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Travel Guide to Florida

NORTHWEST FLORIDA

Enjoying the emerald sea on the Gulf Coast • Visit Pensacola

Quiet Pleasures & Southern Charm

Welcome to the quiet side of Florida where you’ll find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, all lapped by clear, emerald-green waters. Delve into Northwest Florida’s colorful history, family attractions, down-home cookin’ and unique little shops, all laced with friendly people with Southern accents.

A Day In…

Destin-Fort Walton Beach

Begin your day with a fishing trip, dolphin cruise or sailing ad-venture and be soothed by the emerald-green waters of the Gulf. Venture over to The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island where you can lunch on fresh Gulf-to-table seafood with beachfront views of the sugar-white sand and the Okaloosa Fishing Pier. In the afternoon, stroll downtown Fort Walton Beach’s Heritage Park and Cultural Center, comprised of the Indian Temple Mound Museum, Fort Walton Temple Mound, Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, Garnier Post Office Museum and the Civil War exhibits.

Franklin County

Authentic Florida thrives in quiet coastal communities like Apalachicola, St. George Island, Carrabelle, Eastpoint and Alligator Point. Enjoy quiet, pet-friendly beaches on St. George Island and Alligator Point. Climb historical lighthouses. Camp, paddle or hike along wooded trails and quiet sloughs. Watch commercial fishing boats unload their daily catch or charter a trip with an oyster fisherman to learn how to catch your own. Explore the area’s charm, boutiques, galleries and museums. End with fresh local seafood served at more than 30 area restaurants and seafood markets. 

Panama City Beach

At Zen Garden or FINN’s Island Style Grub, start your day with gourmet coffee and a yoga session or a quick surf check. From there, explore 27 miles of beautiful beaches. Try snor-keling or paddleboarding in the emerald-green waters at St. Andrews State Park, or catch a boat to Shell Island, a seven-mile-long natural barrier island. Explore diving history at the Man in the Sea Museum before shopping at Pier Park, the area’s leading shopping center. Catch the sunset from Schooner’s restaurant, where the nightly event is celebrated with a cannon blast!

Santa Rosa County

Enjoy the sugar-white sandy beaches of Santa Rosa County. Fish from the Navarre Beach Pier (Gulf of Mexico’s longest) or visit the Gulf Breeze Zoo, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station or Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. Tour Coldwater Gardens near Milton. See why this part of Florida is known as “the Canoe Capital of Florida” with Adventures Unlimited. Canoe, kayak and tube along Coldwater Creek past secluded sandbars, through the pristine ecosystem of Blackwater River State Forest, or soar on its zip line canopy tour.

Your Northwest Florida Experts

Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce: calhounco.org

Destin-Fort Walton Beach: destinfwb.com

Destination Panama City: destinationpanamacity.com

Explore Northwest Florida: explorenwflorida.com

Franklin County Tourist Development Council: floridasforgottencoast.com

Gadsden County Tourist Development Council: gadsdencountyfl.gov

Gulf County Tourist Development Council: visitgulf.com

Gulf Islands National Seashore: nps.gov/guis

Holmes County Tourist Development Council: unexploredflorida.com

Jackson County Tourist Development Council: visitjacksoncountyfla.com

Mexico Beach Community Development Council: mexicobeach.com

Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Office: getrelaxing.com

Santa Rosa Island Authority: sria-fla.com

Seaside Visitors Bureau: seasidefl.com

Visit Panama City Beach: visitpanamacitybeach.com

Visit Pensacola: visitpensacola.com

Visit South Walton: visitsouthwalton.com

Washington County Tourist Development Council: visitwcfla.com

Arts and Culture

In Franklin County, easternmost in the Northwest Florida region, Apalachicola is the best-known city. Once the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, reminders of those halcyon days of steamers and schooners, railroads and lumber mills remain. The city’s historic district has nearly a thousand buildings and sites from a bygone era. Along the waterfront, structures that once served as commercial fishing factories and warehouses have evolved into seafood houses and galleries, and old shrimp boats now reside for eternity.

Nearby, Cape St. George Lighthouse had been lighting the way for mariners since 1852, until it collapsed in 2005. It was rebuilt with a new museum but is no longer a working lighthouse (blame GPS), but you can’t tell the story of this region without relating the history of this structure.  

Panama City has four very interesting neighborhoods in which to roam. Downtown is filled with galleries and arts facilities such as the Martin Theatre at the Majestic Beach Resort, the Center for the Arts and the CityArts Cooperative. Historic St. Andrews still resembles the quaint fishing village it was in the “old days.” Downtown North serves as the cultural hub of Panama City’s African-American community and Millville is named for its once-thriving paper manufacturing and shipbuilding industries. 

Holmes County has a population of only about 20,000, however, it boasts one noteworthy historical residence. The Keith Cabin is an authentic 19th-century rural homestead on which William Thomas Keith grew cotton and tobacco and expanded his land holdings from 10 acres to 190. You can access a very mystical and historical spot in this county along the Choctawhatchee River where there are at least a dozen Indian burial grounds in Holmes County. Or head to  Sand Hammock Lake near Esto where the story of a giant alligator named Two-Toed Tom is legendary.  The monstrous beast has been compared to the “Loch Ness Monster” in Scotland. Sightings are rare but the mystery lives on!

South Walton is home to a vibrant arts community, anchored by the local Cultural Arts Alliance, and enhanced by the Foster Gallery. Artists at Gulf Place is an art cooperative including potters, sculptors, painters, jewelers and photographers, with workshops for kids. South Walton also boasts The Repertory Theatre in Seaside, one of Northwest Florida’s premier professional theater companies.  

At the Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach, you can walk through 12,000 years of Native American life and admire one of the finest collections of prehistoric ceramics in the southeastern U.S. A short drive north of Fort Walton Beach, a more recent period of history comes alive at the Air Force Armament Museum, which takes you from the early biplanes of World War I to the SR-71 Blackbird, once the world’s fastest aircraft ever built. If Broadway shows and the Northwest Florida Symphony pique your interest, check the schedule at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center.

In the town of Milton, which is the acclaimed “Canoe Capital of Florida,” discover historical homes and storefronts leading to the Blackwater River waterfront. This area was once the epicenter of thriving timber and shipbuilding industries. At an old post office that’s been converted into a local brew pub, you can ogle at antiques while eating lunch. And you can step back into the 19th century at the West Florida Railroad Museum.

At the western end of Northwest Florida, the city of Pensacola boasts two significant distinctions. It was the first settlement founded by immigrants to America—although later deserted for a few years, thereby ceding to St. Augustine the title of oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the United States. The other distinction is that Pensacola’s iconic Saenger Theatre first opened its doors in 1925. The fully restored theater now hosts a variety of shows including the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Pensacola, The Pensacola Opera and The Pensacola Children’s Chorus.

Jackson County’s Spanish Heritage trail treats you to 150 miles of beautiful scenery, as well as Florida’s rich Spanish history, as you explore fascinating old missions, settlements and historic sites. And, in the town of Quincy, the Gadsden Arts Center & Museum takes visitors on a trip through contem-porary Southern Vernacular Art. 

In the Washington County town of Chipley, the Spanish Trail Playhouse is one of the few remaining volunteer theater companies in the state.

Attractions

Franklin County’s attractions highlight its natural beauty, such as the Apalachicola National Forest and the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, complete with fish tanks and interactive displays. 

A long time ago, a Liberty County resident named E.E. Callaway claimed he had found the Garden of Eden in Liberty County. Maybe, maybe not. But the county does have a part of paradise in its share of the Apalachicola National Forest.

No visit to Northwest Florida should end without a horseback ride on the beach, particularly in dream-like spots such as Cape San Blas. If you prefer your water inland (with oars or on a tour boat), head for the Dead Lakes, a unique ecosystem that’s part swamp, part river, part lake, and all pristine wilderness.

In Panama City Beach, the Man in the Sea Museum covers the history of diving and the Navy’s Man in the Sea Program, which showcases SEALAB-I, the Navy’s first-ever underwater habitat.

Try Swampy Jack’s Wongo Adventure, a hybrid amusement park in Panama City Beach. It features six thrilling rides and attractions including Marrakesh Road Rally—an interactive electric go-kart experience and the Yacuma—a huge serpent wipeout ride. At Pier Park, SkyWheel Panama City Beach is an entertainment venue, which is home to the SkyWheel, a 200-foot, observation wheel with climate-controlled gondolas, including the SkyTrail ropes course—an aerial attraction with suspended bridges, cargo nets and rope ladders, engineered for an adrenaline rush.

Panama City, too, lives on the water. Shell Island Cruises takes you out to snorkel with the dolphins.

Chipley has family activities like the Seacrest Wolf Preserve, where you can interact not only with wolves, but also view foxes, raccoons, skunks and Pecos, the resident coyote. At the biodiverse-rich E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, check for various  educational workshops on birds, turtles and snakes. There are several resident animals like a red-tailed hawk and a rescued snapping turtle.

The Destin/Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island area offers attractions such as the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, where you can frolic in the water with rays and spend time observing dolphins. If your kids love dinosaurs, head for Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone, with animatronic dinosaur-themed and pirate-themed mini golf courses, a bungee trampoline, laser tag, arcade, incredible 4-D movie theater and more.  

Santa Rosa County’s Gulf Breeze Zoo showcases over 800 animals from around the world, and the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station combines hands-on learning and entertainment.

In Escambia County, historic Pensacola Village is the site of the original Spanish and British forts in a city over which five flags have flown. At the Pensacola Lighthouse, built in 1859, climb the 177 steps for a dramatic panoramic view of the Gulf Coast.

Beaches and Outdoor Gems

Northwest Florida’s beaches are world-renowned. Frolic on more than 227 miles of white, fine-grained, sugar-sand beaches stretching from Apalachicola in the east to Pensacola in the west. And often, they’re so uncrowded that you may come to think of them as your own private playgrounds!

The Apalachicola National Forest is perfect for camping, picnicking, hiking, biking, boating, hunting and fishing. Offshore, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is a 12,492-acre undeveloped barrier island accessible only by boat; the only residents you’ll see will be wildlife, such as nesting bald eagles, loggerhead sea turtles, and, if you’re lucky, a red wolf.

Situated on the bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River, Torreya State Park offers excellent hiking and camping facilities. In addition, the Ochlockonee and Chipola rivers are ideal for kayaking and fishing.

If you’re looking for spectacular sunsets, head to St. Joe Beach and Beacon Hill. Here, a shoreline leading to the horizon offers million-dollar views of the Gulf sun, blazing with color as it sets behind the silhouette of St. Joseph Peninsula.

From there, it’s a short drive to Panama City Beach where outdoor enthusiasts can hike and birdwatch along scenic trails; camp along the shore; enjoy unparalleled boating, fishing and diving; take kayaking tours; go off-road cycling; try stand-up paddleboarding, and more. And, with everything from airboat adventures to glass-bottom boat tours and marine rescue programs, there are many ways to experience and observe the surrounding wildlife. At the Panama City Beach Conservation Park, visitors enjoy boardwalks and 24 miles of unpaved trails, which are connected with other trail systems like Gayle’s Trails that run along  the beach. On the eastern edge of Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park is ranked among the top beaches in the Florida Panhandle and is a popular outdoor recreation spot. Across from the mainland, Shell Island is a peaceful spot to relax or snorkel and the area surrounding the island is home to a large population of bottlenose dolphins. Shuttle boat service to the island is available during spring, summer and fall. Other locations worth checking out include Pine Log & Point Washington State Forests, Camp Helen State Park and the Florida Trail at Econfina Creek.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is one gigantic playground, which includes the barrier islands of Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and Okaloosa Island.

Among the best beaches in Northwest Florida is the pristine three-mile stretch along Okaloosa Island, where the beach consists of fine, white quartz crystals, which give the water its gem-like color. Then there are the other award-winning Emerald Coast beaches in the Destin-Fort Walton area. 

Heading inland, Florida Caverns State Park is home to the only guided dry cave tours in the state. Nearby is the Bellamy Bridge, said to be haunted by—who else?—the ghost of Bellamy Bridge. Visitors in this area enjoy paddling, birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding, and some of the best bass fishing in the state. For an incredible cave-diving experience, check out Cave Adventurers to book dive lessons or trips at Merritt’s Mill Pond.

Falling Waters State Park in Chipley has the tallest waterfall in the state, at 73 feet, and an observation platform from which to enjoy the falls and the surrounding forest.  And Ponce de Leon State Park in Holmes County has a wonderfully-scenic natural spring pool, where bathers can take a dip.

Entertainment

If you’re talkin’ Northwest Florida cookin’, you’re talkin’ fresh seafood. One of the best places to find it is in the town of Eastpoint, across the bay from Apalachicola and St. George Island. Eastpoint is lined with rustic seafood houses, serving freshly harvested Apalachicola Bay oysters just hauled in by the weathered skiffs outside. And the oysters come with an extra dose of friendliness as many of these restaurants are now into the fourth generation of family ownership.

Panama City offers a variety of nightlife options, among them a local lounge with a vintage flair, Lie’brary on Beck. The Corner Pocket and Craft Beer EmPOURium is a non-smoking pool hall with the city’s largest selection of craft beer. The Place Downtown, in the historic district of Panama City, features trivia nights.

Neighboring Panama City Beach is a flip-flops town during the day, however, when the sun goes down its partying side comes out. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a branch of Nashville’s world-famous honky-tonk with live country music. You can also hear live music at Pineapple Willie’s. And keep your throat moist because, in this town, there’s a good chance you’ll be using it for karaoke at night.

In the town of Bonifay, you can find good food at Sam’s Place and M&W Smokehouse Barbecue.

The picturesque seaside town of Destin may bring back memories of that nostalgic ’50s song, Harbor Lights. HarborWalk Village and the Destin Harbor are the most romantic strolling spots in town, with great shopping and cool boutiques, galleries, family restaurants and attractions, bars and clubs, pub crawls, live music, and dancing amid those harbor lights and lapping waters.

In Pensacola, nightlife often revolves around performing arts companies like the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola and the Pensacola Little Theatre, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the southeastern U.S. The Seville Quarter is a huge venue offering seven rooms of nighttime entertainment, with pool hall, dance club, karaoke, restaurants, bars, and dueling pianos. And downtown’s Palafox Street is an exciting strip lined with restaurants, bars and clubs.

Road Trips

Franklin county alongside two other counties  boast the acclaimed Big Bend Scenic Byway, a 220-mile corridor of forest and coastal treasures. The Dead Lakes State Recreation Area, in nearby Gulf County, offers perhaps the best freshwater fishing in the state, along with unusual scenery due to the stumps and dead tree trunks sticking out of the water. Another “natural” day trip  is St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by water. Here, you’ll see an incredible variety of wildlife, among them many species of birds, Sambar deer and the endangered red wolf. A good starting point is Indian Pass, an historic trading post and, supposedly, the site of Spanish buried treasure.

The Washington County town of Chipley has its fair share of interesting historical buildings in the South Third Street Historic District. And you can take an extraordinary look at early life here at the Five Oaks Museum.  

South Walton has 16 beach neighborhoods that make for a beautiful drive along the coast. You’ll drive along Scenic 30A through a variety of distinct neighborhood styles—so distinct, in fact, that you’ll know when you’re going from one town into another. The area’s upscale aura is evidenced by its many artists and galleries, funky local boutiques, and farm-to-table dining philosophy. This route also offers numerous opportunities to kayak on coastal dune lakes, play golf at a PGA-quality course, and bike along the 18-mile Timpoochee Trail.

For something truly unique, check out the first Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) in the U.S. off Grayton Beach State Park, where a collection of 34 underwater sculptures have been installed  as artificial reefs to provide anchor points for marine life to inhabit. This ecotourism attraction was named one of TIME magazine’s “World’s 100 Greatest Places.”

The Chautauqua Vineyards & Winery is a nice day trip from the Gulf beaches. You can tour the winery and learn the ABCs of grape-growing, pruning, harvesting, crushing and bottling. You’ll be able to taste some of the wines that have earned Chautauqua over 140 awards, from dry wines and southern favorites to sweet muscadine and blueberry.

Shopping

In the Jackson County town of Marianna sits a local treasure called Southern Craft Creamery. They feature innovative ice cream treats such as Vanilla & Satsuma Jam and Tupelo Honey.

Reid Avenue in Port St. Joe is a half-mile-long stroll back into the Old South. Outdoor gear? Books? Jewelry? Local pottery or artwork? Luxury spa treatment? It’s all here, along with restaurants running the gamut from Italian and Southern to Chinese and Mexican.

The Little Village in Panama City has an offbeat collection of outdoor shops. At The Little Mustard Seed, find a mix of furniture, handmade soaps and lotions, jewelry, and a thousand items that have been revived, renewed and restored. Historic Downtown Panama City is home to the Elegant Endeavors Antique Emporium and Main Street Antiques, which have been featured on different shows. Every Saturday, head over to the St. Andrews Farmers’ Market.  

Across the water in Panama City Beach, Pier Park is an outdoor shopping and lifestyle center with a wide variety of items to buy, eat or ogle. 

The Market Shops, at South Walton, offer outdoor shopping accompanied by musicians and artists. In Rosemary Beach, a planned town built in the mid-90s on the principle of “New Urbanism,” the French Quarter, with its balconies and vividly colored buildings and curling wrought-iron railings, is a delightful place to spend an afternoon shopping and dining.

In Destin, HarborWalk Village has a vibrant atmosphere, with vendors, artists and street performers outside, and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. On The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, you’ll find several restaurants and shops. Nearby Fort Walton Beach is filled with boutiques, restaurants and galleries—even a brewery. Hunt for bargains at Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Miramar Beach. And, in Fort Walton Beach, De’France Antiques and Flea Market has treasures you never knew you needed until now. 

And if you have a yen to bring home something new from Pensacola, head for the shops on Palafox Street.

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