Located on the Florida Panhandle, a 100-mile section of beach line known as the Emerald Coast has become one of the state’s most popular vacation destinations. The Emerald Coast features charming towns, quaint cottages for rent, pristine beaches, a state park, and one of the only coastal dune lakes in North America. Notable stops along the Emerald Coast include Destin, Panama City Beach, Rosemary Beach, Seacrest, Seaside, Grayton Beach State Park, Blue Mountain Beach, and Santa Rosa Beach. In all, the Emerald Coast encompasses 16 unique beach communities that offer gorgeous views of the Gulf, excellent shopping, unique dining options, and lots of outdoor fun. But, don’t feel compelled to pick one stop over another, see them all. Here are some tips to help you plan the perfect Emerald Coast vacation. 

What to do

Popular attractions along the Emerald Coast naturally include the beaches. All Emerald Coast beaches feature powder-white sand and teal green waters, so your choice really comes down to what type of experience you’re looking for. While exceptionally popular with families, Emerald Coast beaches also attract couples and spring breakers as well. Along with lots of parking, Henderson State Park Beach has a nature walk trail, barbeque grills, and covered pavilions for relief from the sun. It’s also a great place for bike riding. The Destin Harbor Boardwalk has lots of shops and excellent seafood restaurants. On the boardwalk you can also book a fishing trip or dolphin cruise for the next day. Also in Destin, the Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park has over 40 different water rides, slides, play areas, and pools. If the kids are in tow, Panama City Beach has a Ripley’s Believe it or Not. If it’s just you and your special someone, book a sunset sail out of Panama City Beach. It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the Gulf at its most magical time of day. Because this is Florida, the area has several excellent golf courses, so bring the clubs if you are so inclined. 

Where to stay

Florida’s Emerald Coast really has no wrong place to stay. Almost every town has a gorgeous beach, a good mix of eateries, and a wide variety of accommodations. If you intend to meander along and spend some time at several stops, then Destin, Seaside, and Panama City Beach might be the best choices. Destin and Panama City Beach are situated at the western and eastern ends respectively of the main portion of the Emerald Coast, with Seaside near the center. If you prefer to stay in one place for your entire Emerald Coast vacation, consider Seaside. It’s located about halfway between Destin and Panama City Beach and a short drive to most popular attractions. Its location along Florida’s scenic Highway 30A makes getting to Seaside enjoyable as well. Seaside accommodations include no hotels (by design), and consist of colorful cottages that range in size from one to six bedrooms. Seaside vacation rentals offer a nice blend of modern convenience with an Old World Florida vibe. If you prefer to stay in a hotel or condo, Destin and Panama City Beach would both be a better choice than the quiet and laid back Seaside. Both destinations have a variety of high-rise accommodations, many of which are right on the beach. Beware of Spring Break, however – unless, of course, you are there for Spring Break.

Where to eat

As expected, Florida’s Emerald Coast has lots of great seafood restaurants. Local favorites include Poppy’s Seafood Factory, Acme Oyster House, and Brotula’s Seafood House and Steamer in Destin. In Panama City Beach, Sharky’s Beach Front Restaurant, Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House, and Mike’s Cafe and Oyster Bar serve up some excellent seafood fare. In Santa Rosa Beach, FOOW – Fish Out Of Water – pretty much says it all. Seaside earned recent recognition for its food scene on Emeril Lagasse’s hit cooking show “Emeril’s Florida.” Along with plenty of open-air beach bar-restaurants along the Emerald Coast, you will also find many of the most popular chain restaurants. Pretty much every town along the entire coast has at least one pizza place, burger and hot dog joint, and ice cream shop, and in some places these are exceptionally gourmet. 

Where to shop

Florida’s Emerald Coast features a unique shopping experience thanks to a variety of stores ranging from local boutiques to big-name chains. Shops at Pier Park – an open-air mall in Panama City Beach – carry everything from handcrafted gifts to beachwear and flip-flops. Panama City Beach also has several galleries that feature local artists, and specialize in Coastal style design. Destin Commons has over 90 stores and restaurants, including Florida’s first Southern Living Store. You can enjoy a unique bowling experience at the underwater-themed Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl, also located in Destin Commons. A little east of Destin in Miramar Beach, the Silver Sands Premium Outlets center boasts over 100 designer and name-brand outlet stores that offer discounts of up to 65 percent off regular prices. Downtown Seaside features a nice mix of boutique shops and galleries all within walking distance of the beach and the town’s rental cottages. Scenic Highway 30A tempts Set featured imageshoppers with lots of souvenir and surf shops along the route as well.