The ultimate vacation spot on Florida’s Panhandle, Panama City Beach has 27 miles of perfect sandy shoreline.
How you experience the shore is up to you. Families will be wowed by an animated seaside town, packed with attractions, from waterparks to zoos and fun centers.
There’s shopping, dining and entertainment at Pier Park, as well as a loaded program of public events all year.
If it’s nature and tranquility you need, I can assure you that Panama City Beach will not disappoint. At St. Andrews State Park the row of condos and resort hotels melts away, leaving nothing more than dunes, bayfront, and sublime white sandy beaches.
1. St. Andrews State Park
I’m not sure I’ve encountered many stretches of coastline as beautiful as St. Andrews State Park. Facing the gulf shore on this remote peninsula are 1.5 miles of near immaculate beaches.
A real change of scenery from the busy shorefront at Panama City Beach, the beach, dunes, pine flatwoods, and marshes here have never been developed.
There’s much to do, from snorkeling in the swimming area to fishing and camping. But one of the truly unmissable experiences is catching the shuttle across the inlet to Shell Island.
2. Rick Seltzer Beach
Panama City Beach has dozens of municipal access points, but if I had to pick one, it would be Rick Seltzer Park.
First, there’s plentiful parking, which is always important. The patrolled beach is close to a slew of hotels and restaurants, making it a great fit for those who want to spend as little time as possible in the car.
In many parts of the city, the dunes are practically lost. Here this system has been preserved, and the walkover has interpretive signs informing you about the habitat.
Amenities include vending machines, gazebos, and restrooms with outdoor showers to wash away the salt and sand.
3. Pier Park
Panama City Beach’s main shopping destination is a vast outdoor mall located opposite the Russell-Fields Pier.
Pier Park is made up of two sections. North of US 98 there’s a classic power center, with big box stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods.
South of the highway is a more tourist friendly lifestyle center, laid out like a downtown. Wandering here I saw the likes of Old Navy, JCPenney, Forever 21, Hot Topic, Crocs, and Kay Jewelers.
The closer you get to the shore, the more restaurants and attractions there are. This includes the SkyWheel, which I’ll come to later, and the Grand Theatre 16 with IMAX.
4. Shipwreck Island Waterpark
Up there with the area’s top family spots, this water park features hundreds of thousands of gallons of attractions.
Among them are slides of all descriptions, as well as a huge wave pool, a lazy river, and a giant tipping bucket. For my money Shipwreck Island Waterpark is the perfect alternative for travelers with kids looking for an alternative to the beach.
If you’re up for some thrills, Raging Rapids is an inner tube ride with exhilarating drops at the start and finish.
Pirate’s Plunge meanwhile is a dueling waterslide swooping from a 60-foot tower, while Tree Top Drop was scariest of all for me. This starts in pure darkness, and half way through there’s a sudden free-fall.
5. Shell Island
If St. Andrews State Park feels secluded, then Shell Island is like a different planet. Setting foot on these shores you’ll be met by seven miles of undeveloped beaches, trimmed with dunes and lapped by shimmering, crystalline waters.
For those who like their beaches close to shopping outlets, coffee shops, and art galleries, this would not be a good fit.
Amenities are non-existent here, so I reckon it’s worth making a checklist before setting off. As well as the usual essentials, remember to bring snorkeling gear and a beach umbrella, and you’ll be set for a day in paradise.
6. Russell-Fields City Pier
Measuring more than 1,500 feet, Russell-Fields City Pier is one of the longest piers on the Gulf. It’s a favorite destination for walkers, anglers, and those interested in witnessing an amazing Florida sunset.
Keep an eye on the water, as It’s common to see fish, rays, and turtles in the surf below the pier. On my visit there was a crowd of fishing folk hauling up all kinds of interesting catches.
The pier is adjacent to City Beach, which is staffed by lifeguards from May until October. There are even beach volleyball courts which draw the young, athletic crowd on a regular basis.
7. Museum of Man in the Sea
Founded in 1982, this one-of-a-kind museum showcases the development of diving technology. The Museum of Man in the Sea was partly founded by a group of veterans from the US Navy’s pioneering SEALAB Program.
What you’ll see is a wealth of Navy and commercial diving equipment, both historic and contemporary. At the core of the collection are the experimental SEALAB systems of the 60s and 70s.
These were the highlights for me, but I was fascinated by the masses of diving gear, going back 200 years, as well as underwater finds from wrecks as old as the 16th century.
8. Race City
This family fun center is all about speed, and the star attraction is the set of go-kart tracks. I have to say I was impressed by the multi-level PCB 500, which is the fastest, tallest and steepest track in the area.
There’s a diversity of other activities like bumper cars and boats, mazes, a roller coaster, and even a log flume.
It’s a facility that caters to the whole family, so there are plenty of rides, games, and activities suitable for little ones too. There are abundant food choices, and free parking and Wi-Fi.
9. Ripley’s Believe It or Not
For lovers of all things kitsch, macabre, and surreal, Ripley’s Believe It or Not is the place to go.
Now, I know this brand has locations around the world. But I doubt many look like a giant beached cruise ship, like the one here.
It sits across Front Beach Rd from the upside-down WonderWorks building, and the pair create a strange impression.
From shrunken heads and bizarre artifacts to wax figures and optical illusions, Ripley’s is part funhouse, part shop of horrors, and part museum.
Much of what you’ll see is hands-on, while there’s also a multi-D movie theater and cool mirror maze for those who aren’t opposed to getting lost for a while.
10. SkyWheel Panama City Beach
In between my most recent visits to Panama City Beach, a giant ferris wheel opened in Pier Park. Rising 200 feet, SkyWheel is a high-tech attraction, with full sealed, air-conditioned pods.
The surrounding coastal landscape is completely flat, so the views stretch out for miles in all directions. You can look out to the Gulf of Mexico, west towards Destin, or back over St. Andrews Bay and its estuaries. Naturally, the sunsets up here are nothing short of magnificent.
The wheel is the main attraction at an entertainment center, which also has an 18-hole miniature golf course.
11. ZooWorld Zoological Park
Along Front Beach Rd, this animal attraction specializes in hands-on experiences. These include having a capybara on your lap, snuggling with a lemur, feeding giraffes, or petting a sloth.
When I wrote this list, ZooWorld had just opened a brand new alligator experience area. Here you can hold a yearling gator, while there are also 80+ enormous ones that you can feed from a safe distance.
There’s also a walk-through aviary, with budgies that will fly up and perch on your finger. This is a wonderful option for younger children, who might feel intimidated by the larger animals.
12. Free Concerts at Aaron Bessant Park
If there’s a public event taking place in Panama City Beach, it will most likely happen at this 70-acre park, just a couple of blocks from the gulf shore.
The main structure at Aaron Bessant Park is a large amphitheater with a maximum capacity of 10,000.
One of the many events happening here is the Summer Concert Series, with two months of shows on Thursday nights, June through the second week of August. Concerts start at 7:00 pm and tend to last a couple of hours.
You’re free to spread blankets on the ground and bring folding chairs, along with coolers. Other big events here include Oktoberfest, the Fourth of July Fireworks, and the Seabreeze Jazz Festival, to name just a few.
13. Conservation Park
At nearly 3,000 acres, Conservation Park is Panama City Beach’s largest public space. A world away from the resort hotels and fun centers, this is an inland haven composed of pine forest and cypress domes.
The park features 24 miles of trails winding into these varied landscapes. This includes more than a mile of boardwalks across the swampy cypress domes.
There are 12 different trails to choose from, and the longest is 11 miles long. So, this is truly a place where you can get away from it all.
I recommend bringing binoculars, and there’s plentiful wildlife along the trails. Whitetail deer, ospreys, wild turkeys, and alligators are just a few you might see.
14. Bayou on the Beach Café
The Pelican State isn’t so far from Panama City Beach, but feels even closer at this authentic Cajun eatery.
Bayou on the Beach Café has been on the scene for some 25 years and has an oyster bar, outdoor seating and a stage for live music.
The entire menu is made from scratch, and this includes specialties like the boudin balls, gumbo, and etouffee. Meanwhile, if you’ve never tried alligator before, this is your chance—it comes with spicy buffalo sauce, or in a po-boy or fried basket.
There are also New Orleans classics like beignets buried in confectioner’s sugar, and muffuletta sandwiches.