Last updated on May 24, 2023 by Wandering our World
Destin, Panama City Beach, and Pensacola are all gorgeously underrated beach towns along the Florida Panhandle.
The Panhandle spans 200 miles, varying between 50 and 100 miles wide, and boasts stunning deep green waters that meet the pearly white sands. It’s often also referred to as the Emerald Coast, clearly indicative of its natural beauty.
Although less well known than many of Florida’s biggest attractions, these destinations are not to be overlooked. But they are quite different from each other…
For example, Panama City is often the busiest, Destin quieter, and Pensacola even more so, and thus often the most authentic feeling too.
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to how these three destinations differ!
Luckily we know and love all three, so to help you decide we’ll be showing you what makes each different, and pointing out some of the main attractions that each location has to offer.
- Which Has Better Beaches & Activities
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- How Does The Vibe Compare?
- Where To Stay When Visiting
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Has Better Beaches & Activities?
All three destinations will deliver beyond expectations when it comes to soft, sandy beaches and water activities such as snorkeling.
In fact Panama City and Pensacola have actually won prestigious awards for their beautiful beaches, but all three are truly idyllic choices for beach-lovers, as we show next.
Destin: The Beaches & Activities
Destin’s beaches are known for being soft and filled with fine sand – you’ll want to bury your feet in them all day long!
That makes Destin ideal for beach walks with your family or significant other, as well as sand castle making and other on-shore activities. And as such, Destin has gained a reputation for being a peaceful and family friendly town.
Fishing is also a big sport along the Panhandle, and especially Destin. You can join locals in their favourite pastime here, fishing from jetties or deep-sea fishing further out.
In fact, Destin is often termed Florida’s “Luckiest Fishing Village”.
You’ll also enjoy Destin if you’re after a less crowded, quieter holiday, as it is typically less busy than Panama City.
Picture it like a charming little beach town. Destin Beach itself is the classic beach to visit, but Navarre Beach is also a lovely spot – and one of our favorites throughout the Panhandle.
As for activities, be sure to head over to Choctawhatchee Bay and pick up some snorkeling equipment on your way.
There’s every kind of watersport you can imagine here, ranging from snorkeling (of course), kite surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking and even jet skiing.
Afterwards, when you’ve had your fill of sea activities and you’re probably looking for something a little more relaxing, we wholeheartedly recommend visiting the sandbars at Crab Island.
Panama City Beach: The Beaches & Activities
Panama City Beach is more geared towards college students, so you’ll find plenty of bars dotted around the area, all easily accessible.
As such, Panama City tends to attract a younger crowd than the other two destinations. So if you’re looking to sunbathe and party, this may be the better choice of the two.
There is however, plenty to do for all ages.
Aside from being known as one of the sunniest parts of the USA – with an incredible average of 320 days of sunshine per year – Panama City also brands itself proudly as having “the world’s most beautiful beaches”.
They’re not wrong. Panama City boasts over 27 miles of coastline, with more than 100 inlets and access points, which means plenty of beaches to choose from.
The azure blue waters directly lapping in from the Gulf of Mexico will have you in paradise, and while you relax on the beaches you can even see sting rays playing in some parts of the ocean!
If you’re after a better look at what goes on in the ocean’s depths, you can find plenty of opportunities to scuba, snorkel, or go on dolphin cruises here.
While you’re at it, refuel yourself with some hearty food from Gene’s Oyster Bar so you can head back out to the coast completely satisfied.
Recommended: Sharks at Panama City Beach
Pensacola: The Beaches & Activities
Between these three gorgeous choices, if there’s one difference to properly take note of, it’s that Pensacola is the least touristy of them all.
It’s located just 25 miles east of the Alabama state border, and is another great choice for those looking for that perfect beach vacation.
Pensacola Beach is also home to part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where you can find protected and pristine sugar-sand beaches.
It’s also home to the Blue Angels – the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron – which can often be seen flying over the beach as they practice.
Being part of a nationally protected area, the beaches in Pensacola are relatively untouched and still pristine. Quite frankly we love it, and can sing praises for it all day long.
We’re not the only ones too, as Pensacola was once named the Number 1 Best Florida Beach by USA Today.
Wildlife enthusiasts will also be pleasantly surprised. Endangered shorebirds and turtles can be found nesting here through the spring and summer seasons.
Plus there are three reefs within half an hour of each other which are teeming with the diverse sea life below the water’s surface, an absolute must for any explorers among you.
Of all three destinations, we’d say Pensacola is the best when it comes to wildlife and undeveloped beaches.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
For those who are after a spring-break style party, head to Panama City without hesitation.
Destin and Pensacola also have a vibrant nightlife scene, but not quite to the same extent as Panama City. We can easily say though, that you won’t be lacking for options or fun in any three of these towns.
Destin: The Nightlife
From daytime sun, to late night fun, Destin has plenty to offer once the sun sets. Across the town you’ll be able to find live music, dancing, dive bars and clubs all fairly easily.
Recommended: A Local’s Guide to Nightlife in Destin
While there are many options here, like the other three towns, it’s worth noting that Destin probably has the highest intolerance for rowdy late night behavior.
That’s mainly because Destin wants to keep intact its image of being a peaceful family-oriented destination.
Panama City Beach: The Nightlife
With a well-established reputation for being a proper party town, Panama City will not disappoint if you’re looking to drink and dance all night long.
You’ll find all the usual suspects such as dive bars, live jazz, and refreshing drinks at local favorite Pineapple Willy’s, and a range of nightclubs to choose from that will guarantee a night out to remember… or maybe not!
Pensacola: The Nightlife
Picking up on a common theme? Pensacola too has plenty of dive bars – a commonly found favorite in these sorts of beach towns.
But that’s not all; you will also be able to find nightlife to fit any vibe, lounges, and late night eateries.
One particular late night hot spot is the Seville Quarter.
While not as ‘party hard’ as Panama City, Pensacola is definitely another great destination to let loose.
How Does The Vibe Compare?
Now that we’ve shown you that each offers their own stunning beaches, and all forms of nightlife, what else might separate these three Emerald Coast gems?
Destin: The Vibe
Destin can be somewhat crowded, but also has a warm and welcoming feel especially for visiting families.
While it is somewhat ‘touristy’, there is plenty to do inland when you’re drying off from the sea, with some great options for upscale shopping and dining in particular.
There is a small Silver Sands outlet mall as well as our personal favorite, Destin Commons, which all offer great shopping experiences.
Panama City Beach: The Vibe
The most touristy and busy of the three, Panama City’s beaches and inland town spaces are typically more crowded.
As a popular destination with tourists, you’ll find the prices of accommodation, drinks and food tend to be a little more expensive here than the other two destinations.
Because it’s a popular place, it does mean there are things to do catered to all tastes and preferences. Their most well-known mall, Pier Park, is great, but not quite on the same upscale level as those in Destin.
Despite a bit more traffic due to crowding, the city is very clean, with lots of things to do, many restaurants and bars, and a good range of condos to choose from.
Pensacola: The Vibe
Pensacola is easily the smallest and generally quietest of the three, but with this comes a more authentic feel to the town.
It is actually quite similar in feel to Destin, just with slightly fewer things to do outside of beach-related activities.
But as mentioned before, it is a bit less crowded and the beaches are of course better naturally preserved.
So if you’re looking for a quiet, laid-back vibe, and a vacation more in nature than anything else, then Pensacola will suit you best.
Where To Stay When Visiting
Destin: The three-star Hyatt Place Sandestin is a great budget choice where you will also have access to fantastic amenities – like a lovely outdoor pool, fitness center, and even bicycle hire so you can explore Destin. See photos and rates!
Panama City: Located directly on Panama City Beach, the five-star Hyatt Place Panama City Beach is the place to stay for exceptional service and a real feeling of luxury. Alongside gorgeous ocean views, some rooms even have a hot tub. See photos and rates!
Pensacola: If you’re looking to stay at Pensacola Beach, then Margaritaville Beach Hotel will be perfect. Alongside fantastic sea views, beachfront access and a gorgeous swimming pool, you can also hire kayaks for free! See photos and rates!
Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: Which Is The Better Choice?
When looking at beach experiences, the main differences are that Panama City will likely be the busiest, Destin quieter, and Pensacola even more so, and thus the most authentic.
Panama City is favored among tourists and the spring break crowd, and tends to be the most expensive holiday destination of all three, and the hardest to get around due to congestion at times.
It does have the most lively parties though, but you can find a great night out in any of these locations.
Therefore, the main differences lie in the vibe and atmosphere you’re after, more than what each can offer in terms of activities or beaches.