Pensacola City and the historic buildings of Escambia County Courthouse in Florida.

These Small Towns in Florida's Emerald Coast Have the Best Historic Districts

The Emerald Coast is an unofficial but appropriate name for 100 miles of coastline in Florida's panhandle. It stretches through five counties and is a world-class travel destination for many because of its gorgeous beaches, clear water, and historical sites. The main route is 30-A, and there are some amazing historical districts along this strip of road; here are the best.


Milton, Florida: Milton Historic District: Buildings in the district.
Buildings in the Milton Historic District. Image credit Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Milton, in Santa Rosa County, is one of the oldest towns in Florida, incorporated in 1844 along the banks of the Blackwater River. As such, it has a rich history and cultural significance. Downtown is a Florida Main Street Community and is a historical landmark.

Between 1844 and 1909, there were three devastating fires that destroyed all the commercial buildings except for the courthouse. The courthouse is at the heart of downtown and is along the route of the historical walking tour. The town is also an official trail town with Blackwater Heritage State Trail offering nine miles of scenic nature preserved in this once booming mill town.


Part of the Crestview Commercial Historic District in Crestview, Florida.
Historic District in Crestview, Florida. Image credit Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Crestview, in Okaloosa County, has a revitalized historic district monitored by the Community Redevelopment Association to ensure it retains its small-town charm and vibrancy. The historic town received its name because it sits on a peak that overlooks the Yellow and Shoal Rivers. It was once called the "icebox" of Florida because it boasts the coldest winter temperatures in Florida.

Designated as one of  Florida's Main Street Cities, the town was incorporated in 1916 and still holds to its original small-town culture. Crestview has quaint homes, churches, and the CSX railway that runs parallel to the Old Spanish Trail, which includes its own rich history. The Okaloosa Memorial Wall, erected in 2003 as a tribute to fallen military men and women, is next to the courthouse along the historic route.


City town village Pirate's Alley on Harbor Boardwalk during sunny day in Florida panhandle gulf of mexico, tourists people walking
Pirate's Alley on Harbor Boardwalk in Destin, Florida. Image credit Kristi Blokhin via Shutterstock

Destin is a relatively young town, incorporated in 1984, but has a history that traces back to 700 CE. The gorgeous coastal town derived its name from a fishing captain from Connecticut in the 1850s and is known as the "world's luckiest fishing village." The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is perhaps the best way to embrace the natural beauty and fun atmosphere of Destin, especially in the summer when live concerts are regularly held. 

The History and Fishing Museum is the centerpiece of the downtown area, and the Community Redevelopment Association has taken steps to ensure that the historic sites are well maintained. Though there are modern amenities like the Big Kahuna Water Park, it is the history of Destin that makes this a unique coastal town.

Panama City Beach

Pier Park is Panama City Beach’s premier shopping and entertainment destination located across the beach.
Pier Park in Panama City Beach, Florida. Image credit Fotoluminate LLC via Shutterstock

Panama City Beach (PCB) is world-renowned as a spring break party beach, but it also has a deep cultural history. A progressive town, PCB has a rich and vibrant downtown neighborhood with lofts overlooking the passersby as they explore the best that the town has to offer. Founded during the Revolutionary War, loyalists built the area and lumber mills and developed fisheries on St. Andrew Bay. 

The walker-friendly downtown includes dining and shopping but also includes several buildings on the historical preservation list. Some of the historical sites to explore are the St. Andrews Bay Skirmish and the Panama City Publishing Museum.

Fort Walton Beach

Aerial overhead view of Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Overlooking Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Fort Walton Beach (FWB) in Okaloosa County is at the base of the Brooks Bridge on the western edge of Choctawhatchee Bay. The town started as a fort during the Seminole Wars and was named after General George Walton.

The Gulfview Hotel Historic District encompasses fourteen buildings and centers around the Fort Walton Temple Mound, built by Native Americans between 900 and 1500 CE. The platform resembles the pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans and is truly a sight to behold. Also located downtown is an 18-pound cannon, a Civil War relic, and a schoolhouse built in 1912. This is a remarkable downtown for its history and its location near world-famous white sand beaches.

Defuniak Springs

A house in the DeFuniak Springs Historic District in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. It is on Circle Drive, the road that goes around Lake DeFuniak, at the heart of the district.
A house in the DeFuniak Springs Historic District in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Image credit Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Defuniak Springs Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, centers around a campus built in 1885. The famous campus, once known as "the education resort of the south," allows you to traverse in the steps of world leaders, American presidents, and many more dignitaries. The campus is accessible by foot, and there are self-guided and interpretive panels along the walk to help explain the rich history of the historic district.

What makes this historical district unique is that instead of encompassing the town, this district embraces the educational history that essentially put the town on the map in the late 19th century. Among the historical sites are the train depot, tent schools, and a hotel.


Escambia County Court House in downtown Pensacola, Florida.
Escambia County Courthouse in Pensacola, Florida.

Pensacola, America's first multi-year settlement and known as "the city of five flags," the town has a storied history, and five different governments have laid claim to this town over the years. The historic district is among the American Planning Association’s "Top 10 Great Streets in America" and covers 500 years of history. There are running paths and biking trails for the more adventurous visitor that runs along Pensacola Bay.

Along with its rich history, downtown boasts shopping, museums, and restaurants. Some of the more historical buildings are Fort Pickens, the Dorr House, and the John Edmunds Apartment House. The district offers a "one ticket, seven days" pass, which gives visitors unlimited access to the museums, attractions, and self-guided tours through historic homes and a chance to discover the period-dressed interpreters. 

Florida is home to some of America's most eclectic history, and the Emerald Coast is worthy of a trip or two to discover it. Whether it is the "town of five flags," a sleepy Main Street Town on the banks of a historical river, or a progressive downtown that blends the past with the future, the Emerald Coast has it all. The coast, like the state, has passed the baton of governmental power to different nations, and traces of those cultures can be seen with walking tours thanks to the associations that work hard to preserve these historic districts.

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