(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

My fam­i­ly has a spe­cial way we recharge. When the gray clouds of the win­ter months get us down, we pack up the kids and flee south for a low-key, fam­i­ly beach vaca­tion on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Grow­ing up, I loved the trips my par­ents planned to Pana­ma City Beach each year. Now that I have my own kids, our annu­al beach vaca­tion has become a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional adventure. 

The rise of new towns and resorts on the Gulf Coast means it’s still the place to find some of the best fam­i­ly beach­es in Flori­da. If you’re look­ing for an afford­able beach vaca­tion with the kids, search­ing for adven­ture with your teens, or look­ing for a way to relax and recharge, the Gulf Coast has a place for you. 




Most days we have a very busy sched­ule: we start at the beach, then show­er off and head to the pool, then end back at the beach. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.



Gulf Shores, Alabama


The towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are clas­sic des­ti­na­tions for fam­i­lies look­ing for a beach vaca­tion with a vin­tage feel, com­plete with seashell hunts, air­brushed tourist t‑shirts, and lots and lots of white sand. 


Bonus: You may catch a glimpse of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels on one of their prac­tice flights.


Where to Stay:


Beach­front hotels and tow­er­ing con­dos offer ocean views and easy access to the beach, while rental hous­es offer more pri­vate fam­i­ly time. If you opt to stay in a non-beach­front prop­er­ty, you’ll need to find the near­est pub­lic beach to enjoy time in the waves. Gulf State Park offers camp­sites and cot­tages and has pad­dle­boards and kayaks avail­able for rental.


Where to Eat


The Orig­i­nal Oys­ter Shack offers tra­di­tion­al fried seafood and Cajun fare, and kid’s meals usu­al­ly come with tiny plas­tic alli­ga­tors that your kids will trea­sure for five years and refuse to throw away. Lulu’s has live music, a sandy play area for kid­dos, and an exten­sive aller­gy menu for fam­i­lies with food restric­tions. For max­i­mum beach vibes, try The Gulf in Orange Beach, a trendy, sea­side spot built out of ship­ping containers.



What to Do


Every time we vis­it, my kids head straight for the beach to build big sand­cas­tles and dig giant holes. On rainy days, we dri­ve 45 min­utes to vis­it the Nation­al Naval Avi­a­tion Muse­um in Pen­saco­la; it offers free admis­sion plus a kid’s play area. The near­by town of Foley has a small rail­road muse­um pop­u­lar with younger kid­dos as well as an out­let mall (where I usu­al­ly dis­cov­er that my kids have out­grown their shoes and need a new pair). 



Closest Airport:


Pen­saco­la Inter­na­tion­al Air­port (PNS)



My kids’ favorite beach activ­i­ty: dig­ging the biggest hole pos­si­ble. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.


Destin, Florida


Des­tin feels like a per­pet­u­al beach par­ty. Not a crazed, drunk­en par­ty, but a fam­i­ly-friend­ly cel­e­bra­tion with beach balls and fun for all. They even have float­ing food trucks — food boats? — at Crab Island,  a sand­bar right in the cen­ter of everything. 



Where to Stay:


Stay­ing in a hotel or con­do in the cen­ter of Des­tin offers easy access to shop­ping, restau­rants, and things to do. Home2 Suites is a bud­get-friend­ly hotel option with pub­lic beach access with­in walk­ing dis­tance, while Emer­ald Tow­ers offers 2- and 3‑bedroom con­dos with more room to spread out. For a qui­eter area, find a vaca­tion rental on Okaloosa Island or Mira­mar Beach.



Where to Eat:


Boschamps offers great food and gor­geous views of Des­tin Har­bor. The Back Porch is just a quick beach walk from sev­er­al con­dos and includes a sandy play area per­fect for fam­i­lies with kids. The Pan­cak­ery is a fun stop for break­fast, with gourmet pan­cakes filled with choco­late chips, straw­ber­ries, or even bacon. 



What to Do:


I always drag my fam­i­ly on a dol­phin cruise when­ev­er we vis­it the Gulf Coast; we see dozens of dol­phins as well as beau­ti­ful views of the Des­tin shore. (Need to amp up the adven­ture? Try a pirate cruise instead!) Old­er kids love The Track for arcade games, mini golf, and go-karts. On rainy days, vis­it the Emer­ald Coast Sci­ence Cen­ter, a chil­dren’s muse­um with hands-on activ­i­ties for all ages.



Closest Airport:


Des­tin — Fort Wal­ton Beach Air­port (VPS)



Every beach trip, we set aside one after­noon for a dol­phin cruise. My boys have enjoyed the boat rides since they were tod­dlers, but mom­ma’s there to see some dol­phins. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.





State high­way 30A in Flori­da has attract­ed quite the fol­low­ing, with tons of peo­ple migrat­ing each spring break and sum­mer to its adorable, beach­side towns. (Seri­ous­ly, tons of peo­ple. The traf­fic head­ing into the area gets a lit­tle nuts.) 



Where to Stay:


Planned com­mu­ni­ties such as Sea­side and Rose­mary Beach offer pic­turesque vaca­tion rentals designed to have every­thing fam­i­lies need just a short walk or bike ride away. Sea­grove offers rental cot­tages as well as more tra­di­tion­al con­do­mini­ums with ocean views.



Where to Eat: 


A few years ago, Chiringo in Gray­ton Beach treat­ed my fam­i­ly to a meal, and we loved their healthy, orig­i­nal dish­es and trendy vibe. The Red Bar is anoth­er pop­u­lar Gray­ton Beach hang­out — some friends once took a group of 10 kids there and sur­vived, so you know they’re fam­i­ly-friend­ly. The Great South­ern Cafe in Sea­side offers every­thing from avo­ca­do toast to beignets, while George’s at Alys Beach is an upscale restau­rant wor­thy of a date night (it also has a “tad­poles” menu in case you bring the lit­tle ones along). 



What to Do: 


Plan on walk­ing, bik­ing, and play­ing in the sand, or swim­ming in the neigh­bor­hood pools. If you need a mini-golf fix, head to Pana­ma City Beach, where there’s a themed mini-golf place for every day of the week.



Closest Airport: 


North­west Flori­da Beach­es Inter­na­tion­al Air­port (ECP)



I love the tasty bowl dish­es at Chiringo, filled with healthy veg­gies, rice, and chick­en, shrimp, or fish. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.


Don’t Miss! Expe­ri­ence the Wild(life) Side of Florida



The Forgotten Coast


Tucked away to the east of the major beach devel­op­ments is a pris­tine, qui­et area of Flori­da known as The For­got­ten Coast. If you want to bring your best friend, Fido, on vaca­tion with you, know that this area offers some of the only pet-friend­ly beach­es on the Gulf Coast. 



Where to Stay


Sum­mer­Camp Beach and Alli­ga­tor Point offer vaca­tion rentals set right on the water. Most of the hotel options are local­ly owned, rang­ing from Vic­to­ri­an inns to rus­tic lodges. RV and tent camp­ing is avail­able at St. George Island State Park



Where to Eat


There are few­er restau­rant options since this area is less devel­oped. Cara­belle Junc­tion is a retro sand­wich shop that offers banana splits and root beer floats. Trop­i­cal Trad­er Shrimp Co. will allow you to bring in your fresh­ly caught fish so they can pre­pare it to your lik­ing. Or you can pick up gro­ceries at a local store and make lunch at your vaca­tion spot. Take lunch to your kids right on the beach — no sand in the car or on the couch! 

What to Do


Wildlife watch­ing is an easy choice in this area thanks to a diverse ecosys­tem that includes min­er­al springs and cypress swamps. The Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty Coastal and Marine Lab is near­by and offers occa­sion­al tours and events for the pub­lic. For a chance to glimpse alli­ga­tors and man­a­tees, take a boat tour through the cypress swamp at Wakul­la Springs State Park.



Closest Airport


Tal­la­has­see Region­al Air­port (TLH)


DON’T MISS! A Local’s Guide to Lake Erie Beaches


Wildlife watch­ing is one of my favorite pas­times on the Gulf Coast. These dol­phins swam by as we played on the beach. Pho­to by Paul Nichol­son.



When to Go


One of my favorite times to vis­it the Gulf Coast is in Feb­ru­ary, when local towns plan safe, fam­i­ly-friend­ly Mar­di Gras parades. My kids still love play­ing in the ocean in win­ter, and they find that their sand­cas­tles last for­ev­er when the beach­es are less crowded. 

The Gulf Coast beach­es tend to get busy dur­ing spring break and the sum­mer months, but fam­i­lies can plan around crowds by find­ing qui­eter rentals with pri­vate beach access. If you’re con­sid­er­ing a fall vaca­tion, be sure to check the weath­er fore­cast to make sure hur­ri­canes won’t dis­rupt your plans.





Christy Nichol­son is a writer, edi­tor, and recov­er­ing per­fec­tion­ist from Nashville, Ten­nessee. When not trav­el­ing with fam­i­ly, she enjoys cozy days at home read­ing, gar­den­ing, mak­ing music, and wran­gling two awe­some kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about trav­el and sus­tain­able living. 





If you're looking for an affordable beach vacation with the kids, searching for adventure with your teens, or looking for a way to relax and recharge, the Gulf Coast has a place for you.


If you're looking for an affordable beach vacation with the kids, searching for adventure with your teens, or looking for a way to relax and recharge, the Gulf Coast has a place for you.