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7 Picture-Perfect Towns on Florida’s Emerald Coast

by Staff

These towns, blessed by Gulf of Mexico surf that transitions in color from pale green glass to emerald, backed by a blue sky under Florida’s persistent sun, are perfect from every angle! Onshore and offshore, there are picture-perfect experiences in each.

Animal interactions abound in Navarre, while Grayton Beach is distinctively one of the first towns formed along the Emerald Coast, with original homesteads from the 1880s inducing timeless charm. Seaside is the newest master-planned community where the Truman Show was filmed along the walkable streets with colorful houses, perfect for a bike ride right out of a picture book!

Destin

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

In Destin, not only do you get to cast a rod in the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” but you do so in the picture-like frame of white-sand beaches and emerald water! Likewise, play a challenging round of golf and dine over the gulf’s sweeping views from the comfort of a fine restaurant or a beach bonfire, cooking your own catch. All of this is possible in Destin, the gulf town along the Panhandle renowned for fresh-caught seafood, parasailing, and other watersports. From dolphin cruises to aquariums and family theme parks, the town immerses you in the beautiful area, creating a perfect vision of itself.

Destin adapts to your budget and style of vacation, from various condos and rentals to on- and offshore book-your-own adventures like catch-your-dinner fishing shopping, as well as twelve access points to five beachfront parks with amenities. There’s also entertainment, waterfront shopping, and always a blissful slice of tranquility along the 24 pristine miles from here to Fort Walton Beach after a hike or a short drive to enjoy sunbathing, snorkeling, and paddling in the ocean. From Okaloosa Island Boardwalk to Henderson Beach to Topsail Hill, you can explore Henderson Beach State Park and opt for a Gulf-front resort!

Fort Walton Beach

Overlooking Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Image credit pisaphotography via Shutterstock.com
Overlooking Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Image credit pisaphotography via Shutterstock.com

Home to under 21,000 people, Fort Walton Beach, offers an illustrious collusion of feverish beach culture and deep heritage roots along the glittering waters between Panama City and Pensacola for anglers, families, and history fans. Whether you’re in for relaxation along the cool, quartz-sand beaches or for discoveries, it’s easy to find your bliss in the postcard-like surroundings and insights into the ancient native tribes before the Americans. So grab a coffee at the outdoor The Sound Cafe + Enlightened Studios and start exploring, like a stroll through the top-rated Fort Walton Beach Landing Park with a playground! You can indulge in “gulf-to-table” through local favorite eateries and treat yourself to reputable fine dining, or mix it up with beachside burgers over award-winning craft beer.

The clear, emerald-green Gulf waters are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and diving, where you can pick up a new water sport, fish, and sightsee saltwater species in abundance just off the coast! Find the Fort Walton Mound site at the heart of town, a legacy temple that was the epicenter of the village, and the Pensacola people’s vibrant religious and social activities! The Indian Temple Mound Museum features world-class artifacts and only-here cultural exhibits on over 12,000 years of the site’s habitation dating from prehistoric times. Families enjoy face-to-face animal interactions at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, like turtles, dolphins, seals, penguins, stingrays, and alligators, while the Emerald Coast Science Center offers a variety of play-to-learn interactive exhibits! 

Grayton Beach

Grayton Beach Florida Overhead View.
Grayton Beach, Florida Overhead View.

This beach town in the frame of lush pine forests and the iconic emerald-green gulf waters, with its most pristine sands, timeless charm, and sea salt breeze with sweeping views of the gulf, may just be the most picture-perfect on the coast! Home to 18,000 residents, Grayton Beach offers up all your favorite coastal delights, fronting land-based local fauna and flora and respite from crowds. From eclectic shops and restaurants dotting Hotz Avenue to Old Florida-style architecture throughout, the beachfront Underwater Museum of Art features unique exhibits like the decorated sea floor with sculptures!

Distinctively one of the first towns formed along the Emerald Coast, you can still see many of its original homesteads from the 1880s. Boasting art galleries and studios along the main, Grayton Beach attracts artists, photographers, and solitude seekers who know of this little creative slice of heaven with a laidback and bohemian feel. The town exudes peaceful vibes where you can step back into the 19th century and enjoy your favorite water pursuits along the picturesque stretch of Grayton Beach State Park with smooth sand. From hiking, picnicking, camping, and lounging to birdwatching and bonfires along the beach, pitch up a tent, roast marshmallows, or have a stargazing BBQ party!

Navarre Beach

Beautiful relaxing scenic landscape views of Navarre Beach, Florida.
Beautiful, relaxing scenic landscape views of Navarre Beach, Florida.

For picture-perfect tranquility, head to Navarre Beach, a small town secluded on Santa Rosa Island west of Destin. Welcome to “Florida’s most relaxing place,” where even the name makes you want to meditate along the white-sand beaches, with views forever into the emerald-green water. Navarre’s mix of adventures and outdoor recreation, from local parks to family-friendly attractions, parallels a calendar full of festivals and events where you can catch Blue Angels showing off their skills in the sky and even get an autograph. From Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge to the hands-on stingray experience at the Gulfarium, you can feed giraffes at the Gulf Breeze Zoo and meet Sweet Pea, a sea turtle, at the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, just a quick drive west.

Picture-perfect experiences abound in Navarre, where views and tropical island vibes extend into waterfront shopping, dining, and a happening nightlife of live music and bars. You can be snorkeling, diving around the artificial reefs, and dining waterfront on seafood almost as fresh from the ocean as you are! Lat Juana’s Pagodas & Sailors’ Grill is the town’s oldest family-owned and operated restaurant, while Broussard’s serves cajun seafood, Bella Luna is an Italian bistro, and Cactus Flower Cafe offers Mexican. At 1,500 feet, one of Florida’s longest Navarre Beach Fishing Pier is great for fishing and strolls overlooking the seascape from 30 feet above the water. There’s also the Naval and Air Force Museum and Blackwater River State Park for zip-lining and canoeing.

Panama City Beach

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

This Florida Panhandle town covers a larger area with many legendary attractions between two state parks and powdery white sands. Named among the top 3 in the United States by TripAdvisor, there’s more to Panama City Beach than makes it so famous. Namely, it unravels natural history in front of your eyes, where the quartz crystals were once up in the Appalachians before being washed down hundreds of years ago! Whether you’re in for a weekend to party or a memorable family vacation with photo opportunities, each beautiful beach offers a unique vibe and experience just a stroll away from the next one.

With dozens of public beach access points from St. Andrews and Camp Helen State Parks, there’s room for relaxation and adventure over the 27-mile stretch of beaches. Take a scenic coastal hike and dive into the delicious food scene at waterfront restaurants serving up fresh local seafood. The abundant waters are famous among fishermen, where you can fish for your own catch to cook or enjoy scuba diving with dozens of artificial reefs just offshore. The unique angle of the coastline, slightly toward the west, makes for a dynamic day-to-day experience of watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico throughout your vacation here!

Pensacola Beach

The iconic Pensacola Beach Ball located mere steps from the sugar-white sands of Pensacola Beach. Editorial credit: Rotorhead 30A Productions / Shutterstock.com
The iconic Pensacola Beach Ball is located mere steps from the sugar-white sands of Pensacola Beach. Editorial credit: Rotorhead 30A Productions / Shutterstock.com

Welcome! Whether you’re arriving directly over the scenic Pensacola Bay Bridge or via a ferry across Pensacola Bay from the large city of Pensacola, this fun beach town caters to a family-friendly atmosphere and sprinkles excitement for all your relaxation and adventures! The free summertime Pensacola Beach Trolley is a great way to scope out the town for an itinerary, while the beaches are perfect for swimming and pontooning with rentals. This sunkissed town in Northwest Florida, across from Pensacola, is one of the liveliest on Santa Rosa Island, along its white-sand headland beaches with jewel-toned waters. 

Being a resort community, there’s entertainment for everyone, including special events like airshows by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels in July and November and local restaurants with live music that give off South American vibes. You can fish from the pier for Spanish mackerel and flounder or book a fishing charter and enjoy self-guided paddleboarding just offshore in the natural habitat of dolphins, sea turtles, and rays. Unmissable, Laguna’s Beach Bar & Grill is more than a great place to dine, with beachside attractions like a splash pad for the little ones, as well as ropes courses, zip rails, mini golf, and go-karting!

Seaside

Shopping mall park in Seaside, Florida, via Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock.com
Shopping mall park in Seaside, Florida, via Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock.com

What could be more memorable than a town with the perfect name for your ultimate beachside vacation along the famed stretch of the brilliant coastline? Even Hollywood thought so, having chosen to film the hit Jim Carey movie, The Truman Show, against Seaside’s colorful homes and walkable streets. Seaside, one of the most picturesque small towns, is among the newest additions along the Emerald Coast. It was founded in 1981 after meticulous planning with adherence to the concepts of New Urbanism. Home to over 12,000 residents, it is remarkable to see and easy to navigate when visiting, where you can feel like a seastar yourself in the picture-perfect atmosphere along the pastel-colored houses with porches and white picket fences.

You can enjoy most shopping and dining at heart and a series of striking pavilions to relax at the gateway to the long, sandy main beach, with access under a tall gray pyramid/lighthouse hybrid that is unique and photogenic. The family-friendly shores offer clean, gentle surf, while Grayton Beach State Park is just west, with trails and a coastal dune lake. You can ride a bike along the beach road, with more quaint shops to stop at and other picture-book pursuits and views. Whether you’re in for a weekend or weeklong vacation, the town gently nudges you to mingle, relax, people-watch, and basically do all you need to unwind in master-planned community comfort!

Each town with a picture-perfect atmosphere, sights, and pursuits is unlike any other in the whole state, or the country, for that matter. The Fort Walton Mound site is a legacy temple from the Pensacola people’s vibrant religious and social activities, revealing 12,000 years of the site’s habitation from prehistoric times. The only common denominators are the emerald waters and white sandy beaches, whereas, in Panama City Beach, they feature quartz crystals, once washed from the Appalachians hundreds of years ago!

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