After ranking all 34 cities within Miami-Dade County, we couldn't help but wonder where the major cities of Florida would stack up. So we decided to answer that question ourselves, naturally. Because what fun is the internet without arbitrary rankings?
So we assembled a list of Florida's most notable cities, choosing one per county based on population, but somehow that seemed a little lacking. So we invoked the Key West Rule to include a few cities that are technically small but still loom large in the state's identity.
Then we had to figure out how to rank them. First, we decided this list would not necessarily be based on the best places to live (so please know we are not attacking your choice of living arrangement). We instead decided to think of a few questions: Which cities are most important to Florida's identity? Which ones drag us down and contribute to our reputation as the craziest state in America? Which have their own notable identities, and which are basically interchangeable?
17. Port St. Lucie/Cape Coral/Palm Bay/Lakeland/Etc.
If you showed residents of one of these towns a picture of another one of these towns and told them it's their city, they'd believe you. Most of them have lived there less than ten years anyway.
15. Daytona Beach
Biker Week, spring break, and NASCAR. The Holy Trinity of white-trash glamor.
This place's most notable export might be regrettable lower-back tattoos.
14. Panama City Beach
Technically an inferior Daytona, but at least it gave us the important video above.
This place makes Miami and Tampa look like good sports towns. It has only one team to support.
Jacksonville also might be the most musically reprehensible city in the nation. It is responsible for giving the world Limp Bizkit, Pat Boone, Black Kids, Molly Hatchet, the Allman Brothers Band, Quad City DJs, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Good lord.
No wonder the most famous lyric to come out of this town's musical scene is "If I leave here tomorrow."
While maybe not a marquee name, Naples gets its own spot on the list because it's home to an astonishing number of rich people. Seriously, it has the second-highest number of millionaires per capita of any city in America. It has the sixth-highest average income in the country. Gov. Rick Scott lives there when he's not in Tallahassee. Judge Judy lives there during her downtime.
Yet Naples millionaires may be the most boring, tasteless millionaires in the world. There is literally nothing to do in this town but boat, golf, and shop at Tommy Bahama. Well, that's the official word straight from the real estate brokers, but the place has a weird prime-time soap-opera-worthy dramatic underbelly. What else do you think happens when you have a bunch of people with tons of money and little to do? We don't even want to get into it, but you know your dirty secrets, Naples. You know.
11. The Villages
Not an actual city by government standards, but this Central Florida sprawl of retirement villages controlled by a shadowy despotic figure known to residents as "the Developer" is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. It is mostly known nationally because old people have a lot of weird sex here. The best thing we can say about it is that it keeps those old people out of other parts of Florida.
10. Tampa (and St. Pete, sure, whatever).
Tampa is the go-to joke of Florida. 30 Rock used it as a recurring joke (the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks, anyone?). Lena Dunham used it as a punch line in a speech during the NYC mayoral race. Chris Rock jokes it's the strip club capital of the world. The GOP chose it for its last convention.
This is partially because "Tampa" is a funny word to say, but this is also because Tampa has developed no discernible identity to make it anything but a punch line. I texted a few friends in Tampa to ask what their favorite thing about Tampa was. They said things like "the beach" and "the weather," which applies to pretty much everywhere in Florida.
No one would live in Tallahassee if they didn't have a teaching job at FSU or a job lobbying the Florida Legislature, but it's pleasant enough when the residents don't remember that fact too often.
The most famous residents of Sarasota are the Ringling Brothers. As in the circus people. As in this is where the circus literally came to winter. Which sounds like we're about to make a joke, but oddly those circus people had curiously good taste, and today Sarasota is left with a lot of interesting architecture and cultural institutions for an otherwise midsize beach town.
Gainesville is locked in an eternal struggle with Athens, Georgia, for the title of "least worst Southern college town." Sure, Athens gave us legitimate music like R.E.M. and Pylon, and Gainesville gave us a bunch of shitty but somehow nationally relevant pop-punk labels, but besides that, G'ville still holds its own in other ways.
6. Fort Lauderdale
The problem with Fort Lauderdale is that it seems to be constantly stuck in a game of catchup with Miami.
"You guys have an arts district? Oh, uh, yeah we've got some of those too. You guys like food trucks? Oh, yeah, we totally love food trucks too! Small-plates restaurants with a suspiciously large number of pork-belly dishes? We'll get right to work on that."
5. St. Augustine
Respect your elders.
Seriously, this is the oldest continually occupied European settlement in America. The fact that it's still quaint and charming makes your forget it's pretty much ground zero for the ugly legacy of European colonialism.
4. West Palm Beach
West Palm Beach represents a certain type of monied sophistication and beachside glamor without caveat. It's respectable to even the snootiest of elitist.
It is also the only city in Florida that has developed its own respectable signature style. As in someone in New York could look at your outfit and say, "Wow, you're looking very Palm Beach chic today" and mean it as a cheeky compliment.
Whereas if they said, "Wow, you're looking very Tampa today," that would mean you look like a truck-stop hooker on her third Monster Energy drink before 10 a.m.
3. Key West
What to make of Key West? How do we properly explain the paradox that is this island?
For one, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams wrote their greatest works here. However, Jimmy Buffett may have also written some of his "greatest" works here.
It's full of genuinely interesting weirdos and cruise ship passengers who wear black socks with Tevas.
It has a rich, strange history that it's a little too eager to sell out for tourism dollars. Yet somehow Key West still retains an air of exhilarating oddness.
Yes, Orlando is home to the world's most famous array of theme parks, and really who can knock Disney World? Yet Orlando at least has tried to develop an identity of a city beyond that and doesn't have the crutch of a nearby beach that many Florida cities rely on.
The results is a city that attracts a pretty good roster of touring bands (for Florida), a decent art scene (for Florida), and some interesting and beautiful historic nooks (for Florida). Honestly, if we had to leave South Florida tomorrow yet couldn't move out of the Sunshine State, Orlando would be our only choice.
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