Florida’s panhandle boasts some of the best beaches in Florida (which is really saying something), but unless you’re from the south, it’s possible that you’ve never heard much about the area. With no major cities and only smaller regional airports, the panhandle doesn’t get the traffic and buzz that areas further south like Miami get, but don’t sleep on this area!
With the most gorgeous white sand beaches (we’re talking powdery, sugar white sand) and turquoise water stretching from Pensacola all the way to Apalachicola, there are literally hundreds of places you could set up camp for a week’s vacation along the panhandle.
Everybody has their favorite spot (families from the southern states have been flocking here for generations), but I’m going to tell you about two of MY favorites…Destin and 30a.
What is Destin Like?
The most sizable beach town (I’d hesitate to call it a city) on the panhandle is probably Destin. What used to be a sleepy fishing village has gone all in on the beach scene over the last few decades. It’s by far the biggest draw to the area, and there’s a decent sized airport now that’s serviced by most airlines (and other good airport in Panama City) so it’s way more accessible to people that don’t live within driving distance than it used to be.
Destin pretty much has it all. Stunning beaches, nice condo resorts and smaller beach hotels, big chain restaurants, local seafood dives, go carts and mini golf, upscale shopping. It runs the gamut and does a pretty good job of catering to different audiences (this isn’t Panama City Beach, but it’s not Palm Beach either).
Depending on where you’re from, Destin either has all of the chains and brands you’re used to or it’s like coming to the big city from a small town. Whole Foods, Target, Chick Fila, Ruth’s Chris, Lilly Pulitzer, Bass Pro (Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl–it’s a BOWLING ALLEY–looks so cool!), Lululemon, Publix, etc. You get the deal. And yes, there’s also Bubba Gump’s, Hooters, Alvin Island (beach shop), Crab Trap, etc. All kinds peacefully coexist in Destin haha. My point is…Destin definitely has all the elements of the quintessential (some might say tacky) spring break town, but they’ve done a lot to keep it upscale too.
And they’ve really done a lot to try to manage traffic. The roads are all nice and they’ve really maximized them for good flow, but hey it’s still a crowded beach town so don’t expect miracles.
In most people’s minds, the Destin area really stretches from Fort Walton Beach on the west end across the bridge into “Destin proper” and east through Sandestin (a resort community that’s gotten so big it feels like a town) and into Miramar and Santa Rosa Beach. So depending on what kind of vibe you’re looking for, you should be able to find just the right spot in the area and still be very close to so much shopping and dining.
What is 30a Like?
Now while I love Destin, just east of Destin is pretty much my favorite place to go in ALL of Florida (and I’ve been everywhere)…30a. It’s gotten so popular the last few years that it’s kind of now just referred to as 30a, but it’s actually a 24 mile scenic highway (Scenic Highway 30a) that runs between Destin and Panama City Beach.
The road passes a handful of towns and communities that are becoming increasingly famous. While Grayton Beach has been there since before 30a was cool, Seaside is what put 30a on the map.
Seaside is a planned new urbanism development that was built in the 80s. It’s basically an idyllic beach town. If you sat down and planned a beach town out to perfection and built it from scratch, well…that’s what they did with Seaside. Self described as a mix of “Florida Cracker” and Key West style, Seaside is bursting with cute pastel beach cottages all centered around a town center that borders the beach.
In the “town” (it’s a town, but it almost feels more like a Disney World than anything out of real life), you’ll find a bookstore, market, post office, school, church, and of course a ton of places to shop and eat. They’re most famous for the converted Airstream trailer food trucks that line 30a.
Seaside is just one of several beach towns along 30a. In the Seaside style, you’ve got the stylized planned “towns” of Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, and WaterColor, plus the more organic areas of Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Seagrove, and Seacrest.
The whole stretch of road is lined by a walking/bike path and bikes are the preferred method of getting around 30a.
If you couldn’t already tell, you’re not going to find any big hotels (really only a couple of small inns) along 30a and no chain restaurants or shops (although they just put a Lululemon in Grayton). It’s ALL cottages and vacation rentals. In Seagrove and Seacrest, you’ll find low rise condo options, but this is a beach house kind of place.
Once you arrive, you park your car and mostly just walk and bike around. It’s a laid back, lowkey kind of place (but don’t let that fool you…a lot of these places are $$$) and even though it’s as family friendly as you’ll get, think less go karts and mini golf and more beach games and cornhole in the town square.
I’ve written a ton of posts about the 30a area (I usually stay in either Seaside or Rosemary Beach), so if you’re considering the area, definitely read through these.
Destin vs 30a
I feel like if you’ve read through my descriptions of each place, you probably know which one is a better fit for you. Even though they’re relatively close to each other, they’re not much alike (besides the amazing BEACH!).
The good news is that if you’re leaning towards wanting to stay on 30a, but worried that you might miss out on all the things to do in Destin, Destin is RIGHT down the road. And if you’d rather stay in Destin, but drive over and check out the cute towns on 30a for shopping and a bite to eat, that’s also easy to do (parking is limited though and rumor is they’re going to start charging for it in Seaside).
Let’s do a quick rundown: You’ll probably get more for your money in Destin and if you want a resort type setup, that’s the only place you’ll find it (although the WaterColor Inn is looking pretty cool these days but very $$$). Destin has more chain restaurants and stores whereas 30a is all local. Destin is better equipped to handle hordes of people so if you’re going during high season sometimes parts of 30a (ehem, Seaside) are a zoo. I mean, Destin is a zoo too but it has multi lane roads, traffic lights, and big parking lots. 30a is more quaint and Destin feels like a bigger “city.”
So which is best? It really just depends on what you’re looking for!
More posts about this area:
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