There’s one part of Florida that often gets overlooked, and that’s the Panhandle. South Florida gets attention because of cities like Miami and Palm Beach, while Central Florida lures tourists in with all the theme parks near Orlando. But the Florida Panhandle also attracts a healthy amount of tourists by itself. It’s still picking up the pieces from Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that struck in October. That’s a story worth watching, but the area still has a lot to offer visitors. Here’s a closer look at what’s going on in the Florida Panhandle and why you should make a trip there.
Panhandle Population Centers
Defining the Florida panhandle can be a bit tricky, but one useful tactic involves just taking the ten counties east of the Apalachicola River, as nine and a half of those counties are in Central Time rather than Eastern Time. The tenth county, Gulf County, straddles the Eastern and Central Time zones. Some definitions of the panhandle include Tallahassee, the state capital, while others classify Tallahassee as part of the Big Bend region.
If you remove Tallahassee from the equation, then the biggest city in the Panhandle is Pensacola, with a population of around 53,000. But the larger Pensacola metro area is one of the faster-growing metro areas in the country. As of 2016, it contained almost 500,000 people.
The biggest source of tourism in Northwest Florida is no doubt the beaches. The white sand beaches are a striking contrast to the bluish-green water you’ll find in the Gulf Coast. It’s no wonder that the area is a hotspot for college kids on spring break. Pensacola isn’t exactly a one-horse town, but the city definitely doesn’t have the same number of distractions as you’d find in a place like Miami or even Tampa.
Pensacola is the county seat of Escambia County, and in 2016, more than 2 million tourists flocked to the county to lay out on the white sand beaches and frolic in the Gulf of Mexico. For a truly unique experience, you should rent a beach house in a city like Destin or Panama City, as the beach house economy is booming in both places. Many beach houses also come with a pool in case you don’t feel like walking a couple hundred yards to the beach.
You can also visit sites like the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. To get to the top of the lighthouse, you have to walk up nearly 200 steps, which is a lot. But once you’re there, you’ll have a view of the Gulf Coast unlike any other in the state. The view is so good that you’ll want to make sure to get photos and videos of it with your smartphone. Before you go, stop by one of several AT&T stores in Florida and ask for a cell phone with the latest camera technology. Believe us—it’s worth it.
The lighthouse was established in 1859, and it’s located on the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola. Because of that, you should expect to go through a little extra security you visit. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children under 12.
Where to Take the Kids
A panhandle is a great place for a family vacation. If you feel like the kids are swallowing a little too much salt water, you can find plenty to do indoors as well. One great attraction is Panama City’s Wonderworks. The building was designed to look like it’s been built upside down. Once you go inside, you’ll find a wealth of fun and interactive science displays for the kids to experience.
A dolphin cruise out of Destin is also a good option, at least as long as no one in the family gets seasick. The boats are glass-bottomed to allow you the absolute best view of all the sea life that finds a home off the coast of Florida’s panhandle.