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Best Beaches on the Florida Panhandle

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White sands and crystal clear water are probably high on your list of beach vacation priorities. So, let’s talk Florida beaches and the best beaches the Florida Panhandle!

I’ve been going to Florida Panhandle beaches since I was a kid, and if there is one thing I have it is opinions about them—because the beaches on Florida’s Panhandle all have a very different feel! So which beaches are the best for your family to visit?

No matter what kind of traveler you are, one of the Florida Panhandle beaches on the Gulf Coast will fit your travel style. Whether you like to shop and dine out or sit back and pretend like the rest of humanity doesn’t exist, there is a beach on the Florida Panhandle that’s right for you!

Planning a beach trip? Make sure you have a great beach packing list so you don’t forget any of the essentials!

Overview of Beaches on the Florida Panhandle

First, let’s do a general overview of the different areas you’ll find for the Florida Panhandle beaches.

  • Pensacola Beach Area — This area has popular, family-friendly beaches.
  • Destin Area — Another family-friendly area with both popular and less popular (i.e. less crowded) beaches.
  • 30A Beaches — A stretch of polished, luxury beach communities.
  • Panama City Beach — The Spring Break Capital of the World. That probably tells you everything you need to know about whether or not this is the right beach for you.
  • Emerald Coast & Forgotten Coast Beaches — Beaches with a laid-back vibe and an Old Florida feel. (My favorite!)

And with that summary in mind, let’s dive deeper into each of these beach areas.

Beaches in the Pensacola Area

You’ll find the Pensacola area right across the state line from Alabama. Pensacola Beach is obviously the most well-known beach here, but there are some other great beaches that might be perfect for your family!

Perdido Key

Perdido Key is a barrier island that runs along West Florida and East Alabama. It’s known for it’s family-friendly activities and beautiful beaches. And while there are lots of condos here and it can get pretty crowded, it’s still not as crowded as some other beaches along the Florida Panhandle.

Perdido Key is also home to Perdido Key State Park, where you can find largely untouched shores.

And on the other end of the spectrum, Perdido Key is just a few miles away from the Flora-Bama, a beach bar that sits on the state line and offers live music every day.

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola Beach is a popular beach on the Florida Panhandle, just south of the city of Pensacola, FL. There is lots to do here, including mini golf, boat rentals, Laguna’s Adventure Park, kayaking and more.

There are also lots of lodging options here, including hotels from popular brands, independently owned bed and breakfasts, and condo and house rentals.

Keep in mind that Pensacola is a super popular beach, but it’s also a community. There are a good amount of year-round residents who live here (it even has its own small elementary school). So you’ll find this is a beach that has a mixed feel to it of a tourist destination and a residential community.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Surrounding Pensacola Beach, you’ll find Gulf Islands National Seashore. This is the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the US. So these are the beaches to visit in the Pensacola area if you want some peace and quiet!

There are three main beach access points for Gulf Islands National Seashore:

  • Perdido Key (on the east end of the island)
  • Ft. Pickens (just west of Pensacola Beach)
  • Opal Beach (just east of Pensacola Beach)

These beaches are perfect for wildlife watchers, since the unobstructed beaches provides a better habitat for them than the built-up beaches down the road. And if you love history, you can visit Fort Pickens in the Ft. Pickens area and Fort McRee in the Perdido Key area.

Navarre Beach

Navarre Beach is 17 miles (30 minutes) east of Pensacola Beach. And while it’s long been a beloved destination, I think it’s gaining in popularity because I have heard a lot of people talking about and visiting Navarre recently.

In the center of Navarre Beach, you’ll find high-rises with more crowds, but on the outskirts you’ll find areas with beach houses and lower crowds. And in general it’s a smaller area that sees less crowds than some of the more popular surrounding beaches like Pensacola and Destin.

You also have easy access to the Gulf Islands National Seashore areas, if you want to go to a place that can give you that deserted island feel. There are untouched parts of the Seashore on both sides of Navarre Beach.

Navarre Beach also has access to plenty of shopping and dining, although much of it will be over the bridge in Navarre.

Where To Stay in the Pensacola Area

There are plenty of options for places to stay in the Pensacola and Perdido Key areas, whether you want a hotel, a condo, or an entire beach house. Here are some options:

Or find more options in the Pensacola area using the map below.

Beaches in the Destin Area

Destin is about 40 miles east of Pensacola Beach, so it takes a little over an hour to drive between the two. This area feels pretty similar to the Pensacola area, but tends to be busier and more popular. But there is still a variety of options here for whatever kind of beach vacation you want, whether you want something high-energy with lots of activities or a more relaxing and chill vibe.

Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island

Fort Walton Beach is on Okaloosa Island just west of Destin. It’s a quieter beach than Destin, but still extremely popular.

You’ll find lots of beachfront condos for rent here, as well as hotels. And as with most beach communities, remember that the further away you get from the center point of the beach, the more likely it is that you’ll find less crowded beaches (can you tell I’m really not a fan of crowds?).

There are also plenty of restaurants and activities on the island, or you can drive across the bridge into Fort Walton for even more options.

Fort Walton Beach on a cloudy day
Fort Walton Beach on a cloudy day

Princess Beach and Eglin Beach Park

If you really need to escape the crowds, then drive to the east side of Okaloosa Island and visit Princess Beach or Eglin Beach Park. These are both part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore (so there aren’t any accommodations), but both have public beach access.

They are right between Fort Walton and Destin, so you can access them easily from both areas. (Seriously, they are just about a 5 minute drive from both areas!)

Eglin Beach Park tends to be more crowded because of their large parking lot and facilities. But both Princess Beach and Eglin Beach can give you a break from the busy feel of Fort Walton and Destin.

Destin

If you’re looking for a beach vacation with tons activities, dining, and shopping options and a family-friendly feel, then Destin might be the right choice for you.

Destin of course has gorgeous Florida beaches.

But there are also TONS of other things to do in Destin, which can be great for a rainy day or a day when you just feel like you’ve had a bit too much sun and sand. There’s everything from Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park to golf courses to outlet shopping.

And of course, there are lots of beach activities too, like boat charters, kayak rentals, sandcastle building classes, and more.

Henderson Beach State Park

If you want to get away from the Destin crowds while still staying in the middle of Destin, head to Henderson Beach State Park.

This is a small state park where you can walk along unspoiled Destin coastline without all the beachgoers around you. And there are also restrooms and shaded picnic areas if you plan on spending a more significant amount of time here.

Miramar Beach/Sandestin

Miramar Beach is located just about 15 minutes east of Destin. However, if you are driving between the two you might not be able to tell where one ends and the other begins because they really are right next to each other!

Miramar is smaller than Destin, so you’ll find less crowds here. But it still has plenty of shopping and dining options, and several golf courses. But it doesn’t have as many family friendly activities as Destin does.

Where To Stay in the Destin Area

There are tons of options for where to stay in the Destin area!

Here’s a map of the Destin area with other accommodation options, too.


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Planning a Florida beach trip? Check out these books all about Florida!


30A Beaches

If you really want a peaceful and luxurious beach stay, then 30A might be the right fit for you. This area is named for the main road that runs through it: County Highway 30A.

This stretch is known for its polished communities on beaches with beautiful white sand and clear blue water. These small beach towns all are strung together (they kind of run together) and offer amenities and luxury without the high-rises. With fine-dining restaurants, boutique shopping, and charming houses, they can make you feel like you are living in a beach utopia. (In fact, Seaside was used to film the movie The Truman Show.)

One note about the beaches here: make sure you know the difference between public and private beaches on 30A because there are lots of houses that claim private use of the beach in front of their house and in some places you’ll need to make sure you have beach access with your rental property.

From my experience, it’s also harder to find beach front rentals in this area because the actual beach access for these small communities is limited relative to how many visitors they get. Many of the accommodations options are in areas where you will walk to the beach.

Santa Rosa and Dune Allen Beach

Coming from Destin, the first area on 30A is Santa Rosa Beach and Dune Allen Beach.

This is probably one of the less “upscale” areas of 30A, because it still has a bit of that Old Florida feel. It’s more beach houses than condos. And because it’s not as popular as some of the more polished communities up the road, you’ll find less crowds.

Blue Mountain Beach

At Blue Mountain Beach, you’ll start to find more condos along the beach, with communities of small rental cottages set back from the beach. This area feels like a mix of what you’ll find at Santa Rosa (the older Florida beach feel) with a peek at the cutesy community vibe you’ll find at some of the 30A beaches down the road.

Grayton Beach

It can be a bit hard to determine where Blue Mountain Beach ends. But like Dune Allen, it’s a more authentic and casual feel than some of the other 30A beaches.

You’ll also find Grayton Beach State Park here, which has a campground and hiking and biking trails.

Watercolor Beach

This might be my favorite beach name ever, and it lives up to the great name. This is a planned community with muted tones (you’ll find that’s a contrast to Seaside right next door).

There’s a hotel right on the beach, but further back in the community there are tons of cute cottages and houses to rent.

Seaside

Seaside Beach is where you can really start to feel like you are in a master-planned community. All the houses are cute and beachy and there are white picket fences all over the place.

It’s a really beautiful area. It has a nice amount of shopping and dining too. (And of course, since we’re a travel blog for bookworms, we have to mention the Indie bookstore, Sundog Books.)

Seagrove Beach

Seagrove Beach has a more relaxed feel than Seaside and is more reminiscent of Grayton. There is a large undeveloped section of beach on the east side of Seagrove, and then houses and shops on the west side. But overall, Seagrove is less developed than many of the other 30A beaches.

Alys Beach

Alys Beach is one of the more interesting communities on 30A because every building here is white. It’s meant to invoke a European/Mediterranean feel of a luxury vacation. Think Greek islands.

It’s very polished and very upscale and is a much newer development then most of the 30A beaches. So if that’s the kind of vacation you’re looking for, here’s your best beach.

Seacrest Beach

Seacrest Beach is more casual than both of its neighbors, Alys and Rosemary, while still having an upscale feel. Actually, they tend to advertise themselves as “casually upscale.”

There’s a cute central town center here with shops, restaurants, and bike rentals. And there are lots of cottages you can rent here, as well as some condos.

Rosemary Beach

Rosemary Beach has a beautiful unique architecture among the 30A communities, drawing influences from the West Indies and New Orleans. I think it has a bit of a European flair and its known for it’s “Long Green” which is a large grassy area that hosts festivals and events.

You’ll find houses and cottages for rent here, and they have shopping and dining along their Main Street.

Rosemary Beach Main Street
Rosemary Beach

Inlet Beach

Inlet Beach is the last beach along 30A, and you’ll find a casual vibe with much less development than most of the rest of 30A. There are houses you can rent here and a few restaurants.

If you want an Old Florida feel but still want to be close to the amenities of communities like Rosemary and Seacrest, this might be the right beach for you.

Where to Stay on 30A

You’ll mostly find houses, cottage, and condo rentals along 30A. But there are also a few upscale hotel options you might want to check out.

Here’s a map of more options on 30A:

Panama City Beach

East of 30A, you’ll find Panama City Beach. You probably know this area for its popularity with Spring Break crowds. But there’s also an option here if you want a more relaxed feel.

Laguna Beach

If you keep traveling east on the Florida Panhandle, you’ll get to Laguna Beach. This is close to Panama City Beach, but about as different from Panama City Beach as you can get.

Historically, Laguna Beach residents were concerned about commercial development ruining the feel of their beach. As a result, there is very little commercial development. So you won’t find the high-rises and there are very few condos. You’ll also find a good amount of year-round residents here.

Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach is known as the “Spring Break Capital of the World.” So if you want a beach with a party atmosphere, this is the beach for you. They are known for their Spring Break events and crowds.

It’s a beautiful beach, but it’s very popular with college students. So if you’re looking for a more family-friendly beach, this is probably not the one you want to choose.

Because of its popularity, there are of course TONS of accommodation options in Panama City. Plus, there are all the amenities you could need. I mean, there’s a giant mall/shopping area right across the street from the beach that includes stores like Old Navy and Target AND has a theater and Dave & Busters. You definitely won’t get bored in Panama City.

Where to Stay in the Panama City Beach Area

Or find more Panama City Beach hotels and rentals on the map below.

Emerald Coast & Forgotten Coast Beaches

Now we’ve finally reached my favorite beaches on the Florida Panhandle! The beaches of the Emerald Coast and the Forgotten Coast!

This is the area where I grew up going to the beach with my family, and I love it for its laid-back vibes, less crowded beaches, and old Florida feel. I’ll admit that the water here usually isn’t as crystal as in places like 30A, but I will take that every day to have to the peace and quiet of these beaches.

My two favorites that I’ve been going to for years are St. George Island and Cape San Blas!

Mexico Beach

While further down the road you’ll find the “Forgotten Coast,” Mexico Beach has branded itself as the “Unforgettable Coast.”

This beach community has the feel of a smaller Florida town, and besides having beautiful beaches, it’s especially known for its sportfishing.

In 2018, Mexico Beach was largely destroyed by Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm. But the community has been working hard to rebuild, and today there are lots of homes open again for vacationers.

Cape San Blas

We love Cape San Blas! Cape San Blas is located near Port St. Joe. It has beautiful beaches and a laid-back vibe. But you’ll find more newer beach houses here because development along the Cape is more recent. But still, you won’t find any high rise condos.

And while it’s a small community, there’s still a lot to do on Cape San Blas, including nature trails, kayaking, horseback riding, and St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

Cape San Blas Sunset

St. George Island

And now we come to my favorite beach in Florida: St. George Island. My family has been vacationing here since the 1980s (when I was a baby!) and admittedly a lot of my love for this place is nostalgia-fueled. But it’s also exactly the kind of beach community I love: small, casual, Old Florida, and generally uncrowded.

While the center of the island has seen more development, there are still plenty of places along St. George Island’s 22 miles of beach that are uncrowded. And since most of the island is just a few blocks wide, you don’t have tons of beach house occupants trying to access the same entry points of the beach.

St. George Island is one of the more out of the way beaches. There are some shops and restaurants on the island, but we usually bring most of out groceries in a cooler because selection on the island can be limited.

Town of St. George Island

Alligator Point

Before you turn the corner of the Florida Panhandle to go south, you’ll find Alligator Point. This is another community with a small town, rustic feel. If you are looking for some true seclusion, this might be the perfect place. There are areas here that are very sparsely populated.

This is also a great place for wildlife lovers to visit. Bald Point State Park has coastal marshes that are a habitat for all kinds of animals, especially migratory birds.

Where to Stay in the Emerald Cost & Forgotten Coast Area

There are very few hotels in these areas, so you’ll mostly find standalone rental houses and some condos. If you’re traveling on a budget, choose a house that’s across the street from the beach and has beach access. These places are small enough that it’s still super easy to walk to the beach.

Find more options on the map below:

Airports Near Florida Panhandle Beaches

A lot of the people who visit the beaches on the Florida Panhandle drive to their vacation destination. This is because the Florida Panhandle is an extremely popular vacation spot for Southern state residents, most of whom are within driving distance.

There are some airports in the area though:

  • Pensacola International Airport — This is a smaller airport, but it has some different carriers than some of the other area area airports.
  • Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport — This is another small airport with limited carriers, but it could be perfect if you are traveling to Destin.
  • Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport — This is a convenient airport for visitors to Panama City Beach or 30A.
  • Tallahassee International Airport — This airport offers the most options, but its at least an hour drive from the closest beaches in the Forgotten Coast.

FAQs for Florida Panhandle Beaches

What is the weather like in the Florida Panhandle?

Generally, the weather on the Florida Panhandle is warm. Summers can be extremely hot, with temperatures in the 90s (F), while winters hover in the 60s (F). Even when its extremely hot, you’ll often have a nice breeze when you’re on the beach though.

When is the best time to visit the beaches on the Florida Panhandle?

Summer is usually the most popular time to visit the beaches on the Florida Panhandle. But this also means it is more crowded. Spring Break is also an extremely popular time, but sometimes the weather hasn’t warmed up yet, especially for earlier Spring Breaks.

If you want to visit during great weather and lower crowds, visit during the early Fall.

Can I bring my dogs to the Florida Panhandle?

Some beaches allow dogs while others do not. If you want to visit the beach with your dog, we suggest visiting St. George Island or Alligator Point. Although both Pensacola and Panama City both have dog-specific beach areas.

Where can I rent beach equipment?

Every beach community should have places where you can rent beach equipment like beach chairs, beach umbrellas, kayaks, bikes, and more. If you are renting a house on the beach be sure to review your rental agreement; some houses come with credits for equipment rental at local vendors.

Can I build a fire on the beach?

Each location is going to have its own rules and restrictions on building fires. Some areas (like Cape San Blas) permit them, some beaches (like some of the beaches on 30A) require a special permit, and on some beaches (like Pensacola) they are restricted entirely.

More Beach Trip Planning Resources


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