Nestled along the Gulf of Mexico, the Emerald Coast of Florida bestows breathtaking natural beauty characterized by pristine white sandy beaches, crystal-clear emerald waters, and stunning coastal landscapes.

From Panama City and Destin to Miramar Beach and Fort Walton, there’s so much to discover in terms of natural beauty, culture, and city life that if you’re visiting for the first time, it can be a bit overwhelming deciding where to start.

We’ve got you covered. Below, we have curated a list of the top 10 things you can’t miss while traveling along the Emerald Coast.

Are you ready to experience the best Florida has to offer?

1. Grayton Beach State Park, Santa Rosa Beach

Located between Panama City Beach and Destin, Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach is an unmissable place if you’re looking for secluded beaches boasting the best characteristics of an Emerald Coast paradise.

Crystal clear and shallow waters and white powdery sands are the rule here — the perfect stage for relaxation, swimming, and watching a spectacular sunset. Also, you can explore gorgeous dunes, spot turtles since the park is a popular destination for sea turtle nesting, engage in water activities in Western Lake, and walk through four miles of trails cutting through a beautiful coastal forest with scrub oaks and magnolias.


2. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Santa Rosa Beach

Known for its gorgeous dunes and exuberant wildlife, Topsail Hill is another unbeatable spot to embrace the Emerald Coast’s natural splendor.

The stunning dunes form a unique ecosystem of freshwater lakes and coastal vegetation where you can spot reptiles, mammals, and birds like ospreys, plovers, red-shouldered hawks, Eastern bluebirds, and red cardinals.

The unspoiled shores are paradise on earth: uncrowded white quartz sands, calm and vibrant azure waters, and undisturbed views of the Gulf of Mexico — that’s all you need for a perfect day on the beach. 

While visiting the state park, you can also enjoy a picnic at one of the tables scattered throughout the park, explore 15 miles of marked hiking trails, bike along a paved trail that leads to the beach, and engage in activities such as fishing, geocaching, and glamping. 


3. Henderson Beach State Park, Destin

Any visit to Destin is not complete without some time exploring the pristine miles of beach that call Henderson Beach State Park home.

The park’s unspoiled coastline of powdery white sands and dazzling turquoise waters is the stage for relaxation, sunbathing, and swimming — the gentle waves and the warm, crystalline Gulf waters are nothing short of therapeutic. 

If you’re more of an explorer and want to get more active, Henderson Beach State Park also features natural trails where you can discover the beauty of a dune ecosystem filled with wildlife. Keep your eyes open for pelicans, plovers, and turtles. 

The nice amenities around include a beautiful boardwalk that connects the beach to picnic areas, campsites, well-maintained restrooms, showers, and changing areas. 

Here is a tip: While visiting the park, don’t forget to wait until the sun goes down so that you can experience a spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.


4. Crab Island, Destin 

Technically, Crab Island is not an island but a submerged sandbar in the middle of Choctawhatchee Bay. However, the beauty of the place truly matches that of Caribbean islands.

The best time to visit is at high tide when the sandbar is covered in vibrant turquoise waters. It’s like a huge waist-deep swimming pool where you can wade, float, snorkel, relax, and soak up the sun.

There’s also a festive atmosphere all around since several people rent pontoon boats to spend the day playing in the crystalline waters. You can bring your beverages, play music, and chill in paradise.

For the more adventurous, you can also rent jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards to explore the stunning submerged sandbar in different ways.


5. Destin Harbor Boardwalk, Destin

The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is the beating heart of the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” It’s not only home to the largest fishing fleet in Florida but also a go-to place for lots of entertainment, people-watching, and stunning sea views.

As soon as you set foot on the boardwalk, you’ll feel the lively atmosphere. Walk around admiring the gorgeous vistas, watch a live music performance, and then pick one of the amazing restaurants facing the sea to savor fresh seafood dishes. Some excellent places for a memorable dining experience include:

Dining while feeling the fresh Gulf breeze? Count us in!

That’s not all! If you’re into shopping therapy, the Destin Harbor Boardwalk is also home to amazing boutiques and souvenir shops. Got kids in tow? That’s the place to be! You’ll find a mini-golf course, escape rooms, laser mazes, and activities where the entire family can have fun together.

To top it all off, the boardwalk is the starting point for several adventures, such as dolphin cruises, fishing trips, snorkeling, diving, and parasailing adventures — all must-do activities while visiting Destin.


6. John Beasley Park, Fort Walton Beach

For more postcard-worthy beaches, John Beasley Park is a must-visit spot along the Emerald Coast. 

Located on Okaloosa Island and boasting miles of dazzling and uncrowded beaches with calm and transparent waters, this public park is an excellent option for a beach day.

It’s the ideal place if you just want to relax and immerse yourself in nature. The atmosphere is incredibly serene, with no commercial development, and the views of the Gulf of Mexico are simply unparalleled. 

If you’re lucky, you might even spot dolphins jumping on the horizon. John Beasley Park is also home to incredible dunes where you can spot wildlife. You can bring your own snacks and enjoy a picnic with your family at one of the 12 tables onsite while soaking in the beachy vibes and feeling the ocean breeze.


Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, Fort Walton Beach

A visit to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park is not only educational but also fun. There’s nothing like watching fascinating creatures up close and learning about them — indeed, a memorable experience in Destin.

Some of the highlights of the aquarium include fantastic dolphin shows and exhibits featuring incredible marine mammals, fish, and reptiles. 

The animal encounters are an unbeatable experience. From getting in the water and engaging with dolphins to being kissed by a sea lion and feeding penguins, these encounters will certainly be among the most cherished moments of your trip. 

Naturally, all of this happens under the care of the extremely professional and friendly staff, who will also give you insights about these wonderful creatures.


8. The Village of Baytowne Wharf, Miramar Beach

Like the Destin Harbor Boardwalk, The Village of Baytowne Wharf checks all the boxes when it comes to amazing dining and shopping experiences, as well as top-notch entertainment options.

This must-visit complex in Miramar Beach is brimming with fantastic restaurants featuring a wide variety of cuisines. When you need to grab a bite, some of the highlights are:

After a superb meal, don’t forget to stop by Seaside Sweeteries to grab a delicious gelato.

Shopping enthusiasts will love exploring the lovely boutiques for souvenirs, and kids will have a blast with the entertainment options — from a lovely carousel to a state-of-the-art arcade with over 60 redemption and video games where you can collect tickets for great prizes. 

While exploring the village, you’ll also stumble across live music performances that add to the vibrant and festive vibes of this Emerald Coast gem.


9. St. Andrew’s State Park, Panama City

The beach at St. Andrew’s State Park is considered one of the best beaches in the US.

Not convinced? Okay… On one side of the beach, a breakwater forms a turquoise lagoon of calm waters where you can swim, snorkel, or just float. If you’re of a more active type, the rest of the beach offers beautiful rolling waves for surfing.

The park is also a place for nature exploration since it hosts five distinct ecological landscapes in one location. Whether you walk through pines or along stunning sand dunes, you’ll be immersed in natural beauty at all times. An extra-special attraction is that the park is a migratory stopover for several species of birds and butterflies. 

There’s more! Fishing piers, picnic pavilions, and well-equipped campsites amplify the number of activities for you to enjoy at this picture-perfect state park. If you’re traveling with your furry companion, they are more than welcome to enjoy all the beauty of the place with you.


10. Pier Park, Panama City 

Pier Park is the premier destination for shopping enthusiasts, dining, and entertainment in Panama City. The best part is that this outdoor complex boasts a delightful beachy vibe and is just steps away from the beach and Russell-Fields City Pier, a must-visit spot for sunsets in the city.

With over a hundred stores ranging from big brands to local boutiques, Pier Park offers everything you need — from groceries and home decor to clothing, shoes, jewelry, crafts, and unique souvenirs. 

If you’re feeling hungry, you’ll find excellent dining options, as well as lounges and music venues where you can grab a drink and enjoy live performances. 

Bringing kids along? The Grand IMAX Pier Park 16 movie theater showcases all the latest blockbusters, while the Mirror Maze & Laser Craze, Pirate’s Quest Laser Tag, and XD Dark Ride Experience offer tons of entertainment for the whole family.


Top 10 Things You Can’t Miss on the Emerald Coast

When exploring the Emerald Coast, beautiful places and great entertainment will be found around every corner. There’s endless natural beauty and places to visit along the way. If you’re visiting for the first time, our tips below offer a good glimpse into some of the best things this breathtaking part of Florida has to offer.

Want more tips to make your trip to the Emerald Coast extra special? Then head to our blog on things to do in the area.  We’ve covered many topics so far, like some interesting and fun facts about the area, a guide to the best restaurants, and a blog on pet-friendly spots. And guess what? There are more amazing blogs coming soon, so stay tuned!


Wondering where to stay on the Emerald Coast during your visit?

Book your stay with Emerald Coast Vacation Rentals. We offer an unmatched selection of vacation rental properties to suit every traveler’s taste. Whether you’re looking for a beachfront condominium, pet-friendly rentals, or a charming beachside cottage, we’ve got it.

Our properties are strategically located, which means you’ll be steps away from idyllic beaches, great dining options, exquisite golf courses, and an array of outdoor pursuits like deep-sea fishing, dolphin tours, and more. That’s the secret to a perfect Emerald Coast Gateway!