The Florida Panhandle is a region of Florida, in the north west of the state. It has long been popular for its beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. It includes the inland city of Tallahassee – the state capital and home of Florida State and Florida A&M Universities, and Pensacola, a city close to the border with Alabama.
The Florida Panhandle has hung onto its Southern culture better than probably any other region in Florida, so expect traditional Southern hospitality and more conservative values. Exceptions to this trend are Tallahassee and Pensacola; while both retain a great deal of that Southern charm, they also contain pockets of the typical progressive, creative atmosphere of college towns.
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It is a narrow strip lying between Alabama and Georgia to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Culturally and in terms of history and climate, the region is more closely tied to the Deep South than to peninsular Florida.
West Florida draws more than seven million visitors annually from around the world. Attractions include golf courses, zoos, world-class beaches, water sports and fine restaurants. It is second only to Orlando's Walt Disney World in terms of visitors traveling to Florida and is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country.
The Emerald Coast, which is slowly becoming the American Riviera, is an area in the southeastern United States on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly bounded by Pensacola, Florida on the west and Panama City, Florida on the east. The area is known to have some of the most stunning and finest beaches in the world, famous for their sugar-white sands and warm, emerald-green waters. The beaches were also deemed to have the whitest sand in the world where it sparkled in the sun and squeaked when walked on. Contrary to popular belief, the sand is not bleached by the sun, but is comprised of Appalachian quartz that filters down to the coast from the mountains. The emerald-green color of the water is due to the sugar-white color of the sand laying beneath the clear blue water thus providing the area's namesake feature. The quartz sand on the beaches of the Panhandle is so white that some traders reportedly sold it as sugar in World War II.
The beach towns, many of which play host to college students during spring break. Popular vacation destinations include Pensacola Beach, Gulf Breeze, Navarre Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City Beach, relative newcomer Destin, and Seaside, a development community whose iconic pastel-paint and tin-roof construction was made famous in the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, filmed in the area from 1996-1997. Other communities on the Emerald Coast include Perdido Key, Navarre, Sandestin, Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, and Seagrove.
The area is known as a family drive destination, although in the past decade, its popularity has expanded greatly, leading to new construction booms and seemingly overnight changes. Many development communities similar to Seaside have sprung up in Walton County and the west end of Panama City Beach, raising property values, and some might argue, aesthetic appeal.
Deep-sea fishing is a huge draw for the area, with Destin holding the nickname "World's Luckiest Fishing Village" (and several saltwater world records) and Panama City Beach hosting the annual high-dollar Bay Point Billfish Invitational. Eating seafood is perhaps even more popular than catching it, with a seafood restaurant and/or oyster house seemingly on every other corner.
This roughly 100-mile stretch is home to several military bases, with installations including Pensacola Naval Air Station (home of the Navy's famed Blue Angels flying squadron and the initial training site where all naval aviators earn their "wings of gold"), Hurlburt Field, Eglin Air Force Base (one of the largest military bases in America), Tyndall Air Force Base (home to the Air Force's new F-22 Raptor fighter jets), Coastal Systems Station-Naval Surface Warfare Center (home to the Navy Experimental Diving Unit and Naval Diving & Salvage Training Center), and Corry Station Naval Technical Training Center. The Florida Panhandle has been marked by upscale developments that include Seaside, Sandestin, and countless others. Development in the coastal area is so commonplace that very little beachfront property remains untouched, unless it is under the stewardship of the Federal or State Government.
- Pensacola International Airport - located in Pensacola and the gateway to western Florida. Pensacola International has many flights on many carriers to destinations across the United States, and within Florida, as well as occasional charter flights that fly internationally.
- Interstate 10 and its scenic byways slice across the Panhandle parallel to the coast, but several miles inland. I-10 follows the route of the older Highway 90. Closer to the coast, Highway 98 is the most important route. A car is really a requirement to see this area. There is local bus service in most cities, and biking is popular both for getting around town or for longer tours of the coast.
Florida Lighthouses are numerous in the Panhandle; take some time to visit these iconic images of the coast.
- Blackwater Heritage State Trail, 5533 Alabama Street, Milton, ☏ .
- Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, 1358 Old Woodville Road, Crawfordville, ☏ .
- Big Bend Scenic Highway. Driving along US 98 between Mexico Beach and Panacea is like travelling the Pacific Coast Highway, but at sea level. Three of the four historic lighthouses in the area are along this stretch. Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, St. George Island and Carrabelle are a few of the highlights. The speed limit is 45 mph, so relax and enjoy casually driving through forests, interspersed with views of the Gulf of Mexico.
- Pensacola Scenic Bluffs.
- Scenic Highway 30A.
- Festivals/holidays. Major holidays in Pensacola include Mardi Gras and the Fiesta of Five Flags. Celebrations of note in Pensacola are the Greater Gulf Coast Arts Festival, the Seafood Festival, the Bushwhacker Festival, the Bill Fishing Tournament, and the Gay and Lesbian Memorial Day Festival. Fort Walton Beach is known for the Billy Bowlegs Festival, and Panama City for Spring Break. Niceville is known for its Mullet Festival.
- Spectator sports. Tallahassee is home to the Seminoles of Florida State University, and college football is a religion for many Panhandle residents, with Saturdays in the fall being the holy day. Pensacola is home to the semi-professional ice hockey team, the Pensacola Ice Pilots.
In the Panama City and Panama City Beach area there are many great places for local fare. The most recognized restaurant is Captain Anderson's on Thomas Drive in Panama City Beach. It's located on the lagoon and get there early to see the fishing fleet arrive and unload the day's catch.
Other restaurants of note include Pompano's on Front Beach Road, Saltwater Grill on Middle Beach (Hutchison Road) and Canopies. Canopies is a "fine dining" establishment overlooking St. Andrew's Bay in Panama City.
The Panhandle is home to two of Florida's three dry counties, where the sale of alcohol is prohibited (Washington and Liberty). However, alcohol of any variety can be found in abundance in the college town of Tallahassee and the Spring Break destination of Panama City Beach.