Lined with swaying palms, Panama City Beach lies on the most gorgeous stretch of beach in the United States – the Emerald Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. In fact, their tourism board insists that their little piece of the Gulf of Mexico contains “the world’s most beautiful beaches.” And with a staggering 320 days of tropical sunshine per year and 27 miles of shimmering emerald coastline, you’ll have an incredible array of fun things to do in Panama City Beach.
There is almost an endless selection of things to do in Panama City Beach, but we’ve narrowed it down to our 10 favorites guaranteed to please both beachcombers and landlubbers.
10 Dolphin Cruise
Take a cruise and (maybe) make a few new aquatic friends – bottlenose dolphins. Your captain will take you out to the known areas where dolphins play, frolic, and put on a jumping show for the passengers. You can actually hop into the warm water and swim with these gentle, friendly creatures in their natural habitat. Unfortunately for us, our cruise departed right after a storm and the water was still too rough and dangerous for anyone to safely get into the water. Still, it was a fun experience and I’d recommend it.
9 Pier Park
Pier Park is a must-do place to visit while in Panama City Beach. It offers something to please everyone. The mostly outdoor complex contains a boardwalk of over a hundred trendy, pastel-colored stores for buying or a browsing stroll, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, an arcade, and an IMAX theatre.
The Sky Wheel is one of the “coolest” things to do while in Pier Park. From a height of 200 feet in the air, the air-conditioned Ferris wheel gives you the best Panama City Beach view, across Pier Park all the way out to the white sand beach and emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
8 Rainbow Houses
If you’re looking for the ultimate Instagram fix, this is it! Just across from the beach and next to Pier Park is a row of absolutely lovely pastel houses. Keep in mind that these are privately owned, so stay on the sidewalk, don’t trespass without permission to get your Instagram shot.
7 Sunset on the Beach
One of the best things to do on Panama City Beach is also free. Grab your beverage of choice and watch as the orange orb sinks into the sea. Take a walk along the beach until you find a bonfire and join in the fun.
6 Camp Helen
The historic 185-acre coastal parcel of land on which Camp Helen State Park now sits was used as a summer retreat for management of an Alabama textile company for much of its existence. The park is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and by Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in Florida.
Visitors can swim in the pristine beaches, hike or cycle through the old oak forests picnic in the sun or shade, or visit some of the original (but renovated) buildings on the grounds. Note, the park is only open for day use.
Prehistoric mounds indicate that humans inhabited the area more than 4,000 years ago.
5 Helicopter Flight
You’ll want to put this adrenaline activity on your bucket list! Family-owned Panhandle Helicopters will take you up in one of their whirlybirds for a birds-eye aerial view of the spectacular emerald coast beaches and nearby islands.
The “Shark Run” is Panhandle Helicopter’s most popular tour – it gives viewers a chilling perspective of hammerhead and bull sharks swimming just offshore in Florida’s warm waters.
Check out my article with all the details of my helicopter adventure!
4 St. Andrew’s Park
1200-acre St. Andrews State Park is perfect for communing with nature. In a recent travel magazine poll, the park was voted one of the top five beaches in the country.
Fishing, cycling, walking, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, picnicking under the pine forests, crystal clear white-sand beaches and wetlands are just some of the features of the park. The park is also a great place to spot diverse wildlife species.
3 Russell Pier
Conveniently located adjacent to the public beach, Russell-Fields City Pier claims to be the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico.
Stretching more than 1,500 feet out into the gulf, the pier offers some of the best views in Panama City Beach, including a breathtaking Florida sunset.
Walk all the way out to the end of the pier to spot diverse marine life such as colorful fish, jumping dolphins, sea turtles, and stingrays, and not to mention the view back of the cityscape isn’t too shabby either.
Even the underside of the pier is a fascinating place for photographers.
2 Carillon Beach
As our car pulled through the gates of Carillon Beach, I inhaled sharply. Have you ever been to a place where the vibe is almost hypnotic, effortlessly drawing you into its charm?
Carillon Beach was just such a place for me.
Large pastel houses weave through a well-landscaped community, each one prettier than the next. Some have magnificent views of the turquoise waves, but there are also freshly painted white decks where you can access the beach.
You can rent these high-end beauties, but if they’re out of your budget, no worries, the beach is public, and there are also public spaces with tables and chairs.
I tell you the truth, if I was able to live anywhere in the United States, it would be here. It’s THAT gorgeous.
1 Shell Island
Just a short boat ride away from the mainland, a visit to stunning Shell Island is one of the most popular things to do in Panama City Beach. The seven-mile-long uninhabited and undeveloped barrier island runs from east to west, between the Gulf of Mexico and St Andrew Bay.
At Shell Island, you’ll find sand dunes, pine forests, an inland lake, ghost crabs, and loggerhead, and green sea turtles. Snorkeling, shelling, and nature walks are fun things to do in and around the island.
It’s a short walk to transverse the island from the emerald green bay, across the dunes, to the turquoise of the Gulf of Mexico.
Best Place to Eat
I can hardly find the words to describe the Grand Marlin. Overlooking the Grand Lagoon, 2-story floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the harbor and luxurious docked boats.
The service administered by our waiter, Peter, was impeccable. And the food…OMG! Kary had a succulent ribeye steak and I had the best crab cakes I’ve ever eaten – a fine compliment indeed. They weren’t breaded and fried like usually served. Instead, they were held together magically and the chunks of crab so jam-packed with flavor that my taste buds literally made me squeak upon taking the first bite.
But the piece de resistance had to be the dessert – a sweet praline bowl brimming over with creamy ice cream, sweet sauce, huge pecans, and fruit. I left my Keto diet in the lurch that night, lol.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, for our entire dinner, Mother Nature treated us to a spectacular lightning show, right outside our corner window seat. Bravo!
Sufficed to say, the whole dining experience at the Grand Marlin was one of the best I’ve had in years. A truly memorable evening.
Best Place to Stay
We had a massive, 3-bedroom 9th-floor condo at the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort. Two rooms (kitchen and living room) overlooked the gorgeous emerald green sea below. I really enjoyed having my morning coffee or cocktails on the deck with the sea breeze in my hair and nose.
I had to tear myself away to go home!
Panama City Beach is one of those places you’ll want to return to again and again, and never run out of things to do.
You can also visit Panama City Beach as part of a Gulf Coast road trip, across Alabama and Mississippi and ending in New Orleans. What fun!
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Visit Panama City Beach during her stay, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
About the Author
Patti 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.