white sand beach santa rosa island

Sugar-soft sands await in Santa Rosa Island. (Photo: Getty Images)

Beach Travel

Emerald Seas, Sun and Sugar-White Sands: Your Guide to Florida’s Panhandle Beaches

While tourists flock to the beaches of Panama City and Pensacola in northwest Florida, you might want to skip the crowds and explore the Forgotten Coast’s less crowded beaches. For an under-the-radar beach vacation, head to one of these hidden gems tucked into Florida’s Panhandle.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Santa Rosa Island

This barrier island draws nature lovers for its sugar-white sands; warm, jewel-toned Gulf waters; and proximity to both Gulf Islands National Seashore and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

For a deep dive into Florida’s history, explore Civil War–era Fort Pickens for a peek at wildlife exhibits and restored historic structures like the mine storeroom. Whether you’re walking along the soft sand dunes, paddleboarding in the Gulf, bird-watching in pine forests or biking your way through picturesque trails, you’ll find the natural beauty intoxicating in this Panhandle paradise.

Navarre Beach

navarre beach
Find time to chill at water’s edge in Navarre. (Photo: Getty Images)

When a beach dubs itself “Florida’s Most Relaxing Place,” you know what’s on the agenda — toes in the sand and cold beverage in hand. This compact seaside community beckons you to chill on its 12-mile stretch of sugar-sand shoreline.

Stroll along the 1,545-foot-long Navarre Beach Pier — the longest fishing pier in Florida— to spot dolphins, sea turtles and stingrays. Pack a lunch and catch some shade at Navarre Beach Park, nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Santa Rosa Sound.

Relaxed and ready to get active? Go snorkeling or diving at Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary or head to nearby Blackwater River State Forest for canoeing and hiking.

Fort Walton Beach

sunset at fort walton beach
Soak up sunset views. (Photo: Getty Images)

While nearby Destin often gets all the glory (and the crowds), don’t overlook Fort Walton Beach, a family-friendly hot spot bursting with parks, aquariums, museums and must-see attractions.

Cross the bay and stroll along the bustling boardwalk of Okaloosa Island to discover local shops, batting cages, go-kart tracks, restaurants and bars. Head to Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park to catch a sea lion show; learn more about local marine life, including sea turtles, stingrays and alligators; and interact with dolphins.

And check out the Air Force Armament Museum on the mainland for an up-close look at weaponry, military exhibits and more than two dozen vintage and modern-day aircrafts. (Free admission!)

Grayton Beach

This charming seaside village boasts a coastal artsy vibe with its eclectic art galleries, crushed-oyster-shell paved side streets, chill bars and quaint shops. A creative haven for artists, chefs and musicians, Grayton Beach should be your go-to destination if you like quirky towns filled with character.

From historic Defuniak Street to the colorful Grayt Wall of Art and the world-famous watering hole known as The Red Bar, Grayton Beach delivers on its reputation. Where else can you get a unique scuba fix by diving into the Underwater Museum of Art, a sculpture garden that lies 58 feet beneath the sea? And if you crave some time in nature, there’s always Grayton Beach State Park — an idyllic, pet-friendly setting perfect for swimming, fishing, biking, kayaking and romping with your leashed dog.

St. George Island

heron on the coast of st george island florida
Make feathery friends at the beach on St. George. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you crave a peaceful retreat, visit this 28-mile secluded barrier island nestled in Florida’s Big Bend. The island’s centerpiece? The 2,023-acre St. George Island State Park, which offers pristine beaches, soaring sand dunes, saltwater marshes and pine forests. (Tip: Soak in the spectacular view of Apalachicola Bay as you cross the four-mile bridge from mainland Eastpoint to the island.)

Outdoor enthusiasts can go swimming, shelling, paddling, boating, fishing, bird-watching, hiking and stargazing. Ready to get vertical? Climb the 92 steps to the top of the St. George Island Lighthouse, a reconstructed 19th-century lighthouse. History buffs can learn about its origin story in the onsite museum.

Rosemary Beach

While the beach draws you in, the town invites you to explore. You’ll find Instagram-worthy spots set against luxe backdrops, cobblestone streets, public art sculptures and West Indies–inspired architecture. The new-urbanism design puts all this within walking distance of a town center filled with high-end boutiques, bookstores, art galleries and local treasures.

Foodies flock to this stretch of sand in the South Walton area for Gulf-to-table dining at coastal casual eateries, award-winning restaurants and indulgent dessert spots like La Crema Tapas & Chocolate. Enjoy a nightcap at Pescado, one of several rooftop bars where you can watch a picture-perfect sunset over the glimmering Gulf.