For as long as I have memories, my family has gone down to Panama City Beach for vacation. We’d always pack up the station wagon—then later, the Cadillac—and make the seven-hour drive from Tennessee to the Florida Panhandle. While there, we’d run into dozens of people we know because, well, everyone from our area vacations in Bay County. But until the last few years, I’d never done a whole lot of long weekends in PCB—it was always a full week and change due to the drive time—yet now, we have a lovely little direct flight on Southwest that is just 45 minutes wheels up to wheels down, so it’s easier than ever to jet on down when I see a good deal.
Where to Stay in Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach stretches a lengthy 27 miles across the Gulf Coast, and there’s no shortage of beachfront properties from which to choose for a vacation. I’ve stayed all over the Panhandle, and many of the condo high-rises offer the same amenities and layouts, so it really depends on what end of the beach you want to use as your base.
ResortQuest by Wyndham dominates Northwest Florida’s rental market and offers every kind of rental house configuration imaginable; I stayed in a very large one-bedroom property of theirs with an additional bunk-bed nook down along Gulf Lagoon Beach while on this trip, and I’ve already booked one of their condo complexes at the complete opposite end of PCB for my long weekend there with SVV next month.
Personally, if you’re traveling with a girls’ group or significant other sans kids, I love Carillon Beach for its upscale homes and relative seclusion. If you’re traveling with children and/or a large group, you might prefer one of the Wyndham complexes near Laguna Beach, conveniently close to Pier Park and other family attractions like Gulf World Marine Park.
If you’re like me, you take the first available flight out, meaning you’ll touch down in plenty of time for a full day on the beach. It also means you’ll require a major caffeine boost mid-morning—a 4am wake-up call is no joke, at least not for this sleepyhead—and that your first stop after leaving the airport is Finns Island Style Grub for a smoothie bowl, kombucha and the famed black salt pepper mocha made with cold brew. (Dairy-free or vegan? Ask for the “venocha,” and they’ll hook you up with house-made cashew milk instead.)
If you arrive closer to lunchtime, Finns is still a great bet as this food truck with a brick-and-mortar location (and a full build-out to come very soon) got its start cooking up the meanest fish tacos around. Note: Finns typically closes at 3pm on weekdays and 8pm on weekends, so check the hours before you make the pilgrimage.
Once you’re nice and full, head to check into your accommodation. Even if you can’t get into your condo just yet, you can go ahead and park and stake your plot of sand on the beach. My condo happened to be right next to Schooners, so I nabbed a parking spot, slurped down a craft beer, chased it with a margarita, then headed for the beach.
Even traveling to PCB during mid-spring, the beaches weren’t crowded, probably because I was staying all the way at the eastern end of PCB toward St. Andrews, a little bit outside of the fray. And need I remind you there’s 27 miles of beachfront property?! It was a perfect 75 degrees every day we were there with very little humidity. Spring is absolutely my favorite time to visit the Panhandle for these balmy days and temperate nights with a bit of a nip in the air.
That night, I met up with my crew at my favorite local spot for dinner: Craft Bar. Craft Bar has upward of 30 craft brews available in flights or full pints, and I never miss an opportunity to taste my way through some of Florida’s best beers. In typical fashion, Jade ordered a bunch of different plates—from hot chicken to fried green tomatoes—for all of us to snack on. Then, we hit the hay hard to rest up for a long weekend ahead in the sun.
Note: PCB now has both Lyft and Uber service, so you can leave your car at your rental and have fun out with your friends.
I love to hit the big hotspots on weekdays when crowds are slimmer, and there’s no more iconic spot than Shell Island, a 700-acre barrier island less than 30 minutes by boat from PCB. On this particular trip, our group chartered a boat with Lagoon Pontoons for a half-day, so we grabbed breakfast to go; packed coolers full of drinks, snacks and lunch; and set off for a morning on Shell Island’s white-sand beach.
If you don’t have a full day to set aside for this uninhabited paradise, alternatively, you can take the Shell Island Shuttle—which departs daily every half hour between 10am and 4pm—for a shorter stay.
We walked the perimeter of the island, we went swimming, we combed the shallow waters for starfish, and we pulled up our lounge chairs to where the ocean meets the sea and got properly sunburned (wear stronger SPF than we did!).
When we got back to land just after 2pm, we had a few hours to go back to our condos, grab food, change then meet back for a full night on the beach. New to the area since my last stay in Panama City Beach is Endless Beach Rentals, a company that sets up charming beach rigs so that you don’t have to worry about hauling your own gear through the sand. There are plenty of options from which to choose, but we opted for the ultimate night under the stars in PCB: a beach bonfire.
With a bit of a chill in the air after the sun sank, the bonfire felt like a dream. We lounged in hammocks and the cozy beach chairs Endless Beach Rentals provided us as we toasted s’mores and got our hands gooey, while several members of our group played cornhole and others grooved to 80’s tunes the DJ was spinning. (The DJ was me, guys. Give me a Bluetooth speaker, and I will blast some monster ballads from my favorite hair bands all night long.)
You can also bring your own cooler of beers now that the month of March has passed. (PCB bans alcohol consumption on the beach for the month of March during prime Spring Break season to keep things tame, but the rest of the year you’re welcome to BYOB and drink responsibly.)
After your bonfire has been quenched, head west to Saltwater Grill, one of the best fine-dining experiences in PCB, for a feast of scallops, lobster, crab and juicy cuts of steak.
Breakfast in PCB, for me, is almost always Andy’s Flour Power, which recently located to an even bigger location just a half-mile from its original spot on Thomas Drive, and now can accommodate even more diners who flock there for the Belgian waffles, biscuits and gravy, omelets and French toast. I didn’t want to waste any beach time on lunch, so my breakfast at Andy’s doubled as two meals (that totally justifies my extra order of bacon, right?).
My favorite beach in PCB is nearby at St. Andrews State Park. Because there’s a small fee ($8 per car) to get in, it’s never overwhelmingly packed. But it’s got space galore including two great stretches of beach—one lining the Gulf, the other flanking the lagoon—from which to choose.
It’s also rife in wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for herons, gators and other species that call the Florida Panhandle home. Those traveling with kayaks or SUPs should definitely consider St. Andrews; the protected lagoon makes it an easier spot to paddle than most.
Since I was already in the St. Andrews area, I lingered until mid-afternoon, stopping by the Grand Marlin for oysters and happy hour with friends before we boarded our dolphin cruise with Island Time Sailing.
This two-hour tour sunset dolphin cruise takes passengers out through the lagoon, around Shell Island and back near the shore of St. Andrews, where you can see the sun set over PCB as the dolphins frolic on the horizon.
As always, we saw SO many, it was hard to keep track of which direction they were coming from!
If you get seasick, take a little something before the trip out, as it can be a bit rocky on the sailboat. Once you’re back on land, you have a few dinner options nearby: Patches Pub for a more traditional PCB beach bar experience or Shore Shack Pizza, a two-year-old restaurant that serves up a nice mix of specialty pies on a pleasant outdoor patio.
Be one of the first in line for Thomas’ Donuts after it opens. You won’t regret setting your alarm early for a stack of that sugary-sweet perfection. It opens at 6am, but if you’re there by 8 (or even 9) on a Sunday morning, you shouldn’t run into too long of lines.
Spend your final day beachfront, or if you’re all beached out, head to Panama City Beach’s Pier Park, a colorful wonderland, particularly well-suited for kids with its Ferris wheel, ice cream parlor, IMAX theater, laser tag and more. It also boasts 124 stores, so if you need a new bathing suit or are looking for a souvenir before you fly back home, this is your place.
Sticking around through sunset? Grab an early dinner beachside at Hook’d Pier Bar & Grille, then drive out to Camp Helen State Park to watch the colors in the sky light up on fire as only the Gulf knows how to do.
What else would you add to a long weekend in PCB?
Looking for more Florida travel tips? Start here:
- Secret Florida: Where the Dolphins Play
- The Best Places for Your Killer PCB Instagram Shots
- Chowing Down: Where to Eat in Panama City Beach
- A Helicopter Ride Over PCB
- Fitness in Panama City Beach: Learning Aerial Yoga
- Carillon Beach: The Gulf Coast’s Best-Kept Secret
- Wreck Diving in Panama City Beach