Just a few hours due south of my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama is the Florida Gulf Coast. That drive is a trip I’ve done more times than I can remember in my life and one of my favorite destinations – the Emerald Coast beaches of the Florida Panhandle.
I’ve written before about the pristine white sand and turquoise water of Alabama’s Beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Just over the state line in the Florida Panhandle you’ll find a lot more of the same gorgeousness stretching on for miles and miles. The Florida Gulf Coast is a destination that is rarely on the radars of most travelers outside of the Southeast, but it undoubtedly should be.
The beaches of the Florida Panhandle, sometimes referred to as Northwest Florida beaches, are part of a large area covering a wide variety of beach scenes. Each coastal town and community has its own distinct vibe. Travelers unfamiliar with the region often have a hard time choosing where to make their home base and sometimes don’t realize how expansive and diverse the area is.
Over the course of my own travels, I’ve stayed in a number of these coastal communities, visited and dined in many others, and have flown into every commercial airport serving these destinations. It is definitely time for me to share all those experiences in a comprehensive guide to help other travelers understand the area!
If you are considering a trip to the Florida Panhandle to hit the beach, this article has everything a first time visitor needs to know.
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Where are the Florida Panhandle Beaches?
The Florida Panhandle is that skinny strip of land along the Gulf Coast in the northwest corner of the state. Located due south of the state of Alabama and the southwest corner of Georgia, it’s culturally more aligned with Deep South than the rest of the state. Miami or Orlando this is most certainly not!
The beaches stretch over about 100-150 miles of coastline, depending on where you pick the starting and ending point, which is subject to a bit of debate. The area most central to the region is known as the Emerald Coast, stretching from Pensacola near the Florida/Alabama border to the west and Panama City to the east.
The major east-west thoroughfare through the region is US Highway 98, although I-10 to the north more inland is a helpful route for travelers covering longer distances. Local roads a little closer to the beach as well as on some of the barrier islands also provide east-west connections in some places (most notably, 30A – more on that below).
Sub-Regions, Major Cities, & Layout of Florida Panhandle Beaches
Major cities and regions of the Florida Panhandle of note (west to east) include:
Not far from the Alabama state line is Pensacola, the largest city in northwest Florida. The city is best known for being the home of the Navy’s Blue Angels, but it’s also teeming with history as an early Spanish settlement. Pensacola is surrounded by multiple beach communities, including Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach. Smaller towns of Gulf Breeze and Navarre are in the metro area.
Destin/Fort Walton Beach
Due east from Pensacola about 45 miles (1.25 hour drive) down the coast is the city of Destin. Destin is truly the OG town of the Florida Panhandle beach scene, and where I spent most of my childhood vacationing.
You’ll find a mix of properties to rent in Destin of every price and type, including hotels, condos, and standalone homes. The area has a lot of activities and restaurants and is definitely one of the busier beach areas on the Panhandle. It’s also exceptionally family-friendly and fairly affordable.
Just east of Destin is Miramar Beach and the resort community of Sandestin.
The region known as 30A is a 24 mile stretch of beaches named for the road on which they sit, Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A. Located in South Walton County and sandwiched between Destin and Panama City Beach, the area was previously pretty quiet and unspoiled when I was a kid. Development in this area has really exploded in recent years, making it a destination all its own.
Each community along 30A has its own vibe. Running west to east, some popular 30A beaches include: Dune Allen, Gulf Place, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside, Seagrove, WaterSound, Alys Beach, Seacrest, Rosemary Beach, and Inlet Beach. (Some folks also include the communities of Miramar Beach and Sandestin in 30A, but I’ve always considered those more closely tied to the Destin center of gravity.)
Generally speaking, 30A has some of the most upscale and priciest accommodations in the region, and it also has the best scene for foodies.
Panama City Beach & Panama City
The drive from Destin east to Panama City is about 55 miles or an hour and 20 minutes. Panama City and its neighboring beach town, Panama City Beach, are perhaps most associated with college spring breakers, but the area has become substantially more upscale and family-friendly in the recent decade.
It’s more affordable than some of the other areas on the Panhandle, so it’s possible to take a quality vacation even on a tighter budget here. Like in Destin, the main drag can get busy and crowds are serious business in peak summer season.
Port St. Joe & the Forgotten Coast
The precise boundaries of the Florida Panhandle are subject to a bit dispute on the eastern end of things. Once you head out of Panama City, things get quiet pretty quickly. The Emerald Coast ends and what is now known as the Forgotten Coast begins, somewhere around Gulf County and the town of Port St. Joe. This sleepier area includes towns like Apalachicola and is popular with vacationers wanting to get outdoors, experience nature, and get some R&R.
While not on the beach, the inland city of Tallahassee is worth a mention as well. Tallahassee is, of course, Florida’s capital city and the largest city in the region. It’s on the very farthest east corner of what might be considered the Panhandle.
What do I Need to Know about Road Tripping to Florida Panhandle Beaches?
A majority of visitors to the Florida Panhandle come to the area by car. The drive market is more extensive than you might think. It includes all of the Southeast as well as up into some Midwestern states like Illinois and Indiana as well as the mid-Atlantic.
With all those road trippers comes traffic. Summer weekends along the beach roads especially can be jam-packed. The confluence of weekenders and weeklong vacationers (who tend to arrive and depart on Saturdays and Sundays) can make things very busy.
If you are planning to take to the roads, allow for plenty of extra time. Use apps like Waze to find alternate back road routes in some places that can sometimes save you major time when beach roads are crazy.
What are the Best Airports for Flying to the Florida Panhandle Beaches?
Vacationers who prefer to fly in or are coming from farther than the usual drive markets have multiple airport options. Note that even if you are flying into the area, a rental car is almost assuredly a must-have!
The closest and best airport choices for an Florida Panhandle beach trip are:
Pensacola International Airport (PNS)
Located on the far west of the Florida Panhandle is the city of Pensacola. This is the largest airport in the region and the one that Alabama beach vacationers actually often use as well. The Pensacola Airport (PNS) is served by Southwest Airlines, Delta, American, United, Frontier, Silver, and Boutique Air. Flight options increase in the summer months due to seasonal schedule changes.
PNS makes sense for travelers visiting the western corner of the Florida Panhandle region, including Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach. Even Destin and Fort Walton Beach travelers should give it serious consideration, as it’s only about an hour and 15 minutes away and has more non-stop flight options.
Be aware though that this airport can get crazy busy in the summer months. Rental car lines are long (tip: book a skip-the-counter option if possible!). And give yourself extra time for bag check and security upon departure.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS)
Also sometimes referred to as Niceville or Valparaiso, the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport is located a few miles inland from the city of Destin. As the most central airport in the region, travelers headed as far west as Pensacola as as far each as Panama City should consider it if there are non-stop flights from your destination available. That said, it is of course the most convenient to vacationers planning to make the Destin area their home base.
VPS has service on United, Delta, American, and Allegiant and is small and easy to navigate.
Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP)
Located just a bit north of Panama City and Panama City Beach is the Northwest Florida Beaches Airport. The airport is served by American, Delta, Southwest and United.
It’s best located for Panama City area vacationers and anyone headed to the eastern end of 30A. The drive to Destin is only about an hour and 15 minutes, so it’s a viable choice with more airlines and non-stop destinations served for travelers headed there too.
Tallahassee International Airport (TLH)
Florida’s capital city on the far east end of the Panhandle is home to another airport to at least consider in a pinch. Served by American Airlines, United, Delta, and Silver Airways, the Tallahassee airport is about 2 hours away from Panama City.
Is the Florida Gulf Coast a Good Destination to Visit with Kids?
For sure! In fact, it doesn’t get much more family-friendly than the Florida Panhandle. Hotels and condos all over the region were built to accommodate family travelers. Activities and restaurants welcome kids. I certainly went there dozens of times with my parents when I was a child. I have found it to be an equally great fit a generation later for me as a mom now bringing my own kids.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for other travelers though. Couples travel, girlfriend getaways and guys’ golf trips are common in the area, especially in some of the higher end accommodations and especially along 30A. There’s a party and spring break scene in Panama City Beach as well, even as the area has been looking to reinvent itself in recent years as a higher end and more family-friendly destination.
Where to Stay on the Florida Panhandle
In an area as big as the Panhandle, travelers can pretty much find every type of accommodation at a wide variety of prices. There are a number of full service resorts as well as budget and moderate hotels. There is also a huge inventory in some places of condos for rent from individual owners or property management companies (sometimes these are timeshare properties). Finally, there is a fair mix of standalone beach homes available for rent as well.
For families, having a condo or a house with a kitchen, laundry room, living area, and multiple bedrooms is probably just what you want. Most travelers to the area come and stay for a week, making these kinds of accommodations even more useful.
A lot of the management companies advertise or rent on sites like Airbnb and VRBO, so it’s sometimes easiest to start there to compare options.
While it’s impossible to cover this region comprehensively, I thought I’d highlight a few of our favorite properties all over the area (ordered west to east):
The Henderson (Destin): This resort opened in 2016 and is one of the standouts for a more luxurious Florida Panhandle beach vacation. The look is New England seaside manor meets Florida Gulf Coast, with the service and amenities you’d expect to come along with that. The property has two pools (one includes a lazy river) as well as a spa and kids club and multiple restaurants.
Hilton Sandestin (Sandestin): The Hilton Sandestin has been around since I was a kid and stands the test of time as one of the premier high rise hotel properties on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort (Sandestin): The tried and true megaresort in the same area is the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. Now encompassing 30 different neighborhoods and 1600+ units, the resort has every kind of accommodation from standalone houses to condos to hotel rooms. With tons of amenities and activities as well as restaurants and shopping on site, this is the place to stay for families who want a full service vacation.
WaterColor Inn & Resort (30A): WaterColor is one of the earlier developments along 30A and focuses on outdoor adventure. The WaterColor Inn is regularly regarded as one of the top resorts in the area that manages to strike the right mix of both family-friendly and luxury. There is a newly renovated Beach Club and Camp WaterColor addition – a sprawling complex of inviting pools and restaurants.
Aqua (Panama City Beach): My parents owned a condo at Aqua for many years and we even hosted a family reunion here, so we can vouch for how well the units work for families. The building is still one of the nicest all condo high rises in Panama City Beach with walking or short driving distance to a lot of the top PCB sights. The pools are on the smaller and more basic side but given how gorgeous the beach is, I promise that doesn’t matter much!
SpringHill Suites Panama City Beach Beachfront (Panama City Beach): SpringHill Suites are usually pretty pedestrian, but this property is not an average SpringHill. It is brand new (opened June 2019) and has some cool water features around its pool area and a prime beach location. Suites of a variety of types are available for families to spread out, and rooms have mini-refrigerators and microwaves. If you have Marriott points or certificates burning a hole in your pocket, this is a solid value as a Category 5 hotel that can often be priced at $400+ a night in peak season.
Book directly on the Marriott site.
Things to Do in the Florida Panhandle
While I highly recommend spending a lot of time at the beach and by the pool, there are so many activities along Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches. Since the panhandle is so large, make sure you don’t plan to travel too far for things to do. Otherwise, you might find yourself stuck in a lot of beach traffic getting there.
Of course, there are the usual golf courses, fishing charters, and watercraft rentals nearly everywhere. Here are the other activity highlights that I’d recommend to other visitors, particularly families (listed west to east).
Flora-Bama (Perdido Key, FL): Straddling the state line with Alabama is perhaps the most famous dive bar and country music performing venue in America. The Flora-Bama is also a destination with shops, restaurants, bars, and even church on Sunday mornings. Believe it or not, kids are welcome in much of the complex.
National Naval Aviation Museum (Pensacola): As the home of the Blue Angels, you’d better believe Pensacola’s aviation museum is pretty fantastic. With flight simulators to historic planes, this is a must-do for airplane loving kids (and adults).
Gulf Breeze Zoo (Gulf Breeze): With over 800 animals and a safari-style train ride through a portion of the park, this is a great activity for families with younger kids in between Pensacola and Destin.
Big Kahuna’s Water Park (Destin): Many hot summer days of my own childhood were spent at Big Kahuna’s, and I’m beyond thrilled it’s still around. The park has water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and a splash and play area for little ones.
The Track (Destin): The Track is a giant entertainment complex with go-cart tracks, a large arcade, bumper boats, and amusement park rides for younger kids. Buy points online in advance to save money and share among a larger group.
Pier Park (Panama City Beach): Pier Park is a huge shopping, entertainment, and dining complex just set back from the beach in the thick of things in Panama City Beach. A highlight is definitely Miracle Strip, a small amusement park with a ferris wheel and mild thrill rides.
Shipwreck Island Waterpark (Panama City): Panama City has an awesome waterpark all its own worth a visit if you are in that neck of the woods. Shipwreck Island has a lazy river, tube and water slides, a kiddie play area, and even a zipline swing that drops into the water.
More Tips & Tricks for First Time Visitors to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
1. Eat Out Early: The restaurants in the Florida Panhandle are amazing, featuring everything from all-you-can-eat deep fried seafood to some of the finest chef-created cuisine in the South. In summer months, top restaurants are in high demand. If you arrive at peak dinner hour in summer months, you can often expect waits of 1-2 hours or more. To beat the long waits of peak dinner hour, plan to eat early, especially if you have young kids. Consider restaurants that will take advance reservations or even book a private room.
2. Consider the Off-Season: Summer months are peak season on the Florida Gulf Coast. But those months are also extremely hot and humid if you plan to do anything other than water activities. If you have travel schedule flexibility, avoid the crowds and the heat coming during the spring or fall shoulder season (or even in winter when it’s very quiet!). It’s still warm enough to swim as early as spring break and well into early fall.
3. Get a Discount: As you might find in a lot of beach destinations, activities in the area can be pricey. But it’s so easy to find a discount for a number of the things you might want to do, from amusement centers to water activities like fishing trips or parasailing. While plenty of specials are posted on company websites and sites like Yelp, you’ll often find the best deals by picking up the low-tech flyers in hotel lobbies advertising area attractions.
More Florida Gulf Coast Beaches Information
For even more perspectives on beach vacations on the Florida Panhandle and Emerald Coast, check out these guides from some fellow family travel bloggers I personally know and trust who have also traveled recently to the area:
- Can’t Miss Things to Do in Pensacola from 365 Atlanta Traveler
- Best Things to do in Destin Florida with Kids from Crazy Family Adventure
- Beginners Guide to 30A from The Points Guy
- Things to Do in Panama City Beach from 365 Atlanta Traveler