Pier in Panama City

Head straight to the pier for some entertainment and fresh air. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Visit Panama City, Florida for a Weekend of Sunshine State Fun

Panama City, Florida, earned its international moniker thanks to its location as the center point of a line drawn between the Chicago and the Panama Canal. Today, the Panhandle area of Palm City and Palm City Beach provides a mix of both of its poles: shopping and fine dining that lend a nod to big-city culture and aquamarine waters and an easygoing attitude that lend a distinctly tropical feel.

Pack a bag and some beverages (the beaches here allow alcohol, responsibly consumed) for a day sunning on the white sand. Or find oceanside adventure in the form of snorkeling, hiking, fishing, theme park hopping or swimming with dolphins off an uninhabited island.

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

Friday: Visit St. Andrews State Park

Begin your first morning at Finns Barista Bar & Snack Shack. Try the inventive “Pancake Tacos” — flapjacks rolled up with scrambled eggs with maple syrup as the salsa stand-in — and sip on housemade organic coffee at one of the picnic tables on the outdoor patio.

Great blue heron
Spend some time bird watching in the park. (Photo: Getty Images)

Next, head to the nearby St. Andrews State Park (about a 5-minute drive) with your umbrella, a cooler full of snacks and beach towels in hand.

Snorkel along the jetties, rent a kayak to paddle through the calm waters or bird-watch along nature trails that snake through the 1,200-acre park. Keep your eyes out for the shy deer and nearly iridescent ghost crabs that populate the shoreline.

Anglers can take the adventure up a notch with a fishing charter through the languid waters of nearby St. Andrews Bay. Legendary New Beginning Fishing Charter hosts trips focused on bottom fishing the area’s reefs for snapper, grouper and amberjack.

Fuel up before your boat ride (or after your beach hike) with lunch at Patches Pub for fish tacos or a Cuban sandwich, served under the shade of palm trees.

In the evening, pop over to a dining spot near the dock: The Grand Marlin Restaurant & Oyster Bar, an upscale spot overlooking the Grand Lagoon. Begin your meal with oysters at the shucked-to-order bar before tucking into seafood gumbo or a creamy Gulf shrimp pasta.

After dinner, get your two-step on at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a beachside honky-tonk that’s been serving up live music and icy blended drinks since the 1960s.

Saturday: Swim With Dolphins

Begin your morning at the Pour. Take your pick of a double-shot espresso or a matcha latte to pair with a house-made Pop-Tart or a breakfast casserole made with eggs, hash browns, sausage and melted cheddar cheese.

Your next stop is an adventure to Shell Island, an uninhabited area nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. This 7-mile slice of paradise is accessible only to boats, and one of the best ways to explore the area is with a day trip through Flippers Dolphin Tours.

An experienced captain will find the resident bottlenose dolphins who call these calm waters home. Once you’ve come upon a small pod, you can safely swim alongside the playful ocean mammals. The tour comes complete with snorkel gear that you can use to search for sand dollars, starfish and crabs.

Club sandwich with fries and a salad
There’s never a bad time for a sandwich break. (Photo: Marriott International)

If you prefer a land-bound adventure, book a Shell Island Shuttle that takes you to the island by way of St. Andrews State Park.

Bring a picnic lunch — or plan ahead and order a bag of sandwiches to go from the Pour at breakfast. There are no restaurants or snack shops on the island. While you’re exploring the area’s 700 acres, keep your eyes peeled for its wildlife hidden within the sand dunes and sea oats, from sea turtles to sandpipers and pelicans.

In the evening, visit Pier Park, a newly developed area for nightlife, shopping and dining on Panama City Beach. Dine on fresh seafood dishes like smoked-tuna dip and shrimp and scallops at the Back Porch Seafood & Oyster House. If you have some proverbial gas in your tank (and wind in your pipes), visit Whiskeys Saloon for karaoke.

Sunday: Splash Around at Shipwreck Island Waterpark

For your last morning in Panama City, it’s breakfast at Lotus Café & Juice Bar. Located in a so-called Zen Garden, the organic café focuses on fresh whole food. The “Raw Oat Bowl” and “Antioxidant Smoothie” might be just the thing to soothe your spirit (and your vocal cords if you spent last night on the stage).

Two kids in inner tubes in pool
Kids will love the waterpark. (Photo: Getty Images)

After breakfast, visit a Panama City institution: Shipwreck Island Waterpark, where visitors can float, slide and swim in the park’s 3 million gallons of water. Younger kids will enjoy the tame Tadpole Hole, while the older thrill-seekers can take to the Free Fall, an enclosed tube ride that shoots riders out on a free-fall drop slide.

Shipwreck is open only April through September, so if you’re visiting in the off-season, opt for WonderWorks, an indoor amusement park with a focus on science. Housed in a head-scratching structure, designed to look like an upside-down building, the park has interactive exhibits like a bed of nails (to showcase the power of distributed pressure) and a bubble lab.

For lunch, try a local favorite finger food: peel-and-eat shrimp from the Wicked Wheel.

Work off the meal with a game of beach volleyball at Schooners Last Local Beach Club. Live music starts in the late afternoon, so you can get on the dance floor if that’s your thing. Whenever you’re ready for dinner, head to the on-site restaurant for seafood baskets and grilled mahi-mahi sandwiches.

Save room for dessert at the Pink Pelican Ice Cream Bar, where you can select from more than 40 different flavors before taking your cone to go and heading out for a moonlit walk on the sand.