An Adventurer's Guide to the Perfect Weekend in Panama City Beach

Fishing Panama City Beach
Fishing Panama City Beach Bart Everson
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Panama City Beach, located on a scenic stretch of the Florida Gulf Coast, may be known for its summertime fun, but the town has become a popular year-round destination for vacationers. Hearty food, cold drinks, sugar-white sands, emerald-green waters, and thick, thriving forests make up the real bragging points of this town, and we’re here with the scoop on how to best enjoy it all.

Morning Fuel Up

A late-night condo check in or the sleepy sound of crashing waves can make even the most adventurous folks feel a little slow to start their day. Hot or cold, a cup of coffee from Deja Brew is sure to get you ready for a jam-packed day of fun, sun, and exploration. Located just south of Highway 30 near Lower Grand Lagoon, this local favorite opens at 7 a.m. and offers coffee both by the cup and by the bag, with selections ranging from Costa Rican to Tanzanian to Peruvian. The roastery attached to the brew shop means the java is always fresh and always crafted with the utmost care.

Start Exploring

Diving at St. Andrews State Park.
Diving at St. Andrews State Park. Greg Grimes

St. Andrews State Park and the new Conservation Park pay homage to a side of the Florida Panhandle that often goes unnoticed. St. Andrews is an excellent park to witness the change from shoreline to swampy marsh that makes up much of Northwest Florida, and wildlife viewing is both beach- and woodland-oriented. Spot blue heron, alligators, deer, and ibis while walking along the shoreline or one of the two trails, Heron Pond and Gator Lake.

Snorkeling and scuba diving are immensely popular thanks to the jetties near Shell Island; equipment can even be rented from any of the concession stores in the park. Shuttles to the famed Shell Island are available from spring until Labor Day, and local vendors offer boat and Waverunner rentals for those seeking a different sort of adventure.

Conservation Park offers a slightly quieter, more serene glimpse into the heart of Panama City’s ecosystem: Nearly 3,000 acres—the majority of which are wetlands—are now protected and ready for exploration. Twenty-four miles of trail and one mile of boardwalk promise an adventure for hikers, bikers, and casual surveyors. Cypress swamps and towering pines offer refuge for a wide variety of native wildlife, including deer, alligators, and both woodland and coastal birds. It’s a serene and unexpected trek into a green oasis hidden amongst crashing waves and silky sands.

Mid-Day Bites

For a nutritious lunch to keep up the pace, hit Zen Garden’s Lotus Health Food Café. Healthful and satisfying recipes packed with clean protein and plenty of plant matter will replenish a body that’s already done an impressive amount of romping through the wilderness. The restaurant features menu options for dietary restrictions and prices that are pleasantly reasonable, meaning everyone can enjoy this tranquil hidden gem. Grab a snack for later (or a snack for now—we won’t judge) at the juice bar and check out the yoga schedule for even more Zen.

Get Adventurous

Paddling is a great way to explore the area around Panama City Beach.
Paddling is a great way to explore the area around Panama City Beach. FWC/Alicia Wellman

No Emerald Coast trip is complete without plenty of water activities, and there are countless opportunities to become one with the waves in Panama City. Paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving are all recommended, and rental shops like PCB Stand up Paddleboard Rentals can be found all along the city’s main drag. But our pick is a little more immersive and promises to be unforgettable thanks to the folks at Water Planet.

A self-described “wild dolphin swim facility,” this eco-conscious tour group gets marine lovers up close and personal with nature—including bottlenose dolphins—without infringing upon the delicate habitat these creatures call home. They are pioneers in the field of dolphin therapy and give guests the opportunity to learn about and respect this incredible ecosystem, thanks to research efforts and an accessible wet lab.

Serious Eats

Catch a bite of fresh-caught seafood with a side of southern hospitality at Hook’d Pier Bar. Crab, fish, tacos, sandwiches, gumbo—the gang’s all here, and the gang tastes really good. Start with smoked tuna dip before diving into the catch of the day or hand-breaded crab cakes, and save room for some of Florida's signature key lime pie. The menu is kid-friendly and offers options for folks who aren’t big on seafood, too, so everyone is sure to enjoy.

Night Time, Right Time

Sunset on the Florida Panhandle.
Sunset on the Florida Panhandle. Kristin Nador

“They” say that Panama City Beach comes alive at night, and “they” are right, but with a plethora of nightlife options, it can be a little overwhelming trying to choose. Two local favorites come highly recommended: Pineapple Willy's and the Sandpiper Tiki Bar, the latter of which is just as much fun when the sun still shines. Attached to the Sandpiper Beacon Beach Resort, this tropical paradise welcomes all who seek the refuge of a cold beverage—regardless of where their suitcase resides. It’s a great place to mingle with locals and travelers alike, and one of the only places you can still have a drink in your hand with your toes in the sand, thanks to new ordinances put in place by the city.

At Pineapple Willy’s, you’ll find live music and plenty of personality thanks to a strong dose of local hospitality. You aren’t required to order the actual Pineapple Willy, but we don’t recommend missing out on one.

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