A Classic, Family-Friendly Getaway on the Gulf of Mexico
It doesn’t get more sunny and fun than in Panama City Beach, a beloved vacation spot on Florida’s Panhandle, with 27 miles of sugar-white sand beaches that line the sparkling Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. With a year-round average temperature of 74 balmy degrees and more than 320 days of sunshine per year, the weather is ideal for outdoor activities all year long, making this resort town a destination that suits families, retirees, and adventurers of all stripes. It’s also home to one of the highest concentrations of bottle-nose dolphins in the world—and those creatures certainly know a great home when they see it.
Best Beaches in Panama City Beach
A barrier island with the Gulf as its front yard and St. Andrews Bay as its backyard, this place is all about the beach. And all the beaches in Panama City Beach are public, which means 27 miles of white sands open to everyone, with nearly a hundred public beach access points and four ample public parking areas: Pier Park/Russell-Fields City Pier, MB Miller County Pier, Rick Seltzer Park, and St. Andrews State Park on the East End of Thomas Drive. And while you can’t sleep or camp on the sand, you can have bonfires (with the proper permits).
Where are the best strands to enjoy sand, sun, and surf? Among many gems, St. Andrews State Park is a standout: a powdery peninsula of 1.5 miles of sand at the far eastern end of Panama City Beach that’s surrounded by emerald waters on three sides. Named by Dr. Beach as being one of the best beaches in the USA, it’s easy to see why: There’s swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, and canoeing on offer here, plus fishing off two piers, and shady picnic areas for just watching the waves roll in off the Gulf. And while Hurricane Michael hit this peninsula pretty hard, much has been rebuilt or is on the way to being so. (For the bold, don’t miss the short hike around the park’s Gator Lake—just keep your eyes open.)
On the western edge of town, Camp Helen State Park is a quiet gem that sits between the Gulf and Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in Florida. This is an especially wonderful place to explore by kayak and paddleboard, and a beautiful and pristine half-mile of beach is reachable via a ¾-mile marked loop trail.
For beach purists, Shell Island is a stunning choice. Undeveloped and accessible only by boat (St. Andrews State Park runs a shuttle from 9-5 March through October, while private excursions run year-round), the island is perfect for sunning and swimming, strolling, birdwatching, and spotting dolphins and sea turtles from its seven miles of bleach-white sands. But take note: In keeping with its wild nature, Shell Island has no concession stands, no restroom facilities, and no picnic tables, trash receptacles, or shaded pavilions. Come prepared to treat it like the rare and preserved place it is.
Dog lovers should head to the aptly named Dog Beach at Pier Park, which sits directly across from the popular shopping and entertainment complex (pups on leashes are welcome to this 400-foot section of prime beachfront year-round).
Finally, a note about alcohol on the beaches: If you’re 21 or older, you can drink (responsibly!) on the beach here 11 months out of the year (but never in glass bottles, which are prohibited year-round). During the month of March, NO alcoholic beverages are permitted on the sandy beach (making Spring Break season much more enjoyable for all).
Family-Friendly Things To Do in Panama City Beach
Where to begin? Let’s start on the water—one of Panama City Beach’s greatest assets—and with dolphin-watching, a wonderful way to get to know (and learn about) Panama City Beach’s beloved denizens. Bottlenose dolphins can often be seen from nearly any vantage point on land, but the jetties at St. Andrews State Park is a popular gathering spot for the sea mammals, so you’ve got a higher chance of spotting them there. When it comes to dolphin tours on the water, make sure you’re joining a responsible tour operator (for a list of local companies following good practices, go here). For a great way to end the day, join one of Island Time Sailing’s Dolphin Sunset Cruises. And remember that feeding or harassing dolphins in the wild is illegal, so enjoy every encounter with respect.
For getting beneath the surface of the clear, local waters, consider booking a snorkeling or even SCUBA adventure to spy marine life or explore shipwrecks (Panama City Beach has been called the “Shipwreck Capital of the South”). For fun above the waterline, do it up Gulf style and rent a pontoon boat for a leisurely (and beginner-captain-friendly) excursion, or book a fishing charter with a local guide to angle for everything from snapper and grouper to marlin and tuna.
If exploring on your own power is more your style, Mr. Surf’s Surf Shop offers surfboard and paddleboard rentals, along with lessons, camps, and ecotours (and is right next door to the best fish tacos in Panama City Beach). Or explore the beach on two wheels with a cruiser from Barley’s Bike Rental. If shell hunting is more your game, insiders know that the best spots in Panama City Beach are near the jetties at St. Andrews State Park, on Shell Island, and on Crooked Island Beach, at the eastern end of Panama City Beach near Mexico Beach.
If the rain happens to fall (or you’d like a break from the sun), Panama City Beach is home to lots of family-friendly indoor places to play: Wonderworks is a fun hybrid of educational activities and amusements while the local Ripley's Believe It or Not, housed in a kid-eye-popping ship of a building, is an abundant cornucopia of virtual rollercoasters, 4-D movies, and more. Right near the beach, Pier Park is a bright and shiny complex of shopping, restaurants, and entertainment (including an IMAX theater).
Best Local Restaurants in Panama City Beach
First thing in the morning, heat straight to Thomas Donut & Snack Shop, a legendary spot at the western end of Panama City Beach (officially in the village of Laguna Beach). Everyone seems to find their way here, whether for early coffee and a famed donut or for cook-to-order breakfast sandwiches on biscuits. Hang out on the shaded deck or take your meal across the street to a wonderful and quiet stretch of beach. (And if it’s lunchtime, swing by for one of Thomas’s famed kolaches—an Eastern European pastry stuffed with savory stuff like sausage, ham, and cheese.)
For lunch, there’s no better spot than FINNS Island Style Grub—a trailer parked next to a surf shop, which plates high-end, super-fresh ahi tuna and mahi mahi tacos and burritos, among other terrific takes on local catch. With its surf-shack vibe and its canopy-shaded picnic tables, this place inspires hanging out. Bonus: Don’t miss the FINNS coffee and kombucha counter inside the surf shop building.
Away from the sand, a pair of charming little spots are below-the-radar finds: In the shady Zen Garden on R. Jackson Boulevard, Wild Root Apothecary & Coffee Bar pours local favorite Amavida Coffee in a sweetly rustic open-air shack (and also sells delicious house-made paletas). In the same leafy glade, Lotus Café and Juice Bar offers creative and satisfying vegetarian and vegan choices amid a broad menu that includes burgers and pasta.
For dinner, the Grand Marlin Restaurant & Oyster Bar, perched on the marina, has a great location and fresh seafood to match. The upstairs, open-air bar might be the best seat (and menu) for happy hour, dinner, or a nightcap in town (don’t miss the barbecued oysters and the Grand Marlin, the house take on a Mai Tai). With its romantic dining room lit by twinkling white lights, Firefly has been a favorite among locals (and visiting presidents) for years. It’s also home to a stellar she-crab soup.
Best Beach Bars in Panama City Beach
Let us count the bars. With thatch roofs, blenders revving, gaudy plastic souvenir cups, and usually live music on offer, the beach bar scene in Panama City Beach is pure Gulf Coast fun. Schooners Last Local Beach Club is literally just steps from the sand, and the Sunset Splash cocktail is a winner (along with the Island Girl, which features Kenny Chesney’s rum). Pineapple Willy’s sprawls on long, open decks over the beach, and the namesake cocktail is an icy/fruity must-drink on any beach day. Out at the end of Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort’s narrow dock, Pelican’s is a brightly colored longtime favorite hangout for folks on boats, and it’s definitely worth a trip by land or sea. Near St. Andrews State Park, Patches Pub & Grill is a beloved dive that usually has a phalanx of motorcycles parked out front. And while not on the beach, J.Michael’s is near the water and is one of Panama City Beach’s most loved and classic dives.
Where To Stay
Occupying the quiet eastern end of Panama City Beach amid waterways and a shell’s throw from Shell Island and St. Andrews State Park, Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort is a true discovery. With recently redone interiors, the feel is nauti-tropical fresh, and the amenities—from a spa and golf course to a charming swimming pool, on-site beach, and shuttle to Shell Island—may lure you into never leaving the property (it’s pet friendly to boot).
When To Go
With such perfect weather, Panama City Beach is truly a year-round destination. That said, certain seasons have their merits. For example, on the festival front, wine lovers should plan an early spring visit to catch UNwineD, Panama City Beach’s two-day celebration of wine from around the world, craft beer, and crafted spirits and cocktails. On the other hand, country music fans should hold out until Labor Day weekend, when the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam closes out the official summer season with three-day country music festival. Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, and more blockbuster artists have headlined.
November-February is considered low season, which means that even though things get a bit chillier (highs are in the mid-60s but lows can drop to the mid-40s) there are lots of reasons to visit, including the Florida Ironman Triathlon in November and the Panama City Beach Marathon in December, plus creative and fun holiday events including a Boat Parade of Lights and a New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop.
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