On the Florida Panhandle’s Emerald Coast, this city is my idea of a dream beach destination. The shoreline on Okaloosa Island, with its sugar-white sands and twinkling clear waters, needs to be seen to be believed.
On the gulf here you can choose between natural, undeveloped beaches, and all the fun of the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk.
This barrier island is separated from the mainland by Choctawhatchee Bay, teeming with marine life including playful dolphins.
Last but not least, Fort Walton Beach has a sociable downtown, with a lot of dining options, a stunning waterfront park, and a whole campus of museums.
1. John Beasley Park
East of the big attractions on Okaloosa Island, this stretch of beach has a more natural setting than the others nearby.
The shore at John Beasley Park is hemmed by a wall of picture-perfect sand dunes. A pair of wheelchair-accessible boardwalks takes you over this environment to the beach.
I will always be captivated by the sugar-white beaches in the Destina area, and this one is no different. You’ve got those same snowy sands, lapped by glistening emerald waters.
For amenities John Beasley Park is rather low-key, with showers, restrooms, and a pair of pavilions at the highest point in the dunes.
2. Downtown Fort Walton Beach
Fronting the busy Miracle Strip Parkway, Fort Walton Beach has a downtown area that won me over right away.
With some grand old commercial buildings, this is a vivacious commercial district. Food-wise, you could come here for two weeks straight, and not eat at the same spot.
There’s seafood, steaks, tapas, classic pub grub, tacos, French cuisine, diner food, and much more. For dinner and a movie hit up Suds N Cinema, housed in a theater from 1940.
Meanwhile on the north side of the Miracle Strip there’s culture at Heritage Park, a campus of museums on the site of a Native American mound.
Then, to the south, Landing Park is a peaceful bayfront space, hosting many of the city’s big events.
3. The Island Pier
Okaloosa Island’s immaculate sands and turquoise waters look even better from the signature pier. Reaching out into the gulf for more than 1,250 feet, this landmark dates to 1998.
The current structure replaced an earlier pier from 1972, which was wrecked by Hurricane Erin. That’s a familiar tale for most Florida piers, but everything was in ship shape when I took a stroll.
The Island Pier is always crowded with fishing folk, trying to land anything from king mackerels to black fin tuna. I’m not going too far when I say that these waters are teeming with marine wildlife.
Look out for dolphins, stingrays, sharks and sea turtles, while pelicans and herons will often perch on the guardrails. Also stick around until late in the day, when everything is aglow.
4. Air Force Armament Museum
Established in 1935, the Eglin Air Force Base occupies a vast, 724-square-mile swath of Fort Walton Beach’s hinterland.
On the edge of this installation you can visit a stellar museum dedicated to US Air Force weaponry. I was figuratively blown away by the amount of hardware on show at the Air Force Armament Museum.
Among the many highlights are an AMRAAM missile, a Paveway laser-guided bomb, a Tomahawk, and even a MOAB (Mother of all Bombs).
These bombs, rockets and missiles are matched with a mind-boggling fleet of aircraft. Some notables are the Blackbird, the B-52 and the ac-130.
5. Liza Jackson Park
With 1,000+ feet of waterfront, this park on Miracle Strip Parkway is a scenic picnic spot and is also great for exercising your dog.
Not only is there a beach, you’ve got a fishing pier and a place to launch your boat if you want to get out on the water.
The beach is dog-friendly, and an excellent place for pups to cool off on hot days. Kids will enjoy the playground, and families will appreciate the picnic pavilions.
Whether you simply want to enjoy a stroll in the park by yourself or want a family activity, this is an excellent spot for a relaxed couple of hours.
6. Indian Temple Mound Museum
The main attraction at Fort Walton Beach’s Heritage Park is an ancient platform mound rising over the Miracle Strip Parkway.
Built around 850 CE by the Pensacola culture, the mound is one of just three of its kind on the Florida panhandle.
When the Indian Temple Mound Museum opened on the site in 1962 it became the first municipal museum in Florida. The exhibits document more than 15,000 years of human history in Northwest Florida.
I could lose hours in these galleries, poring over the thousands of artifacts fashioned from stone, shell, and bone. The collection of prehistoric pottery is sensational and is one of the most important in the Southeastern United States.
7. Downtown Fort Walton Beach Farmers Market
If you’re looking for a slice of local life, why not try out the local farmers market. Taking place on the second and fourth Saturday of every month from 8 am–1 pm, this is the perfect place to start the weekend.
Here you can find fresh produce from local farmers, as well as freshly prepared street food. There are also artists and craftspeople selling their own handmade goods.
The beauty of a place like this for me is you never know what you might find. Perhaps one week you might come upon perfectly ripe fruit or a rare spice you were looking for to do some home-cooking. The next time you might discover a delicious pot of jelly or handcrafted bread.
8. Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone
Awaiting you on Okaloosa Island is the largest family entertainment center in Northwest Florida.
Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone is absolutely packed with activities and attractions. The big ones when I was here were a dinosaur-themed adventure golf course, three go-kart tracks, immersive laser tag, and a redemption arcade with more than 60 games.
This is the ideal place to come for a change of scenery if you need a break from the beach. If your child has a birthday coming up, you can book a party, with a range of discounted packages available.
9. Goofy Golf
I don’t know about you, but I can’t visit the shore without playing a round or two of mini golf. Opened way back in 1958 Goofy Golf also packs a big dose of nostalgia.
The emblem for this attraction is Hammy, a 23-foot dinosaur standing proud along Elgin Parkway.
Painted glossy green, Hammy has seen a lot in his time. He collapsed and shattered into pieces in 2003, and spent five years in recovery before returning to his rightful spot in 2008.
Like their mascot, the two 16-hole courses are a time capsule from the mid-20th century. Nothing significant has been changed, from the wooded skirting to the bizarre array of model animals.
10. Fort Walton Beach Landing Park
Something that really adds to the downtown area is this gorgeous park sloping down to the water. A passive space, Landing Park has a boat ramp, waterfront boardwalk, a fishing pier, and a stage for events.
This is a lovely, relaxed space, and a go-to location for public shindigs in Fort Walton Beach. You may find yourself here on a Friday night for concerts, or movies in the park with the stars above for a backdrop, or the city’s annual Fourth of July Fireworks.
Twice a month, the Landing also plays host to the Downtown Fort Walton Beach Farmers Market, which I’ll cover later in my list.
11. Okaloosa Island Boardwalk
The most happening stretch of beach on Okaloosa Island has a lively commercial district behind it. This shorefront drag along Miracle Strip Parkway is endowed with shops, restaurants, entertainment and attractions.
You can spend a fun hour or two on the boardwalk shopping for beachwear, kites, or vacation souvenirs.
If you’re up for seafood, you’re in good hands at the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk with Floyd’s Shrimp House and Crab Trap next door to each other. There’s also a splash pad, children’s playground, and sand volleyball courts by the beach.
Finally, on Wednesdays in summer this place closes out the day with an uplifting fireworks display.
12. Emerald Coast Science Center
This facility is the best place for families to learn about all things science. There are exhibits on everything from robotics to paleontology, the color spectrum, ecology, space science and engineering.
One way the Emerald Coast Science Center stands out in my book is for its animal exhibits. Kids can get up close to an assortment of creatures including parrots, sugar gliders, and degus.
There’s a lot of outdoor space, with a butterfly garden, turtle habitat, and a treehouse in a live oak.
The center is also known for its events, with workshops, planetarium evenings, experimenters’ labs, chemistry corners, maker days, and more.
13. Ross Marler Park
On Okaloosa Island, this sublime park is unique for facing back across Choctawhatchee Bay. If you happen to catch red flags on the gulf beaches, this is a tranquil backup.
There’s a narrow beach tracing the bay, and the pool-like waters are safe for small children. You can launch a boat here to spend a day out fishing or observing wildlife in this flourishing tidal system.
The fishing pier in Ross Marler Park has an ADA-accessible platform, while there’s a host of shelters among the pines, with picnic tables and grills.
14. Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum
Something else to check out at Heritage Park is a preserved two-room schoolhouse in use from 1911 until 1936. This was Camp Walton’s first school, starting out with one room, and adding another for high school students in 1925.
After closing, the schoolrooms were used as apartments until as late as the 1970s. The building was then moved to the Heritage Park in 2006 when it was opened to the public.
This little museum gave me a privileged look into the history of education in this corner of Florida. The school rooms are furnished with original desks, as well as blackboards, old stoves, and have interesting little displays on the walls.
15. Garnier Post Office Museum
My final entry for the Heritage Park is a museum telling the story of the early postal service in Okaloosa County in the first decades of the 20th century.
This tiny building served as the local post office from when it was built in 1918 until 1956. I was intrigued to learn that it was also a polling place for the area at that time.
The Garnier Post Office was restored in 1988 and is a small but interesting detour during your visit to the Heritage Park.
You won’t need to spend more than a couple of minutes on the interior, which has a small display of postal history, and is decorated as it would have been in the 1910s.