Located in the northwest part of the state bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Panhandle boasts some of the state's best beaches. Characterized by their jewel-toned waters, sandy white coastline, and laid-back vibe, Gulf beaches on the state's Emerald Coast include well-known spring break spots like Panama City Beach and Destin as well as more tranquil barrier islands and picture-perfect beach towns.
Direct flights from major cities like Chicago and New York City to two local airports—Destin Fort Walton Beach (VPS) and Northwest Beaches International (ECP)—as well as easy driving distance from major cities in the Southeast like Atlanta, Birmingham, and Nashville, the Panhandle's beaches are ideal for a quick weekend excursion or longer vacation.
From the luxurious Alys Beach and artsy Grayton Beach in South Walton county along 30A to the outdoorsy Perdido Key near the Alabama border, learn more about the area's best Gulf coast getaways.
Located along the scenic 30A highway in South Walton, the 158-acre town of Alys Beach is the epitome of luxury—all-white buildings, towering palm trees, high-end boutiques, and multi-million dollar homes—all within walking distance of the serene white beach. Plan ahead: the town reserves only 20 percent of its properties for rentals, which offer access to the town's many amenities such as pristine beachfront, nature trails, kayak, and paddleboard rentals, and a central amphitheater for summer movie nights, concerts, and more. Other can't miss local spots include Alys Bike Shop for rental cruisers, the cocktail bar Neat, the Spanish-inspired restaurant Caliza, and the state-of-the-art Zuma Wellness Center.
For a low-key getaway, head to Grayton Beach, located along the Gulf of Mexico halfway between Pensacola and Panama City Beach. The small, artsy village boasts a mile of emerald green coastline and funky art galleries, laid-back bars, and plenty of outdoor activities. Hike sandy trails or paddleboard or kayak at Western Lake in nearby Grayton Beach Park or rent a bike to pedal through four miles of coastal pines. For a close-up of marine life, scuba dive at the Underwater Museum of Art, an underwater sculpture garden located 58 feet below the Gulf shore. Wind down with live music, Gulf Coast oysters, and cold drinks at local haunt AJ’s.
From pastel-hued homes to white picket fences and walkable brick-paved streets, Seaside is a picture-perfect getaway. Built in the 1980s and featured in the film "The Truman Show," the beach town's "New Urbanist" design makes it family-friendly: think winding bike paths, community green spaces, and local shops, galleries, and restaurants clustered around the town center. Grab a beach read at Sundog Books, then head to the sugary strand, marked by white pavilions. Wind down after a day in the sun with a movie or live theater performance on the Lyceum Lawn, treats like shaved ice from local food trucks, or a beer and crab cakes from Bud and Alley's, a rooftop bar that's ideal for watching the sunset.
Located on the barrier island of Santa Rosa south of Pensacola, this beach offers the Gulf's signature white-sandy beaches and deep green waters. Head to the beach's namesake boardwalk for local boutiques, restaurants, and bars, like the lively Bamboo Willie’s, which serves up tropical cocktails, seafood classics, and regular live music. Premier Adventure Park, which offers go-karting, parasailing, and jet ski rentals, is located directly adjacent to the boardwalk. Or explore the island's unique ecology at 29 stops along the 8.5-mile Footprints in the Sand Eco-Trail, where you can spot local wildlife like sea turtles, coastal seabirds, crabs, and even dolphins.
Another of South Walton's gems, Rosemary Beach's award-winning architecture, high-end art galleries and boutiques, and intimate restaurants make it a great option for a romantic coastal getaway. Stroll along boardwalk promenades in the morning, rent a bike from Bamboo Bicycle Company to pedal along the 18.6-mile path that winds through dunes and other local communities like Alys Beach, or hike through the 15,131-acre Point Washington State Forest. Stop into the Curate30a Art Gallery to see local and nationally renowned artists' work, then dine on local seafood like Gulf Coast snapper at Restaurant Paradis, which has an elegant patio adorned with gas lanterns and greenery.
St. George Island
For a tranquil, remote getaway, opt for the 28-mile St. George Island. Located south of Apalachicola, the barrier island boasts miles of unspoiled beachfront for quiet strolls, shell-seeking, or sunning, and its calm Gulf waters are perfect for swimming, fishing, and other aquatic activities. Pedal the 17 miles of paved bike paths, take a guided dolphin charter tour or climb the 92 stairs to the top of the island's iconic lighthouse. The pet-friendly St. George Island State Park has campgrounds, paved bike paths, hiking trails, canoe, kayak rentals, and beachfront access to observe natural wildlife, including 300 different bird species.
Also on the barrier island of Santa Rosa, Navarre Beach has 12 miles of stunning coastline. At 1500 feet long, the Navarre Beach Pier is the Gulf's longest fishing pier and the perfect spot to catch local flounder and king mackerel. Not an angler? You can walk the pier for just $1, cycle the community's scenic bike paths, book a surfing lesson, or rent a kayak or canoe to explore the area via water. Get an up-close look at the area's sea creatures at the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conversation Center, including interactive exhibits like a jellyfish aquarium, seahorse habitat, and a 15,000-gallon saltwater pool, home to Sweet Pea, the center's resident sea turtle.
Located in the northwest corner of the state, Perdido Key is a 16-mile strip of Gulf beachfront located between Pensacola and Orange Beach, Alabama. Part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the area is home to sandy dunes, clear waters, and outdoor adventures. Head to Big Lagoon State Park for five miles of hiking trails, paved bike paths, boardwalks, a hand kayak launch, an observation tower, and pet-friendly campgrounds. The park is also the launch point for the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. After daytime excursions, grab dinner at the family-friendly seafood joint Crab Trap or have drinks and watch the sunset at the iconic Flora-Bama lounge, located on the two states' border.
Panama City Beach
Yes, Panama City Beach is popular with the spring break crowd, but its 27 miles of coastline offer plenty of activities for families and older travelers as well. The area has no shortage of water-based fun, from snorkeling and scuba diving to surfing, swimming, and sailing. Looking to stay on dry land? Shop, eat, or ride the SkyWheel at Pier Park, or visit local amusement parks like Shipwreck Island Waterpark and Coconut Creek Family Fun Park. For a quieter outing, try St. Andrews State Park, a 1,200-acre nature preserve along the Gulf, which has campgrounds, beach access, hiking trails, surfacing, snorkeling, kayak rentals, and wildlife viewing overlooks.