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Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: How to Pick the Best Vacation Spot in Florida’s Panhandle

Florida’s panhandle is often called the Emerald Coast because of the way it’s super white beaches contrast with the beautiful water so it’s no wonder people flock to this area for their beach vacations. 

If you’ve never been to the area before (or you’re thinking about switching up your usual spot on the coast), there’s basically three major towns/cities where tourists cluster: Pensacola, Destin, and Panama City Beach. 

Before I get into the specifics of each place, I think these three spots all have a somewhat similar vibe. Well…how do I say this…they don’t call this the Redneck Riviera for nothing. This part of Florida is most heavily visited by people from the surrounding southern states so it’s a total 180 from what you’ll find in south florida. Besides all of that, you’ll find high rise condos, Joe’s Crab Trap type restaurants, and putt putt mini golf in all three. Have I painted a picture? 

But…but, but, but. The beach. The entire stretch of coast from Pensacola to Panama City Beach is pretty much the most beautiful beach you’ll find in the entire state of Florida. Which is really saying something. Powder fine, sugar white sand. Turquoise water. Waves that are calm enough to swim in but still be fun. This is why you come here. We’re talking a Caribbean-esque beach super close to home. 

Pensacola

The city of Pensacola sits close to the Florida/Alabama border only about 60 miles east of Mobile. Pensacola Beach is the barrier island where…the beach is. Of the three areas, I think Pensacola Beach is the most compact. Yes, there’s pretty much an endless stretch of small to medium condo buildings along the island towards Gulf Islands National Seashore, but most of the hotels and restaurants are clustered close to the beach. Most of the hotels here are in the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn range (but the nice resort versions) and there’s also a Margaritaville and a Hilton. Food options are your typical touristy beach town variety…Crabs on the Beach, Riptides, Flounder’s, etc. 

Destin

Destin is by far the biggest of the three beach towns and has the most to offer. About 50 miles east of Pensacola, the Destin area includes Fort Walton Beach to the west, Destin “proper”, and Miramar Beach to the east. This stretch of beach bliss is 15+ miles of condos and hotels, restaurants, shopping, and your typical beach town “things to do.” What used to be a sleepy fishing village has become THE beach destination on Florida’s panhandle. They’ve done a lot to fix the roads and traffic problems in recent years (it’s still a crowded beach town so don’t expect no traffic) and there’s just a lot built here. All the big chain restaurants (sit down and fast food), an outlet mall, multiple shopping complexes, a huge Bass Pro with a bowling alley calley the “Fish Bowl!” etc. If you’re bringing kids, they’re going to want to be in Destin. 

Panama City Beach

Same great beach as the other two, but PCB feels different to me. For me, it has the most spring breakish feeling of the three (although I mentioned early that they all have a similar vibe). It’s got the Holiday Inn and Springhill Suites types of places, but it’s mostly condo-tels, and expect the same big chain restaurants, fast food, and typical beach places. PCB has the Pier Park (Dave & Buster’s, movie theater, mall, Ron Jon’s, etc.), some little amusement parks and marine parks, etc. It’s a whole vibe. 

Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: Which One Is Best?

So which place is best? Well, folks I won’t leave you in suspense…it’s Destin for me. By a landslide. Destin is just bigger and nicer than the other two and whatever your expectations are for accommodations, dining, or shopping, you’ll find what you want. If you like the spring breakish crab trap/amusement park/mini golf/10 tees for $20 you’ll find your places and if you like a quieter and nicer place to stay with a good pool/good seafood dinners/upscale shopping then you’ll find it too. I really like the east end of Destin (Sandestin really) and will usually always hit up the Baytowne Wharf and Grand Boulevard no matter where I’m staying in the area. 

If I were personally planning a trip to Destin, I would stay at the Henderson Beach Resort. It’s right smack in the middle of Destin, but it borders Henderson Beach State Park so it’s pretty quiet. 

Depending on where you’re driving from, Pensacola could be an hour or so closer than Destin so that could make it attractive. Pensacola has less built up than the other two for sure and has a bit of a retro feel, but for the number of hotel rooms, there aren’t enough restaurants or “things to do.” If you’re planning to park yourself on the beach and hit the grocery store to make sandwiches and you’re fine with the same few restaurants for dinner…it’s probably where you’ll find the least crowded beaches (but if you’re staying in a high rise, all the rest of the people staying there are always going to be on the same stretch of beach with you). 

And I’ll just level with you…I personally tend to  steer clear of Panama City Beach. I’m sure plenty of people love it but it’s not for me. Just way too spring breakish (still family friendly-just a certain vibe) and jam packed with things that I don’t really love. I think you can get all the entertainment in Destin and it’s a lot nicer. 

So I’m sure you’re reading this post because you’re trying to narrow it down between these three, but for funsies let me throw another option at you. One of my absolute favorite spots in all of Florida is the scenic 30a highway in between Destin and Panama City Beach. Yes, it’s in the Destin and PCB area, but trust me it’s a world away. The cutest, quaintest beach towns you’ll ever see and a little more “highbrow” than the surrounding areas. Read my 30a travel guide to get a feel for the area here.

More posts about this area:

Destin vs 30a

Things to Do in Apalachicola & St George Island

30a Travel Guide: All of My Favorite Spots

Where to Stay on 30a

Things to Do on 30a

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