Destin vs. Pensacola vs. Panama City: Which is Best?

Although the east and west coast boasts beaches with softer, whiter sands, the prettiest summer destinations are not necessarily confined within this part of the state. Florida’s coastal wonders extend beyond the well-trodden shores of Tampa, Miami, Clearwater, and Sarasota — as you will soon discover in today’s beach guide.

Destin, Pensacola, and Panama City are three destinations in the Florida Panhandle where tourists and beach enthusiasts are spoiled for choice. Their pristine shores, azure waters, and vibrant atmosphere are more than capable of challenging the more popular beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.

Each city has many public beaches, state parks, and beachfront properties awaiting exploration. But to ensure your summer is well-spent and nothing short of unforgettable, this article will focus on the finest beaches and attractions these destinations have to offer.

Destin, Florida, Beach Sunset

The Redneck Riviera

Destin, Pensacola, and Panama City (a.k.a. the Gulf Coast beaches, ‘Big 3’) are three destinations lining the strip of the Emerald Coast or Florida Panhandle. Combined, they take up approximately 170 of the 1,197 miles of the Sunshine State’s coastline (90 miles in some sources). Locally, these spots are better known as the Redneck Riviera due to the majority of their visitors coming from the surrounding southern states.


Pensacola is a coastal gem renowned for its timeless charm and natural splendor. Unlike the flashy resorts of Miami or the bustling boardwalks of Daytona, it offers goers a more tranquil escape steeped in deep southern culture and an unmistakable retro vibe.

As one of Florida’s older and more established beach communities, Pensacola boasts a rich history that only adds to its allure. Its proximity to an extensive air force base lends it a distinctive character, making one’s stay as interesting as it is relaxing.

Since its pristine beaches form part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, you can expect miles of soft, sugar-white sands meeting the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This idyllic setting is the perfect backdrop for various water sports and outdoor adventures, such as swimming, snorkeling, paddleboarding, and fishing.

Beyond the turquoise waters of the Pensacola and Opal beaches, there are other things to look forward to in the city. You have the LGBTQ community events during Memorial Day weekend, beautiful sunsets at Gulf Islands National Lakeshore, and several hotels and restaurants where you can dine and have fun to your heart’s content.

Of the ‘Big 3’ in the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola is one of the more modest summer destinations. It is not as touristy as Destin or Panama City. However, this same laid-back nature makes it a great spot to beat the heat. The fact that it is not as congested as more popular beach destinations in the state makes for a less stressful summer escapade.


Also nestled along the shores of the Gulf Coast, Destin is a quintessential beach haven enticing travelers with its irresistible white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. It is home to arguably the prettiest beaches in the region.

Destin offers a welcoming atmosphere — be it a family-friendly retreat or a romantic getaway you seek. Year-round festivals celebrating seafood, music, and dazzling fireworks infuse the area with vibrant energy. Meanwhile, its abundance of restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions is guaranteed to satisfy your wanderlust.

Beyond its picturesque coastline, the city’s charm extends into an outdoor paradise with exhilarating water sports opportunities. From fishing excursions and leisurely boating trips to thrilling snorkeling adventures and parasailing experiences, there is something for every adventurous spirit.

Recent accolades, including being named the 3rd Best Beach in the Country by U.S. News & World Report, attest to Destin’s unwavering appeal and undeniable beauty.

Henderson Beach State Park, Destin, Florida

For those seeking to relax and indulge, the Henderson Beach Resort, bordering the renowned Henderson Beach State Park, is a great choice. Destinations like Miramar Beach, Crystal Beach, and Navarre Beach offer their own unique charms and moments of tranquility and serenity.

Panama City

“A dynamic beach destination” cannot begin to describe Panama City. An hour’s drive from Destin, this spot undoubtedly pulsates with high-energy vibes and boundless excitement. It caters to both the young (and hip) and the young-at-heart with its many exhilarating experiences and modern luxuries.

Of the ‘Big 3’ in the Florida Panhandle, Panama City exudes a cosmopolitan charm that sets it apart from the rest. Unfortunately, this reputation is not always held in a positive light. While Panama City is essentially an epicenter of family-friendly fun, its lively vibe can sometimes go overboard. Additionally, crowds swell, and festivities reach their peak during Spring Break, causing many would-be goers to steer clear of the area altogether.

Nevertheless, this should not deter you from considering Panama City as your summer destination. Its wealth of nearby attractions and dining options is still second to none. From eclectic eateries serving seafood delicacies to awe-inspiring cultural landmarks, there is something to captivate every summer nomad’s imagination.

Compared to Destin and Pensacola, Panama City has a modern, trendier feel and offers more upscale experiences. Panama City Beach, in particular, offers more kid-friendly activities than the beaches in the other two locations. Outdoor enthusiasts will find St. Andrews State Park a joy to explore with its lush landscapes and serene vistas.

For the nitpicker, know that the waters in Panama City are not as clear as in Destin (not even in Carillon Beach). Destin is known for its exceptionally clear, emerald-green waters — thanks to its unique geological features and the absence of nearby estuaries affecting water clarity.

Panama City also boasts beautiful beaches. However, the water here is slightly less clear, often influenced by factors such as wave action and sedimentation.


In truth, no singular location in the Florida Panhandle solely merits the ‘best beach’ title. If anything, determining which of the ‘Big 3’ fits the bill is purely preferential.

I think Pensacola would be a sure winner for the nostalgic, Destin for the scenes, and Panama City for the partygoer. But if you simply want to enjoy white sand beaches and tranquil waters a few degrees warmer, then any of these Gulf Coast beaches would be a perfect destination!

Kris Peter

A positive individual enjoying the journey, and always searching for adventure. I created Sunlight Living to help my parents (and eventually myself) prepare for retirement. About Kris

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