Exploring Florida’s Northwest Gulf Coast

Blue Angel Jets at National Naval Aviation Museum

An ideal destination for your family’s beach road trip is Florida’s Northwest Gulf Coast. Known as “THE Beach,” it stretches 227 miles from Pensacola to Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle and features miles of gorgeous white sand beaches and charming seaside villages. It’s an ideal destination for a family road trip thanks to affordable accommodations and plenty of free and inexpensive attractions. Our sample itinerary is for a seven-day vacation, but picking one or two towns for a weekend getaway would be equally easy.

Fort Walton Beach/Destin

Day 1 & 2- Pensacola

National Naval Aviation Museum and IMAX® Theatre – Free Admission
One of the largest collections of historic aircraft in the world, the museum covers Naval, Marine and Coast Guard aircraft from the dawn of flight to the exploration of space: 150 restored aircraft, over 100 scale models, flight simulators and aviation memorabilia. Guided tours are available daily and are free of charge. There is also a free self-guided tour and a free 20-minute trolley tour of the flight line behind the restoration hangar. You can even make arrangements in advance to tour the restoration facility and see some of the multi-year restorations in progress. The IMAX Theatre shows two films continuously throughout the day and you can even watch the Blue Angels practices twice a week for free.

Portofino Boardwalk

Pensacola Beach was named among the nation’s top 10 beaches by TripAdvisor users in 2008. Its Portofino Boardwalk features open-air bars and restaurants, shops, piers and shallow water for kids along Santa Rosa Sound. Visitors can access Gulf Islands National Seashore on both sides of Pensacola Beach, perfect for biking, snorkeling or kayaking. In summer, visitors are entertained with free concerts four nights a week.

Day 3 – Fort Walton Beach/Destin

Enjoy the “Emerald Coast” — home to some of the best beaches in the world. Snorkeling and enjoying the beach are easy on the budget and fun for the whole family. Take in a couple of the region’s attractions or just hunt for sea shells and watch for dolphins.

Florida’s Gulfarium

Sea lions, penguins and sharks – oh, my! This aquatic wonderland has a range of fun and interactive exhibits, shows and educational programs. From the touch pool and Fort Gator to the shark moat and stingray pool, the Gulfarium allows guests to get up close and personal with aquatic life.

Okaloosa Island Pier

Want to teach the kids to fish without the cost of hiring a boat? Destin has a reputation as the “world’s luckiest fishing village” so grab a rod and reel and head to the Okaloosa Island fishing pier, which extends more than 1,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. Chances are you won’t walk away empty handed. You can easily find fishing charters here as well, if you prefer.

Day 4 & 5 – Beaches of South Walton

The small beach communities of the Beaches of South Walton are home to several state parks with rare coastal dune lakes, excellent beaches, bike trails and kayaking. One of them, Grayton Beach State Park, has been included in many a “Top US beaches” list. These communities are also home to many artists with great shops and galleries to explore, plus there are often free outdoor movies and concerts throughout the area.

Day 6 & 7 – Panama City Beach

Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum

Buzzing with excitement, Panama City Beach is full of fun attractions. From wacky pirate-themed restaurants and a bungee jump to the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum and Barnacle Bay miniature golf, Panama City Beach offers up thrills, spills and chills. Family favorites include Shipwreck Island Water Park, Coconut Creek, Emerald Coast Mirror Maze and Grand Theatre.

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