The Florida Panhandle is home to some of the best Florida beaches, and several beach towns on the Panhandle still have that Old Florida charm that has all but disappeared from much of the rest of the state. The Florida Panhandle is easy to find on any map. It’s that narrow strip of land that connects to the main peninsula as a handle attaches to a frying pan.
Generally speaking, anything west of the mouth of the Apalachicola River, at Apalachicola, Florida, is considered part of the Panhandle. Sometimes the Big Bend area to the east is also considered to be part of the panhandle, but you won’t find the best Florida beaches there—the gorgeous sand and water of the Gulf Coast beaches are farther west.
In all, the region is about 200 miles long, and the coast fronts the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a region of forests, farms, and tiny obscure towns, for the most part. But that’s inland. Along the Gulf are fishing villages, stretches of undeveloped coast, natural bays, estuaries, and some of the best Florida beaches you can imagine.
Best Florida Beaches
Why do I say some of the best Florida beaches can be found on the Florida Panhandle? The Gulf Coast beaches here are amazing! They include top vacation destinations like Pensacola, Panama City Beach, Destin, and Ft. Walton. You’ll also find spots that aren’t so well known, including Cape San Blas, Mexico Beach, St. Joe Beach, Beacon Hill, St. George Island, Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Rosemary Beach, Navarre, WaterColor Beach, and Perdido Key.
The beaches here are beautiful. In fact, Dr. Beach named the shore at Cape San Blas the best beach in the U.S. a couple of years ago! The sand is soft and dazzling white, consisting of powdered quartz. Because of its high reflectivity, it doesn't even get hot like the darker sands of Florida's Atlantic beaches, so there's no need for flip-flops to come between you and the beach. The stretches of sand on the Florida Panhandle are wide and level, perfect for volleyball, Frisbee, and sunning.
This area is informally divided into regions known as the Emerald Coast, the Miracle Strip, and the Forgotten Coast. Most of the Old Florida towns are located on the Forgotten Coast, and they really do seem to have been largely overlooked. It’s almost like time has stood still in some places, like Apalachicola, Carrabelle, Port St. Joe, Dog Island, and St. Vincent Island, just to name a few. There are lots of Gulf Coast beaches in the region to discover!
I'm sure you've heard of the famous Riviera, but are you familiar with the Redneck Riviera? That's what many locals call the Florida Panhandle. This area includes communities like Mexico Beach, Beacon Hill, Port St. Joe, Cape San Blas, St. Joe Beach, Panama City, Ft. Walton Beach, and Destin, Florida. The "Riviera" part comes from the beautiful, clear turquoise water, and the "redneck" part comes from the fact that the region is largely inhabited by Southern conservatives. Put the two terms together, and you have Redneck Riviera. But don't worry—the natives are friendly!
The water fronting the Redneck Riviera is gorgeous, with gentle waves and practically no undertow in some places. The surf is shallow, with a gentle, gradual slope. There are no drop-offs to worry about, so these are very kid-safe beaches.
Because of the water's high visibility, snorkeling and diving are favorite pastimes on the Redneck Riviera. Also popular are fishing, shelling, scalloping, swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and sightseeing. In larger cities like Panama City and Destin, there are even more opportunities for vacationers.
We love visiting the Redneck Riviera! We try to make the drive at least once or twice a year for a family vacation. We have very young grandchildren, so we appreciate the calmness and the clarity of the water, along with the cool sand on the beach. We always have a wonderful time here. The entire family stays together in a huge house right on the beach. In most of the beach houses in which we've stayed, when we step off the back porch or deck, we're on the glorious sand. We've traveled all over Florida, but for great beaches, the Redneck Riviera is our favorite area.
When you decide to come to the Redneck Riviera for a visit, you'll have a wide range of lodging choices. This stretch of coastline has plenty of beachfront houses, luxurious homes, oceanfront condos, magnificent villas, campgrounds, hotels, motels, cabins, and seaside cottages. There's a huge price range for accommodations, so you're sure to find one to fit your budget—even for beachfront lodging.
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is perhaps the pinnacle of the Redneck Riviera. It’s a beautiful place, but like other “touristy” spots on the Florida Panhandle, it’s a congested area with tons of hotels and other beach rentals, along with high-rises, fast food joints, and all sorts of attractions. Panama City Beach is often referred to as a “party town,” and during Spring Break, the term is certainly applicable. Thousands and thousands of college students from around the nation fill the PCB hotel rooms and condos every year during Spring Break, and the town becomes “party central.” By summer, the college partying is over, but the beaches are still filled with crowds of family vacationers.
If you want to enjoy Panama City Beach with fewer crowds, I suggest going in September or October. The weather is still comfortably warm, and the ocean temps are usually still high enough for swimming and other water sports. During the fall and winter months, you can also enjoy the wonderful fresh seafood at local restaurants without having to wait two hours for a table. If you want to experience Old Florida, however, Panama City Beach is not your best bet.
I’m assuming you’re familiar with the term “Old Florida.” In case you’re not, you’ve probably figured it out on your own. Much of the Florida Panhandle has its own unique old Florida charm. You won't find high rises, sprawling shopping malls, amusement parks, or wall-to-wall fast-food restaurants and touristy joints in small towns like Mexico Beach and St. Joe Beach.
Instead, you'll discover charming locally-owned restaurants that serve fresh Gulf seafood and quaint mom-and-pop stores that sell groceries, clothing, and beach supplies. In Panama City and Destin, Florida, you'll usually find crowds, along with large shopping malls and an abundance of all different types of restaurants and fast-food eateries.
If you want to experience the laid-back, natural beauty of the eastern Redneck Riviera and some of the best Florida beaches, hurry up! This place can't remain secret forever. In fact, I’m always a little surprised that these places still exist. The tiny beach towns will soon be discovered, just like Panama City and Destin. As soon as developers grab it, it will become just another beach resort area. The old Florida charm will be swallowed up by huge conglomerates, and the quaintness will disappear. Once that happens, it will be gone forever, never to be recaptured. You and your family deserve a visit to the best Florida beaches while they’re still pristine.