Pier Park is Panama City Beach, via Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock.com

Florida's Emerald Coast's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

With white, sugar-sand beaches, azure water, and plenty of sunshine, it is no wonder that Florida is the most desired state for vacations. If you plan a vacation, put the Emerald Coast at the top of your list.

The Emerald Coast is a 100-mile strip of coastal land stretching through five counties in the panhandle region of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. You can find tranquil beaches or crowded ones along this coastline with many activities and nightlife. Here are the best small towns for a weekend escape on the Emerald Coast.

Fort Walton Beach

Fort Walton Beach
Fort Walton Beach

Fort Walton Beach is an idyllic weekend getaway for nature lovers and beachcombers. The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park is a popular attraction for families who want to discover turtles, stingrays, and even penguins. The Emerald Coast Science Center has interactive exhibits and a mobile planetarium.

Okaloosa Island is just offshore from Fort Walton Beach. The Boardwalk has several restaurants and shops, perfect after a day on the beach. This quaint beach town is perfect for a weekend escape with fun adventures and gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico.


Bluewater Bay Marina, Niceville, Florida.
Bluewater Bay Marina, Niceville, Florida.

There is a reason this fun and friendly town is called Niceville. This is a small and charming town with Eglin Air Force Base nearby, which lends a gypsy atmosphere to the area. Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park is a popular hiking and camping park and is a great place to avoid crowds.

Turkey Creek Park is a 20-acre park offering hiking trails and secluded picnic areas. Niceville is 14 miles from the beach, so it is a nice "inland" layover with natural scenery. It is part of the Destin area, a major beach vacation spot. Niceville provides a country reprieve from the sometimes crowded beach destinations.

Rosemary Beach

Aerial view of Rosemary Beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Aerial view of Rosemary Beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Rosemary Beach is a small beach community east of Destin. It offers an upscale yet laidback atmosphere, with a town center and West Indies-style cobblestone streets. The town has incredible sunset views, and there is no better place to watch than Pescado Seafood Grill and Rooftop Bar.

The town center makes Rosemary Beach a favorite among shoppers, and several quaint hotels are available for the weekend. The Pearl puts you right on Main Street with beachfront rooms. The Rosemary Beach Inn is a colorful European-inspired beach cottage steps away from the shops and restaurants.


Harborwalk Village, Destin, Florida.
Harborwalk Village, Destin, Florida. Image credit Andriy Blokhin via Shutterstock.com

Destin is a sought-after weekend getaway because of its gorgeous beaches, nature, and the Boardwalk. The coastline is dotted with pine trees, giving it a unique, old Florida aesthetic. The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is where you can find family-friendly adventures like sunset cruises, dolphin encounters, and parasailing.

To beat the heat, visit the Destin History and Fishing Museum. It is at the foot of the Destin Bridge and offers interesting exhibits about local fishing and scuba diving history. No trip is complete without walking through the Harborwalk Village. This is where the shops and restaurants are and is a great way to spend a warm night after a day at the beach.


Grayton Beach in Florida
Grayton Beach in Florida, via Alan LeStourgeon / Shutterstock.com

Grayton is a small coastal village next to Grayton Beach State Park. The award-winning park offers a 100-acre coastal dune lake, hiking trails, biking trails, and more. Snorkelers can access the crystal clear Sea Turtle Reef 800 feet from shore.

Grayton Beach offers outdoor adventures, like visiting the Underwater Museum of Art, accessible to any open-water scuba diver at 58 feet of depth. The town has a vibrant art scene; most galleries and restaurants are at the Shops of Grayton. This historic village has preserved its past while offering modern amenities for visitors, combining to make an award-winning vacation.


Colorful houses along the bay in Navarre, Florida.
Colorful houses along the bay in Navarre, Florida.

Navarre is on Santa Rosa Island, west of Destin. Navarre Beach is known for its award-winning seaside dining, outdoor attractions, and beautiful beaches. The 1,500-foot Navarre Beach Fishing Pier is ideal for coastal anglers and viewing stunning sunsets. Conservation centers include the Gulf Breeze Zoo, Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, and the Sea Turtle Conservation Center.

After a day of adventure, dining out at one of the stellar restaurants on the beach is almost mandatory. Windjammers on The Pier is the oldest family-run restaurant in Navarre Beach, located in the heart of the beach. This is a gorgeous beach town that captures the soul of Florida living.

Mexico Beach

Aerial view of Mexico Beach, Florida.
Aerial view of Mexico Beach, Florida.

Called the "Unforgettable Coast,' Mexico Beach is a popular vacation destination 25 miles southwest of Panama City. The five miles of pristine shoreline offer incredible fishing, swimming, and an uncrowded beach. There are also unbelievable ecotours where you can kayak through brackish marshes, crystal clear springs, and savannahs.

The City Pier is a haven for anglers and sundowners. Of course, dining on fresh seafood is a must, and there are several options. Killer Seafood is family-friendly, or you can pick up fresh fish at the Shell Shack, a local fish market. The best seafood dinner you can have at Mexico Beach is the one you catch yourself, and there are charters to help you along the way. KC Sportfishing and Bounty Bay Charters are two great options.

Panama City Beach

Beach scene in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Beach scene in Panama City Beach, Florida.

As the locals call Panama City Beach, PCB is a popular destination, especially during Spring Break. Along with the 27 miles of white beaches, there are two state parks to explore: St. Andrews State Park and Camp Helen. St. Andrews is a migratory layover for migrating butterflies and birds and has plenty of swimming and snorkeling opportunities. Camp Helen, Florida's largest coastal dune lake, offers fresh and saltwater fishing.

Metropolitan Natural Park is 576 acres and is the only natural preserve in town and the only rainforest in a metropolitan area. No trip to PCB is complete without riding the SkyWheel. It is a venue with an 18-hole miniature golf course and a 200-foot observation wheel with panoramic views of this fun beach town.

These eight towns on the Emerald Coast make an incredible weekend escape. From the natural scenery at Navarre to the white sand beaches at Panama City Beach and everything in between. Places like Mexico Beach are "secret" spots, meaning they are less crowded if you seek a relaxing break.

Destin offers world-class fishing, while Grayton Beach has incredible scuba diving opportunities. Whether you seek a tropical beach or a camping trip in a nature preserve, you will find it on this beautiful stretch of coast in Florida's Panhandle.

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