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As a self-proclaimed beach bum (hi, hello!), I’m always on the lookout for “best beaches” and I’ve been to quite a few (Hawaii, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, the south of France, Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands….) but in my opinion, you don’t have to go very exotic (or even get on a plane!) to spend some time catching rays at one of my VERY favorite beaches.
Florida has ALWAYS been one of my favorite beach destinations (everywhere, the whole state) and I place I visited often as a child. Living in Oklahoma, we had to fly to get to our favorite spots on the gulf between Tampa and Fort Myers, but we could pack up the car and make it to the Florida panhandle in just a day’s drive. And so we did that pretty often! Most people visiting the panhandle set up camp in Pensacola, Destin, or Panama City Beach, but my favorite spot is a little stretch of scenic coastal highway called the 30a.
Running between Destin and Panama City Beach, 30a is just a little two-lane road that meanders along sugar white sand and some of the cutest little beach “towns” you’ve ever seen. Most of the “towns” are actually preplanned communities built starting in the 80s, but they have that idyllic feeling that sometimes doesn’t quite develop naturally in tourist areas.
Seaside is the big draw on 30a. It’s been an institution since it was built and its pastel cottages, charming town square, and family friendly vibe have been attracting visitors ever since (even just as a daytrip over from Destin). The town has nine beach entrances all with pavilions designed by different southern architects. Combined with dozens of quaint shops and plenty of food options to keep up with the crowds, Seaside is always bustling with pedestrians and bicyclers, giving it that perfect summer small town charm.
At the other end of 30a is Rosemary Beach, another planned community built in the 90s. A total 180 from Seaside, Rosemary Beach has a more upscale feel conveyed through the European colonial architectural style of the Dutch West Indies. Basically, it feels very European with a beachy vibe. As do all communities along 30a, it has a big sense of community and a lot of that comes from the fact that people walk and bike everywhere.
Between Seaside and Rosemary Beach, there are a smattering of communities some more centralized than others and each with a unique vibe.
Moving east from Destin, here is how the communities lay along 30a:
Grayton Beach: Not a preplanned community, Grayton was here before Seaside was built. It’s more “old Florida.”
Watercolor: A newer community that kind of band wagoned onto the popularity of Seaside. Pastel colored houses, but they’re newer and bigger than what you’ll find in Seaside. There’s an inn and a new waterpark (Camp Watercolor) and quite a few shops and restaurants. It’s not quite as much of a community as Seaside, but it blends into Seaside so you could have all of the amenities of both within walking/biking distance.
Seaside: THE destination on 30a. Even when people don’t stay right in Seaside proper, they gravitate there in the evenings for dining, entertainment, and general milling about.Seagrove: The other side of Seaside is Seagrove and that runs for miles. There are pockets of development (shops and restaurants), but there aren’t really any central gathering places and it’s mostly just a long stretch of houses and condos. There’s not much of a community in Seagrove, but it’s proximity to Seaside makes it a good budget option while still being close to the action.
Watersound: An uncrowded stretch of sand with a nice inn and amenities. It feels like more of a resort, manicured area instead of a town. The Hub 30a is located in this area and it’s a very popular hang out spot with a lot of dining and live entertainment. The draw back to this area is that you’re not within walking distance to either Seaside or Rosemary beach so you’d have to drive and parking can be a real hassle.
Alys Beach: By far the most exclusive community on 30a, Alys Beach is primarily residential and its architectural style will have you feeling like you’re in Santorini instead of Florida. There are a couple of restaurants and an amazing pool. It’s within biking distance of Rosemary Beach.
Seacrest: Like Seagrove, Seacrest is an area that’s popular because of its proximity to Rosemary Beach. The distance between the far end of Seacrest (Alys Beach side) to Rosemary Beach is very walkable. Seacrest is made of up different pockets of condos.
Rosemary Beach: The end of the line on 30a, Rosemary Beach is a huge anchor point on 30a. Plenty of shops and restaurants (the restaurants tend to be higher end than other places) and community events, Rosemary Beach feels like a living breathing town, but with fewer crowds than Seaside.
Where to Stay on 30a
Now that you know the lay of the land, here are my two cents about where to stay on 30a:
I recommend choosing a place to stay that’s within walking distance of Seaside OR Rosemary Beach. Having to get in the car, drive, and battle for parking to get to both places will really limit how much you’re able to enjoy what the 30a has to offer.
I really love both Seaside and Rosemary Beach (I have and will continue to stay in both areas), but I think I prefer staying near Seaside a bit more. It has a vibe that fits my style just a bit better which includes the food situation. I prefer more casual dining (even takeaway options) and Rosemary Beach doesn’t deliver with that as well as Seaside. I would rather spend the bulk of the vacation in Seaside and drive over to Rosemary one or two evenings.
That being said, I have stayed in Seacrest twice (most recently at the Village) and really liked the location.
On the Seaside side, if staying IN Seaside is too pricey, check out nearby Seagrove (you really have to be specific on the location because Seagrove stretches for miles) or Watercolor.
Those recommendations aside, here are some hotel or inn options I like along 30a:
By FAR the majority of accommodations along 30a are vacation homes or condos and once you know the exact area you’re looking at, I recommend doing a search on Vrbo to find exactly what you’re looking for.
I’ve rounded up some searches in specific areas here:
My Favorite Things on 30a
There are so many blog posts out there detailing the best things to do, shopping, and dining on 30a so I’m going to skip the “guide” here and let you know some of my favorite things on 30a instead:
Go to the beach!! The main attraction in Seaside and the surrounding area is of course the beach! Sugar white sand and beautiful blue/green water stretches for as far as the eye can see in both directions and daily life revolves around sunrises, sunsets, and all the rays in between.
There’s a rental company at pretty much every beach entrance that provides daily chair and umbrella setups (two chairs, an umbrella, and a little table for about $60/day) so all you have to do is show up with your book, sunscreen, and shades and wile the day away. In the high season, make reservations in advance to guarantee a set up on the front line.
The Airstreams in Seaside: Seaside is famous for its row of food trucks (converted Airstream trailers) fronting the beach. For a healthy pick me up (and a lot of Vegan options) try anything at Raw and Juicy. They specialize in cold pressed organic, raw, and vegan juices and smoothies as well as some café offerings. The Meltdown on 30a is my favorite place to grab lunch and they can make your grilled cheese any way you like it. There’s also a BBQ truck and of course Frost Bites, the best place in town for shaved ice.
Browse through a bookstore: The beach and books are like pb&j (for me anyways) so I always like to spend some time browsing the shelves of the local book shops. Sun Dog Books is a Seaside staple (and my favorite!) and they have a great selection of classic, new, and local books as well as paper related gifts. I also really like the Hidden Lantern Bookstore in Rosemary Beach.
Alys Beach architecture: All of the little communities along 30a are special in their own way, but I think Alys Beach has the most stunning architecture. I like to stop by George’s for dinner and take a stroll around and do a little sight seeing.
The Hub on 30a: Near Watersound (about halfway between Seaside and Rosemary Beach) is a great little hangout spot called the Hub. It’s a collection of food vendors and shops with communal seating and lounge areas. There’s a large lawn and a stage with an LED screen. There’s some kind of entertainment every night whether it’s a band, movie, or streaming the big game.
DONUTS: My favorites are Charlie’s Donuts in Seacrest (there’s a line outside the little shack early in the morning) but Five Daughter’s Bakery has an airstream in Seaside that’s super popular too. Also, breakfast at the Donut Hole (Inlet Beach just east of Rosemary Beach) is a must. Of course they have donuts, but they have a full breakfast menu too.
Disco: My all time favorite boutique. The first time I walked into this store in Rosemary Beach, it felt like I was seeing the inside of my head.
Walking & riding bikes: I like to start each morning by strolling around wherever I’m staying. There’s something nice about seeing the town, all of the little cottages, and the beach before everyone is out and about. In Seaside, it’s fun to check out each of the unique pavilion entrances.
Sunset at Bud and Alley’s: This is Seaside’s iconic beachside bar and grill and it’s a definite must while you’re in town. It’s not very big and it gets crowded in the evenings but it’s a fun place to be. Go for breakfast for a lighter crowd. They also own the pizza place downstairs which is another good option (try the crab bruschetta!).
The Great Southern: This is THE place to eat at in Seaside. It’s one of the few sit down restaurants in Seaside so it tends to get a little crowded. Breakfast is great (and less crowded than dinner) and includes breakfast favorites along with Southern classics (can you say grits?) For dinner, don’t miss the Grits a Ya-Ya and the pecan crusted fish of the day. Also, 2-2 ½ hour waits aren’t uncommon here so either arrive early for happy hour or plan to put your name in and spend some time browsing through shops and the bookstore.
Breakfast at Havana: The restaurant at the Pearl in Rosemary Beach is one of my favorite places for breakfast. Sit out on the terrace for an ocean view in the distance. Next time I want to try happy hour or an early dinner at the rooftop pool.
Ophelia’s: This swimwear boutique (locations in Seaside and Seacrest) is packed with the most stylish bikini brands and carries super cute cover-ups as well as yoga and active wear.
Strawberry Shortcake at Heavenly: There are a couple of ice cream shops in Seaside, but the best kept secret in town is the strawberry shortcake at Heavenly. Oh. My. Goodness. Get it, you won’t regret it.
Logo Wear: People wear Seaside, Alys Beach, and Rosemary Beach logo wear like a badge of honor. Each town has a shop or two where you can get the official town gear.
Town Events: Each little community has events going on in the main square most nights (like a live band, and an outdoor movie) as well as a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
Lilly Pulitzer: Not on the 30a but still close, I like to drive over to the Grand Boulevard shopping center in Destin to visit the Lilly Pulitzer store.
Cowgirl Kitchen: Going for tacos at the Cowgirl Kitchen in Rosemary Beach has become a tradition. They also have an amazing grouper sandwich.