At the head of Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville is a city that got its cheery name in 1910. Before then, this place was called Boggy, so I reckon you can see why they made that choice.
Boggy comes from the Boggy Bayou, which is a picturesque watercourse feeding into the bay. Fringed by pine flatwoods, these are prime paddling waters. You can launch from several spots, including a state park on the east side of the city.
The name Niceville isn’t ironic, as this is a peaceful, growing city, with close ties to the Eglin Air Force Base next door.
Within a few minutes to the south you can reach the sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, and all of its accompanying attractions.
1. Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Recreation Area
On a former WWII-era Air Force gunnery, this state park sits by the eastern shore of Rocky Bayou.
The thing that first caught my eye about the park is its skyscraping longleaf pines. Several of these have been growing for more than three centuries.
So close to Destin and its magnificent beaches, this is a popular spot for camping, with more than 40 sites. One of the best things you can do is to rent a kayak or canoe.
These are available for anything from one hour to a full day. From here you’ll have the freedom to explore the aquatic preserve, which is often visited by curious dolphins.
3. Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida
If you want to know more about the region there’s a comprehensive museum five minutes away in Valparaiso.
The Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida dates back more than half a century, and has built up a formidable collection spanning thousands of years of human history.
I was especially interested in the artifacts relating to the local hardwood lumber industry, which boomed for decades from the mid-19th century. On show are crosscut saws, lumber mill tokens, and special cups used to drain turpentine from pine trees.
There are also stone tools once used by Paleo-American hunters, and items from the Panhandle’s fishing industry.
3. Turkey Creek Nature Trail
Near Niceville’s western boundary, Turkey Creek weaves through a beautiful green corridor on its way to Boggy Bayou.
With vivid clarity and a sandy bottom, this watercourse has the same naturally-occuring yellowish brown water common in this part of the Panhandle.
You can start your journey at the north end, where there’s a parking lot on W College Blvd. From here you can get onto the boardwalk, which continues south for about a mile.
Turkey Creek is also a real life lazy river, and on my walk I saw a lot of people tubing, swimming or kayaking downstream.
4. Mattie Kelly Arts Center
This multimillion-dollar performing arts center can be found on the campus of Northwest Florida State College.
The venue hosts a diversity of performances year-round and is the home of the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra.
From Broadway-style shows and visual arts to contemporary and traditional music, there’s something for everyone on the schedule. There are also two art galleries onsite with both permanent and temporary exhibits.
I was here for a performance of Legally Blonde: The Musical, and was blown away by everything, from the venue to the performance.
5. Henderson Beach State Park
I think it’s worth remembering that the Gulf of Mexico shore is minutes away from Niceville. These aren’t just any beaches we’re talking about either.
At places like Henderson Beach State Park you’ll be wowed by the powdery white sands, and twinkling clear waters. On sunny days you need shades just to look at the sands.
The Destin area is of course a beloved destination, bursting with shopping, dining and family attractions. But at Henderson Beach, things are a little slower, with little more than 1.5 miles of perfect sands, backed by dunes as tall as 30 feet.
6. Eglin Golf Course
On Plew Lake in the north of Niceville, this course belongs to the Eglin Air Force Base. When I played here, the course had only just been opened back up to the public following a change in protocols during Covid.
The green fees at Eglin Golf Course are in line with other facilities, and you’ve got 27 holes on the Falcon and Eagle courses. The latter is the trickier of the two, with a lot of blind shots.
My biggest takeaway is the sheer beauty of this place, with mature woodlands and a lot of wildlife, from turtles to deer.
There’s a superb practice facility too, with a lighted driving range, a large butting green and a chipping area with a bunker.
The course also welcomes the public for regular events like outdoor movie screenings, concerts, and comedy shows.
7. 3rd Planet Brewing
Niceville’s first craft brewery was founded in 2015 by a pair of Air Force veterans. Since then 3rd Planet Brewing has become an award-winning reference point for the Panhandle’s beer scene.
As with all craft breweries, the menu is always in flux, but there are a few mainstays. Among them are Dark Side of the Moon (IPA), Bluewater Hefeweizen, Bear Creek Brown, Panhandle Pale Ale, and—my fav—Boggy Bayou Stout.
Barely an evening goes by without some kind of event. This could be live music, trivia, comedy, variety shows, or car meets. There’s no kitchen at 3rd Planet Brewing, but there’s at least one food truck outside every night, from BBQ to Filipino street food.
8. Lions Park
The joy of this small, passive park, is all about the location, on the edge of Boggy Bayou. Lions Park is somewhere you can launch a boat, simply hang out and savor the views, or enjoy a picnic.
I counted more than half a dozen picnic shelters here, among some lofty pine trees. All have a clear view of the water, taking in the yachts at The Oak Marina, just along the shore.
Lions Park is oriented to the west, so this is a lovely place to be when the sun is setting, with benches and a small dock on the water. Naturally it’s also a good spot for watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
9. Children’s Park
Located on the grounds of Niceville’s Civic Center Complex, the Children’s Park is a fantastic public facility for families.
The park’s attractions include a playground and outdoor gym equipment, climbing structures, gazebos, and cabanas. Best of all for me is the Spray Park, which opened in 2006 and is ideal for kids on hot days.
The park itself is open year-round, but the Spray Park portion is open seasonally from May through September.
Everything is kept in great condition, and the neighboring Niceville Library is a fine alternative if you get stuck in rain or the heat is too much.
10. Festival of the Arts
One of the area’s most anticipated annual events, Niceville’s Festival of the Arts takes place in late October.
More than 100 artists from around the country feature their work each year. This is a juried competition that includes a variety of styles, mediums, and cultural influences that make it quite unique.
The festival is also known for its live entertainment and tasty food and drink options, including a beer & wine garden. There are opportunities to not only watch many of the artist’s work, but to meet and interact with them as well.
Part of the fun for me is checking out all of the exhibitors and casting a vote for the People’s Choice Award, which is announced on the Saturday.
11. Air Force Armament Museum
Being next door to the Eglin Air Force Base, you’re a short hop from a truly unique military museum. Eglin is renowned as a testing center for air-delivered weapons.
In that spirit, the Air Force Armament Museum is an astonishing showcase for this technology. On show are the new AMRAAM, the Paveway series, and an assortment of radar, laser, and TV-guided bombs.
There’s guns too, including the frankly terrifying GAU-8 Avenger autocannon, famed for its high rate of fire. Finally, I was absolutely besotted with the vast fleet of aircraft, a standout being the iconic SR-71 Blackbird.
12. Destin Commons
One of the first things you’ll reach after crossing Choctawhatchee Bay is this upmarket lifestyle center, with almost 100 shops and services.
For one thing, Destin Commons has the nearest movie theater to Niceville, at AMC Destin Commons 14.
The shopping scene is at the mid-to-upper end of the spectrum, with chains like Abercrombie & Fitch, Loft, Hollister, Lush Cosmetics, Soma, Forever 21, Sephora, and American Eagle.
There’s a clutch of eateries, for everything from salad bowls to jerk chicken, as well as a pirate-themed playground and a neat splash pad for bored kids.
13. Niceville Dog Park
This facility opens at sunrise and doesn’t close until 10 PM, making it the perfect option for dog owners with busy schedules.
The park is open year-round, and covers more than four acres, with fenced areas for large and small dogs. If you have a dog that, like mine, loves to dig, then the sandy surface is a good thing.
It means that holes can be refilled with ease, while the park’s thick tree canopy offers a lot of shade.
Guests are required to clean-up after their pooches, and there are plenty of hoses to refill water bowls when they need to stop for a refreshing drink of water.
14. Niceville Skate Park
This public facility is just north of the Civic Center, and popular with skateboarders, inline skaters, and bikers.
The park is open from Thursday to Sunday from the early afternoon until 8 PM. The complex is on five acres chock-full of ramps, rails, drops, and other obstacles.
Whether you’re skating or riding a bike, helmets are required, so bring your own. If you don’t have your own, I was impressed to see that you can rent one for just $2.
Finally, if you’re just here to be on the sidelines, the park includes plenty of seating areas near the action, for friends or parents/caregivers.
15. Niceville Valparaiso Christmas Parade
Every December, the towns of Niceville and Valparaiso team up to present a Christmas parade. There’s a different theme with each edition, usually with an inspirational statement.
I caught the “Imagine Peace on Earth” edition, which was all very heartwarming. The event is sponsored by the Niceville-Valparaiso Rotary Club, and typically makes its way from Niceville High School on John Sims Parkway to Ruckel Middle School on Partin Drive.
One of the most endearing aspects of the event is the Toys for Tots program. Visitors and participants are encouraged to bring new, unpackaged toys for this worthy cause.