Gulf Coast Road Trip: 10 Best Stops on the Emerald Coast (updated 2020)

April 12, 2018

I moved from New England to South Carolina a few years ago to escape the snow. Like many other parts of the country, it was an unseasonably cold winter, even in the South. So when we got that half-inch of snow in February, I jumped in my car and headed even further south, for a fun Gulf Coast road trip!

gulf coast road trip

Snow in South Carolina? I’m outta here!

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Emerald Coast beaches, here I come! Here are the ten best stops on the Gulf Emerald Coast.

1.  Panama City Beach, Florida

Panama City Beach sunset

Panama City Beach sunset

With 27 miles of palm-lined emerald green beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast, Panama City Beach offers a lot of fun activities in the water, under the water, or even in the air. The best snorkeling is in the crystal waters of St. Andrews State Park or on nearby Shell Island, an amazingly pristine, uninhabited island. This is definitely the “tourist spot” on the Emerald Coast, sure to please families with a myriad of attractions such as Wonderworks, Race City, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and a slew of amusement parks. It’s also a great place to catch a brilliant beach sunset.

gulf coast road trip

Flying over the beach with pilot Katie!

The best adventure in Panama City Beach is with Panhandle Helicopter where you can get a stunning birds-eye view of the coast, and if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of sharks swimming in the nearby sea.

2.  Mexico Beach, Florida

Mexico Beach

The pier at Mexico Beach

In contrast to Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach, about 20 miles east on the “Undiscovered Gulf Coast” is the place to get away from it all. Brimming with small-town charm and relaxed atmosphere – and no traffic lights – you won’t find any high-rise hotels here. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway.

3.  Destin, Florida

Destin, Florida.

Seaspray blows over the jetty rocks at Destin, Florida.

It is said that the Emerald Coast was named for this strip of beautiful white sugar-sand beach. The “jewel of the Emerald Coast,” this area is the most upscale of the Florida Emerald Coast and filled with luxury accommodations, award-winning golf courses, open-air and upscale shopping, and fine dining prepared by master chefs. For a truly unique experience, rent a jet ski and ride out to where dolphins play. If you love fishing, try your luck here – it’s been named “world’s luckiest fishing village.”

4.  Okaloosa Island, Florida

gulf coast road trip

Kitesurfers in Okaloosa

This barrier island is surrounded by Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. The main attraction is the water sports – particularly watching the skilled and acrobatic kitesurfers at Gulf Islands National Seashore or fishing from the 1,261-foot-long fishing pier. The beach boardwalk claims fame to an annual “biggest and best bull-riding show in the Southeast” where tourists can watch bull riders and fighters, listen to an outdoor concert, and other family-oriented festivities.

5. Pensacola, Florida

pensacola beach

Pensacola Beach was recently selected as one of TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Beaches in the U.S., offering visitors both fun and relaxation. Pensacola (1559) predates St. Augustine (1565) and Jamestown, VA (1607), but was abandoned shortly after being established due to a hurricane disaster. When you tire of swimming, fishing, snorkeling, diving, and sailing, landlubber activities include exploring the grounds of the historic Fort Pickens and see where its most famous Apache prisoner, Geronimo, was kept.

6.  Orange Beach, Alabama

gulf coast road trip

A pirate-led treasure hunt at family-friendly Orange Beach

Orange Beach is a lesser-known vacation destination than some of the neighboring beaches in Florida and Mississippi, but the 32 miles of sparkling water and powdery sand beaches are attracting families with kid-friendly activities, like pirate-led treasure hunts sponsored by popular budget hotels. The area also offers zip lines, golfing, deep-sea fishing, dolphin cruises, and water sports.  For a delicious breakfast, try BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets.

7.  Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Just a few miles from Orange Beach is Gulf Shores. In fact, the two are so closely tied that they share a tourism site. Coastal Living lists Gulf Shores as one of the “21 Best Beaches” in the United States. From the über-soft sugar-white beach sand to the bathtub-warm surf, and gentle waves, the beach is a popular choice for families with nearby attractions like the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and Waterville USA. Deep-sea fishing and golfing are also prevalent in Gulf Shores.

8.  Biloxi, Mississippi

gulf coast road trip

Beauvoir, the post-war home of the only Confederate President, Jefferson Davis

Biloxi is 62 miles of scenic shoreline, much of which also provides you with a picturesque view of historic architecture and mansions on the opposite side of the highway. There are areas to pull over for beach access as well as photo opportunities. Nature enthusiasts will find activities such as eco-tours, endangered bird viewing, kayaking on the bayous, biking, and hiking. In contrast, Biloxi is known for its many casinos. Not to be missed is the tour of Beauvoir, the post-war home and library of the only Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, much of which was destroyed (and some parts subsequently renovated) by Hurricane Katrina.

9.   Gulfport, Mississippi

gulf coast road trip

One of the many piers along the highway in Gulfport, Mississippi

Gulfport is the second-largest city in Mississippi after the state capital Jackson. With less than 7 miles of white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, Gulfport is more well-known as a casino destination of the Gulf Coast. Because of its close proximity to Biloxi, vacationers often combine activities of the two destinations.

10.  New Orleans, Louisiana

gulf coast road trip

The fun way to tour the French Quarter – by Segway!

What better way to end a Gulf Coast road trip than the fabulous NOLA! New Orleans is a fascinating city and you’ll immediately want to come back to see more, and if that’s the case, here’s an awesome guide to New Orleans.

For a short trip, I would recommend staying right in the French Quarter. This frenetic area of NOLA is jammed with history, architecture, culture, foodie finds, shopping, and jazz music.

If you only have one day, here’s my suggestion for cramming the most in:

  • Start the day with one (or three!) of the famous beignets and a cup of coffee from Café DuMonde down near the Mississippi River. I have declared their beignets to be the best thing I’ve ever eaten…. narrowly beating out baklava.
  • Stroll around the area, including Jackson Square and browse at the French Market and boutique shops along Decatur Street.
  • Go on a Segway Tour of the French Quarter with City Segway. This is the quickest and most fun way to see a lot of the area, including the architecture of the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park, the Treme neighborhood, Jackson Square, and the Mississippi waterfront.
  • Gorge yourself with the savory charbroiled oysters, swimming in butter and parmesan cheese at the Royal House.
  • Stop in for a Hurricane at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, rumored to be haunted, and frequented in the past by writers like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner.
  • Have dinner at one of a number of exquisite fine dining establishments, depending on your tastes and preferences.
  • Stroll around Bourbon Street, popping in and out of clubs along the way as wafting live bands’ music draw you in.
The addictive beignets at Café DuMonde

The addictive beignets at Café DuMonde

Charbroiled oysters stuffed with butter and parmesan cheese

Charbroiled oysters stuffed with butter and parmesan cheese

gulf coast road trip

Couldn’t resist buying a Mardi Gras mask at the end of the French Market!

You may also be interested in:

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.


  1. Comment by Yasha Langford

    Yasha Langford Reply April 13, 2015 at 7:31 am

    A lovely tour through an area we visited at the end of 2006, still in the aftermath of ‘Katrina” – we were especially shocked by Biloxi (you can see some of our photos from that time here:
    I am happy to read your report of how beautiful this place is again.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 13, 2015 at 7:34 am

      Beauvoir has done a great job restoring after Katrina. It’s a shame some of the treasures from our history that were lost and not replaceable.

  2. Comment by jenny@atasteoftravel

    jenny@atasteoftravel Reply April 13, 2015 at 7:46 am

    So any great places to choose from to escape the cold! It would be very hard to choose one over the other though New Orleans has always been on my wish list!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

      NOLO was so different than all the previous stops. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and can’t wait to go back!

  3. Comment by Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)

    Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel) Reply April 13, 2015 at 8:37 am

    I love beaches and food, so the Emerald Coast looks like the perfect place for me! That photo of the charbroiled oysters makes me want to head south right NOW!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 13, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Michelle — those oysters were gone in a blink of an eye!

  4. Comment by Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru

    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru Reply April 13, 2015 at 10:50 am

    We have rellies who make this area their winter home, and with good reason! (My dad used to call parts of it the Redneck Riviera!) It is so nice to see the comback – and it was a long time coming – after Katrina.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 13, 2015 at 10:52 am

      Yes, Katrina really destroyed some parts of it, but it’s looking very good now.

  5. Comment by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Carole Terwilliger Meyers Reply April 13, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    What a nice beachy trip! I’m not familiar with most of them so enjoyed the introductory ride.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 13, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      Great path for a road trip!

  6. Comment by Kristin Henning

    Kristin Henning Reply April 14, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    You had me counting along. And you had me stopped–salivating over the beignets!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 15, 2015 at 8:33 am

      It’s a fun road trip, and the beignets are heavenly!

  7. Comment by A Cook Not Mad (Nat)

    A Cook Not Mad (Nat) Reply April 17, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Great idea for a road trip, the beignets look delicious!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm

      I would go back to New Orleans just for the beignets!

  8. Comment by Irene S Levine

    Irene S Levine Reply April 17, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    Gosh! You’ve introduced me to a part of the U.S. I’ve never visited and know little about~

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 17, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      Take a road trip, Irene! You’ll find a lot to write about!

    • Comment by Aingeal

      Aingeal Reply July 13, 2019 at 10:51 am

      Hi, looking into a vacation like this. Can you tell me how many days it took you and approximately how much driving each day? Thank you. 🙂

  9. Comment by Cathy Sweeney

    Cathy Sweeney Reply April 17, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    It sure does look tempting down there along the Emerald Coast. I’ve only had brief visits to some spots along the coast (and most of them were quite a while back) but hubby and I were recently talking about the beautiful beaches there. I can see why it would make one think about relocation.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 18, 2015 at 8:57 am

      The beaches are very inviting and there’s quite a bit to do. Go! You’ll enjoy it!

  10. Comment by The Adventure Ahead

    The Adventure Ahead Reply April 18, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Wow – those beach pics!!! We have only been away from the beach for a few weeks, and it is already calling me back! Some great writing and photography here!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply April 18, 2015 at 11:49 am

      I agree — some beautiful beaches along the northern Gulf coast!

  11. Comment by Umina Beach

    Umina Beach Reply October 17, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    i enjoy reading your cool write up!! the place and the food is awesome.. this will be in my bucket list! my favorite part is the ” Charbroiled oysters stuffed with butter and parmesan cheese” lol

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply October 18, 2017 at 10:22 am

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you found the information helpful!

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