In this article, I’m diving into the best gulf coast beaches for families along the Florida panhandle and Alabama, where we stayed and why we loved our accommodations, and our favorite activities in the area! If you’re dreaming of an idyllic beach vacation in the continental US, you absolutely have to check out the Gulf Coast.
Our Introduction to the Gulf Coast
The Gulf Coast is a little slice of paradise found in the continental United States. Growing up in Minnesota and going to college out west, I had never heard of any of the Florida panhandle beaches until we moved to Alabama – but the beaches are truly spectacular.
The beautiful turquoise blue water, soft powdery sand, and the super warm water is truly a tropical getaway that’s much more accessible to most Americans than other tropical destinations.
We actually lived in Alabama for two years before we finally made it down to the coast. We had heard people talking about their trips down to Destin, or Gulf Shores, or Pensacola, and knew we wanted to get there sometime, but just didn’t make it a priority and the seasons kept slipping by.
Finally, we decided we’d go just for the weekend. We drove down early Friday and came back late Saturday night. We just wanted to test the waters, so to speak. (heh, test the waters) Would we like it? Would the kids like it? Would two partial days be enough? Would it be too much?
Well, no one will be surprised to hear that it was a total blast and we had the most magical weekend. Just a few hours in, I vowed we were coming back every year. And we have!
We’ve spent time on 4 different beaches and stayed in both hotels and condos. I have some specific requirements when I go to the beach: I want to stay beachfront, with views over the gulf. I want there to be a nice pool area – good-sized pools, a nice pool deck, some palm trees – and to be somewhere with a nice vibe. And I don’t want to pay all that much for it, ha!
With all that understood, from our experience, these are the best beaches on the gulf coast for families – including best places to stay, favorite things to do, and some great spots to eat.
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In No Particular Order, Our Best Gulf Coast Beaches for Families:
Panama City Beach
Located on a beautiful stretch of the panhandle, Panama City Beach was the first beach that we visited and it did not disappoint. From the moment you get on Florida 30A Highway, you’re met with gorgeous views of the ocean as you cruise up and down. And once you get to your destination it’s the perfect balance of peaceful and fun.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the this beautiful beachfront hotel. This hotel property has a pool with a lazy river section, lots of beach chairs and tables, a poolside bar, grill, and ice cream stand. The breakfast buffet was top notch, and the poolside food was delicious.
We booked this hotel with points from our Marriott Bonvoy card, so we only paid for the food we bought. The room had a mini-fridge where we stored some food for lunch and snacks, and then we bought dinner by the pool for dinner. We were only here one night – so we didn’t leave the property to eat.
With the breakfast buffet and grill/bar onsite, this hotel is a great option for a gulf coast beach resort for families if you want a more all-inclusive feel to where you’re staying.
What to Do:
- A nice perk is that the hotel is right by the M.B. Miller County Pier. We love walking the pier, especially right before sunset, to watch people fishing, look for marine life (we’ve seen dolphins, sea turtles, jellyfish, and manta rays from the pier!), and watch the sunset. The pier costs a few dollars to go on.
- One of the biggest attractions in the Panama City Beach area is the aquarium with sharks, turtles, and dolphins. You can even book an up-close and personal dolphin experience!
Navarre Beach is a little different beach experience, because the beach is a little bit less built up and not nearly as busy. There weren’t tons of restaurant or rental options, but it was still a beautiful beach, and we adored the condo we stayed in. This is one of the best gulf coast beaches for families if you want a somewhat quieter beach experience.
Where to stay:
We opted to stay at a condo on Navarre and loved this fun, beachy apartment. We had a big deck with tables and chairs where you could sit and watch the ocean. We saw dolphins cresting every morning – a highlight for my kids!
The highlight of the property was the pool – it was enormous! Seriously one of the biggest pools I’ve ever seen on Gulf Coast properties (and I have looked at a TON of listings!) There was plenty of space for throwing balls and frisbees, lying on floaties, diving for pool toys, etc. There were also lots of beach chairs and tables with umbrellas, and palm trees.
Between the more secluded nature of the beach, and the enormous pool, Navarre is definitely one of the best gulf coast beaches for families you can find.
We also really appreciated the grilling area – there were several charcoal grills and picnic tables for anyone to use. We grilled chicken one night and hot dogs another night down here and it was the perfect way to end the day.
What to Do:
Walk the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier. It costs a few dollars to walk down, which we did once in the morning and once at sunset. We saw turtles, dolphins, jellyfish, and manta rays off the side of the pier!
On the beach, you can rent SUP (stand up paddleboards) and kayaks for an hour or two.
Where to Eat:
I can highly recommend Windjammers On The Pier – a restaurant and bar right at the pier, which served some delicious cheese curds (I love me some cheese curds), as well as alligator bites (you need to try!), and other seafood.
We visited Pensacola Beach as an extension of our Navarre beach stay to get a more active addition to our visit – and Pensacola definitely has an active vibe!
Where to Stay:
I’ve had my eye on this beachfront hotel at Pensacola for a long time, and we almost stayed here before deciding to go with the condo at Navarre. However, when we came to Pensacola to hang out for the day, we walked through the pool area and grounds and peaked into the lobby, and it was nice. We will definitely be staying here sometime soon.
There was a pool with zero entry, a lazy river area, hot tub, poolside service with a bar and grill, hammocks, loungers, and lots of spots to chill and hang out. This property was gorgeous and it looked amazing.
What to Do:
If you’re just coming in for the day, like us, there is a large, free parking lot near the beach where you can park. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see a giant beach-ball water tower.
We loved Pensacola Beach because there was plenty of space on the beach, plus a lot of amenities, surfboard rentals and other water rentals, an ice cream shop, many restaurants, and close by the dolphin tours.
Speaking of dolphin tours, this is our #1 recommendation for what to do on the Gulf Coast. On Pensacola, we did a 2 hour cruise with Chase n Fins Dolphin Cruise. It was a blast!
The boat wasn’t huge so there weren’t tons of people, the tour guide was really funny and quick-witted, and we saw a bunch of dolphins!
You need to know that dolphin cruises are unpredictable – you’re dealing with wild animals after all. On our tour, the first hour and a half we didn’t see any, and we were beginning to despair, but the end really delivered!
We saw a ton of dolphins, some of them cruising along right next to the boat! My girls were losing their mind with excitement, but even all the adults were crazy excited too. It’s just so amazing seeing dolphins right by you!
Where to Eat:
For dinner, I can’t recommend Casino Beach Bar enough. It’s right on the beach – you can walk straight from the sand into the restaurant – and while there is a bar inside, the outside patio is set up like a regular restaurant, with umbrellas over the tables and string lights out. The whole vibe is just so relaxed and beachy.
The food was all delicious, but the standout was EASILY the fresh catch mahi mahi. I still dream about that mahi sometimes…
The Alabama beaches can get overlooked sometimes in favor of the Florida beaches, but I am here to tell you that Orange Beach, Alabama is still one of the best Gulf Coast beaches for families! The sand quality is just as high, there is a great vibe and plenty of activities and attractions, and we loved every minute of it.
Where to stay:
I can highly recommend at this light and airy condo,, which is a truly amazing property. The condo itself was really nice and set up well for two families – with one king and four queen bed between the three bedrooms, plus four bathrooms.
We went down with my parents and brother, so this worked out perfectly for our group. There was a nice-sized deck that overlooked the ocean – a must!
The property had a zero entry pool, plus a separate area with a waterslide and a lazy river. The pool deck had a lot of chairs and some picnic tables (although not many umbrellas), plus an area with charcoal grills – we cooked dinner here most nights! The deck looked really nice and had plenty of palm trees to satisfy my needs.
My kids ADORED the waterslide and lazy river. The slide wasn’t very long at all, but it still was very popular with kids and adults of all ages.
Where to Eat:
Just across the street and down from the condo (not within walking distance, but a short drive) is an ice cream place called Kayden’s Candy Factory. As the name suggests, it was really an all-purpose dessert stop – as they also sold donuts, fudge, and in the morning – crepes.
We wanted to go somewhere for dinner that was right on the beach and had a fun ambiance, so we went down to The Hangout, which was about 10 minutes away by car.
This place definitely had atmosphere. The Friday we were there, there was a live band playing outside and the restaurant was open air, so you could easily hear the music. When the live music took a break, they did interactive activities and dance time – it was really fun!
The food was good (we loved the blackened fish, burgers, and the fried pickles!) and the atmosphere was really lively! However, if you’re looking for a quiet, calm restaurant, this is not it!
What to do:
Of course, the biggest highlight from Orange Beach was the sunset dolphin cruise we did. We went with Surfs Up Dolphin Cruises, which in addition to being the cheapest dolphin tour around, also gave us THE coolest dolphin experience – my kids were losing their minds!
They take two boats out at the same time, and each boat explores different parts of the bay, looking for dolphins. When one boat spots a dolphin, the other will come and join them. The boats then line up parallel to each other about 30 feet apart, and together they speed up fast, to create a nice, big wake.
Dolphins love the wake! They will ride in it and jump clear out of the water, sometimes throwing themselves out sideways. After a while, their stomachs get pink – a sign that they are indeed having a good time!
We experienced 3 different “surfing” rides in our 2 hour cruise, each lasting several minutes before the dolphins decided they were done and left. It was exhilarating!
If you are anywhere near Orange Beach, I highly recommend this particular dolphin cruise – it was such a unique experience – it is our TOP gulf coast beach experience for families!
Other Things to Know:
How We’ve Kept Costs Low
Some of these trips we went by ourselves, and some of these trips we’ve gone with my parents and split the cost – which definitely helps!
We don’t eat out every meal (far from it!) When we stay at the VRBO’s, we make good use of the grill areas and get groceries for breakfast and most lunches.
Eating in certainly helps keep the cost low, but the biggest expense for a trip like this for us is the accommodations. To offset this, we’ve often used credit card points to cover hotel and VRBO costs.
Many cards will work well to cover hotel costs, but we’ve used our Marriott Bonvoy points for the beach. For VRBO’s, the Capital One Venture points are invaluable! Read more about these cards, how I use them, and all about how I get good travel deals here!
What Airports to Fly Into:
Since we live close, we have always driven down to the coast. However, if you need to fly in, your closest options to the gulf will be: Mobile, AL (MOB), Pensacola, FL (PNS), Destin, FL (VPS), Northwest Florida Beaches (ECP), or Tallahassee, FL (TLH).
Favorite Pool/Beach Gear:
Sunscreen: I use this sunscreen on my face every single day – whether I’m at the beach or not. I have pretty acne-prone skin, and this sunscreen has high SPF and doesn’t break me out.
For everyone else, we always have this sunscreen stick on hand. It is super easy to apply and provides excellent coverage.
Pool Gear: These pool diving toys have been a big hit with my kids – they like the variety of things to dive for.
We love this unicorn floatie! FYI, we have the big size one (the “Party Tube”), but it’s almost too big for our 4 and 6 year old to lie in it. If this is primarily for little kids, I’d go with the “Party Tube Jr” option.
For the little kids who aren’t yet confident swimmers, I always keep them in these puddle jumpers, and they’ve worked incredibly well for us over the years. Drowning freaks me out and I have a lot more peace of mind when I know my little kids are wearing some flotation!
Washing Sand Off:
Every hotel has a boardwalk pathway leading from the hotel down to the beach. There are also public boardwalk access points. On each of these boardwalks are hoses and/or showers to rinse yourself off before coming back to the pool areas.
Water in the gulf coast is incredibly warm – from mid-May to mid-October the water is over 80 degrees F! It feels absolutely fantastic. Honestly, this reason alone makes the gulf coast beaches perfect for family travel. Consult this chart for more information about water temps throughout the year.
When To Go:
While it is never particularly cold on Florida panhandle and Alabama beaches, I prefer going when the weather is nice and hot – although I have friends who go down over during winter and still have a great time (and definitely pay less money at that time of year).
My absolute favorite time to hit the beach is September. The water and air temperatures are still very warm, so it feels very refreshing to play in the water. In September (outside of Labor Day weekend), you also have significantly lower crowds than in summer months.
However, while hurricane season runs through end of May to November, August and September do tend to have more hurricanes, which can disrupt travel plans. Because we live close, we like to watch the weather forecasts and not book our accommodations until the week before.
This way we can be relatively certain we’ll have good weather and no hurricanes. However, if you have to fly in, that’s not really an option, so you may want to consider earlier in the season to lessen your chances of hurricane disruption.
As it is, on the trip to Navarre/Pensacola, we threaded the needle between two storms: one passed by the week before we came, and one hit Pensacola pretty directly the week after (it took out the major bridge in Pensacola just a few days after we drove over it).
Another time, Hurricane Ida made land in Louisiana just 2 days after we left Orange Beach. We were far enough away that there weren’t major evacuations happening for our area, or a lot of predicted damage, so we were able to stay for the entirety of our planned vacation.
In contrast, when we went to Panama City Beach, we had perfect weather and no hurricanes in the forecast at all! So it just really depends!
All of this is to highlight that storms can come up. If you have flexibility and can wait until right before to confirm travel plans, I would still plan to go in September because I love having low crowds. If you don’t have that flexibility, be aware that there is always a risk of hurricanes, but the chances of them go up in August/September, so you may want to plan for earlier in the summer.
The term “beach service” refers to the rental of beach chairs and an umbrella. There are some condos or hotels that provide beach service (meaning, you get access to the chairs and umbrellas) and sometimes you have to rent them yourself if you want it. Usually its $30/day for two chairs and an umbrella.
Conversely, the Walmarts that are close to the beach have a huge selection of just about any beach accessory you could possibly want. You can always stop and pick up some chairs, umbrellas, goggles, toys, boogie boards, floaties, or anything else you might need from the Walmart.
Be aware that there will be periods of higher seaweed, or jelly fish, and the beaches themselves change shape due to the interaction of wind and storms. If your beach happens to be in an area with worse conditions, just driving a few miles away you may find nicer conditions.
A flag system is posted at the end of each boardwalk down to the beach. These flags are changed out daily or as needed to indicate current water conditions.
- Green flags mean calm waters, low waves.
- Yellow flags mean moderate surf and/or current.
- Red flags mean high hazard with strong surf or currents.
- Double red flags mean the water is closed to the public. We were actually at the beach once when double red flags were out – at that time, you could still be on the sand or be standing on the shoreline, but couldn’t actually start wading or swimming. Beach patrols came through regularly to call people out of the water.
- Purple flags mean dangerous marine life (e.g. jellyfish) are spotted.
The beaches along the Gulf Coast are just absolutely beautiful. The water in summer is bath water warm, and on a sunny day is a beautiful turquoise blue. The sand is white and soft and powdery, and the beaches are impressively clean. The trips to the beach are a highlight of the year for our family!
If you are looking for a great spot for your next family beach getaway, these locations at Panama City Beach, Navarre, Pensacola, and Orange Beach are some of the best gulf coast beaches for families that you can find! See you on the waves!
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