As we all emerge hopefully from our cocoons and look forward to summer vacation, there is an undeniable urge to get away. Somewhere. Anywhere! Above all else, travelers are seeking a sense of familiarity, and what could be more familiar than that all-time Southern beach destination, Panama City Beach? With its lovely and warm emerald waters and 27 miles of soft, white sandy beaches, PCB is the ideal vacation destination for celebrations and family trips, and it’s probably what you imagine when you close your eyes on a quick break between online meetings and dream of someplace you’d rather be.
So tell the boss you’re going to be out on Friday, and pack your bags for a much-deserved long weekend in Panama City Beach. We’ve put together your long weekend itinerary, complete with lodging options, dining choices, activities, and new opportunities to explore because a Panama City Beach vacation can be whatever you want to make it.
Your first stop before you even dig out that swimsuit should be the incredibly helpful visitpanamacitybeach.com, which is filled with all sorts of ideas and options for how to plan your trip. The site maintains a thorough listing of accommodations at every price point and level of luxury. Whether you’re looking for rustic cabins or campsites near the beautiful St. Andrews State Park, nicely appointed rooms at any of the many resorts and condo complexes up and down the beaches or to rent an entire house to hold the whole family, Visit Panama City Beach has your choices organized for you to click through and start planning. Considering what it costs to keep your pooch in a kennel for a long weekend, you might even save money by doing a special search for one of the area’s pet-friendly properties, plus you know your best buddy would rather come with you on vacation anyway.
A big advantage of choosing Panama City Beach for your next vacation is that it’s easily accessible via car or air from most of the region. If you’re driving, point your car towards the Gulf Coast and keep driving until your hat floats. While the long and narrow layout of Panama City Beach means you’re never far from the Gulf no matter where you stay, it’s convenient to have your own wheels as you explore the area.
But if maximizing your fun and minimizing your travel time is the top priority, Panama City Beach has loads of direct flights on many airlines, with extra trips added to the schedule during the summer season. The modern Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport is relatively small and very efficient, so baggage claim and car rentals are a snap, and you can have your toes in the sand within 15 minutes of leaving the terminal.
While we would never claim to know the absolute best way to spend a long weekend at the beach, as Thomas Rhett sings, “Don’t threaten me with a good time!” So here are a few ways we suggest to enjoy your time in PCB.
Get in the game!
You’ve arrived a day before the rest of the people who weren’t smart enough to get out of work early, so you deserve to reward yourself with some activities even more fun when the crowds aren’t quite as teeming. Grab a quick sweet breakfast at the iconic Thomas Donut & Snack Shop, which is celebrating 50 years of serving up decadent donuts, plus burgers and sandwiches if you happened to hit the snooze alarm a few extra times and find yourself ready for lunch when you arise. For a more substantial breakfast, we’re big fans of Andy’s Flour Power Cafe & Bakery, where they specialize in morning meals made using fresh ingredients. They also offer fantastic specialty coffee drinks plus mimosas and cocktails, depending on your morning beverage desires.
For a day in the water without getting any sand in your shorts, check out Shipwreck Island Waterpark, the region’s premier aquatic playground. The long-time favorite has something for everyone, from the placid Tadpole Hole designed for the youngest guests to the lazy river with plenty of shady spots to get out of the sun during your languid float. Thrill-seekers have plenty of options, too, from the 500,000-gallon Ocean Motion Wave Pool that produces perfect three-foot waves every 10 minutes to all sorts of chances to get your heart rate up on attractions like the Raging Rapids, White Knuckle River, Zoom Flume, Tree Top Drop, Pirate’s Plunge Racing Slide and more.
Lest you get overstimulated on your first day, consider spending the hottest part of the afternoon a little bit up the beach at Pier Park, a massive retail, dining and entertainment complex that stretches all the way from the Front Beach Road to the Back Beach Road, which is what locals colloquially call Highways 30 and 98. (SB Tip: If you do choose to visit Pier Park before splashing around at Shipwreck Island Waterpark, several of the merchants and restaurants at Pier Park offer discounts for waterpark admission.)
With more than 1.1 million square feet of open-air marketplaces plus large retail anchor stores, boutiques, bars, restaurants and gift shops, Pier Park is a great place to duck out of the occasional afternoon passing shower or just stroll from store to store to get out of the sun for a little while. The massive SkyWheel offers a seagull’s-eye view of the beaches and surrounding area from almost 200 feet above the Pier Park grounds, and the entertainment area surrounding the wheel features rope courses, miniature golf and amusement park rides for all ages.
If you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to leave Pier Park, dinner and entertainment options abound, ranging from an outpost of Nashville’s famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to the Caribbean-inspired seafood at Pompano Joe’s, plus more seafood at Angry Tuna Seafood Company and Back Porch Seafood & Oyster House. Asian food fans will enjoy Osaka Japanese Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi Bar or Hana Japan, and beer lovers should definitely check out Brass Tap with its 60 different craft drafts.
When it’s time to wind down after a day of fun, nothing beats sitting around a bonfire on the beach. But don’t think you can just fire up the pit and start toasting s’mores on your own. Panama City Beach protects the environment by strictly regulating fires on the beach. Fortunately, some services handle all the permitting, set-up and teardown for you, so all you have to do is book ahead and enjoy a couple of hours of flames and waves.
Get on the water!
You didn’t come to Panama City Beach to stay dry, now did you?! Of course not, and the Gulf, lakes and bays that delineate the limits of the town are some of the greatest spots in the country to get your feet wet. Of course, there are the beaches, miles of public sandy oases where you can set up camp or rent all the amenities you need from one of many beach services companies. While most of the beach areas are public, some of them are in front of resorts, which can make for a long walk from the car with all your gear, so it’s handy to know where the nearly 100 beach access points are located. (Visit Panama City Beach can help you with that!)
While Panama City Beach is fully open for business, restaurants and retail establishments are still working diligently to help ensure the safety of visitors. Fortunately, many spots have plenty of outdoor seating and the spacious indoor dining areas have room for lots of separation. On the beach, you can have as much room as you want, or you can even ensure a little privacy by bringing one of those popular pop-up shelters that seem to be everywhere up and down the shoreline.
But for even more elbow room, consider taking at least a half-day away from the sand to explore some of the more remote aquatic destinations. Boat rentals are readily available, either as part of a charter or jet skis and pontoons to pilot yourself. The marinas around Grand Lagoon are a popular spot to start your voyage, and if you’re lucky, you might even encounter one of the quirky “food trucks on the water” that sometimes cruise the lagoon selling ice cream, boiled peanuts or hot dogs to hungry boaters.
The Grand Lagoon area is also a good spot to jump on one of many cruise excursions, including eco and dolphin-watching tours, thrilling airboat rides or a trip across the bay to the peaceful isolation of Shell Island, seven miles of pristine barrier island that is undeveloped and inaccessible without a boat. Grab a picnic lunch from your favorite local restaurant (we’re partial to Finn’s Island Style Grub and Liza’s Kitchen) and jump on one of the frequent ferries and shuttles to Shell Island for a day of fun in the sun. Keep in mind that there are no restroom facilities on Shell Island, and you must bring back all your trash from the island because the remoteness is what makes it so special.
While you’re in the Grand Lagoon area, you can clean up a bit and hit some of the most famous restaurants in Panama City Beach for dinner. The iconic Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant has been a PCB tradition since 1967, serving its brand of succulent seafood to more than a quarter-million lucky diners every year. Schooners calls itself “the last local beach club” and offers an unparalleled view of the Gulf from its beachfront deck. The Grand Marlin features high-quality seafood cuisine in an island-casual ambiance, and the upstairs bar often showcases live music plus a view of the boats unloading at the marina behind the restaurant. Look for Big Gus, the giant steer out in front of Angelo’s Steak Pit, to find the spot where generations of beach travelers have headed to satisfy their carnivorous urges in Panama City Beach.
For some after-dinner entertainment, check out some casual beach bars like Sharky’s Beachfront Restaurant & Tiki Bar, Pineapple Willy’s or Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for live music that is certain to keep you in the vacation party mood. Also keep an eye on Visit Panama City Beach’s events webpage to see if you’re lucky enough to be in town during any of their big food and music festivals like UNwineD or the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam for the chance to catch some national headlining musical acts.
Sunday is a great day to explore the great outdoors of Panama City Beach. If you can fight the urge for a big breakfast (and it’s fine if you can’t since it’s vacation!), grab something light at a spot like Another Broken Egg Cafe, Sunnyside Grill or maybe Tropical Smoothie Cafe, and get ready to hit the trails.
Panama City Beach boasts several excellent chances to get out into nature, including St. Andrews State Park on the east side of town. Here you’ll find more than 1,200 acres of natural beauty featuring different biozones from beachfront to marshland. Hiking trails wind through the property, exposing you to all sorts of wildlife, including the occasional alligator, so stay alert! If you’re looking to catch dinner, there are also two fishing piers in the park and a boat ramp if you want to launch your own watercraft to get out among the fish.
Camp Helen State Park is a hidden gem on the westernmost edge of Panama City Beach. A former corporate retreat, the property is now a lovely, if tiny, natural area that offers easy access to the beach and the Gulf as well as Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in the state. Rent paddleboards or kayaks to get out on the water with the benefit of choosing between the calm surface of the lake or the slightly more adventurous waves on the Gulf. Camp Helen is also known for an impressive variety of wildlife, so keep your eyes on the skies to catch a glimpse of eagles, ospreys or hawks.
An initiative to preserve thousands of acres of crucial wetlands led to the creation of Conservation Park. Not only does the park ensure that the flora and fauna are protected, but it also offers visitors the chance to see the wild side of Panama City Beach. Bring your bicycle or rent one from one of the many rental shops in the area and set out on some of the 24 miles of trails through Conservation Park. If you prefer two feet instead of two wheels, there is a system of trails and boardwalks that range from an easy half-mile looping stroll to a hardcore hike of 11 miles. An added benefit is that since this is Florida, all the trails are flat. Heck, the tallest point in the whole county is probably the stack of oyster shells in the parking lot behind Shuckums Oyster Pub & Seafood Grill!
Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trails of Conservation Park in case Rufus needs to stretch his legs, and nature tours led by volunteer guides are available if you want to go deeper into the ecology of this important natural area.
After a day of delightful exertion, head back to your accommodations to clean up and maybe take a little siesta before heading out for your final evening of dining and entertainment. If you haven’t had your fill of seafood and ocean breezes, and we’re guessing you haven’t, plan for drinks and dinner at Hang Five Beach Bar & Grill, where every seat offers a Gulf view. Show up a little early if you can, because they offer a fantastic happy hour from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. with live music on Sundays. Take advantage of your last chance to try that Panama City Beach appetizer staple — a bowl of smoked tuna dip — or split a basket of peel-and-eat shrimp along with a boozy frozen drink.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, so you might want to turn in a little early before you hit the road or catch your flight home in the morning. Don’t worry, though. We’re pretty sure you’ll be back to Panama City Beach again soon because any place known for “The Most Beautiful Beaches in the World” will always occupy a special spot in your heart.
This article is sponsored by Visit Panama City Beach. All photography provided by Visit Panama City Beach.