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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. 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. But first…
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.” Search for Grayton Beach vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Watercolor vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Seaside vacation rentals here. Also, read my roundup of 7 dreamy vacation rentals in Seaside here.
Seagrove doesn’t feel like much of a centralized area, rather it’s a pretty lengthy stretch of beach in between Seaside and Alys Beach. If you’re drawn to Seaside, but the crowds or price are deterring you, Seagrove is where most people end up staying. There is a wide range of accommodations from beach front houses to condos. Search Seagrove vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Watersound vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Alys Beach vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Seacrest vacation rentals here.
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. Search for Rosemary Beach vacation rentals here. Also, read up on 7 swoon worthy Rosemary Beach vacation rentals here.
Where I Like 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.
Best 30a Hotels
Those recommendations aside, here are some hotel or inn options I like along 30a:
The Pointe: Not right on the beach, but this Wyndham Vacation property is a nice option for a more budget friendly hotel (but still SUPER SWANKY) in the Rosemary Beach area. Check rates and availability here.
Watercolor Inn: An idyllic family friendly resort near Seaside. Their beach club is amazing (it really feels like a resort!) and they recently opened a water park too! Check rates and availability here.
RELATED: My 30a Favorites