Nestled along Florida’s northwest coast, you’ll find Panama City Beach, a delightful coastal destination popular with families, spring breakers and nature lovers alike. From long walks on the soft powder-white sand to parasailing, cruising, fishing, or exploring the city on the quaint Bay Town trolley, you too will find yourself asking why it took so long to visit this charming resort town.
I was fortunate enough to be invited by my sister who was traveling to Panama City Beach for a few days. Not one to say no to a trip, I jumped at the opportunity of a coastal getaway.
We crammed in as much as we could in our few days and compiled a comprehensive guide, especially for first-time visitors, with some of our top picks for things to do in Panama City Beach in a short getaway.
Read on for inspiration for making your Panama City Beach vacation as pleasant as the wind-swept breeze coming off the Gulf of Mexico.
Please keep in mind these details are subject to change. Due to COVID-19, social distancing and face coverings may be required. Be sure to check local health officials’ safety regulations and each establishment’s website for updated information before making final plans.
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Panama City Beach, Florida: Guide For First Time Visitors
Getting to Panama City Beach
Airport: If you flying into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), you’ll be happy to know that the airport is less than 20 miles north of Panama City Beach. How’s that for a leisurely stroll down to relaxation lane?
With plenty of available transportation options, reaching the beachfront strip won’t be a problem. From the airport, you can easily hire a taxi, shuttle, or limo on the spot; or if you’d like more convenience, book a rental vehicle three to six months in advance in order to secure the best deal.
Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft are also available, located just outside of the airport’s main entrance, in the designated Transportation Network Company pick-up area.
Best Time to Visit Panama City Beach
- Best Times: April, May, October
- Not-So-Good Times: November – February; March – April
The climate in Panama City Beach is generally pretty humid all-year-round with late spring, summer, and early fall (April, May, and October) being the best time to visit for comfortable beach temperatures and breezy Florida nights.
If visiting Panama City Beach during the winter season—from November to February— you can find savings on lodging and airfare by visiting in this slower season but the ocean temperatures do drop, making it generally too chilly to enjoy the beaches. March and April are in high demand, due to the influx of spring breakers flocking to the area.
In the summer months, highs between 80°F and 90°F (26°C and 32°C) are expected, with lows in the mid-70s (21°C). The winter months are relatively cooler, with highs in the mid-60s (15°C) and lows in the mid-40s (4°C). Rainfall is generally short-lived, so you shouldn’t have to worry about any torrents spoiling your vacation.
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Packing Outfits for Panama City Beach
In terms of packing, be sure to pack a few t-shirts, shorts, skirts, and bathing suits! Of course, what and how much you pack will all depend on when you are going and how long for, but the absolute essentials I could not be without in Panama City Beach are:
- Sunscreen to protect your skin from the intense sun
- flip flops or sandals
- No trip to Panama City Beach is complete without a few bathing suits (of course!)
- Sunglasses to protect your eyes
- A light cardigan for cooler nights or indoors
Additional essentials for your Panama City Beach trip:
Transportation and Getting Around Panama City Beach
Car: While you are able to walk around the main center of Panama City Beach, we found having a rental car convenient for exploring most of the attractions in the outer areas.
Don’t have a rental car? Other options for getting around Panama City Beach include taxi cabs or riding the Bay Town Trolley.
Bay Town Trolley: The Bay Town Trolley runs from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The trolley route covers the entire strip and provides an affordable and reliable way to travel around Panama City Beach.
Accommodations & Where to Stay
When it comes to accommodation in Panama City Beach, you are literally spoilt for choice! From luxury beachfront resorts to reasonably priced condos for rent, you will find something that will suit your budget and personal preference.
Check rates and availability of these popular Panama City Beach hotels based on their value and location:
If the hotel atmosphere doesn’t suit your interests, there are also plenty of Airbnb and Vrbo rentals in the area. My sister and I chose to stay at an Airbnb near the town, mainly because of its proximity to the water, and proximity to Pier Park‘s shops and restaurants.
Plan Your Stay: Search more top-rated Panama City Beach hotels and accommodations – check rates and availability here!
Attractions, Things to See and Do in Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach, reputed by many to have some of the best beaches in the United States, hence its, “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches” nickname.
Being from the Caribbean, I’m rarely impressed by the best beach labels that are often thrown around. However, the finely-crushed sand and emerald green waters, along Panama City Beach 27 miles of sugary-white coastline caught my attention—and certainly lived up to its reputation.
The relaxing, chilled vibe will have you yearning to set up camp along the 27 miles of shoreline to lounge, soak up the sun or take part in water activities such as snorkeling, parasailing, sailing tours, and more.
Whether you’re looking for an action-packed day or a relaxing, secluded getaway, there are hotspots along the coastline that cater for all vibes. My favorite beach areas are:
- St. Andrews State Park
- Panama City Beach
- Crooked Island
Escape to Shell Island
Hop on the ferry to Shell Island (Peninsula, really!) to see Florida in one of its most natural form. If you are a nature enthusiast, you will fall in love with the island’s coastal pine groves, warm sand dunes, and the tranquil freshwater lake.
The island is so remote, you won’t find a trash bin or a food kiosk on the island (so make sure you eat before you go and take your trash with you back to the mainland!)
Thanks to its quiet, undisturbed nature, the island is home to shorebirds, deer, ghost crabs, and green sea turtles, and all kinds of coastal creatures.
It’s also a favorite spot among the locals and tourists who go to the island looking for relaxation, snorkeling activities, and fishing excursions.
Recommended beach essentials:
Things to Do: A Day in Panama City Beach Parks
If you have something a little more nature-oriented in mind for your visit to Panama City Beach, there’s plenty to do that will satisfy your nature cravings such as:
- Russell-Field Pier (the longest fishing pier on the Gulf of Mexico)
- St. Andrews State Park (great for camping!)
- PCB Conservation Park (amazing extensive hiking trails!)
Russell-Fields City Pier
Take a walk down the Russell-Field Pier extending over 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. Apart from the gorgeous pier, the Russell-Fields offers amazing fishing grounds and lovely views.
Access to the pier is $3 for a spectator day pass. If you’re looking to fish, the daily pass is $6 which includes the fishing license.
St. Andrew State Park
The city may be known for its dazzling beachscapes, but it’s also home to some of the best state parks and nature spots. St. Andrew State Park, for example, stretches over 1,000 acres and is home to incredible wildlife, hiking trails, and remote beach access.
It’s one of the best spots for families. You can also participate in activities here such as surfing, snorkeling, fishing, boating, and camping.
Camp Helen State Park
Hike through the Oak Canopy Trail, where you’re likely to see deer, squirrels, bald eagles, and kingfishers.
Another local gem where you can hike the extensive trails, bike, or stroll through cypress groves and wetlands.
The expansive woodland covering about 2,900 acres offers fantastic outdoor recreational activities including fishing, hiking, bicycling, and looping around the trail systems with boardwalks scattered around the park.
If you only have time to choose one of these amazing options, I personally recommend a visit to Conservation Park, especially if you’re fond of the outdoors.
Hiking through the extensive trails surrounded by the colossal cypress trees was one of my most cherished experiences in Panama City Beach.
Tips for visiting Conservation Park:
- Pick up a park map at the main entrance before heading out to the trails.
- Wear proper sun protection (wide brim hat, sunscreen, and stay hydrated).
- Be prepared for the heat and humidity.
- Don’t forget to bring your binoculars for spectacular wildlife viewing.
- Bonus, both parking and admission are FREE!
Recommended outdoor essentials:
Shop at Pier Park
Once you’re happily sun-kissed and perfumed by the ocean’s salty musk, head into the city to take advantage of the area’s numerous attractions. If you want to shop, see a movie, or listen to live music, Pier Park is where you should be!
This sprawling outdoor center is a village unto itself. A premier shopping, dining, and entertainment destination, it hosts outdoor festivals to dance clubs all year round. Here, you can take refuge from the sun at the IMAX Theater, dance your shoes off at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and get lost in the Emerald Coast Mirror Maze and Laser Craze.
When it comes to shopping, Pier Park has it all. From big brand retailers to stylish boutiques, it’s the perfect place to spend the day when you need a break from the beach.
Bonus Tip: While you’re here, don’t forget to check out SkyWheel entertainment. It has a miniature golf course, a ropes course and a spectacular above-ground perspective of Panama City Beach!
Family Activities: Things to Do in Panama City Beach
Traveling with the whole gang? There is plenty of activities to do in Panama City Beach that is suitable for the whole family:
- Shipwreck Island Waterpark (prepare to get soaked!)
- Zoo World Zoological Conservatory (adorable animals!)
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum (prepare to be amazed!)
Imagine playing on a bouncing castle floating on water and you got Aquapark! A floating attraction packed with fun-filled activities including trampolines, and inflatable slides that will turn your day into a marvel.
Shipwreck Island Waterpark
If you’re the type that enjoys having fun on the water, Shipwreck Island Waterpark is the spot for you. Enjoy splashing, meandering, water tipping, zooming, and raging with slides catered to various age groups. The lazy river and the wave pool are popular amongst the kids.
Panama City Beach Tours
You’ll find plenty of boat tours designed for families, including the Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise, a swashbuckling mission of the very finest. Or for a unique, thrilling adventure, book the family for a chartered helicopter tour and see the coastline from above!
Restaurants – Where to Eat in Panama City Beach
As a first-time visitor to Panama City Beach, you may find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the vast amount of restaurants to choose from as well. First things first, if your appetite is whet by the thought of blackened snapper, chargrilled grouper, or seared mahi-mahi, you’re in for a real treat!
Panama City Beach has earned its reputation in seafood, oftentimes being referred to as ‘the seafood capital of the south’. As a bonus, most of the restaurants run right along the beach, so you can expect spectacular seaside views while you eat. Two of the best restaurants for fresh fish are Grand Marlin, and Schooners, one of Panama City Beach’s oldest restaurants.
But that’s hardly the extent of PCB’s smorgasbord of cuisines to choose from. A mixture of both casual and upscale restaurants, you’ll find everything from sushi to steakhouses and barbeque joints, and, of course, seafood eateries featuring ice-cold beer and freshly-caught sea fare. From power salads drizzled with homemade dressings, Caribbean jerk sandwiches, or Vietnamese delicacies, it all can be found in Panama City Beach.
Whatever type of meal you’re hungry for, there’s a good possibility that it’s just a short walk down the strip to find it. Many restaurants even offer live bands while you enjoy your meal. The Saltwater Grill, for example, features live music Thursdays and Fridays, all year round.
If you saved room for dessert, be sure to check out Amore Donuts or Bruster’s Real Ice Cream for a sweet and tasty treat. I would do almost anything for Bruster’s fresh-made daily butter pecan and mint chocolate chip flavors. Yum!
Map of Panama City Beach Itinerary
Panama City Beach really is a place that caters to everyone. From sailing, fishing, beach excursions, to nature hikes and family-themed adventures, who wouldn’t be at home in this relaxed coastal resort destination.
Whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth time, I hope, this guide has roused your excitement, filled your to-do itinerary, and helped make sure your trip to this sensational coastal city is truly remarkable and memorable.