Powered by waterfront industry on Saint Andrew Bay, Springfield sits just east of Panama City. Although this place isn’t a tourist destination, there’s a lot to discover within half an hour.
Close by are the serene waters of the bay, PCB’s fabulous white sandy beaches, historic downtowns, and fun-filled family attractions.
So my list will be more about what you can do around Springfield rather than in the city itself. I’ll also mention Hurricane Michael, which devastated this part of the Florida Panhandle in 2018.
Many businesses had only just got back on their feet when I came through recently. But as a sign of the area’s recovery the local Tyndall Air Force Base was putting on its first annual air show for six years.
1. Gene’s Oyster Bar
Though it’s technically located in Panama City, Gene’s Oyster Bar is within walking distance of Springfield. It’s one of the area’s best seafood restaurants, especially if you want things simple and laid-back.
The building is a piece of local history. It was initially raised in 1910 and then rebuilt in 1930 following a fire that wiped out a once thriving business district. There has been a seafood restaurant here since the mid-20th century.
Those namesake oysters come raw, baked or fried. This spot also offers a variety of seafood, and is known for its fried baskets, gumbo, clam chowder, and sautéed crab claws.
2. Under the Oaks Park
My favorite of all the local parks is in Parker at the head of Long Point by the bay. As the name suggests, Under the Oaks Park has a truly stunning collection of live oaks.
These fine old trees afford a lot of shade for picnics, easy strolls and games on the grassy areas. The view of East Bay is also exceptional, especially if you manage to get here when the sun comes up.
The park took a lot of punishment during Hurricane Michael, but was in good shape when I came. There’s an exercise trail if you need a workout, as well as a nine-hole disc golf course.
3. Saint Andrew Bay
Although the waterfront in Springfield is industrial, the wider estuary is a natural wonder that needs to be explored.
Saint Andrew Bay covers almost 70,000 acres and is famed for its large pod of bottlenose dolphins. These can be seen from the shore early in the day when the waters are smooth.
There’s also a catalog of companies based in the area, ready to take you out onto the water to see the dolphins up close. Setting off from Panama City, you can do this on a boat cruise, jet ski rides, or a kayak tour.
For an easy day trip from Springfield, St. Andrews State Park is on the inlet and preserves some spellbinding coastal and bayside scenery.
You should also catch the ferry across the inlet to the unspoiled Shell Island Beach, with miles of pristine white sands and clear emerald waters.
4. Fishing Charters
The Panama City area is a year-round fishing paradise, with dozens of species biting, and very little fluctuation between the seasons. Still, I’d say the best time to come is May through November when the waters are at their warmest and the fish are migrating.
Mid-summer is peak red snapper season, and this species congregates at depth, around the many reefs and wrecks a short way offshore. The same goes for mahi mahi, which tend to move into these waters in spring.
Now the good news is you don’t need to know a thing about the area to catch fish here. There are literally dozens of fishing charters based in Panama City and PCB.
A few local picks are Fly Times Charters, Deep Drop Charters, Anchor Charters, and Cast-A-Line Charters, all based within ten minutes of Springfield.
5. Parker Environmental Exploratorium Park
This ecological park is nestled on the southeast corner of Lake Martin, just across from Springfield. Home to an outdoor classroom, it’s a small space, with oak, magnolia and hickory hammocks by the water.
For me, the Parker Environmental Exploratorium Park stands out for its wildlife encounters. If you’re patient you may see wading birds, seabirds like least terns, and a wide variety of songbirds. Large raptors like ospreys have also been sighted at this park.
There’s a boat launch and a dock for fishing, as well as benches and a raised observation deck for birdwatching.
6. Downtown Panama City
If I made a list of the most exciting downtown districts in Florida, Panama City would surely qualify. A far cry from the low point of the 1970s and 80s, Harrison Avenue is a truly happening spot.
Along palm-shaded sidewalks behind rows of historic commercial storefronts there’s a wide assortment of galleries, boutiques, specialty shops, bars, entertainment venues, and restaurants, all with their own character.
Getting towards the waterfront and marina is the genteel McKenzie Park, hosting one of Panama City’s two weekly farmers’ markets.
November is an excellent time to be in town. At the start of the month is the annual Songwriter Festival, followed by the semiannual ArtWalk a couple of weeks later.
7. Panama City Beach
In under half an hour you can get to one of the most beloved beach destinations on Florida’s Gulf shore.
Panama City Beach has almost 30 miles of glorious white sandy beaches on clear turquoise waters. As well as a long corridor of resort hotels and condos, the beachfront along Thomas Drive has dozens of public beach access points.
These vary from built-up and bustling to natural, like Rick Seltzer Park, where there’s nothing more than dunes trimming the sand.
Complementing the beaches, PCB has a galaxy of shopping, entertainment, dining, and visitor attractions.
With family fun centers, zoos, museums, movie theaters, and endless recreation on Saint Andrew Bay, I think you could spend weeks here and never get bored.
8. Bay County Fair
When I visited the area, this event had just returned to its rightful home at the Bay County Fairgrounds. This site goes back to 1945, but was devastated by Hurricane Michael, needing several years to recover.
The Bay County Fair Takes place every October, and the most recent edition when I was here lasted for five days.
As with all the best fairs, it’s a fine way to get in touch with agriculture on Florida’s panhandle. There’s a wealth of livestock and craft exhibits, as well as midway rides, a car show, live entertainment, and the fair food we all know and love.
9. Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida
This well-designed children’s museum is a short drive from Springfield, in the north of Panama City.
When I brought my little ones here, the center’s interactive exhibits covered topics like history, science, aviation, and the natural world.
I was impressed with the numerous tactile exhibits in the Sensory Room, as well as the Glow Room, where kids can create their own luminous artwork on the glow table.
Reptile Encounters features live turtles, geckos and iguanas, while there’s a library with beanbags for some quiet time reading a book.
Finally, the center has a shaded outdoor section with a pirate-themed playground and small nature trail.
10. Historic St. Andrews, Panama City
Panama City actually has two historic downtown areas to explore. This one sits by the bay, along Beck Avenue.
I’ve spent whole days in St. Andrews, shopping, dining, and hanging out by the water. The district meets the water at the lovely Oaks by the Bay Park. Endowed with fine live oaks, this is the site of yet another excellent farmers’ market on Saturday mornings.
North on Beck Ave there’s a local history museum in an old printworks from 1920. At The Panama City Publishing Company & Museum you can dip into many aspects of the city’s past.
One figure that looms large is Lilian C. West, a pioneering businesswoman who ran the printworks in the 1920s and 30s.
11. Panama City Farmers’ Market
For me there’s no better time to head to downtown Panama City than a Saturday morning. From 9:00 am to 1:00 pm there’s a colorful farmer’s market here on the little plaza next to McKenzie Park.
Soundtracked by live music, this is an inspiring event with a slew of local farmers and makers. You’ll find fresh produce as it comes into season, as well as honey, jams, hot sauces, spices, fresh pasta, dog treats, homemade candy, baked treats, and plants.
The market really shines for its many crafters. I saw everything from candles to jewelry, leather goods, clothing, garden furniture, and pottery.
12. Martin Theatre
Panama City’s downtown performing arts stage was in the process of getting back on its feet when I wrote this list. Opened as The Ritz in 1936, this building has a story that mirrors the rest of the downtown.
Hosting the likes of Clark Gable and William Boyd, the theater suffered as the century progressed, eventually closing for a decade in 1978.
The Martin Theatre was reborn in 1990 as a multifaceted performing arts center. Once it recovers from damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael, it will return as the local place to catch a concert, theater show, or cult movie screening.
13. Panama City Center for the Arts
I’ve shown that there’s no shortage of culture close by in downtown Panama City. In this vein, one of the must-sees is the Panama City Center for the Arts. This is partly housed in the old city hall from 1925 and opened when the downtown was revitalized.
In an artsy community, the center is a hive of activity, with more than 30 exhibitions every year. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there will always be something fresh to see.
On my last visit the entire building was converted into an immersive Halloween experience, as a kind of elevated haunt. If you’re local to the center, it’s a wonderful resource, with a plenitude of classes and workshops for all skills and ages.
14. Gulf Coast Salute Air Show
I’ve talked about Hurricane Michael a lot, but that event disrupted many aspects of local life. Tyndall Air Force Base was no exception, suffering damage to its fleet of F-22s and losing its perimeter fence.
Another thing interrupted by the hurricane was the Gulf Coast Salute, the base’s signature air show. When I wrote this article the show, held in May, had returned to the calendar for the first time in six years.
This event features the best of the best USAF demonstration teams, and is always a great opportunity to see the state-of-the-art F-22 stealth fighters in action.