Destin, Florida is the premiere beach destination in the continental USA. The town is located on the panhandle of Florida, along an 80-mile stretch of seafront running from Pensacola to Panama City. This string of spectacular beaches have been dubbed The Emerald Coast.
The town of Destin showcases the best of what the panhandle offers. The sand is fluffy and without flaw; there are no shells or rocks beneath your feet, just sugar white sand as soft as it comes. The water reflects a rainbow of brilliant turquoise blues. You can stare at it all day. Maybe spot a turtle older than your grandparents floating past.
Nowhere in California, Texas, Alabama, or the Carolinas will you find a beach as nice as Destin. There are a few competitive beaches in other parts of Florida, but unless you include Hawaii in the conversation there is no better beach in the USA than Destin.
So you’re coming to Destin, now what? Of course you’re going to sit on the beach, and we’ll help direct you to the best ones. Other than that we’ll give you some ideas of what to do with your time in paradise. Here are the 12 best things to do in Destin Florida.
Between Destin and Panama City is a perfect stretch of highway known as the 30-A. Along this road you will find some of the nicest beaches in the United States, in addition to posh beach towns and a pair of beautiful state parks. The 30-A is one of those places that live in your memory forever — an absolute must-do on the Emerald Coast. We consider it one of the best things to do in the United States. If you’d like to read more, check out 30A Beaches and Towns.
The scratchpad of sand they call a “public beach” in downtown Destin is a bad joke, and most every inch of oceanfront all the way to Miramar is privately owned. At a glance it would seem that Destin is for resort vacationers only. Enter Henderson Beach State Park, a public stretch of sand smack in the middle of town. Not only is this one of the nicest beaches on the entire Emerald Coast, but this is the last remaining coastal scrub in Destin. The 60 campsites fill very fast so plan ahead.
The quartz-white sand and aquamarine waters in Topsail Hill are as good as anywhere on the coast. The downside is you have to walk 20 minutes, wait for a tram, or ride your bike down a giant hill (and back up), to get to the beach. Its worth it. In addition to the beach, hiking trails wind through the park, and there are lakes and wildlife to enjoy. If you want to camp here be sure to book in advance!
Fort Walton is the nearest town to Destin, just across the bridge to the west. At the edge of Ft. Walton is a public beach complex with 3 miles bright green water and an assortment of touristy restaurants. This is the most active beach in the Destin area and it draws a lively crowd of young adults. Great for boogie boarding and even better for checking out co-eds, Okaloosa Island Beach has good, fun action. If you’re looking for somewhere with vibrant energy, this is one of the best things to do in Destin Florida.
The restaurant scene in Destin is mediocre. There are a few better than average places, but if you are looking to have one memorable meal in Destin, be sure to visit the Beach Walk Cafe at the Henderson Inn. The restaurant takes itself very seriously. From their website: “Discover a voyage for the senses in the only fine-dining directly on the Gulf of Mexico.” Obnoxious, right? And probably untrue. We call it farm-to-table douchery. Pretention aside, the food is amazing and the outdoor seating is great at sunset.
Bubba the Alligator was a highlight of our 2022 travels. He is arguably the best trained alligator in the world — considered a “therapy gator” — Never once has he bit a human being! His handler picks him up and holds him like a baby. You got to see it to believe it. You can pet him. Sit on him. Give him kisses. He even has an affinity for autistic children. You can see Bubba if you stay at Camp Gulf RV Park (which you should do), where he performs often with his hilarious trainer, Dave. Bubba video.
We found this small museum highly interesting. A fisherman named Leonard Destin founded the town in 1835. He found a world-class fishing hole on the Florida panhandle, told a few people about it, and the rest is history. Much has changed over the years and it is as fascinating drama. Destin hosts a fishing tournament every October called The Destin Fishing Rodeo. The history of this tourney is well documented in the museum (with two full walls of huge stuffed fish and sharks).
The Indian Temple Mounds Museum is a historical site in nearby Fort Walton. Ancient Indian Mounds were constructed by deliberately heaping soil, rock, or other materials onto natural land surfaces. The mounds are massive, taking years to complete. Indian mounds first arrived about in the US around 4,000 BC, and continued until 1700 AD. The museum houses exhibits depicting 12,000 years of Native American occupation in the Ft. Walton area, with over 1,000 artifacts.
Captain Leonard Destin Park is a multifarious family park built on the site of Leonard Destin’s original homestead. Just a minute from the Harbor Boardwalk you will find historical plaques highlighting the founding family, an impressive, state-of-the-art children’s playground, and beach views with water access. A mile or so off shore you can spy Crab Island; from here you can watch boats and vacationers gather for day drinking and shenanigans in the bluest of postcard water.
Norriego Point is a sandy beach prominence (map) that helps form the mouth of Destin Harbor. One side of the point faces the harbor and the other side faces the east pass inlet. A row of small bays protected by jetties on the east side are the perfect place for families to swim and watch ships go by. Large birds, like our friend here, nest in the dune that runs down the center of Norriego Point. This is a great place to mix up the view, toss a line in the water, and watch the kids splash.
The Harbor Boardwalk is the tourist hub of Destin — a mecca of restaurants, gift shops, water sport rentals, boat ride tours, and other assorted schlep. We usually spend an hour or two each time we visit, buy a t-shirt, and run like hell. The hallowed Destin Fishing Rodeo takes place here. Folks dock and weigh their catch — even small children holding tiny fish have them weighed. Most consider this one of the best things to do in Destin Florida.
Baytowne Wharf is a golfing community with its own touristy action (with fewer marijuana cigarettes than the Harbor Boardwalk). Here you can zipline and ice skate, buy fancy soap, and eat at Fat Tuesdays in an evening’s time. Baytowne Wharf has a clean feel and an assortment of restaurants and shops. The Adventure Zone has an elevated obstacle course, trampolines, golf challenges, and an arcade. We consider it the highlight of the park.
Destin is a popular beach town that attracts many tourists, which means there are countless putt-putt courses, go-karts, theme restaurants, water slide parks, etc. We don’t recommend these types of activities unless they are special, which they are not in this case. Here are two other things to do in Destin that we would recommend, one that we’ve done and one that we haven’t.
One thing we really enjoyed was parasailing! We’d never been and it was a positive experience. Just Chute Me was the outfit. They did a good job. We would recommend parasailing if you’ve never been.
Crab Island is a popular activity that involves boating to a sandbar in the middle of the inlet. It looks like a lot of standing, floating and drinking to us. We could do that anywhere (and not pay $60).
If you want to sit on a perfect beach, Destin is the place to do it. The beaches are so wonderful we don’t mind spreading the word knowing full well you’ll only add to the traffic.
We all deserve a place like Destin.
The next time you feel like hopping a plane to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, or Martinique, hit pause for a moment and consider Florida. Seriously! We think you might find exactly what you’re hoping to get in those faraway lands right here in your own backyard.
Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoy Destin as much as we do. God bless and happy travels!
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