I’m not a Panama City Beach local, but I’m as close as you can be. I lived in this Gulf-side community for about five years, and spent it exploring all of the nooks and crannies. So if you are new to PCB or looking for news ideas of what to do while there, this list should have you covered.
1. Go to St. Andrews State Park
I promise you, this is the beach you want to be at. It has the best waves if you want to try surfing, the best snorkeling along the jetties, the best shelling of anywhere, the best sheltered swimming area if you have little kids and the best chances of seeing wildlife. I’ve seen manatees, sea turtles, gators (in a place called Gator Lake, not where I was swimming) and more dolphins than I can count while here. It also has great facilities, including two fishing piers and places where you can rent anything you didn’t want to pack (they even have an inflatable inflation station).
2. Go parasailing
It sounds a little corny, but it’s honestly so worth it. It’s an amazing feeling to be that high up, a fun short boat ride and it’s one of the best ways to see some sharks at a distance.
3. Play old-fashioned arcade games at Funland
Sure, there is a Dave & Buster’s in town, but if you want an old-school, beach games experience go to Funland.
4. Go deep sea fishing
The fishing is really, really good off Panama City Beach. If you’ve been on trips where you have to wait an hour for a nibble, this is not it. It’s fast (the secret is to just start reeling when you feel a nibble, don’t try to set the hook first – reel). I’ve taken people who said they don’t like fishing, and they’ve loved this. Plus. you often see dolphins.
5. Get some tacos
A surprisingly great taco scene. For authentic tacos, I recommend Juan Tacos. For an outdoor food truck experience, Finns (the surfers swear by them). And then, for beachside go to Runaway Island.
6. Take some surf lessons
The waves have to be right, but Panama City Beach is a great place to learn to surf. My siblings *loved* it when they visited for Spring Break. Easily their favorite part of the trip.
7. Go to the Panama City Beach winery
I admittedly debated this one a little bit. The pictures you see on Instagram will look nicer than this winery does. To be clear, there’s no vineyard and it’s tucked into a very average looking strip mall. But, the wine is delicious. It’s made of fruits – not grapes – so people who don’t normally like wine, will like this. It’s very fun. The tastings are free. And, they serve slushies.
8. Play a round of mini golf
You will have lots and lots of options for a mini golf course. My personal recommendation is Goofy Golf because it is only $10 and has kept its 1959 charm
9. Go on a sunset air boat tour
People really focus on the Beach part of PCB, but it also has quiet a few bayous. And with those bayous comes alligators. There is nothing quiet like going gator spotting on an air boat at dusk, and one of those memories that is sure to stick.
10. Catch a sunset
The sunsets truly are really, really beautiful. Head out onto a pier to feel like you are part of it or just watch from the beach.
11. Rent a pontoon boat
Pontoons boats are basically a floating party. They’re also a great way to explore the bay and get to Shell Island, which is a remote stretch of beach where dolphins tend to hang out. Plus, you can usually bring your dog (my dog doesn’t like the water so she spent all day staying dry, but it was nice to have her with me versus in a kennel) and they make a nice stable platform to do some fishing off of.
12. Eat some donuts
If you want to eat a really good donut view, Mike’s Donut Shop (owned by the Panama City Beach mayor) is the place to go. However, I will say if you want to cross the bridge and go visit Panama City, Dan-D Donuts is also a great, retro throwback and where half the county is.
13. Collect some seashells
I alluded to this above, but Panama City Beach has really, really good shelling. The best places to go are the State Park (kiddy pool side, where there is a slight spit in the sand caused by the shape of the jetties – it’ll make sense when you see it) and across the street from Mike’s Donuts. It’s not like the famed Sanibel Island, but if you are willing to look in the waves (or scoop your hands into the sand in the water some) you will find tons of shells. Nutmegs and Lettered Olives are some common finds, but sometimes you’ll even find an Alphabet Cone.
14. Do a swim with dolphins tour
There really are so many dolphins in PCB, and there is something magical about getting in the water with them. Follow the rules – don’t touch, don’t pester, etc – and it can be great for everyone.
15. Eat at one of the beach-side restaurants
Yes, a lot of tourists eat at them too, but I promise you the locals are there too. Runaway Island is my personal favorite, my dad loved Sharky’s, and my friend’s grandparent’s loved Schooners, if you want some help narrowing it down.
16. Check out Pier Park
Let’s be truthful about Pier Park. You are going to see it on every single list as a “must go” but it’s also where I went to the dentist. It’s a lot like every other outdoor mall in America (think Target, Forever 21, Loft, Dave& Buster’s) with mostly the same stores, carrying the same products. That being said, the newly installed SkyWheel does offer a fantastic view of the Gulf, it is the nicest movie theater if you want to catch one while on vacation, the parades are fun and it can be fun to look through the stores. Also, there are drink vendors selling drinking in coconuts and pineapples, so that’s a win, and there are some really cool milkshake places.
17. Visit Panama City
Now, if what you are looking for it to shop small, local stores carrying unique gifts, for that your best best is to cross the Hathaway Bridge and visit Panama City’s two downtowns – St. Andrew’s and Historic Downtown. They’re small, were revitalizing to begin with, and then were walloped by a Category 5 hurricane in 2018, but these shop-owners have a huge heart for the community and great taste. Go to SunJammers or Trendy Side in St. Andrew’s the owner their, Brad, can tell you anything you want to know about the community and has the best selection of local t-shirts. If you love combing through antiques/thrift stories, you will love Elegant Endeavors and their prices are great. One of the owners, Jane, has poured her heart into helping downtown. Little Mustard Seed has a great collection of farmhouse-style decor and huge hearts (you have to check out the stuff made by Redemption Sawmill, it’s beautiful and made out of wood from trees that were destroyed in the hurricane. It’s so moving and very affordable). For coffee, you must go to Vinny & Bay’s, which was founded to create a space for people with disabilities to work. I promise that by going to these four places you will truly be shopping local and get a better sense of the community and poking around will put in position to see if anything else catches your eye. Oh and when History Class Brewing opens in 2020, check that out too.
18. Rent a Jet Ski
It really is as fun as it sounds, and if it doesn’t sound fun to you, then it really is funner than it sounds.
19. Take a yoga class at Wild Root
This studio is surrounded by really pretty gardens, and has a lovely adjoining coffee and tea shop. It’s very, very well, Zen.
20. Catch a concert at the beach
You would have to time your trip around this, but the Alt. Rock music festival SandJam Fest still happens right on the beach, not tucked away at an inland park. There is something very cool about listening to music as the sunsets on the beach.
21. Make a splash at Shipwreck Island
Sometimes the beaches are closed due to wave conditions (a double red flag day). It is – no joke – illegal to be in the water on these days because of the number of drownings. Sometimes, this happens on nice, sunny days. So if that happens to you and you’re looking for a place to go swimming, Shipwreck Island is a fun little water park. None of the rides are huge, but the wait times aren’t bad and it has a nice long lazy river.
22. Go snorkeling
I’ve snorkeled on the reefs in Belize and in Key West, and I promise you the snorkeling in Panama City Beach is just as good. Here’s the trick – don’t just wade into the Gulf, start snorkeling and expect to see a lot. Fish like structures. That’s where they congregate, so if you want to see a lot of fish, tiny crabs, sea urchins, etc. go to St. Andrews State Park and snorkel along the jetties on the kiddie pool side. Unless you are scuba diving, that’s where all the good stuff is.
23. Go paddleboarding at Camp Helen
Camp Helen is another really beautiful state park and far less visited than other parts because it’s a one-mile walk through the sand to get to the beach. No one wants to do that with a cooler. Here’s the trick, though. Camp Helen also is home to a big coastal dune lake with flat water that is perfect for a beginning paddle boarder. AND you can get to that beach via the dune lake without ever having to walk on the sand. Rentals are offered on site.
24. Relax in a fun pool float
I’m telling you, nothing will make you feel so much like you are on vacation as being in a pool float. It will make all your friends on social media jealous.
25. Enjoy yourself
It is a vacation after all.