Many people zoom through Panama City along State Road 30A on their way to the attractions, resorts and sugar-white beaches of Panama City Beach.
To me, Panama City is much more than a stepping stone. For one thing it’s an uplifting story of survival. In 2018 the Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall right here, and the city was already back on its feet when I visited a few years later.
There’s a walkable historic downtown replete with dining and shopping, and home to a glamorous Art Deco theater. Further west is the equally lovable St. Andrews area, with a flourishing farmers’ market and a history museum in an old printworks.
All the while, marvelous beaches, the dolphins of St. Andrew Bay, and a huge lineup of family attractions are just a short drive away.
1. St. Andrews State Park
In a recent magazine poll, St. Andrews State Park was voted one of the top five beaches in the country.
Considering the competition, I reckon it’s pretty impressive. There are 2.5 miles of sandy shorefront, with sugar-white sands and clear aquamarine waters.
On one side you’ve got low waves on the gulf, and on the other are the wildlife-rich waters of the Grand Lagoon. In between are dunes and pine hammocks that you can explore on elevated boardwalks.
It’s all a paradise for relaxing in the sun, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, and nature watching.
Something I think everyone has to do is catch the shuttle across the inlet to Shell Island. Here you’ll be met by miles of sandy beaches, so perfect they hardly seem real.
Bottlenose dolphins play in the surf, and the beach is a nesting site for green sea turtles between May and September.
2. Historic Downtown Panama City
Several years after Hurricane Michael, the old center of Panama City was doing fine when I came through. All along Harrison Avenue are twin rows of cute storefronts, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
There were cafes, restaurants for a wide array of cuisines, antique malls, a craft brewery, and a host of independent specialty stores.
On Saturday mornings, Panama City Farmers’ Market here is one of two weekly markets in the city. This is set in McKenzie Park, which is an outdoor hub for public events in the city.
A few steps from here is the Panama City Marina, and Tarpon Dock Seafood Market, which literally has its own dock, for seafood straight from the Gulf of Mexico.
3. Martin Theatre
One of the buildings to suffer at the hands of Hurricane Michael was this beautiful Art Deco theater from 1936.
The Martin Theatre is a snazzy centerpiece for Panama City, with a polychrome terra cotta facade in sharp geometric patterns.
This venue closed as a movie theater in 1978, but was rescued and underwent a state-funded renovation. It reopened as a performing arts stage in 1990 and is a beloved part of the community.
When I was here, the Martin Theatre was a few short months away from reopening, some five years after the hurricane.
The plans include a Southern-style restaurant, and a speakeasy-style bar & lounge, to complement a feast of live entertainment.
4. Dolphin Tours
St. Andrew Bay is home to one of the largest populations of resident bottlenose dolphins on the planet. These playful mammals have grown accustomed to humans and boats, and are not shy about it.
I’ll never get tired of seeing dolphins in the wild. Still, I think it’s important to give them plenty of distance to avoid causing unnecessary stress or risking an accident.
If you’re taking a dolphin tour in St. Andrew, it’s a good idea to inquire about their policy when it comes to approaching the pods.
A few companies based on the Panama City waterfront include Flippin’ Awesome Adventures, Salty Dogs Dolphin & Adventure Tours, and Capt Zach’s Adventures.
On the voyage you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the Grand Lagoon, St. Andrew Bay and Shell Island.
5. Oaks by the Bay Park
One of the prettiest spots in all of Panama City is this little waterside park in St. Andrews. The name says it all, as there’s an elegant stand of southern live oaks in the park.
Offering plentiful shade with their long branches, some of these oaks have been growing for centuries. There’s a historical marker for Old Sentry, estimated to have been growing for more than 250 years.
At the south end are dunes that you can cross via an elevated boardwalk, which leads to a small beach. I adore the light displays at Christmas, while every Saturday there’s a vibrant farmers’ market in the park.
6. The Market at St. Andrews
There’s a farmers’ market all year round at Oaks by the Bay Park in St. Andrews. Taking place on Saturday mornings, The Market at St. Andrews fills the park with vendors.
When I came through there were as many as 50 vendors lining the trails here. I saw bonsais, seasonal vegetables, spice mixes, beeswax products, tie dye clothes, kettle corn, salsas, handmade soaps, pastured eggs, fresh seafood, and much more than I can list here.
There’s also a tempting array of prepared food, from Thai-style crepes to empanadas, paninis, and meatball subs.
This is a pet-friendly event, so you can bring your pup along, and there’s always a festive atmosphere, with weekly live music.
7. Bear Creek Feline Center
Established in 2000, this Panama City non-profit rescues displaced exotic cats, as well as native Floridian felid species.
You can organize a guided tour of the Bear Creek Feline Center, but this experience is available by appointment only. On my tour I saw a Siberian lynx, servals, a bobcat, and a Florida panther, to name a few.
You’ll get to chat with the founders Jim and Bertie, and learn about the care being given to these beautiful animals. Some of the backstories are simply heartbreaking. I was also able to hand-feed several cats, and pet one of the servals, which was a real privilege.
8. The Panama City Publishing Company Museum & Visitor Center
In the 2000s the city purchased this historic building in St. Andrews, restored it, and turned it into a local history museum.
Dating to 1920, this brick structure was built by the city’s founder, George Mortimer West. He ran a commercial printworks here, publishing several local newspapers, while also providing envelopes, letterheads and the like.
After West’s death in 1926 the business was run with great success by his widow, “Miss Lilian”. Today the building is in an amazing state of preservation, as if Lilian has just stepped out for a break.
I loved the historic printing presses, typefaces, binding machines, and office furnishings from the 1920s and 30s.
9. Man in the Sea Museum
Founded in the mid-‘70s by a group of Navy divers and marine biologists, the Museum of Man in the Sea is a unique area attraction. Exhibits here detail the long history of man’s interaction with the underwater world.
You can enter a submarine, and pore over all kinds of diving devices, from helmets to underwater breathing apparatus. Much of this equipment looks downright dangerous and scary by today’s standards.
What caught my eye in particular was the SEALAB-I, the US Navy’s underwater habitat, from the early 1960s. This pioneering device was initially tested in the waters near Panama City.
For some context, I’d also suggest checking out the documentary film, which is a great primer for the museum.
10. Pier Park
A complete destination, Pier Park is a short drive along 30A from downtown Pama City. What you get at this lifestyle center is a vacation’s worth of shopping and dining, all in a perfect beachfront setting.
Mostly outside, the center has more than 100 stores, including Old Navy, JCPenney, Target, Marshalls, Dillard’s, and American Eagle Outfitters. There’s also the Grand Theatre 16, which has reclining seats and an IMAX screen.
If you’ve worked up an appetite or just need a shot of caffeine to get through the day, the choice is huge, from Five Guys to Dave & Busters, Margaritaville, IHOP and Olive Garden.
From my experience, it’s worth sticking around for an evening movie or live entertainment as the sun goes down. Also be sure to check for upcoming celebrations, like Panama City Beach Oktoberfest.
11. Shipwreck Island Waterpark
Providing an awesome alternative to the beach since 1976, Shipwreck Island Waterpark is officially one of the best waterparks in America.
On 15 acres you’ve got a whole roster of waterslides, a vast wave pool, and a lazy river nearly a half-mile long, so won’t run out of things to do.
I was astonished by the wave pool, with half a million gallons, while The Raging Rapids is an innovative tubing slide more than 300 feet long.
Toddlers can have their own fun at the zero-depth Tadpole Hole and Splash Cove with an assortment of slides, sprays and splash buckets. Bordering all of the attractions, Shipwreck Island has plenty of shaded seating areas in subtropical greenery.
12. The Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida
This family-friendly attraction is ideal if you’re on the hunt for engaging and educational activities for little ones.
The museum has more than a dozen hands-on exhibits, dealing with science and technology, animals, the natural world, and history and culture.
Kids can go shopping at the market, drive an ambulance, see how lasers work, or simply pick up a book and spend a quiet few minutes on the beanbags.
Everyone is encouraged to get active as opposed to just viewing passively. The center also hosts summer camps, and is available for private parties.
13. Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise
A light-hearted odyssey for families with smaller children, the Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise departs from the Lighthouse Marina, a few minutes away on Grand Lagoon.
The two-hour voyage is aboard a replica galley, in the company of energetic and upbeat hosts. From my experience, the trip will fly by in a blur of sing-alongs, dolphin spotting, and non-stop activities.
There’s face-painting, temporary tattoos, sword fighting, a treasure hunt, storytime, dancing, and much, much more.
With kids kept entertained, parents can just kick back and appreciate the scenery. You should see plenty of dolphins, and maybe even sea turtles in the lagoon and bay.
14. Coconut Creek Family Fun Park
At a prime beach destination like Panama City Beach, I’m not surprised that the local mini-golf attraction goes above and beyond.
With a tropical island theme, Coconut Creek Family Fun Park has two 18-hole courses. The holes have a simple design, without any outlandish challenges.
Really, it’s the environment that makes a round so exciting. You’ve got a cave, waterfalls, rapids, and lakes, as well as lifesize models of lions, giraffes, elephants, and gorillas.
Another cool attraction is the Gran Maze. Not to be taken lightly, this labyrinth is the size of a regulation football field. You can even watch your family or friends trying to puzzle it all out from an elevated observation deck.
15. Zoo World
Just across the Hathaway Bridge from Panama City, Zoo World is home to more than 200 animal species.
You’ll see giraffes, lions, tigers, tortoises, tropical birds, friendly barnyard animals, and dozens of alligators. This place also specializes in one-on-one experiences.
On my visit you could pet a capybara, hold a kangaroo, pet a sloth, carry a baby alligator, or snuggle with a lemur.
For a different kind of interaction, you can also purchase feed for a variety of the residents, from giraffes to gators. My favorite part was the walk-through aviary, with tame budgies that will perch on your finger