Life is indeed a beach, and the Northern Gulf Coast of Florida is fortunate to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world – and the word has definitely gotten out. The Destin area, in particular, has grown exponentially since it was founded as a fishing village back in the mid-1800s.
There’s a reason Destin has become one of the premier beach destinations in the United States. It all starts with the sugary white beaches and crystal clear, emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
If you combine the natural beauty of the area along with miles of top-notch restaurants, places to go, and things to do – you have the formula for a perfect vacation getaway.
But with so much to see and do, what’s the best way to plan a week the next time you’re in town for a visit?
We expect several days will be spent just relaxing on the beach and soaking up lots of Florida sunshine. However, you’ll want to spend at least some of the time recovering from your sunburn and checking out all the other activities going on in the area.
And there’s a LOT going on.
Here are 10 vacation ideas you should consider when planning your next visit to the Emerald Coast. Click on links to go directly to that section of the article.
- Spend a Day on 30A
- Build the Perfect Sand Sculpture
- Good Eats. Breathtaking Views
- Get off the Sand and Into the Water
- Shop ‘Til You Drop
- Learn History of “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”
- Hang Out at Crab Island
- There’s No Business Like Show Business
- Discover Northwest Florida Military History
- Swim With Dolphins at the Gulfarium
1) Spend a Day on 30A
A trip to Destin wouldn’t be complete without spending at least one day exploring Scenic Highway 30A in South Walton County. Located between Destin and Panama City, the state road spans roughly 20 miles along the Florida panhandle coastline.
What you’ll find is an escape from the hustle and bustle of Destin and Highway 98. From Dune Allen Beach all the way to Inlet Beach, there are miles of unique towns, restaurants, and shopping for you to experience throughout the day and evening.
Ditch the Car and Explore
If you have the time, it is highly recommended that you explore 30A outside of your car. There are dozens of bike rental stores along the entire stretch, and you’ll enjoy getting off the beaten path to see all the picturesque scenery along 30A. The terrain is pretty flat, so it’s not a difficult ride – plus there are lots of places to stop and relax along your journey.
Main Stopping Points
As you explore Hwy. 30A, you can feel the weight of the world and the stresses of life melt away. The laid-back, beachy atmosphere along the two-lane road is like no place you’ve ever visited before. You’ll find an eclectic mix of housing communities, dining cuisine, and shopping experiences along the route. What you won’t find are many national/chain restaurants and retail stores.
One of the signature communities you’ll discover along 30A is Seaside, made famous by “The Truman Show” starring Jim Carey. Seaside was where a large part of the movie was filmed. One advantage of traveling by bike is that you can take the side streets to find the Truman House and all the unusual and colorful architecture around the self-described New Urbanist community.
There are approximately 12 communities you’ll pass through on your 30A excursion. While all of them have that laid-back, beach feel, each of them is distinctive and worth spending a portion of your day. The biggest challenge is seeing all of them in one day.
With a thriving town center and many seasonal events, it’s easy to spend a large chunk of your time in Seaside and then run out of daylight by the time you get to the eastern communities. So get started early and try to schedule enough time to see all of them – or don’t and just enjoy a relaxing day soaking up the true Florida beach lifestyle.
12 Places to Visit Along Scenic Highway 30A
(traveling from Destin – west to east)
2) Learn How to Build the Perfect Sand Sculpture
Anyone who has visited the Destin area will tell you they are among the most beautiful beaches in the world. The soft, sugary white sand is what separates Northwest Florida beaches from other parts of the country.
We’ll spare you the geologic lesson, but the sand around Destin primarily consists of tiny quartz particles and even squeaks when you walk on it. While it may sound like a paradise for building sandcastles, this type of fine sand can be a challenge.
But have no fear because help is here. If you’re looking to do something different during your stay, some businesses will actually teach you how to build a top-notch sandcastle. Learning to build a sandcastle is a fun and memorable activity for the entire family. It’s also a great activity for team-building with larger groups or co-workers. Here are a couple of local options for you to consider.
When it comes to the art of sandcastle building, Beach Sand Sculptures covers just about every aspect. They offer lessons along the Emerald Coast including Destin, Fort Walton Beach, South Walton, 30A, and Panama City Beach. Visit their website to book a lesson or schedule a group outing. They can also build a specialty sandcastle for corporate events, weddings, and wedding proposals.
Call: (850) 739-0550
Wanna be a rockstar on the beach? Just show everyone your sandcastle building prowess and soak up the adulation. Sandcastle Rockstars covers the Destin, Santa Rosa Beach, Ft. Walton, and Navarre areas. Choose from the one-hour “Beginner Class” or two-hour “Master Class”.
Don’t worry about lugging a bunch of sand building equipment out for your lesson because Sandcastle Rockstars brings everything that you need to create the biggest, baddest sandcastle on the beach. Besides classes, they also offer specialty services like birthday parties, weddings, events, and teambuilding.
Call: (850) 290-8445
3) Good Eats. Breathtaking Views
As a world-class tourist destination, Destin certainly has a long list of restaurants for you to consider on your next trip. You’ll find everything from 5-star steakhouses to beach cafes, and a TON of seafood restaurants. To get the true Destin experience, consider visiting one of the many locally-owned restaurants in the area.
We recently published the Top 15 Places to East in Destin. You’ll find a diverse mix of restaurants, cuisine, and experiences – because you can’t eat seafood every day (or can you?). All 15 restaurants are locally owned, serve amazing food, and provide a memorable and uniquely Destin dining experience.
The fact is, there are literally hundreds of restaurants in the Destin area to choose from. The best way to discover other outstanding dining options is to do some pre-trip research, visit one of the rating websites like Yelp and Trip Advisor – or just show up and ask one of the locals. With views like this, it’s actually difficult to have a bad meal.
4) Get off the Sand and Into the Water
We know you’re looking forward to a week off from work or school and relaxing on the beautiful beaches of Destin, but don’t forget about all the activities taking place IN the water.
At least for part of your trip, consider getting out of your beach chair and either into or on top of the water. Regardless of your budget, there are literally hundreds of fun things to do in and around the emerald green waters.
Since there are so many options and availability varies greatly, you can click on each link for the latest list of vendors for each product or service. Some businesses even offer a “one-stop-shop” for many of these activities. For the best rates and to ensure availability, it’s a good idea to book as far in advance as possible if you’re visiting between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The clear emerald waters are perfect for exploring marine life beneath the surface or learning how to discover that perfect hidden seashell. Most companies supply you with all the equipment needed but be sure to ask before showing up.
It’s not Hawaii or Southern California size waves, but depending on weather conditions, there are lots of surfing opportunities in the Gulf waters. No matter your age or skill level, you can learn how to surf, and you’ll look really cool in your social media posts.
Without question, dusk and sunsets are one of the best times to spend on the water. Besides the cooler temps and breezes, there’s nothing more exhilarating than encountering a school of dolphins or even a shark. These captains know where to find the best places, and all you have to do is kick back and enjoy the view. Also, consider one of the daytime or nighttime fireworks cruises during the summer.
As the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”, you won’t find a better place to head out in the Gulf to catch an array of fish – including red snapper, amberjack, mahi-mahi, cobia, and wahoo (each fish varies by season). As you can imagine, there are dozens of experienced boat captains ready to take you out on a half-day, full-day, or overnight fishing excursion.
One of the best local resources is FishingBooker.com. Just enter the date or dates you’re in town, and find out which of the 100+ charter boats are available for booking. In most cases, all necessary fishing equipment is supplied, so all you have to do is bring yourself, some cold beverages, sunscreen, and perhaps a couple of Dramamine for your day out on the water (trust us, it’s better to be safe than sorry).
Experience all the breathtaking scenery around the Destin Area from approximately 400 feet in the air by booking a parasailing session. Your heart will race as you are slowly hoisted up to your cruising altitude. If you’ve never parasailed before and aren’t afraid of heights, it’s a memorable way to view the Emerald Coast from a different perspective.
If you’re not quite in the mood to surf the waves, you might appreciate a more mellow option like renting a paddleboard or kayak to cruise around Destin Harbor, East Pass, or the Gulf of Mexico.
A word of advice: paddleboards have a bit of a learning curve – so if you’ve never done it before, consider going out in calmer waters the first couple of times. Some vendors even offer lessons, which is a good idea if you’re a newbie to the sport.
If you prefer a more personal experience on the water, renting a jet ski may be the perfect option.
It’s ideal for anyone who wants to go fast and zip around the water but without the limitations of a larger boat. Rental packages range from 30 minutes to a full day or longer.
One important note: If you’ve never been on a personal watercraft before, it is very important to follow all safety protocols to ensure your safety and the safety of others around you.
5) Shop ‘Til You Drop
Along with beautiful beaches and fresh Gulf seafood, Destin has more than enough places to shop for souvenirs or the latest fashions. From high-end clothing boutiques to dozens of casual beach stores, you’re sure to come back home with plenty of new merchandise.
Here are a few of the places you’ll want to visit if you’re looking to give those credit cards a workout.
Silver Sands is home to 110 designer and name-brand outlet stores including name brands like Tory Burch, Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store, and Saks. Visitors can find a variety of shops ranging from men’s and women’s apparel, accessories, housewares, sporting goods, and plenty of places to eat lunch or grab a snack.
10562 Emerald Coast Pkwy. West
765,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, and office space, along with three on-site hotels offer visitors an upscale, open-air environment just steps from Sandestin’s resorts and South Walton’s beautiful beaches. Enjoy exclusive boutiques, eateries, national retail brands, a movie theater as well as a Coastal Culture Arts & Entertainment calendar.
495 Grand Boulevard
Miramar Beach, FL
Open daily at 10:00 am (except Sunday – 11 am), Destin Commons has just about everything you need for an enjoyable day of shopping. 95+ nationally and locally owned stores & restaurants, an AMC Movie Theater, a newly renovated play area, mural art walk, and seasonal events for year-round fun.
4100 Legendary Drive
If you’re looking to return home with some really unique gifts, the Zoo Gallery is definitely worth a visit. An eclectic mix of pottery, jewelry, prints, cards, furniture, home decor, and more. The Zoo Gallery represents the work of many talented local and national artists.
89 Hotz Avenue
Grayton Beach, FL
500 Grand Boulevard
Building K (Ste. 104)
Miramar Beach, FL
About a 30-minute drive west of Destin, and you’ll find a local shopping gem in downtown Fort Walton Beach with 13,000 square feet of space and over 100 booths. No visit is ever the same to DeFrance Antiques. A continually changing inventory of vintage and antique furniture, unique home décor, handcrafted items, collectibles, jewelry, art, local honey, and homemade fudge.
230 Eglin Pkwy. SE
Fort Walton Beach, FL
6) Learn the History of “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”
We know you love to visit Destin, and now you can learn the history of what makes it such a special place for the locals and hundreds of thousands who visit throughout the year.
The Destin History & Fishing Museum is dedicated to preserving, documenting, and sharing the stories of the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” that was founded on the sandy shores of East Pass in the 1830s.
Inside the museum, you’ll find 5,500 square feet of exhibit space covering early Indians through the development and growth of the fishing village. Plus historic photographs, artifacts, fishing equipment, and documents of early Destin and the fishing industry.
One of the main draws is 100 feet of wall space depicting the Gulf floor. You’ll see examples of over 75 varieties of fish caught in the Destin waters. Other exhibits include the original Destin Post Office building located adjacent to the property, and the oldest seine fishing boat still in existence – The Primrose, built in 1925.
Destin History & Fishing Museum
108 Stahlman Avenue
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
7) Hang Out at Crab Island
Crab Island is located on the north side of the Destin Bridge (officially called the Marler Bridge) at the southern entrance of Choctawhatchee Bay. Even though at one time it was an actual island, it is now primarily an underwater sandbar and one of Destin’s top summertime hangout destinations. The depth ranges from 1-4 feet.
The shallow water is the perfect depth for getting out of your boat to hang with friends or floating next to your boat while soaking up the sun. You’ll find flotation devices of all shapes and sizes gather daily during the summer months to enjoy the scenery and relax. There are also mobile food boats and floating restaurants offering sandwiches, burgers, ice cream, and frozen drinks.
But if you’re visiting, you probably don’t own or didn’t bring your boat along. No problem, it’s Destin and there are plenty of places to rent all types of boats including yachts, pontoons, and personal watercraft. Get My Boat is a great resource to find out what boats are currently available and the rates by connecting and booking directly with local boat owners and captains. Or you can rent directly from a long list of local boat rental businesses.
If you prefer someone else to do the “driving”, Destin Vacation Boat Rentals has a shuttle boat service that will take and pick you up from Crab Island. This would probably be the easiest and cheapest way to visit – unless you’re fortunate enough to make friends with a boat owner. Because the only thing better than owning a boat is having a friend who owns a boat.
As for any boat rental or shuttle service, book early because demand is high and inventory is low during the peak summer months.
8) There’s No Business Like Show Business
It’s certainly not Branson, Missouri or Las Vegas, but Destin does have a few entertainment shows and live music venues available if you’re looking for “non-beach” related activities.
Two of the shows are at HarborWalk Theater, located at the Emerald Grande (on the right as soon as you cross the bridge into Destin). MAXIMUM MAGIC features award-winning illusionists Noah & Heather and an adults-only Stoked Comedy Hypnosis Show. Both shows can sell out quickly, so purchase tickets as far in advance as possible.
(Located on the 2nd Level of HarborWalk Village)
10 Harbor Blvd. Suite 234
Local theatre is alive and well at the Emerald Coast Theatre Company, located at Grand Boulevard in Miramar Beach. The local non-profit is committed to providing high-quality, professional theatre and performing arts education in the Northwest Florida region.
560 Grand Boulevard, Suite 200
Miramar Beach, FL
For all you rockers and headbangers, you’ll find the best local, regional and national touring acts at Club L.A. – a live music venue with two bars, a sizable dance floor, pool tables, and ping pong. Currently, national touring acts are limited but more are being added to the schedule including 1990’s powerhouse Slaughter on July 23 and hard rockers Sevendust on July 17th.
Whether it’s catching a top local band, a tribute band for one of your favorite bands growing up, or national touring acts, Club L.A. is the place to go in Destin for live rock music.
Rock Destin/Club L.A.
34876 Emerald Coast Pkwy.
Destin, FL 32541
9) Discover Northwest Florida Military History
There is perhaps no other place in the country with as much military history as Northwest Florida. So it makes perfect sense that it’s also home to two of the largest military-themed museums in the United States – the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola and the Air Force Armament Museum near Fort Walton Beach.
About a 30-minute drive from Destin, the Air Force Armament Museum is a one-of-a-kind place to experience the Air Force’s history of aviation warfare and weaponry from the early days of WWI through today.
In fact, it’s the only museum in the world dedicated to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia associated with Air Force munitions and platforms of delivery. You’ll find over 29 different aircraft (inside and outside) including an AC-130, B-17, B-25, B-52, P-51, A-10, F-15, F-16, F-100, F-101 and many others.
Besides aircraft, several hundred pieces of weaponry include a gun collection, bombs, bomblets, sparrow and sidewinder missiles, cluster bombs, bunker buster, and the infamous MOAB.
Admission is free, however, donations are accepted and greatly appreciated. Whether you spend a day or a few hours, the Air Force Armament Museum is a great place to learn and explore USAF and Eglin AFB history.
Air Force Armament Museum
100 Museum Dr.
Eglin Air Force Base, FL
Open Monday through Saturday: 9:30am – 5pm
10) Swim with Dolphins at the Gulfarium
In 2020, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park celebrated its 65th anniversary as one of the world’s oldest marine animal parks. The Gulfarium is dedicated to educating, entertaining, and providing visitors with a unique and memorable experience connecting with marine life.
General admission allows you to explore all the animal exhibits with a wide variety of fish, birds, marine mammals, reptiles, plus training demonstrations and the daily scheduled dolphin/sea lion shows & animal chats.
Since a vacation in Destin might be a once-in-a-year opportunity, we HIGHLY recommend purchasing one of the animal encounters offered at the Gulfarium. It’s you and your family’s best opportunity to get up close and personal with dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, or even become a VIP trainer for a day.
One other notable program offered during the summer months is Sunset Camp. You and your spouse can enjoy an evening out while your children experience a dockside encounter with a dolphin, an exploratory venture along the beautiful Emerald Coast at dusk, ocean-themed activities, a scavenger hunt, and dinner at Seal Harbor.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE
Fort Walton Beach, FL
Open Daily from 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
Additional Destin Area Travel Resources
Thanks for checking out our guide to spending the perfect week in Destin, Florida. If you have any comments or suggestions, drop us a line at email@example.com. If you want more Destin travel ideas, here are some other good online resources.