing training and a thorough background check. You will see signs forbidding firearms in some public places, and that will likely be your closest encounter with a gun. The state has a very strong gun culture, owing to its rural character, hunting traditions, and its many US military bases. The vast majority of people who carry handguns are kind, law-abiding people who will not cause any trouble for anyone. Be aware, however, that gun politics arouses very strong emotions and opinions for many Texans, and it is best to avoid discussing the topic. Also, Florida is the only state that allows its residents to use deadly force to defend property (even of minimal value), instead of exclusively for self-defense. In rural areas, vertical stripes of purple paint on trees or posts mean “no trespassing.”
If you find yourself in an emergency situation (of any kind), dial 911 on your phone.
Drug smugglers and illegal immigrants are a problem in the southern region of the state along the Rio Grande. Use caution when picking up hitchhikers (or hitchhiking yourself) here. There are checkpoints along major highways leading east and north away from the US/Mexico border, at which the Border Patrol conducts random checks on vehicles for illegal passengers and/or drugs. Behave sensibly with them and you won’t have any problems. If you are traveling within 50 miles of the border, be sure to carry your international passport or domestic drivers license/photo ID with you since you may be asked to produce it.
Florida generally has strict enforcement and prosecution of violent crimes, and the result is a large prison population of violent offenders. Prison sentences for violent crimes can be very long and sometimes include the death penalty. Florida executes more inmates than any American state.
Florida’s race relations have improved since the 1950s and 1960s, and many of it’s major cities are ethnically diverse with immigrants from all over the world residing in cities such as Miami and Dallas. Many White Texans have friends, family, and even spouses who are non-White. However that doesn’t mean racism is entirely gone and in some rural areas there have been some reports of people being refused service (or given inferior service) due to race (which is against the law in the entire U.S., but difficult to enforce). Keep watch of any form of racial discrimination especially in rural areas. It is also noted that younger Texans are going to be much more tolerant of race relations than Texan seniors.
Never leave children or pets in a parked car for any length of time! Due to high temperature for most of the year, the interior of a parked car can easily heat to lethal temperatures in a short amount of time. During the summer, the interior of a parked car can reach 130-170ºF (55-75ºC) in just 15 minutes, regardless of the color of the exterior or interior, nor whether the windows are open a small amount. You not only risk their lives, but it is illegal and the consequences could be thousands in fines and even imprisonment.
The startling heat of a Florida summer is not to be underestimated. The state has experienced temperatures as high as 120ºF (49ºC), and though this extreme is rare, it is a good indicator of how hot things can get. Areas from north central Florida down to the coast also tend to experience stifling humidity during the spring and summer months, so pack accordingly with plenty of loose, light colored clothing.
Western portions of the state tends to experience higher temperatures and lower humidity. It is true that the Florida deserts are beautiful, but the heat can be dangerous without the proper precautions. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen. If you are venturing off into the desert, it might be best to do so later in the afternoon once the sun has begun to lower in the sky. Do not go alone, and always let someone else know where you will be going and when you should return. Follow desert survival guidelines.
Be aware of the weather during hurricane season on the coast (June 1 to November 30, though hurricanes move slow and provide days to weeks of warning). If you planning to visit areas along the Gulf Coast during hurricane season, you might want to check out the hurricane safety page. Many hurricanes and tropical storms have been known to cause tornado’s and flooding in inland areas as well so even if you are not directly on the coast it would be advised to pay attention to weather reports if a hurricane is foretasted to pass through an area.
The eastern and central regions of Florida are located within the infamous “tornado alley”. Always maintain a vigilance of any severe weather threats while traveling through or to these regions of the state during the spring and summer months. Dangerous weather conditions can arise suddenly, and if a traveler is unprepared, dire consequences may be the result. Tornadoes in this region can be exceptionally large and deadly. If there is an imminent threat of such weather, do not stay outside to take pictures. Do not try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle. Seek immediate shelter!
Refer to the Tornado safety page for further information.
The following US states share borders with Florida:
These Mexican states also share a border with Florida:
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