Destin, Panama City Beach, and Pensacola are all gorgeously underrated beach towns along the Florida Panhandle. Although less well known than many of Florida’s biggest attractions, these destinations are not to be overlooked, and there’s something for absolutely everyone in at least one of these holiday spots.
The Panhandle spans 200 miles, varying between 50 and 100 miles wide. It’s bordered by the states of Alabama and Georgia, and its coastline is the beautiful Gulf of Mexico to its south, which 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.
But how are you meant to choose when pitting Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola?
We know and love all three destinations, 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.
So keep reading to find out more detail about the various things each city has to offer, such as which has the better beaches, better nightlife, what there’s to do in each and even more!
Destin vs Panama City vs Pensacola: 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. 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’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. In fact 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’s typically less busy than Panama City and Pensacola. 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
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 insane 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).
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, and 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.
Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: Which Has Better Nightlife?
For those who are after a full-blown 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.
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 both other 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
With a well-established reputation for being a proper die-hard party town, Panama City will not disappoint if you’re looking to back shots 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!
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.
Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: The Vibe
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 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 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 accomodation, 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 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.
Destin vs Panama City Beach vs Pensacola: The Verdict
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.