In 2014, we purchased a condo in Panama City Beach. My family had been going there for vacation for decades and I had been at least 40 times myself. My grandfather has always said that he regretted never buying a place here. It was a dream come true for me; 34 years old at the time. We bought it site unseen. Now, we find ourselves only using it once a year for a long weekend. But with both of us working from home, we thought it was our chance to get away for a week. The opinions in this blog have been shaped over several years of visiting.
The city gets a bad rap as just a spring break party town but has made major strides in cleaning up the image and trying to recruit more families to the beach. It’s always been a destination for neighboring southern states due to its affordability, family attractions, and close proximity but PCB is not just for families with children. Callie and I have found ways to enjoy the place as DINKS (dual income-no kids) for 10 years. We got engaged here (high above the Gulf while parasailing) and had our 10-year anniversary dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Now that we are expecting a son in August, the beach will provide a different kind of fun for us. Below is our list of dining, shopping, activities, and day trips that we have enjoyed over the years.
Note: It’s hard to find authentic local seafood along the beach. Most of the restaurants are serving frozen seafood brought in from somewhere other than the gulf. You can find decent food but just understand that you’re in a touristy town and most restaurants with flashy signs, over-themed dining rooms, and over the top advertising may be lacking in quality. But everyone loves a good view!
The Grand Marlin– My favorite place in Panama City. This is a go-to for a special occasion, date night, or for good seafood prepared fresh with a lively bar area. It’s located on Grand Lagoon and has beautiful views and the food is consistently good.
Uncle Ernies– This is a more relaxed restaurant across the Hathaway Bridge in Historic St. Andrews. It’s a multi-level house overlooking St. Andrews Bay and has a bit more of a local feel. We love being on the top level with open air seating for sunset watching.
Captain Anderson’s– The tried and true. This restaurant has been in Panama City for decades. It’s a more traditional dining experience with lots of vintage nautical décor, and dark wood accents in the dining room. It’s located on Grand Lagoon and advertises to “Dine early and watch the fleet come in”, a slogan they’ve carried for years.
Finn’s Island Style Grub– This food truck located on Thomas Drive has mouth-watering fish tacos and the quality of their items seems to be on point. It’s outdoor seating only but a great place to grab lunch. There’s a surf shop next door to give you something to do while waiting on your food.
Schooners– Advertised as the Last Local Beach Club, it’s hardly a locals destination in the summer months. There’s almost always a wait but the food is good, and the atmosphere is hard to beat. It’s located right on the beach, and each evening at sunset they have a small cannon blast. The sunsets here are beautiful but be prepared to wait for a table.
Honorable mentions: Patches Pub, Dat Cajun Place, Dusty’s Oyster Bar
Paradise Adventures Sunset Sailing Cruise- This is a fun experience that generally includes live music, an onboard bar and some relaxing moments just outside the bay into the gulf waters for a magnificent sunset. We’ve done this at least a half dozen times and we always enjoy it. They also offer day trips that are good for kids with inflatables in the water, snorkeling, paddle boarding, etc.
Rent a pontoon and head over to Shell Island- We have used several but once again recommend Paradise Adventures in BayPoint at the Sheraton. Watch the weather conditions and be sure to go on a calm day. Even inside the bay can be miserable on a choppy, windy day. On a good day, however, taxi over to Shell Island or to a sand bar and enjoy a relaxing day on the water!
Shipwreck Island Water Park– Okay, this one is more for the kids, but it was one of my favorite things to do growing up. The park is not very big, but it is well maintained and nicely done. It’s a treat for the younger ones and you can chill out in the lazy river. That’s a win-win.
Take a bicycle to St. Andrew’s State Park- There are many places to rent bikes. Perhaps one of the easier ways is to rent from Mr. Surf’s Surf Shop and ride down Thomas Drive straight into St. Andrew’s Park. It’s good exercise and gets you out of the high-rise condos into the natural Florida scenery for a bit. The beaches here are good, too. You can head over to the jetties and watch the many boats head through the pass from St. Andrew’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
Go fishing- I enjoy getting a few friends and chartering a boat. Split 6 ways, the cost is manageable. If you’re not sure of it, take a party boat out from Captain Anderson’s Marina. It’s much cheaper, gets you out on the water, and there’s a bar on board, so you’re good to go.
Apalachicola- This is a great little eclectic town with a lot of history in the oyster business. Unfortunately, the oyster business has all but dried up in recent years, but the town is still worth the visit. It’s reminiscent of “the old Florida” and has some quaint bars, restaurants, art galleries, and shops beyond the traditional. It’s a little over an hour and a half due east on highway 98. As a side trip, you can head out to Cape San Blas along the way.
30A- A beautiful drive just west of PCB, this designated scenic route offers some beautiful views, great restaurants (and food trucks!), and is a fun place to enjoy a bike ride. Don’t expect a coastal view on your drive. This area is free of high-rises, but the natural vegetation and gated communities keep you from having a view of the Gulf.
Drive to Destin- Destin is an easy side trip for shopping (especially on a rainy day) or to visit Baytown Wharf for an evening of dining and shopping. It’s only about an hour drive so it’s easily doable. As far as the beaches, you have the same white sand and emerald green water in PCB so there’s absolutely no reason to seek out the beaches in Destin.
Take a boat from Grand Lagoon to Destin via the Intercoastal- This is a fantastic way to check out all of St. Andrew’s Bay (going under the Hathaway Bridge) and passing through the Intercoastal Waterway that links PCB to Destin. It’s a long trip at about 5 hours round trip but a great way to spend the day. Be sure that winds are down, and water is calm before making this trip. Trust me on this one!
Salty Dog Surf Shop– These surf shops date back to 1978 and are family owned and operated. For our family, it’s an icon. We stop in every year to pick up a hat or t-shirt.
Shipwreck Ltd.- Conveniently located near the intersection of Thomas Drive and Front Beach Road, this retailer has stepped up their game in the last few years. You can find all the major surf brands, some designer brands, beach supplies and the largest selection of Costa Del Mar sunglasses that I’ve seen.
Hy’s Toggery– Located in Pier Park, this is a must stop for us on each trip to the beach. They always seem to have a friendly staff and the store is full of all the major southern “preppy brands” as well as AFTCO, Columbia, and Yeti.
Surf Style– I’m not big on the giant (usually all glass) beach stores that seem to be on every corner. But Surf Style is a bit nostalgic for me as a kid from the early 90s. They began selling their famous windbreakers out of the trunk of a car in South Florida over 20 years ago. There newest store on Front Beach Road should be a stop on your next trip to PCB.
Suggested 5 Day Itinerary
Day 1- Hit the beach! Spend the day enjoying some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Check out Schooners for an early dinner and catch the sunset near one of the piers for some family selfies or the obligatory sunset photos. You may even catch a surfer.
Day 2- Head out on a 4-6 hour fishing charter and reel in some red snapper to freeze and take home with you. You’ll still have several hours in the afternoon to head over to the beach again. (This would be a good day to stop in at Finn’s Island Style Grub for lunch. It’s only a few miles from the marina.) Take a trip to St. Andrews for dinner at Uncle Earnie’s and plan it so that you can drive down Beach drive and pull off for a relaxing sunset view over the bay. Pro tip: take some beach chairs and a happy hour cooler for added effect. End a long day by heading to Surf Style and Shipwreck Ltd for some shopping and top it off with an ice cream at Hershey’s Ice Cream on Thomas Drive.
Day 3- Take a road trip out to Apalachicola for lunch and shopping. Even just walking through the art galleries and through the main square is a trip back in time. It’s about 3 hours round trip from PCB but a great way to spend the day with the sunroof open and the Jimmy Buffett playlist on. For the evening, grab dinner at Dusty’s Oyster Bar and then head over to Pier Park. While at Pier Park, make sure to stop at Hy’s Toggery and maybe have a beer at the Hofbrau Beer Garden or at Tootsies Orchid Lounge. Finally, relive your childhood days with some mini golf at Hidden Lagoon.
Day 4- Do a morning bicycle ride through St. Andrew’s Park or drive over to 30A and rent one to ride around there. If you choose 30A, there’s plenty of food trucks/restaurants/shopping but it can be very crowded. If you choose the park, take some snacks with you because there’s not really any options inside the park. Either way, you’ll find plenty of bike rental options and some will even deliver. If you choose to bike the park early, you’ll have time to rent a pontoon boat and set out for an afternoon trip (usually 1-5pm). Head over to Shell Island and pull up to the shallow waters. For dinner, check out The Grand Marlin. I recommend making reservations here and you’ll probably want to wear nicer clothes. Everything at the beach is casual but a sundress for the ladies and a polo shirt instead of a t-shirt for the guys is better suited.
Day 5- If you have children, consider Shipwreck Island Water Park. If the weather isn’t good, maybe consider a shopping day in Destin. If the weather is good, I would vote heading out to the beach again. Then, have an early dinner at Captain Anderson’s (same clothing suggestion as The Grand Marlin) and finish in time for a sunset cruise aboard the Paradise Adventures Catamaran. It’s located less than 5 minutes from the restaurant and it’s a perfect way to spend your last evening! Be sure to book tickets for this in advance.