Aerial view of Miramar Beach, Florida.

9 Of The Most Charming Towns In Florida's Emerald Coast

According to legend, it is called the “Emerald Coast” because a big pirate ship crashed centuries ago, spilling emeralds all over the ocean floor. A more plausible reason, however, is that a particular phytoplankton species is in the water, giving it that impossibly attractive color. Whatever the reason, the Emerald Coast is a 100-mile stretch of incredible natural beauty, one defined by emerald-green waters, snow-white sand, and charming beach towns. From Apalachicola to Miramar Beach, discover nine of the most charming towns in Florida’s Emerald Coast.


Aerial view of Apalachicola, Florida
Aerial view of Apalachicola, Florida.

There are many reasons for visiting “Apalach,” as one of the most charming towns in the Sunshine State is abbreviated. Whether a first-time visitor wants to shop till she drops, drop a line for a delicious catch, swing in a hammock, or just lounge on a pretty beach while listening to the singing of the waves, this town exceeds expectations. The first thing to do, however, is to stop by John Gorrie Museum State Park, especially if one wants to learn about the history of the town or pay homage to one of the pioneers of ice-making.

Pick an item or two at the Apalachicola Sponge Company, which sells antiques, soaps, sponges, local jewelry, and bags of shells. Ready to catch some largemouth bass? The place to be is Lake Wimico, Jackson River, or the Apalachicola River. The Raney House Museum offers a glimpse into everyday life in "Territorial Florida,” — while Tin Shed Nautical & Antiques houses what is arguably the most comprehensive maritime collection East of the Mississippi. If you have a thing for delicious oysters, The Franklin Café is a must-do.

Port St. Joe

Bungalows on stilts in Port St. Joe, Florida
Bungalows on stilts in Port St. Joe, Florida.

With its compact, walkable, and charming downtown area, Port St. Joe will leave a first-time visitor completely blown away. A pristine shoreline adds a layer of rustic charm to an already beautiful spot. To spend time wisely and max out on one's trip, pass by the Gulf County Welcome Center and get a good handle on the town. To properly kickstart a trip, grab a table at Sisters’ Bistro or Krazy Fish Grille — as you feel the town's pulse and start conversations with warm and friendly locals.

Many eateries here offer fresh and authentic Mexican cuisine, so there is no reason to endure the slightest whiff of hunger pangs. In the afternoon, dip your toes in the water at St. Joe Beach — or just lounge and inhale delicious views. After this, sniff some fresh air along Port City Trail, a 4-mile beauty that is nicely paved and well-maintained.


Harborwalk Village in Destin, Florida.
Harborwalk Village in Destin, Florida. Editorial credit: Andriy Blokhin /

Destin is a buzzy town of about 14,000 known across the country for its sugar-white beaches and emerald-green waters. If shopping is high up on one's list, carry your credit card when visiting the Destin Commons, Harborwalk, or the Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island. At the commons, stand-outs include Crocs (for footwear) and the huge Victoria's Secret (for top-quality intimate apparel, perfume, or gifts).

Okaloosa Island Boardwalk offers panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico, while Henderson Beach State Park, a popular destination for tourists, is mostly known for glittering sand and gleaming dunes. With culinary options such as Lulu's Destin, a vacationer here will eat to her heart's content. A cornucopia of roof-top bars and gulf-to-table restaurants fill up the remaining culinary space.

Panama City Beach

view of Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach, Florida.
View of Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Less than 50 miles from Destin, an Emerald Coast vacationer finds the charming town of Panama City Beach, mostly associated with the St. Andrews State Park. This park features paved bike trails, a delicious sliver of white sand, marked hiking trails, and shuttle boat tours to Shell Island, an expanse of raw beauty that spans about 7 miles. If Panama City Beach is not a beach bum's paradise, no town in the world deserves that title. We are talking about 27 miles of sandy beaches and about 100 access points.

Panama City Beach is also known for dolphins, and no words can describe the experience of playing with them in their natural habitat. There are numerous options to work with here, including Dolphin and Snorkel Tours, known for exceptional customer service. Other lovely outdoor venues include Conservation Park, the 20-acre Shipwreck Island Waterpark, and the Gulf World Marine Park.


Downtown Pensacola, Florida
Downtown Pensacola, Florida.

Pensacola is tucked away on the westernmost edge of Florida, just 27 miles from Orange Beach and 34 from Gulf Shores, Alabama. As is most of the Gulf Coast, expect swathes of powder-soft sand, beautiful blue waters, and lots of options for delicious seafood. Some restaurants here (check out the iconic Taqueria El Asador) — serve some of the best Mexican food on the Gulf Coast. For perspective, Business Insider once ranked Taqueria as among the 47 best taco joints in America. To vacationers who love history, Pensacola is particularly a goldmine. “The City of Five Flags” was established in 1559 and, hence, is the first settlement in America.

A visit to Pensacola, therefore, will feel like a step back in time. Palafox Street, named for a Spanish general and a highly connected aristocrat, was named by the American Planning Society as one of the Great Streets in America. Plaza Ferdinand, which begins on the Southeast corner of Palafox Street, was where the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States on July 17, 1821. But it is not just history. Pensacola is home to a fantastic range of inviting restaurants. The historic Blue Dot, for example, a decades-old neighborhood joint in the historic Belmont-Devillers district, serves some of the best burgers in the world.

Perdido Key

Aerial view of boats in Perdido Key beach, Florida
Aerial view of boats in Perdido Key beach, Florida.

Perdido Key, a Spanish word for “lost” or “hidden,” is just 30 minutes west of Pensacola. It draws its charm from the fact it reclines on a beautiful barrier island fringed on all sides by snow-white beaches and crystal-blue waters. Perdido Key also teems with estuaries and wetlands filled with various wildlife. Snorkelers will want to spend an entire weekend at the Perdido Key Snorkeling Reef, where sea turtles are often spotted resting in the sand under the reef modules. The reef is a few steps from the public beach. There is some raw beauty to enjoy at the 18-acre Garcon Bayou Nature Park, which features a scenic overlook path with beautiful views of the southeast portion of the town.

Walk over the dunes at the Perdido Key State Park, the site of magical waves, white sand, and turquoise-blue waters. Mingle with alligators, armadillos, and all kinds of birds at the Big Lagoon State Park, a lovely ode to the Florida coastline. Many will agree that watching the sunrise, especially from the park’s observation tower, should be compulsory.

Gulf Breeze

Aerial photo luxury waterfront homes with dock Gulf Breeze Florida
Aerial photo of luxury waterfront homes in Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Blue skies. Glittering sand. The kiss of mid-morning sunlight. The melody of the surf. Sea breezes and tasty bites. These are some of Gulf Breeze’s offerings, a spellbinding suburb of Pensacola located on the Fairpoint Peninsula in Florida’s Santa Rosa County. Although small and home to less than 7.000 residents, Gulf Breeze offers some of Northwest Florida’s most beautiful beaches, most of which are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and shelling.

Williamsburg Park is a little oasis tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, while Shoreline Wetlands Trail Boardwalk is a lovely spot to stroll through the wetlands and down to the beach. In the afternoon, enjoy a round of golf at the City of Gulf Breeze Disc Golf Park, spend some quiet time at Woodland Park, or inhale tasty views while strolling along the panoramic Pensacola Bay Bridge. Here is the truth: Gulf Breeze is one of the most serene towns In Florida's Emerald Coast for a weekend retreat.

Navarre Beach

Navarre Beach, Florida
Aerial view of Navarre Beach, Florida, on a sunny summer day.

When crossing the Navarre Beach Causeway, one is confronted with a serene hideaway featuring miles of pristine beachfront and raw, heart-melting beauty. No need to fight with crowds in big cities like Miami or Fort Lauderdale, when Navarre Beach, dubbed "Florida's most relaxing place," — offers a much more intimate experience. Quartz particles, now largely snow-white, make up the soft sand that fringe the beaches in the area.

With the Navarre Beach Marine Park on one side and the Gulf Islands National Seashore on the other, a first-time visitor here will be spoilt for choice. And that is without mentioning the longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico or even Juana's Pagodas, a buzzy waterfront hangout known for live music, casual American eats and cocktails, and heart-melting sunsets.

Miramar Beach

Boardwalk along the sea in Miramar Beach, Florida
Boardwalk along the sea in Miramar Beach, Florida. Editorial credit: Andriy Blokhin /

Although a heartbeat away from Destin, Miramar Beach is slightly more slow-paced and laid-back. If you arrive starving — or just want to kickstart an adventure with a filling meal — work your way to Another Broken Egg Cafe and enjoy some finger-licking mimosas, lobster omelets, or biscuits and gravy. If one wants to feel the pulse of the town and enjoy some exceptional retail therapy, Grand Boulevard at Sandestin is a doozy and can steal a whole morning — if not an entire day.

Give the sun some skin on the beach, cruise along the paved, three-mile Scenic Highway 98 Trail, or catch a live show at Emerald Coast Theatre Company. In the afternoon, enjoy a round of golf at Raven Golf Club. Alternatively, Seascape Golf is closer and dabbles up as a conveniently located resort.

The Takeaway

The Emerald Coast is a part of Florida's upper Gulf shoreline, where the blinding white sand melts into the emerald waters along a 100-mile stretch of incredible natural beauty. It is an ode to Florida's coastline that often leaves first-time vacationers completely awe-struck. The sand here — snow-white because of the presence of quartz crystal from the Appalachian mountains ground up over time — is a delight to walk barefoot on, feel on the feet, and watch the sunset from. It is not uncommon to experience a squeaking sound when walking on it, and it can polish one’s feet to near perfection. Several beautiful towns dot this stretch, of which Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, and Destin are among the most charming.

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