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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.

 

 

30A

 

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.
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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.