Updated: Apr 11, 2022
The Emerald Coast is an unofficial name for the coastal area in the US state of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico that stretches about 100 miles through five counties, Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay, which include Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, and Panama City Beach. Here’s how to spend some time relaxing on the Emerald Coast of Florida.
Last summer, my sister and my now brother-in-law were preparing to get married in the cutest little beach town along the Emerald Coast of Florida, also known as the Florida panhandle. It was a super affordable place for a vacation, also a destination wedding.
I had never even heard much about this part of Florida (I’m a Miami, Tampa, and Orlando fan—take me back to Harry Potter World and Disney!) so I immediately started researching. The trip came fast, and we ended up having a great time. Here is how we spent 4 days on the Emerald Coast of Florida on a budget!
So first, what is the Emerald Coast? Why go?
They call the beaches along the panhandle of Florida the Emerald Coast. The water has a greenish blue color (there’s the name!), there are beautiful sunsets, and the beaches have white sand. There are also lots of chances for snorkeling, fishing, and seeing wildlife. It’s a quiet part of Florida (for the most part), and one of the hidden gems it has to offer. Plus the sunsets there are UNBELIEVABLE. I mean gorgeous colors, and they are one of the most popular reasons people visit. This itinerary reflects it’s quiet nature and calmness. We really spent tons of time at the beach, relaxing in the hammocks at the beach house, and just laying around in general.
Plus, it’s really affordable! A rental house for as low as $105 a night, eating at home, free beaches, and cheap activities. This is the perfect group or family trip to Florida! Definitely affordable compared to other places!
Altogether we spent less than $100 a person on activities and food for the week, which is pretty awesome if you ask me!
If you want to save money, I recommend getting outside of Destin and Panama City Beach. They are nice cities, but definitely more pricey. There are tons of little towns along the coast that are super adorable. You can stay in any of them for a reasonable price as a family. I recommend Port Saint Joe, Apalachicola, or Mexico Beach (we stayed in Mexico Beach). We visited all three of these little towns, and they all were charming and fun. Apalachicola was the biggest of the three and had lots of charm. They are small towns, but still have some restaurants and things to do and tons of charm! Airbnb has some great options if you can book early—they are cheaper than other sites and get booked faster!
Pro-tip: This is an area where things are really spread out. If you want to go to small towns or not pay a ton for a cab from the airport, rent a car or road trip there! Plus, plane tickets into Destin or Panama City Beach are not cheap—time for a road trip!!!
Seafood, seafood, seafood! The Emerald Coast has tons of awesome seafood (DUH! It’s on the coast) and awesome ice cream spots. Shoobies is the place to go for ice cream, and you will find their shops along the Emerald Coast. You get tons of ice cream, and it is seriously delicious.
The beaches are known for their white sand and emerald water. This area is basically all coast. You cannot go wrong when visiting any beach. Don’t be afraid to check out lesser-known beaches and head off the beaten path because many of these beaches are pretty much empty, which means you can have the whole place to yourself. Talk about relaxing! They all have beautiful, clear water, too. We saw almost no seaweed and absolutely no jellyfish, which is an issue in other parts of the gulf. Parking is easy for the beaches, but check websites ahead of time for specific places as there may be trouble in certain towns.
Panama City Beach — free ($12 for lunch)
Check out a big beach town, like Destin or Panama City Beach. We went to Panama City Beach and enjoyed the town for the day. We did some boardwalk shopping at Pier Park and ate a great lunch right on the beach at Hook’d, too. It was such a fun way to spend our first day because we got a feel for the coast on our first day and knocked out the big touristy spot. This beach was definitely full and had tons of people enjoying their day.
Pro-tip: There are a lot of bars and restaurants right along the beach in Panama City Beach. Definitely look for the places with a view or off the beaten path.
Enjoy the small beach town and biking — free
We were lucky enough to stay right in Mexico Beach—just a few blocks from the beach. Our rental also had bikes and beach chairs (definitely look for the fine print on these things when you are looking for one!), so we were all set for cruising the little town. We took bike rides basically every day on our beach cruisers. It was fun to simply drive along with the palm trees and listen to the ocean. Mexico Beach has lots of cute little shops run by locals where you can pick up fun and unique gifts or enjoy a local coffee. Spend some time walking through town and enjoying it!
Kayak — $15/half-day
There are people in the small towns all through the Emerald Coast who just put up little signs saying they have kayaks for rent. This is an easy way to rent one and will not break the bank! We found kayaks for a half-day for just $15 a person! Super cheap and easy to set up. Definitely don’t be afraid of the random little sign.
Pro-tip: The whole point of a beach vacation is to relax and unwind. We spent TONS of time just relaxing on the beach and taking it slow. This is how a beach vacation should be! I read three books in these four days and it was perfect.
Snorkeling — $40
This day we ventured out and went back to Panama City Beach to do some snorkeling there. I have snorkeled all through the Caribbean and to be honest, nothing compares when it comes to colorful fish. HOWEVER, the coolest—and I really do mean COOLEST—part of snorkeling here was seeing so many dolphins. This area had so many dolphins, and while it is not guaranteed you will swim with them, you’re sure to see them. My sister and her husband went after my family and they ended up swimming right next to a mother and baby. What a unique and wonderful thing to witness in the wild!
Panama City Beach is about an hour from Mexico Beach, so we headed back that afternoon to make sure we had some time to relax at the beach and then head out on our sunset cruise.
Port Saint Joe
This town was so cute! I got my favorite pair of sunglasses from a boutique here (the heart-shaped ones), and there’s lots of local art. We spoke to locals who had lived here basically their whole lives as well as folks who were new. We had fun just exploring all the town has to offer.
Sunset Cruise — $20
This was a fun part of the trip. The cruise was BYOB, and we were able to take off from Port Saint Joe, which was perfect because we got to see the town a little bit before heading out. There’s a great little restaurant and bar right in the harbor where the cruise took off from as well, which a lot of people went to before our cruise, that would be a good option if it’s in your budget!
The sunset cruise itself was relaxing and small. We got a nice tour of the area and learned about a canal that goes all the way from Port Saint Joe up the East Coast. Pretty neat. The sunset was also beautiful of course!
Pro-tip: Sunsets are amazing here. Don’t miss a single one.
Beach and more beach
This was a fun day we spent a ton of time on the beach (until it got too hot and we went to get Shoobies again). Like I said, the more relaxing on this type of vacation you can do, the better.
Pro-tip: It gets really hot in Florida in the summer (shocker…) so you’ll want to go to the beach in the morning and later in the afternoon. Fill in the middle of the day by visiting a beach town, getting ice cream, watching a movie, and spending time somewhere you can cool off a bit!
Apalachicola — free
We visited lots of the little towns! Apalachicola is about an hour from Mexico Beach (see again, needing a car) and a very charming one. This one was especially interesting because, for one, it was a little bigger than the others, which was a relief for me as a big city person, but also because there is a lighthouse as well as a salt creek where you are able to kayak (although we didn’t do this, it sounded like so much fun!). The town was really neat, we had awesome seafood, and there’s a museum where we learned lots of history.
We spent the next day enjoying my sister’s wedding, and I’m including a photo because it was beautiful, and happy anniversary—love you guys!
So, four days was just enough time to explore this area while still staying relaxed for most of the vacation. This is definitely a lesser-visited part of Florida, but if you’ve thought about the most relaxing Florida vacation before… this is it! Have you been to the Emerald Coast?