13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun

All of Florida is known for its beautiful beaches, but being a native Floridian, I can promise you that the prettiest sand and water will be found up around what’s referred to as the Florida Panhandle in the northwest part of the state.

The white sand is sometimes described as similar to sugar, and in many spots, the water is emerald green. It’s earned the nickname as the “Emerald Coast” because of it.

All along the coast you’ll find beaches with various personalities, from bougie to basic, with an old Florida feel. Some are packed with souvenir shops while others hold on tight to their natural, undeveloped beauty. There truly is something for everyone as you move your way through the Florida Panhandle beaches.

We’ll take you to each in this article, moving from west, at the Alabama border, all the way down near Apalachicola. This by no means is this in order of popularity, since different people are attracted to different things for a trip to the shore, but it should help you understand where each beach is and what it offers.

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GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE

13 BEST FLORIDA PANHANDLE BEACHES FOR FUN IN THE SUN
Gulf Islands National Seashore

If you’re looking for the most natural, undeveloped beaches to visit, head to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It actually stretches well across the panhandle, with 12 separate areas, including some beyond the border to the west, and into the Okaloosa area of Fort Walton Beach.

The stretch through Florida covers several historic sites, marshes, and beaches. Many say they’re the prettiest in the entire nation.

You can hike a trail, go bicycling, fishing, boating, even camping and bird watching. There are wooden boardwalks and nature trails, and it’s the kind of area you’ll want to take a little time to explore.

It’s a national park with campgrounds, so you can stay overnight at Pensacola Beach. There’s an entry fee (credit card only) and you have to park in designated spots. It’s key to note no pets are allowed, so keep that in mind if you travel with your four-legged family member. You also won’t find stores or concessions, so bring what you need.

This is a great spot to visit, and has even been called Florida’s greatest attraction.

Stay Here: Holiday Inn Express & Suites – Gulf Breeze – Pensacola Area, an IHG Hotel

PERDIDO KEY

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Perdido Key

The National Seashore includes part of Perdido Key, a barrier island located on the border of Alabama and Florida. It was called Perdido, which means lost, because it was so difficult for Spanish explorers to navigate their way into its channels.

Perdido Key is about 16 miles long and just a few hundred yards wide in some spots. If you see a little white and gray mouse running around on the island, leave it alone. It’s the Perdido Key beach mouse and it’s endangered.

You may also spot endangered sea turtles in the area. The white sands are attractive for nesting. Loggerhead, leatherback, ridley and green sea turtles make it an annual habit to lay their eggs there.

Sadly, fewer than 1% of hatchlings survive their first year, for a variety of reasons, but the hope is they’ll grow old enough to come back to Perdido Key to lay their own eggs some day.

Stay Here: Beach Colony Towers #9D

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun

WEEKEND GETAWAYS IN FLORIDA (printable)

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Download this 1-page checklist of Weekend Getaways in Florida to print at home or your local print shop. Perfect to keep in a binder, bring on your adventure or just put on the refrigerator!

(PS. You can find out more in our article, 33 Sensational Weekend Getaways in Florida.)

Format: PDF, US Letter Size, Portrait (8.5”x11”)

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PENSACOLA BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Pensacola Beach

Perdido Key and parts of the National Seashore fall within the Pensacola Beach zone.

Pensacola is a much bigger community, so there are a variety of options to stay at when visiting. There are large beachfront resorts and condos, and many private homes you can use for short-term rentals, along with all kinds of restaurants for dining. It’s a resort community and the barrier islands make it unique.

The Pensacola Beach Boardwalk is packed with stores and restaurants. And the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier is popular for fisherman who choose not to do their angling from a boat.

There’s a big navy base in the area, Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, and it’s home to the world-famous Blue Angels.

In fact, one of the coolest things I’ve seen while hanging out on the beach in Pensacola is the jets blasting by as they practice their synchronized routines. It’s just not something you see on other beaches around the nation, at least not very often.

Stay Here: Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach, an IHG Hotel

Read More: 27+ CAN’T-MISS THINGS TO DO IN PENSACOLA FOR FAMILY FUN

NAVARRE BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Navarre Beach

Navarre Beach has the small town feel you won’t find in Pensacola Beach. You won’t find many of the chain stores or restaurants here. It’s all about the locally-owned shops that offer individual flavor.

My favorite part of his area is that it’s a protected and flourishing sea turtle habitat. Not only are they laying eggs on the shore each year, but there’s also the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. You’ll find it right across the street from the pier.

Speaking of the pier, it’s the perfect spot to go on clear days when the beach flags are yellow or green. It’s ideal for seeing down into the water and catching a glimpse of the sea turtles and dolphins that hang out in the area.

When you’re on the beach, though, keep an eye out for seashells. It has the reputation as the best spot for stumbling across shells with no flaws, sand dollars, and other rare finds. You can also find plenty of bike and jogging paths to keep active while vacationing.

Stay Here: SpringHill Suites by Marriott Navarre Beach

SANTA ROSA BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Courtesy of Santa Rosa Beach

Santa Rosa Beach offers all kinds of different ways to spend your days and has been recognized by Travel + Leisure as one of the top five favorite towns in America.

Most people are well aware of the white sand shoreline, but on the north you’ll find the Choctawhatchee Bay.

When you’re not playing in the surf or catching the sunset on the water, be sure to go check out Point Washington State Forest. It’s more than 15,000 acres of forest, complete with trails, and you can also learn a little history in the Point Washington community. That’s where you’ll find Eden Gardens State Park.

There are incredible restaurants to try, along with a couple craft breweries in Santa Rosa Beach.  It’s truly one of Florida’s best beach towns.

Stay Here: 30-A Inn & Suites

OKALOOSA ISLAND

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Okaloosa Island

There’s a sliver of Santa Rosa Island known as Okaloosa Island (that’s the part located in Okaloosa County; the other portion located in Santa Rosa County is called Navarre Beach, which we already mentioned). It runs 3 miles long and covers only about 875 acres total.

Back in the 1930s, it had an amusement park and casino, but that was destroyed by a fire in 1942. Now there are some condos, restaurants, parks and dedicated beach property.

You’ll also find the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, which has dolphin encounters and shows with sharks, rays, and more. You can even snorkel with stingrays and bamboo sharks. This is something even younger children can do and, having done it with my children, I highly recommend it for an afternoon they won’t forget.

Stay Here: Cheery Panhandle Retreat about 2 Mi to Beach!

DESTIN AND FORT WALTON BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Destin

Destin is just across the bridge from Okaloosa Island. Apart from Panama City Beach, Destin and Fort Walton Beach are what most people from other states think of when they think about beaches in the Florida Panhandle.

There truly is something for everyone in Destin and Fort Walton. One of the most popular treats is Crab Island. It’s even been featured on Good Morning America and HGTV. It’s a shallow section of water with floating bars and an obstacle course. It’s a total blast.

Of course, there are plenty of other fun things to do in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. There’s Henderson Beach State Park for the quiet side of fun, complete with nature trails that pass through dunes. The region has several golf courses.

Or, there’s the Destin Harbor Boardwalk to keep you busy. Kids will love the slides and pools at Big Kahuna’s water park. The Destin History and Fishing Museum is a good place to pass a few hours, too.

And speaking of fishing, you can easily book a charter boat or grab a seat on one of the boats that goes out deep sea fishing each day.

For something different, consider Gator Beach. It’s free to get in, though you do have to pay for activities. It’s essentially a park that houses hundreds of alligators. There are everything from babies to some up to six feet long. You can see gator shows several times a day, and you can even arrange a VIP experience where you can help care for the gators.

There are also educational attractions in this area, ranging from the Indian Temple Mound Museum, to a post office museum, to the Emerald Coast Science Center. On top of all that, there’s also the Fort Walton Beach Farmers Market.

Stay Here: The Island Resort at Fort Walton Beach

Read More: 29+ BEST THINGS TO DO IN DESTIN FL FOR BEACHY FAMILY FUN | 17 PHENOMENAL THINGS TO DO IN FORT WALTON BEACH |20+ CRAB ISLAND DESTIN FLORIDA ESSENTIALS: BOAT RENTALS, CRUISES, DISCOUNT TOURS & MORE

SOUTH WALTON BEACH (SEASIDE, MIRAMAR, SANDESTIN, ROSEMARY BEACH)

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Miramar Beach

If you want to head to the bougie side of the beaches, South Walton is the spot for you. This is the section that covers Sandestin, Miramar, Seaside, and Rosemary Beach. When I think of South Walton, I think luxury.

Miramar offers up quite a few large beach houses you can rent if you have a big crowd traveling with you. It’s quieter than other areas, but still close to the action.

Sandestin is more of a golf and beach resort. There’s a whole village packed with shopping and eating options, too.

Seaside is such a picture-perfect town it was the set for a movie — The Truman Show with Jim Carrey. The entire community is studied by architecture students everywhere for its pastel-colored beach houses and overall design.

Rosemary Beach is another magazine-worthy community and is honestly architecturally stunning with its West Indies style. It’s considered a neo-traditional beach community where everything is just a short walk away from town center. It’s listed as one of the most romantic small towns in the nation.

Rosemary Beach has welcoming patios and courtyards along with its winding paths. You can meander through the boutiques and sample some of the world-class dining. There are other individual neighborhoods along what’s referred to as 30A where you’ll find eclectic shops and award-winning dining options.

Stay Here: Hotel Effie Sandestin

Read More: SANDESTIN FLORIDA: ABSURDLY GORGEOUS BEACHES, EPIC FAMILY FUN

GRAYTON BEACH STATE PARK

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Grayton Beach courtesy of Crazy Family Adventure

Grayton Beach State Park is 2,000 acres of beautiful beaches AND a coastal dune lake where you can kayak and discover different adventures than you’ll find in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are four miles of trails to explore and overnight cabins you can stay in, or if you prefer the wild side, pitch a tent in the campground. It’s definitely a different adventure than you’ll find in the typical condo beach escape found in other areas on the coast.

Stay Here: Beach Blessings Luxe 30A Townhome

Read More: 31 BEST THINGS TO DO IN DESTIN, FLORIDA [PLUS TOP TOURS]

PANAMA CITY BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach is famous for its legendary attractions and, with dozens of condos and resorts, there are plenty of places to stay for your escape to this lively section of beach.

My favorite thing to do in PCB is to get out on the water and enjoy, whether it’s a sailboat sunset cruise or a more adventurous escape on the pirate ship! Both are a blast, just in different ways.

There are nightclubs made famous for spring break fun, so if you’re looking for a place “to get your party on,” you can definitely find those spots in Panama City Beach.

Of course, there are quiet, family-friendly spots, too, like the two state parks, if you want to get away from the massive condo crowds. St. Andrews State Park has a section that’s on the bay side of the shore, offering a calm lagoon area that’s easier to manage for littler swimmers, which is great when the waves are rough in the Gulf.

Scuba diving and fishing are also extremely popular here.

Stay Here: Holiday Inn Resort Panama City Beach, an IHG Hotel

Read More: 37+ BEST THINGS TO DO IN PANAMA CITY BEACH ON YOUR NEXT VACATION

MEXICO BEACH

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Courtesy of Driftwood Inn in Mexico Beach

Mexico Beach is pretty much the opposite of Panama City Beach. It’s been nicknamed “Mayberry on the Water” because it’s such a quaint, quiet spot.

There are music festivals and fishing tournaments, but the most excitement beyond that is the thrill of spending time in such a remote spot with the people you like most. You won’t find massive condos or chain restaurants here. However, you will discover delicious restaurants that specialize in seafood caught that same day.

Before Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, I would have said you have to make a stop at Toucan’s, but it was leveled in the storm. The owners are trying to rebuild, but it’s not complete as of the start of 2023.

Stay Here: Flip Flop Getaway

Read More: CLOSEST BEACH TO DISNEY WORLD: 9 GREAT OPTIONS NEAR THE PARKS

T.H. STONE MEMORIAL ST JOSEPH PENINSULA STATE PARK

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is even more remote than Mexico Beach. Here, natural, undeveloped land takes center stage.

You’ll find 35-foot-high sand dunes that are the tallest dunes east of the Mississippi. This state park is situated along what is known as the “Forgotten Coast.” It’s a 2700+ acre state park that sits on the tip of Cape San Blas, which we’ll discuss next. It’s home to a ton of wildlife, mainly deer and raccoon.

Stay Here: The Port Inn and Cottages, Ascend Hotel Collection

CAPE SAN BLAS

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun
Cape San Blas

Cape San Blas is a 20-mile string of beaches and sand dunes, with the Gulf on one side and St. Joseph Bay on the other. There are vacation rentals sprinkled throughout, along with family-owned restaurants which serve up fresh seafood.

Many people refer to this spot as the best kept secret in Florida, and to be honest, the locals would like to keep it that way.

Stay Here: The Lookout by Pristine Properties

Read More: CAPE SAN BLAS FLORIDA: A VACATION GUIDE TO FLORIDA’S FORGOTTEN COAST

13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun

WEEKEND GETAWAYS IN FLORIDA (printable)

$1

Buy Now

Download this 1-page checklist of Weekend Getaways in Florida to print at home or your local print shop. Perfect to keep in a binder, bring on your adventure or just put on the refrigerator!

(PS. You can find out more in our article, 33 Sensational Weekend Getaways in Florida.)

Format: PDF, US Letter Size, Portrait (8.5”x11”)

You will receive one PDF file. File will be emailed and available for download up to three times upon payment. No physical item will be shipped.

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13 Best Florida Panhandle Beaches for Fun in the Sun