Choosing The Ideal Vacation Location On Florida’s Panhandle: Pensacola, Panama City Beach, Or Destin?

The Florida Panhandle is typically known as the ‘Emerald Coast’ thanks to the way in which its extremely white beaches can contrast with its beautiful waters. It is no wonder why people tend to seek out this section of beauty for glamorous beach vacations.

If you have not been to this area in the past, or if you want to switch where you usually go to, there are 3 specific cities/ towns where people tend to flood. These are Panama City Beach, Pensacola, and Destin. 

Choosing The Ideal Vacation Location On Florida’s Panhandle: Pensacola, Panama City Beach, Or Destin?

Before we elaborate on the specific information of each of these places, it is worth knowing that each of these spaces has a pretty similar energy to them. To put it subtly, this area is not called “Redneck Riviera’ for no reason. 

This particular part of Florida is mostly visited by the people who come from the surrounding states, so it is pretty much a complete U-turn from what is typically seen in the Southern parts of Florida. 

Aside from this, you can find high-rise condos, Joe’s Crab Trap-styled restaurants, as well as a putt-putt mini golf course. 

However, the beaches, the beautiful beaches. 

The whole stretch that goes from Pensacola all the way to Panama City Beach has to be the most beautiful stretch of beach you could ever see in the state of Florida(see also: 22 Most Beautiful And Exciting Beaches In Florida). 

It has fine powder-like, white-as-sugar sands, with turquoise water and calm waves that you can easily swim in but is still fun enough to play in. 

This is why people come here, it’s the picturesque beauty of the place. It’s Caribbean-like beaches which takes you into a wonderland free of worries and fear. 

But, here’s the question… Which is better?

What To Know About Pensacola 

Pensacola city sits very close to Florida’s border with Alabama, only 60 miles to the east of Mobile. 

Pensacola Beach is essentially the barrier island where the beach begins, and is probably the most compact of the three beaches. 

There is also an almost endless stretch of medium or small condo buildings along this island towards the National Seashore Gulf Islands. Yet, a majority of the hotels and restaurants are all clustered together close to the beach. 

A vast majority of the hotels around here are Holiday Inns or Hampton Inns, but they are resort versions. You can find a Margaritaville and a Hilton too though. 

The food here is also pretty typical for a tourist beach, Riptides, Crabs on the Beach, Flounders, and so on.

What To Know About Destin

What To Know About Destin

Destin is the biggest of the beach towns here, and it does have the majority when it comes to what it offers. You will find Destin about 50 miles to the east of Pensacola. 

Around here you will find Fort Walton Beach on the West, Miramar beach on the East side, and Destin “Proper”. 

This is a blissful beach with over 15 miles of things that you can do. It used to be a cozy little sleepy-style fishing village, but now it is the hot stop for tourists who want a beach vacation on Florida’s Panhandle. 

There has been an incredible amount of hard work done to fix up the traffic and roads that have plagued the area in recent years. However, it is still a popular area, so do not go here expecting traffic-free roads. 

The big chain restaurants for fast food and sit-down restaurants are all found here, as well as an outlet mall, many shopping complexes, and an absolutely massive Bass pro with a ‘Fish Bowl’ Bowling alley.

It is an ideal place to bring the whole family, especially if you have kids! 

What To Know About Panama City Beach 

Panama City Beach is still a great beach, just like the others, but it has a different feel. It has the vibe of Spring Break. It has Spring hill Suites and Holiday Inn-styled places, but it is mostly just condo-tels. 

You can expect big fast food chains, restaurant chains, and other stereotypical beach-front locations. 

It also has the Pier Park, with a movie theater, Ron Jon’s, Dave & Buster’s, and a mall. There are also some amusement parks and marine parks.

Out of all of these, it feels the most stereotypical and is probably best suited for younger people wanting to let off some steam at the beach.

Which Is The Best?

Now for the big question, which is the best of these three? Honestly, there is one clear winner in our opinion. We think Destin is the best. 

Destin is nicer and bigger than the others, and it comes with everything you could have in your expectations. No matter your expectations on shopping, accommodation, or dining, you will find what you are hoping for. 

If you enjoy the whole spring break-style amusement park, crab trap, mini golf, and such vibe, you will find what you are looking for. However, if you want a quieter vacation with a nice pool, upscale shopping, and good seafood, this is available as well. 

The east end of Destin is also gorgeous, and it is worth visiting the Grand Boulevard and Baytowne Wharf here.

In our opinion, (it may not suit everyone) the best place to stay would be the Henderson Beach resort. This is exactly in the heart of Destin, but it is also really close to the Henderson State Park, so it is not only pretty central, but it is also pretty quiet too! 

It does depend on where you come from, but Pensacola could actually be a good hour’s drive less than Destin, which could make it the more attractive option.

Pensacola is not that bad, it is not as well developed as the other two, and comes with a more retro feel, but some may prefer this. 

However, considering the number of hotel rooms here there are not really enough restaurants or things for you to do locally. 

If you are happy to park up on the beach and go to the store to make some sandwiches, and you are okay with having a regular dining spot with fewer options if you want a change, then it is not too bad. And, the beaches are not as crowded as in the other two locations. 

However, if you do stay in a high-rise then everyone there will also be on the same part of the beach as you are. 

In our opinion, we would stay away from Panama City Beach, it is probably attractive for some though. It just has a very Spring Break feel to it, and while it can be family-friendly, it just doesn’t inspire the vacation feel for everyone. 

Destin has all the entertainment Panama City has, but it is just nicer in general.

Really it all depends on what you want. Introverts might want to steer clear of Panama City and Destin, but if you want options Destin is the best. 

However, if you are still stuck for choice, there are also some really cute quaint areas and gorgeous beach spots on the scenic 30A highway, which is found between Panama City Beach and Destin!