Overlooking Fort Walton beach, Florida. Image credit pisaphotography via Shutterstock

6 Towns Perfect for Retirement on Florida's Emerald Coast

When thoughts turn to retirement, many people over 55 set their sights on “The Sunshine State,” and why not? Tucked in the southeastern corner of the United States, Florida has so much to offer—including vibrant beaches, an array of cultural experiences, out-of-this-world cuisine, and weather that’s hard to beat. The state also has an abundance of retirement communities in walkable cities and a lack of estate taxes. Florida’s cost of living index is barely above the national average, and it has no state income tax, no tax on pension income, and a low tax burden for retirees, making it an affordable place to live and an excellent opportunity to enjoy the retirement fund as much as possible.

Today, 21.6% of the population of Florida is over 65 years of age. The State of Florida Department of Elder Affairs predicts that by 2045, more than 30% of the state’s population will be 60 years or older. Say no more. It’s time to pick up sticks and head south to six perfect towns on Florida’s Emerald Coast: Fort Walton Beach, Gulf Breeze, Navarre, DeFuniak Springs, Milton, and Crestview.

Fort Walton Beach

Sunset Fort Walton Beach, FL, United States
Sunset Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Fort Walton Beach (FWB) is a great retirement spot on Florida’s Emerald Coast, a 100-mile stretch of sand from the Alabama border to Panama City. The town is known for its relaxed vibe and powdery beaches across the water on the barrier islands of Okaloosa and Santa Rosa. In downtown FWB, the Magnolia Grill is both a museum and a restaurant that epitomizes old-time Fort Walton, where black-and-white photos on the walls tell the story of a 40s-era, pre-condo Fort Walton. For fresh small-batch coffee beans, visit Maas Coffee Roasters and why not order a macchiato to go?

Fort Walton Landing, or as the locals call it, “The Landing,” is a beautiful park in the heart of downtown FWB. It has a 700-foot waterfront boardwalk and hosts Friday night concerts and Saturday farmers markets. The Fort Walton Senior Center is alive and well with activities like pickleball, tai chi, line dancing, and more.

The median home listing price is around $370,000 in Fort Walton (according to realtor.com), below the US average of around 400,000. However, if enjoying maintenance-free living, security, and a strong sense of community is on the bucket list, consider joining a senior living community like Bay Port of Fort Walton Beach or Meridian at Westwood. The HCA Florida Fort Walton-Destin Hospital oversees the community’s healthcare needs.

Gulf Breeze

Aerial view of Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Overlooking Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Living in a town called Gulf Breeze epitomizes what retiring living should be—a breeze. For active, healthy retirees seeking the convenience of upscale apartment living in a safe, resort-style environment, look no further than The Arbors of Gulf Breeze. With chef-prepared meals three times a day, a movie theatre, a beauty salon/barber shop, and happy hours to boot, where can a senior sign up? If a new house is in the cards, lovely homes in this oceanfront community are listed for around $450,000, slightly higher than the median sale price of $400,000 in Florida. Gulf Breeze Hospital provides quality healthcare services to residents.

Gulf Breeze has a vibrant heartbeat, with many boutiques and local restaurants showcasing its cultural scene. 98 Treasures is a multi-vendor retail shop that celebrates local artists. Papa Nalu Aloha Grill highlights Hawaiian fusion cuisine. Down the road, Tacos Rock pays tribute to the taco on Tuesdays and offers two-for-one margaritas every other night of the week during happy hour.

If it ever rains, there are numerous museums to explore along the Emerald Coast, like the National Naval Aviation Museum in nearby Pensacola, which has 4,000 artifacts and 150 restored aircraft. For thrills, practice stunt flying in one of the MaxFlight simulators, then refuel in the Cubi Bar Café, a replica of the famous Cubi Point Officers Club in the Philippines.


Welcome to Navarre sign on Navarre Beach, Florida.
Welcome to Navarre sign on Navarre Beach, Florida. Image credit Andriy Blokhin via Shutterstock.com

The Navarre Beach Fishing Pier is the longest in the Gulf of Mexico, perfect for retired anglers or retirees looking to fill their free time with a new hobby. Dine on locally caught seafood at Windjammers on the Pier. At the same time, Juana's Pagodas & Sailors' Grill serves up daily drinks specials, grilled mahi sandwiches, and street corn burgers with a side order of rentals like stand-up paddle boards, sea-doos, and even beach chairs and umbrellas. Or explore Navarre Beach after dark with a nighttime kayaking experience with Navarre Family Watersports on an LED-lighted clear-bottom kayak.

The median sale price for a home in Navarre is $495,000, almost $100,000 higher than the Florida and US state average. Residents can access healthcare services through nearby medical facilities, including Gulf Breeze Hospital and Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.

DeFuniak Springs

Aerial view of Defuniak Springs in Florida
Aerial view of Defuniak Springs, Florida.

If part of the retirement plan is to escape to a small community (population around 7,500) filled with old Florida charm and a dose of tranquility, look no further than DeFuniak Springs. 50 miles inland, but really only a short drive to stunning Emerald Coast beaches, DeFuniak Springs is a quiet town with a Victorian-era charm and elaborate architectural details like turrets, double verandas, classic fluted columns, gingerbread trim, and window dormers.

The town has many benefits, including historic buildings, parks, and community centers, including Lake DeFuniak, a 40-acre, perfectly round, naturally spring-fed lake in Chipley Park. Water lovers, retired sailors, and active boaters can spend their spare time kayaking or paddling around the round lake, enjoying the peace and quiet on a lake where gasoline-powered boats are prohibited. DeFuniak Spring’s old railroad depot is home to the Walton County Heritage Museum and the Walton-DeFuniak Public Library, the oldest in the state, in an 1880s-era building.

Residents can access healthcare services through nearby North Walton Doctors Hospital (which recently replaced the Healthmark Regional Medical Center). An added benefit to retiring in a community inland from the coast is the price of a house. The median listing price of a home in DeFuniak Springs is $275,000, well below the state median sale price.


Passenger boat traveling under bridges on a wide river in Milton, Florida.
Passenger boat traveling under bridges on a wide river in Milton, Florida.

20 miles from Pensacola is the outdoorsy town of Milton—nicknamed the “Canoe Capital” of Florida. It’s no wonder retired paddlers, boaters, and tubers head for its waterways named Coldwater, Blackwater, and Sweetwater. The Blackwater River is the only pristine sand river left in the US, so plan to book a short canoe or kayak trip with The Original Blackwater Canoe Rental company.

Milton is also home to the Blackwater Heritage State Trail, an 8.1-mile paved trail that is the perfect location for active seniors to hike, run, and cycle on a 12-foot-wide path with no sudden turns, ideal for less experienced cyclists. Pack a picnic lunch, or bring something to throw on the available grills, but don’t forget binoculars, as the area is the summer nesting home for many migratory bird species. Florida’s state bird, the mockingbird, can also be seen (and heard) on the trail.

Milton's median home sale price is $340,000, below the state median. The Santa Rosa Medical Center serves the residents in downtown Milton.


The Crestview Commercial Historic District in Crestview, Florida.
The Crestview Commercial Historic District in Crestview, Florida. Image credit Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Crestview is an inland community 27 miles north of Fort Walton Beach, surrounded by a blend of forests, wetlands, and farmlands. The median sale price of homes in Crestview is $332,000. North Okaloosa Medical Center offers healthcare services to residents. The town recently unveiled the newly renovated 18-hole championship Blackwater Golf Club, a boon for retired golfers or seniors looking to keep active. The all-new Blackwater Driving Range isn’t any average driving range either; it combines golf with a video-game-like experience.

Après golf, visit the Timber Creek Distillery, which makes rum, vodka, whiskey, and gin. Tour options include an Eco-Distillery Tour and Tasting, a Craft Cocktail Distillery Tour and Tasting, and a Bourbon Blending Tour. They’ll even teach you how to blend and roll cigars to enjoy alongside that highball.

For a unique experience, the Emerald Coast Zoo is small but highly rated in Crestview. It is the brainchild of Rick the Reptile Guy, the star of “Wild Transport” on A&E. Where else would a retired animal lover be able to feed a giraffe, pet a sloth, bounce around with a wallaby, or treat a bear to honey?

Retiring on Florida's Emerald Coast has all the ingredients for an unforgettable, enriching experience. There are many opportunities for retired boaters, anglers, sailors, and bourbon aficionados to devote more time to doing the activities they love or learning new ones. Play pickleball, roll a cigar, pilot a flight simulator, or pet a sloth; it’s not time to slow down. From independent living in a luxurious waterfront apartment to a cozy inland bungalow or a waterfront home, seniors won’t have to worry about finding the perfect place to live during this exciting second chapter of life on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

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