Panama City Beach used to be known as the ultimate Spring Break getaway for many college students. The city has toned down its image by outlawing alcohol on the beach during the month of March to try to change the vibe of the beach. The ban worked to make the beach more family-friendly than in years past.

Spring Break can still be a good time for young people to go to Panama City Beach, but during the rest of the year, you’ll typically find a bit of an older crowd, with individuals, couples, and families enjoying everything Panama City Beach has to offer. The white sandy beaches and crystal blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico are the prime reason to head to Panama City Beach, but you might be surprised to find out how much the city has to do and see outside of lying on the beach.

Early Morning: Watch for Dolphins and Enjoy Breakfast

Enjoy the sunrise over the ocean in the morning while you perk up with coffee on the balcony. Early morning is the best time to enjoy the cool breeze and try to spot dolphins swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to start your day right, head down and take an early morning walk on the beach before all the crowds arrive and the day becomes hot and humid. If you’re a runner, you could also enjoy jogging on the strip or kicking off your shoes and going for a run on the beach.

After you’ve enjoyed your morning coffee and run, get ready to enjoy a delicious breakfast. Fatty Patty’s Cakes and Cafe serves some of the best breakfasts in Panama City Beach. Try out one of the restaurant’s many Eggs Benedict combinations, like the Crab Cake Benedict or the Steak and Potato Cakes Benedict. Locals also love the breakfast burger.

Another good breakfast option is Red Rae’s Restaurant, which serves local and Cajun food. Many New Orleans favorites have made their way over to Panama City Beach, and Red Rae’s specializes in authentic Cajun. Try the Cajun omelet served with Andouille sausage, peppers, onions, and cheese. If you prefer sweet over savory for breakfast, then you’ll love the Pancrepes, which are served with candied bacon, pecans, chocolate chips, or mixed berries.

After breakfast, you might want to take a relaxing stroll along the beach. During midmorning, the temperatures are not too hot, so you can enjoy putting your toes in the sand and going for a long walk without the sun wearing you out. You can also get a good deal if you want to include some water sports in your vacation. Rent a jet ski for some high-octane activity, or consider renting a kayak or paddleboard to have some fun and get some exercise. During the afternoons, rentals tend to go quickly, so take advantage of the midmorning to try out these water sporting activities.

M.B. miller county pier
The M.B. Miller County Pier in Panama City Beach.

Early Afternoon: Grab Some Lunch and Do Some Shopping

Get a casual lunch at a prime beachfront spot, Pineapple Willy’s. If you’re lucky, the restaurant might have live music playing, or you can catch your favorite team in action on one of the flat-screen TVs. Sip on a Frozen Willy drink and order one of the famous ‘Nawlins Po’ Boys. If you’re not from the South, a po’ boy is a Southern favorite stemming from Louisiana, consisting of a sandwich, often with fried seafood, served on a French baguette. Try out the Oyster Po’ Boy, or if you’re in the mood for something heartier, order the World Famous BBQ ribs. Don’t forget to have a piece of Key Lime Pie for dessert.

After lunch, you have the option to relax on the beach underneath an umbrella, build a sandcastle with your family, or swim in the Gulf of Mexico. If the weather isn’t cooperating, or you need a break from the beach, head to Pier Park to do some shopping. Opened in 2008, this outdoor mall offers over 100 stores and restaurants, as well as an IMAX movie theater.

Avid golfers may want to use the afternoon with a tee time at one of the five golf courses in Panama City Beach. Hombre Golf Club is known as one of the more challenging golf courses in the area. The course is manicured to PGA standards and features water on over 20 of the 27 holes on the course.

Art lovers may want to spend the afternoon enjoying the art and culture that Panama City Beach has to offer. Shopping for produce and homemade foods at the Grand Lagoon Waterfront Farmers Market is a good way to spend the early afternoon. This farmers market is open on Saturdays and Sundays. Art lovers may also want to check out some of the local stores, such as Dinah’s Coastal Furniture and Boutique or the Bead Gallery.

Early Evening: Enjoy Surf & Turf and Martinis

Rinse off the day and get dressed up to enjoy dinner at the Saltwater Grill. Guests are impressed as soon as they walk in and see the panoramic views of the 25,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. Start off by ordering the crab-stuffed mushrooms topped with a béarnaise sauce. For dinner, it’s hard to resist the Surf & Turf, featuring an 8-ounce filet mignon and a 5-ounce lobster tail.

After dinner, head to the Piano Bar within the restaurant to enjoy the live music, stunning views, and the bar’s famous martinis. Singer Michael Rorah has been performing at the Saltwater Grill for over 10  years, and you will enjoy requesting his versions of some of your favorite songs.

If you’re not in the mood for a dressy evening or a fancy dinner, there are plenty of other dining options in Panama City Beach that are a little more casual. Bayou Bill’s Seafood is a local favorite that rarely fails to impress. Bayou Bill’s prides itself on having the freshest seafood in the city. Patrons can’t resist the char-grilled oysters or the oysters on the half shell. If you’re feeling adventurous, make sure you try the blackened alligator as an appetizer.

Camp helen state park
The Camp Helen State Park in Panama City Beach.

Late Night: Check Out the Exciting Night Life in Panama City Beach

After a full day, you might be tempted to call it a night. If you do, however, you will be missing out on Panama City Beach’s active nightlife. There is something for everyone here. If you’re in the mood for a honky-tonk, head to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Taking its cue from its Nashville location, bands perform some country hits and honky-tonk favorites. With the live music, you can dance the night away and enjoy some of your favorite drinks from the bar.

If you’re in the mood to really party, head to Club Le Vela, which is the largest nightclub in the United States. Club Le Vela boasts 10 different themed rooms, 48 bar stations, live rock music, and a beachside pool. The club also hosts concerts with superstars like T.I., Fat Joe, and Waka Flocka Flame. If you want to avoid the crowds, you could also get bottle service in the VIP lounge.

For something a little more laid-back and relaxed, head to Margaritaville. A restaurant by day, Margaritaville turns into a party at night in its two-story building. Enjoy the famous margaritas in Jimmy Buffet’s fun atmosphere. If you’ve arrived in Panama City on two wheels, or you just like the atmosphere, head to Wicked Wheel Bar and Grill. This motorcycle joint boasts great food, music, drinks, and atmosphere.

If you’re looking for something a little less daunting than Club Le Vela but still want to experience Panama City Beach’s nightlife, then visit Coyote Ugly for some drinks and fun. If you haven’t seen the movie “Coyote Ugly,” picture a fun atmosphere where girls dance on the bar. It’s the perfect place to dance the night away.

Wonderworks
The Wonderworks in Panama City Beach.

Where to Stay in Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach has a variety of options for different budgets and needs. You could book one of the many hotels on the strip or rent a beach house for the week. You could also rent condos for a little less that aren’t quite on the beach, or consider a shared apartment if you’re on a budget.

Top Hotels

If you want a higher-end option for your stay, book a room at the Marriott Legends Edge at Bay Point. Only 10 minutes away from the beach, the hotel and suites offer a stunning pool, clean and spacious rooms, and even villas with a kitchen and washer and dryer for longer stays. If you want to be near the water, consider staying at the Hampton Inn & Suites right on the beach. These beachfront rooms offer balconies looking out onto the water. You can also enjoy the pool if you want a break from the beach.

The Holiday Inn Express and Suites is brand new in Panama City Beach and is a popular hotel for tourists. This beachfront hotel offers free breakfast, a lazy river, and a poolside bar and grill. You can book a traditional room or a suite with a pullout couch, depending on how much space you and your family need. The hotel rooms also offer refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee makers.

If you’re looking for a hotel on a budget but don’t want to give up a chance to be on the beach, book a room at the Days Inn Panama City Beach. This economical option puts you right on the beach. The suites offer refrigerators and microwaves. Get a frozen drink at the bar or enjoy a dip in the pool, which features a waterfall.

Best Beach Rentals

Another option for your visit is to rent a beach rental house or condo instead of a hotel. There are plenty of options for houses, cottages, and condos for rent. A home or condo is a better option if you have a family and need separate rooms, want a kitchen for cooking, or need extra bedrooms. Ten guests can stay in a house right next to the beach in a three-bedroom home with a fenced-in yard and a fully equipped kitchen within walking distance to restaurants and shopping.

There are plenty of condo options as well if you want to have the amenities of a condo but the space of a house. You can find three-bedroom or four-bedroom condos in Panama City Beach. These condos offer pools, workout facilities, and fully equipped kitchens. If you’re planning a family reunion, you can rent a couple of condos. This gives you the opportunity to have a little privacy for each family while also keeping everyone in close proximity to one another.

Alternative Options

If you’re on a budget, you can still stay in Panama City Beach at a hostel or a shared apartment. A hostel offers a shared room or a private room with a shared bathroom. If you’re traveling by yourself or with a friend, then a hostel or shared room would be a good alternative to help you visit the beach without breaking your bank.

st andrews state park
The Saint Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach.

Panama City Beach Airport Guide: ECP, VPS, and TLH

The closest airport to Panama City Beach is Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which has the airport code ECP. Delta Air Lines, United, and Southwest all serve the Northwest Florida Beaches Airport. You can fly direct on daily flights from Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and St. Louis. Then, of course, you can connect to practically anywhere in the world. The airport is continually growing as well, with two nonstop options added last year alone.

This airport is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from the beach if you decide to rent a car from one of the several rental-car options at the airport, including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, Enterprise, and Thrifty. Many of the rental car desks are located right in the terminal, and the cars are located on the site, so you don’t necessarily have to worry about hopping on a shuttle to pick up your car after you land or when you return.

You also have the option to arrive at the beach in style. You can opt for the premium ground transportation provider for Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, Sunshine Shuttle and Limousine. You can book your own transportation through a kiosk in the airport. You could also opt for a shuttle service through one of the many shuttle options that serve the airport.

If you don’t want to worry about taking a shuttle, you can use one of the many taxi and limousine services that operate at the airport. The airport website offers a list of over 30 taxi and car services available. You can also use Uber to get from the airport to the beach, with a car arriving to pick you up right outside the terminal.

If you’re traveling with your pet, you can appreciate the new pet relief area outside of the airport before you enter the terminal or when you’re heading back to your car after your trip. Once you get inside the airport, or before you leave, you can get a drink at the Grayton Beer Landing Strip. You can also grab a drink or a bite to eat at the Emerald Coast Pub. If you have an early morning flight, you can grab a cup of coffee at Espressology. Kill some time and grab some souvenirs at the gift shop to bring home as well.

Members of the military can visit the Military Welcome Center at the airport. It’s open to active duty, Department of Defense employees, and retired military. The welcome center offers free internet, snacks, TV, and a children’s play area. The Military Welcome Center also provides access to a copy machine and fax service, maps, brochures, and even relocation guides.

The Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport is a small and friendly airport that is easy to navigate and offers easy and quick connections to other cities. You’ll find an ATM at the airport for your shopping and dining, along with free Wi-Fi throughout the airport. Although the airport isn’t large, it has everything you need to make an enjoyable trip to Panama City Beach.

Although the Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is the closest to Panama City Beach, you may want to consider some of the other airports in the vicinity to have more options for direct flights, better timing, or cheaper flights in some cases. Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) is about an hour and 20 minutes from Panama City Beach and offers rental car options. American, Delta, and United all offer flights through the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

Tallahassee International Airport (TLH) is about two hours away from Panama City Beach. This airport is served by Delta, American, and Silver Airways. Silver Airways connects passengers directly to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa.

Regardless what airport works best for you, there are plenty of options to fly into Florida and to get to Panama City Beach to enjoy your vacation.