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Looking for a fun-filled beach vacation in Florida but can’t decide between Destin vs Panama City Beach?
Both Destin and Panama City Beach offer beautiful beaches, exciting activities, and delicious food. There are some subtle differences between the two, though, especially in terms of their vibe or atmosphere.
As a Floridian who spends countless hours at the beach…I’ll explore the highlights of Panama City Beach vs Destin, giving my honest opinions to help you decide where to call your home away from home.
Destin vs Panama City Beach Quick Summary Table
|Destin||Panama City Beach|
|Upscale and relaxed atmosphere||Lively, laidback beach town vibe|
|Luxury resorts, hotels, motels, and inns||Renowned chain hotels, inns, beachfront rentals|
|Beaches are better but can be busier||Slightly less crowded beaches|
|Little nightlife — mostly bars||Some vibrant nightlife — mostly bars|
|Slightly cheaper||Slightly more expensive|
|Good public beach access||Very good public beach access|
|Beaches have seasonal lifeguards||Some beaches have seasonal lifeguards|
|Somewhat dog-friendly||Super pet-friendly, plus a Dog Beach at Pier Park|
|Lots of restaurants and shops||Lots of restaurants and shops|
|159-mile drive to Tallahassee||106-mile drive to Tallahassee|
|Panama City Beach to Destin – 47 miles||Destin to Panama City Beach – 47 miles|
Destin is known for its upscale properties, tranquil atmosphere, and stunning beaches with powder-white sand and crystal-clear water.
A lot of the activity in Destin is concentrated around Destin Harbor Boardwalk. Fishing charters are popular here — Destin is known as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is laidback but livelier. It has a bit more of a nightlife scene, too. Though not as immaculate as those in Destin, the beaches in Panama City Beach are exquisite, too.
Pier Park is Panama City Beach’s bustling entertainment center with a wide variety of establishments — there’s a Ferris wheel, etc.! Growing up as a teenager, I always wanted to go to Panama City Beach for spring break. These days I tend to prefer a quieter and less touristy scene.
Which Beach is Better: Destin vs Panama City Beach?
Destin and Panama City Beach are home to some of the best clear water beaches in Florida. Two of my favorites are Henderson Beach State Park and St. Andrews State Park.
In my opinion, Destin has slightly better beaches and is known to have some of the absolute best beaches in Florida. The water is exceptionally clear.
Weather & Best Time of Year to Visit
The weather is similar in Destin and Panama City Beach: 40–60 F in the winter and up to the 90s in the summer.
The best time to visit Destin and Panama City Beach is during late spring: April and May. The temperature is warm but not hot and the summer crowds haven’t rolled in yet.
Early fall (September and October) is another good choice. The weather is cooling off a bit and the crowds thin out a bit. However, rain is more common during this time of year.
🏆 Verdict: Destin
Best Tours in Destin vs Panama City Beach
Best Destin Tours
This tour takes you out to Crab Island, a sandbar hangout off the coast of Destin. In between swimming and snorkeling, get a bite to eat at one of Crab Island’s floating restaurants!
Try your luck in spotting dolphins, sting rays, and other marine life on this short, small-group speedboat tour. It’s especially great for busy days and short vacations.
For a memorable and thrilling experience, try out a banana boat tour. It’s a private tour of just your group (four to six people) and lasts just over an hour.
Best Panama City Beach Tours
Snorkeling gear, paddleboards, and a waterslide will be at your disposal on this catamaran cruise to Shell Island. This Panama City boat tour is one of the highest-rated and reasonably priced. It’s ideal for large groups or families with restrooms available and activities that include paddle boarding, snorkeling, or kayaking.
This boat tour also departs to Shell Island but includes access to an area with inflatable water activities, including a trampoline and a climbing wall. This is one of the best boat tours in Destin for families, and there are also alcoholic beverages available for adults.
If you’re looking for a unique Panama City Beach tour you’ll want to check out Cypress Springs. Here they include paddleboard, kayak, or canoe equipment. Plus, you’ll be able to snorkel in emerald green water. Beach chairs, towels, sunscreen, and SeaDoo underwater scooters are provided to utilize. They also include a lunch with the tour package.
Destin vs Panama City Beach for Vacation: Which Is Better?
The verdict on which is better largely comes down to your personal preferences. I think Destin and Panama City Beach are both amazing, and I loved visiting both.
In my opinion, Destin is better for people who want a truly relaxing beach vacation. Anglers will love the fishing culture in Destin, too.
In terms of Destin vs Panama City Beach for families, however, the latter wins. There are more things to do and places to go for the whole family in Panama City Beach. People who prefer a bit more of an energetic vacation will appreciate this about PCB.
🏆 Verdict: Depends
Things to Do in Destin vs Panama City Beach
The Emerald Coast has plenty of fun things to do in Destin and Panama City Beach beyond the beautiful beaches. Below I’ve listed out a few of my nearby favorites.
However, if you are driving, you may want to explore a bit further, such as the charming towns along 30A and Camp Helen State Park. Or if you’re coming from Alabama, don’t miss the historic Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Best Things to Do in Destin
Destin Harbor Boardwalk
The nearly quarter-mile-long Destin Harbor Boardwalk is lined with shops, eateries, tour operators, and water sports equipment rentals. You can spend all day here! Fishing enthusiasts may want to take a fishing charter (i.e. Destin Fishing Rodeo) while the rest of your party enjoys the upscale shopping area surrounded by natural beauty.
Henderson Beach State Park
Henderson Beach State Park is one of my favorite Florida Gulf Coast beaches. The white sand beach is very well-maintained. There are pavilions with grills, a playground, and campsites. You can enjoy the hiking trails and see wildlife like sea turtles.
Gator Beach is a great destination if you’re visiting Destin with kids. There are free, live alligator shows multiple times per day. You can also pay to feed the alligators and get a photo with one.
If you’re looking for an upscale shopping district, you should check out Destin Commons. It has specialty shops along with known chain stores. There is a kid’s playground, a splash pad, and an AMC Theater.
I love to eat at Paula Deen’s Restaurant, but it’s family style, so you have to go when you’re hungry. I always end up buying a box of the Original Ooey Goeey Butter Cake Mix to make at home for my family. It’s truly dangerous…
Destin Golf Courses
Destin is home to several golf courses, such as the Regatta Bay Golf & Yacht Club, Kelly Plantation Golf Club, and Sandestin Golf Resort. These lush green golf courses are known for their excellent conditions, challenging layouts, and beautiful natural settings.
Best Things to Do in Panama City Beach
St. Andrews State Park + Shell Island
St. Andrews State Park has a boat ramp and a fishing pier, in addition to a campground, a playground, and picnic pavilions. While at the park, take the ferry to the nearby Shell Island.
Pier Park is a bustling shopping and entertainment center near the heart of Panama City Beach. Eat, shop ’til you drop, see a movie, ride a Ferris wheel, or hit the beach!
Shipwreck Island Waterpark
If you’re visiting Panama City Beach with kids, they’ll love Shipwreck Island Waterpark. There are thrilling waterslides and a zipline, as well as a wave pool, a kiddy pool, a lazy river, a raging river, and miniature golf courses.
WonderWorks Panama City Beach
There are plenty of adventure parks in Panama City Beach. WonderWorks is one of my favorites since you can balance learning with fun. You’ll get to see some pretty interesting science exhibits along with other kid-friendly attractions like rope courses, laser tag, and a trippy tunnel. It’s ideal for a rainy day!
Where to Stay in Destin or Panama City Beach
Accommodation in Destin
Destin has more upscale properties than Panama City Beach, but beachfront resorts (of any price range) are not as common here.
Best Places to Stay in Destin
Henderson Beach Resort & Spa is a luxury resort located right next to Henderson Beach State Park. It has its own private beach and two pools. There are three restaurants to choose from, as well as a full-service spa. If you like an upscale beach resort, you’ll love the white sand beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and stunning amenities.
Other areas I like include The Village of Baytowne Wharf in the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. It is 10 miles from Destin, located in Miramar Beach. It’s ideal if you are traveling with family or friends with a children’s playground, shopping area, kayak and bicycle rentals, tennis courts, and of course, play golf. These vacation rentals come in many sizes, from studios to 3-bedroom condos.
Where to Stay in Panama City Beach
You’ll find more beachfront rentals in Panama City Beach than Destin, in addition to hotels and inns. Any beachfront accommodation will be very expensive, though.
Best Places to Stay in Panama City Beach
Hampton Inn & Suites Beachfront is an upscale waterfront resort between Panama City Beach. It has its own beachfront, as well as an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub. The rooms come with complimentary breakfast. I tend to prefer Hilton or Marriott for their reliability in accommodations, and this one is in a convenient location.
Marriott’s Legends Edge at Bay Point is a family-friendly hotel with a kid’s pool and splash pad, as well as a lagoon pool. There is a BBQ area and a fire pit, too. Aside from the hotel rooms, you can also book a villa with a full kitchen.
Best Restaurants in Destin vs Panama City Beach
Regarding food on the Emerald Coast, my family has strong opinions on what each likes to eat. However, here are a few excellent restaurants you may want to consider on your trip to Destin or Panama City Beach.
Best Restaurants in Destin
Mixing Creole flavors with fresh seafood isn’t a novel concept, but Louisiana Lagniappe does it with such finesse. This upscale restaurant is ideal for a date night. Try the spicy Mardi Gras shrimp or the blackened scallops with pineapple rum sauce.
The Back Porch
The Back Porch’s specialties are their chargrilled amberjack sandwich and their fire cracker shrimp appetizer. The restaurant is right by the Gulf of Mexico so you can enjoy beachside dining and stunning sunset views. While the seafood is usually pretty reliable, I usually go here for the view (then the food)!
McGuire’s Irish Pub
McGuire’s Irish Pub truly needs no introduction. It’s a popular restaurant that fuses classic American dishes with traditional Irish fare. Try the Irish boxty (mashed and fried garlic potatoes) or the Reuben egg rolls.
Dewey Destin’s Seafood Restaurant
If you like no frills and fresh seafood, Dewey Destin’s Seafood Restaurant is an ideal choice right on Destin Harbor. They have boat docks making it a great option if you’re coming back from Crab Island. The crab dip is delicious, and I love their hush puppies. I especially love the view of the pier and watching the fish and birds.
Best Restaurants in Panama City Beach
Pineapple Willy’s has a dedicated following of both locals and tourists. Here, you can indulge in generous po’boys and juicy ribs. Get a frozen daiquiri while you’re there, too!
Firefly is a refined restaurant with a mix of fresh seafood dishes and steakhouse classics. They have a stellar, extensive sushi menu. I recommend trying the Devil’s Advocate roll.
Wicked Wheel Bar & Grill
Wicked Wheel Bar & Grill is heavily themed around motorcycles and hot rods, with lots of actual vintage pieces on display. As for food, I like their fried chicken and chicken pot pie the best!
Destin vs Panama City Beach Nightlife
Regarding nightlife, Panama City Beach is the place to be! While both cities have a lot to offer. You’ll find more affordable nightlife spots in Panama City Beach, making it an ideal location for those on spring break. However, these days I prefer Destin Harbor Boardwalk area for an evening on the town.
Nightlife in Destin
Club Bimini is a tiki bar that’s an extension of AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar, with amazing views of the harbor. Dance the night away to island beats and classic rock spun by DJs.
Tailfins Waterfront Grill
Tailfins is primarily a restaurant but, on the top floor, there’s a live music stage that’s possibly the best in Destin. Also up there is a large bar with ample seating.
Red Door Saloon
The rowdy Red Door Saloon has a biker bar vibe and is popular with locals — a good choice if you want to get an authentic nightlife experience.
Nightlife in Panama City Beach
Experience the ultimate laidback beach club vibe at Schooners, Panama City Beach’s “Last Local Beach Club.” Visit as the night rolls in to see the daily sunset celebration: a cannon blast!
Buster’s Hangar 67
Buster’s Hangar 67 is a live music venue in Grand Lagoon, on PCB’s east end. This bar is oozing with military pride, paying tribute to our Armed Forces at every corner.
Salty Goat Saloon
The Salty Goat Saloon is a local favorite bar and grill with a lively atmosphere. They have live music seven nights a week, as well as two happy hours a day.
🏆 Verdict: Panama City Beach
Best Annual Events & Festivals
Best Annual Events & Festivals in Destin
July — Smoke on the Coast
Smoke on the Coast is a BBQ festival held on July 3. It features an awesome fireworks show, a BBQ competition, and many family-oriented activities.
October — Destin Seafood Festival
The Destin Seafood Festival is typically held on the first weekend in October. Local restaurants offer spectacular fresh seafood specials, and there is also entertainment on the boardwalk. This annual fishing festival brings in thousands of people each year.
December — Destin Boat Parade
During the Destin Boat Parade, boats are adorned with festive lives and decorations and then sail along Destin Harbor. The grand finale is a fireworks show.
Best Annual Events & Festivals in Panama City Beach
March/April — UNwineD
Experience the Emerald Coast’s vibrant food and drink scene for a weekend at UNwineD. This annual festival in Panama City Beach offers wine, craft beer, and spirits tastings.
June — Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam
Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam is a music festival held over four days in Panama City Beach. It’s the ultimate music event of the city, featuring huge country and southern rock acts!
December — New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop
Panama City Beach celebrates the new year in style with the New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop at Pier Park. There are two beach ball drops: at 8 pm and midnight.
Which is More Affordable: Destin or Panama City Beach?
Destin tends to be a bit more expensive than Panama City Beach. Destin is a more upscale destination, while Panama City Beach is more budget-friendly.
However, there isn’t a big difference in price between the two. In fact, both can be quite expensive to visit, especially during peak season. I usually try to plan my trips accordingly so I can make my dollars stretch the furthest!
🏆 Verdict: Panama City Beach
Which is Bigger: Destin or Panama City Beach?
Between the two beach towns, Destin is a bit bigger than Panama City Beach. The latter is more “confined,” as it’s considered separate from Panama City.
Destin can sometimes be considered to include neighboring areas like Miramar Beach and Fort Walton Beach, but even when you don’t count those, it’s still larger.
🏆 Verdict: Destin
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Panama City Beach water as clear as Destin?
The water in Panama City Beach is incredibly clear but not quite as clear as Destin’s water. Destin is known to have some of the clearest water in all of Florida.
Is Destin or Panama City better for kids?
Of the two beach towns, Panama City Beach wins the debate of Destin vs Panama City Beach for families. It has plenty of family-friendly activities, amusement parks, and more to do. However, if your kids love to fish, no place is better than the luckiest fishing village (Destin).
Can you walk on Panama City Beach at night?
Yes, you can walk on Panama City Beach. Depending on where exactly you are in Panama City Beach, the beach may be quiet and relaxing such as at St. Andrews State Park or lively and vibrant such as at Pier Park.
Where are the closest airports to Destin or Panama City Beach, Florida?
Nearby airports to Panama City and Destin are located in Panama City – Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS). I always price shop airline tickets when staying on Florida’s Emerald Coast.
How far is Panama City Beach from Destin?
Panama City Beach to Destin is approximately just over a one-hour drive, or 47 miles away.
Final Thoughts: Destin vs Panama City Beach
Destin and Panama City Beach are really quite similar, though a few key things set them apart. Destin is more tranquil and a bit more expensive. Panama City Beach has more going on and is a bit more affordable. Destin has better beaches but there’s honestly not a huge difference.
As mentioned earlier, it comes down to your circumstances and personal preferences. Are you traveling with kids? Do you want a quiet vacation or an adventurous one? Is beachfront accommodation important to you? If you’re like me, my needs have drastically changed over the years, from solo to couple and family travel!
When considering Panama City vs Destin, remember that they’re just a 1 to 1.5-hour drive apart. Whichever city you call your home base, consider taking a day trip to the other! And make some stops along the way in picturesque towns off 30A or Hilton Head.