Planning a Panama City Beach family vacation? Here are a few things you’ll want to know before you go!
Unexpectedly, Panama City Beach has stolen my heart.
I love it for its high-rise condominiums, which guarantee me a vacation filled with mornings waking to sounds of the surf and panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico. I love its quirky restaurants, offering everything from savory New Orleans Po Boys to British pasties to a decadent she-crab soup that even now haunts my dreams. I love its transparent waters and ivory sands, its nature trails and protected islands rich with shells and sea creatures, and I love the incredible amount of things to do when we tire of the beach, from alligator airboat tours to miniature golf to museums to boat rides alongside leaping dolphins.
My love for this place comes as a bit of a surprise, because I remember Panama City Beach from my childhood as a land of motor inns, tacky souvenir shops, and partying college students. When I visited last year for the first time in decades, I was shocked to see that things in PCB had changed in a big way since I was a kid. A new international airport has turned the town into a hub for beach visitors, drawing in luxury vacation rentals, diverse restaurants, and upscale shopping. A focus on conservation has led to new hiking and biking trails and greenways. And new laws have been passed, encouraging college kids to take their parties elsewhere.
We’ve visited Panama City Beach twice now in two years, and I’ve written all about it in other posts on this blog and over on Scary Mommy. But if you’re looking for a general overview, here are 5 things you need to know about Panama City Beach before you visit:
Bring your snorkeling gear.
Unless your visit happens to come on the heels of a major storm, you can expect the waters to be calm and crystal clear — They are ideal for snorkeling, so be sure and bring your gear, as well as a net so that you can examine your finds more closely. My kids discovered that they loved snorkeling on our first Panama City Beach visit and spent hours scouring the waters for treasure. Our sand bucket also got lots of use, since the kids loved to put their finds inside the bucket to look at them for a few minutes before returning them to the ocean.
Skip the seafood chains — Panama City Beach has some of the best locally-owned restaurants you’ll find in any beach town, anywhere.
When you’re in a beach town, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of choosing big and busy seafood houses for your meals out, where you can expect to wait an hour for a table and blow your entire vacation budget in a matter of a few nights. One of the things I love most about Panama City Beach is that many of its best restaurants are very reasonably priced — This means you can save some of that money and spend it on a private boat tour (see below)!
Our favorite restaurants include Finn’s Island Style Grub (be sure to visit the St. Andrews location) for divine fish tacos and the best cold brew coffee I’ve ever tasted, Eat My Pasty for hearty British pub-style fare, Andy’s Flour Power for a breakfast that’ll keep you full all day long, Thomas Donuts for amazing donuts and mouth-watering kolaches, and David’s Sno-Balls, where the New Orleans-style Po Boys are every bit as delicious as David’s signature Sno-Balls.
And if you’re ready for a big night out and have older kids who can handle fine dining, I can’t recommend Firefly highly enough — It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the country. Make a reservation for dinner and prepare to be dazzled by a meal you will never, ever forget.
Splurge on these tours.
You’ve got a LOT of options for activities in Panama City Beach. We’ve tried two in particular that I can very enthusiastically recommend.
We chartered a boat and guide from Dolphin and Snorkel Tours for a 3-hour sunset cruise and it was worth every penny. In fact, it’s now one of my favorite family beach memories EVER. Our knowledgeable guide talked to us about what we wanted to do, then tailored the experience for our family. We searched for shells and snorkeled on Shell Island, visited with a family of raccoons living in the rocks of a jetty, spotted a sea turtle out in the water, looked at osprey nests up close, and got up close and personal with dozens of dolphins.
We also loved searching for alligators with Airboat Adventures. This 45-minute airboat ride in the marshes of Panama City Beach is perfect for all ages and combines some really fun high-speed spinouts on the water (Don’t worry- It’s completely safe!) with learning about the coastal ecosystem and its inhabitants. Kids even get to take turns riding alongside the driver! So. Much. Fun.
Don’t miss these must-dos.
Whether you charter a boat to visit Shell Island or take the shuttle, this protected island is a must-see when you’re visiting Panama City Beach. Take your snorkeling gear – You’ll find calm, shallow waters alongside the island’s rock jetty. Locals say the Shell Island beach known as ‘Kiddie Pool’ is the best place to find shells. If you don’t see any in plain view, start digging in the soft sand bank near the water. You’ll quickly find plenty of gorgeous shells washed up from prior storms and embedded in the sand.
Be sure and check out the rest of St. Andrews State Park while you’re there. Start at the visitors center to learn more about the environment, then take one of the park’s gorgeous nature trails to see the area’s native plants and wildlife for yourself.
We also love Conservation Park, which has 24 miles of trails perfect for hiking or mountain biking. Kids will enjoy the mile-long raised boardwalk trail or the 1.8 mile Green Trail loop.
If it rains…
You might just pray for a rainy day at Panama City Beach — Wonder Works and Ripley’s Odditorium await!
At Wonderworks, the whole family will have fun checking out this museum’s many interactive exhibits, which include a roller coaster simulator, a wind tunnel, a bed of nails you can actually lie on, laser tag, a ropes course, a virtual army experience, and a whole lot more. This place is awesome!
Ripley’s Odditorium is right across the street — Filled with more than 500 exhibits containing some of the world’s weirdest artifacts, this place will keep your family busy for hours.
And if it’s shopping you’re looking for, you can’t beat Pier Park. This upscale outdoor shopping center includes all your favorite stores, as well as a movie theater, restaurants, and fun activities for the kids.
Got more Panama City Beach insider tips? Share them in the comments!