The secret is out—Florida’s best beaches are in South Walton.
It’s no secret that Florida beaches are some of the most beautiful in the U.S., with clear water, powdery white sand, and a laid-back vibe that’s pure relaxation. The only problem? It can be hard to find a beach that isn’t crowded with families or Spring Breakers. But we’ll let you in on a little-known secret: we know where to find the prettiest beaches in Florida, and they’re hidden in a little community you might not have heard of yet—South Walton.
Located in the panhandle, South Walton is a coastal county with the finest powdery sand and sparkliest emerald water of all the Florida beaches—and along it, 16 beach communities with their own personalities. Collectively, they offer what no other Florida beach does: a unique mix of Southern charm, unspoiled nature, and small, carefully crafted communities where families can walk or bike everywhere.
Better known to locals as 30A for the Scenic Highway connecting most of the towns, the locally loved hidden gem has been a regional favorite since the towns were planned about 30 years ago. Now, direct flights from Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, and New York between the two regional airports, Destin Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) and Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), have made it easier to access—and have opened the Gulf to a whole new world of travelers.
Thankfully, these little-known Florida beaches should stay small due to rules that prohibit buildings over four stories or building on the 40 percent of land designated as nature reserves here. Big-name Florida beaches on either side of South Walton—Destin and Panama City Beach—also draw the rowdier crowds away, making these the best beaches in Florida for families.
The only question is: which town fits your beach vibe? From the luxurious Alys Beach to the family-friendly Seaside, here’s a guide to Florida’s best beaches you’ve probably never visited, whether you want to relax in one town or hop through a few.
For Modern Luxury
WHERE: Alys Beach
You’ve never seen a Florida beach town so luxurious. Striking all-white buildings, rows of palms, and secluded courtyards are signatures of this ultra-luxurious community, the most upscale (and, we think, aesthetically pleasing) of any Florida beach. Streets like “Sea Foam Alley” and “Nonesuch Way” hide away high-end boutiques, a stunning pool, a wellness center, and a beach club for adults. Everything is in place, everything is brand new, and the multi-million-dollar homes are Architectural Digest-worthy. Only 20 percent of the properties are rented out to travelers (the rest are residences), making a visit to this Florida beach feel all the more exclusive–like you’re a neighbor and not a visitor.
Where to Eat and Drink: Have a playful cocktail at Neat before an unforgettable dinner al fresco at Caliza.
Where to Stay: Gawk over the vacation homes at Alys Beach Vacation Rentals. You’ll never want to vacation anywhere else.
INSIDER TIPGo to Alys during one of its signature family-friendly social events: In October, the Oktoberfest-like Firkin Fête draws local breweries and live music, and in May, Digital Graffiti features artists who use the white buildings as a blank canvas for their colorful, illuminated projections.
Wish you could find a nice Florida beach that’s also family-friendly? This All-American small beach town was planned to be picture-perfect—pastel homes, a classic post office, a community park, and all. So perfect, in fact, Seaside was the setting for the film The Truman Show in which—spoiler alert!—Jim Carrey slowly realizes he’s the subject of a reality TV show. The film put South Walton on the map not long after it was first built in the ’80s and showcased the “New Urbanist” architecture made popular here (meaning, the style of building community-driven, walkable towns). It’s no wonder it’s become one of the best family beaches in Florida, where they can bike along Seaside’s winding pathways and grab ice cream at little shops right off the beach.–
Where to Eat and Drink: Bud and Alley’s laidback rooftop bar is perfect for sipping a 30A Beach Blonde Ale and watching the sunset over the emerald water. But as always, kids are welcome in this super family-friendly beach town.
Where to Stay: Going through Cottage Rental Agency is the best way to rent a vacation home here, especially for big family groups.
INSIDER TIPWondering what to pack for a Florida beach vacation? North Florida can typically be colder than South Florida hot spots like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, getting into the 40s in the winter, so be sure to pack a sweater if you’re vacationing from October through March.
For Outdoor Lovers
If you’ve never heard of WaterColor, let us introduce you. This beautiful Florida beach is similar to Seaside, and just a minute away by bike, it has the same sense of a strong-knit community with even more outdoor activities. Try stand-up paddleboarding at The Boathouse –you’ll paddle past lily pads and pine trees before you see something very rare: coastal dune lakes. They’re only found in a few other places in the world, including New Zealand. There are also ample nature trails and butterflies to be seen at Cerulean Park. If you’re not an outdoor lover, you’ll still find plenty to do, including the Harvest Food and Wine Festival, which draws foodies from all over each fall. It’s entirely possible to bike back and forth between WaterColor and Seaside, an activity that draws families.
Where to Eat and Drink: Laidback but elegant Fish Out of Water is the spot for views of the beach and Southern classics like pimento cheese, Sweet Tea chicken, and the area’s famous Gulf oysters.
Where to Stay: WaterColor Inn has gorgeous water views—even from your hotel shower.
For Foodies and Romantics
WHERE: Rosemary Beach
What if we told you there’s a Florida beach that looks like a European village or perhaps a clean French Quarter of New Orleans? It exists! Rosemary Beach, another of the planned New Urbanist towns of South Walton, is known for its award-winning and highly photogenic architecture, making it the best under-the-radar Florida beach for romantics. Pop into high-end boutiques before grabbing a spot on the water, or head to several art galleries and the finest restaurants in the area. It’s all very luxurious.
Where to Eat and Drink: Try Pescado Seafood Grill and Rooftop Bar for local grouper or shrimp and rooftop sunset views.
Where to Stay: The Pearl and Rosemary Beach Inn are two great boutique hotel options in this Florida beach town if you don’t want to rent a vacation home.
For Bohemian Spirit
WHERE: Grayton Beach
The most down-to-earth of any Florida beach you’ve never visited, Grayton Beach existed before the New Urbanist towns were built—so there’s nothing planned about it. Old Florida homes are tucked away behind scraggly trees, and top attractions include art galleries, lively bars, and plenty of natural beauty. At Grayton Beach State Park, you can climb sandy trails or paddleboard past coastal dune lakes to see how Florida was before it was ever developed. Or, check out the kid-loved Underwater Museum of Art offshore, where you can scuba dive past sculptures of a pineapple, a skull, and a deer, along with the marine life swimming by. At night, head to one of the laidback bars for live music. Local institution Red Bar is the coolest bar to spend the evening, and you can find the same vibes at seafood shack AJ’s and Grayton Beer Company tap-room.
Where to Eat and Drink: With an eclectic menu, Chanticleer Eatery is popular for lunch. Black Bear Bread Co. has fantastic coffee and pastries, and you can always find families fortifying themselves for a day at the beach here.
Where to Stay: Get the real “Old Florida” experience by staying at Cabins at Grayton Beach State Park.
INSIDER TIPGrayton Beach‘s unofficial phrase is actually “nice dogs, strange people.” There’s even a wall outside Black Bear Bread Co. where you can have your dog’s portrait painted, with proceeds going to a local animal shelter.
For Going Off the Grid
WHERE: Seagrove, WaterSound, and Seacrest
Talk about a Florida beach you’ve never heard of. These small Southern beach towns have no big hubs, few vacationers, and plenty of relaxing spots. Locally-loved Seagrove is the picture of Southern laidback luxury with its oaks and magnolias, boutiques, cafes, and a state park. Seacrest sandwiches Alys Beach on either side, so consider staying here if you want to bike through to see the spectacle of Alys without paying for it. And WaterSound, the beach next door, is private and tucked away; its Big Chill 30a, an outdoor music venue surrounded by casual food joints, is great for live music performances.
What to Eat and Drink: In Seagrove, try Surfing Deer, which has everything from red snapper to bao buns (and which was named after a resident’s pet deer, Bambi). Or, try Café Thirty-A—it’s a crowd-pleaser.
Where to Stay: On vacation rental site 360 Blue, you might stumble upon a dreamy Gulf-front home in Seagrove like the towering Chivallionaire, which sleeps up to 34 (hello, family reunion!) and has an elevator and private heated pool.
For Nature and Relaxation
WHERE: Inlet Beach and Dune Allen
Inlet Beach and Dune Allen are about as secluded as you can get. While not next to each other geographically, these two Florida beach towns mark the beginning and end of the Timpoochee Trail, where you can bike or walk through the area’s most stunning natural landscapes. Both are quiet neighborhoods that allow visitors to focus on nature. Inlet Beach is the closest community to Panama City Beach but is much calmer and smaller. Besides being the shortest ride from the ECP airport, it’s also home to the largest beach access point on 30A. It’s a less showy vacation than that of neighboring Alys Beach, but it’s still close to the action. Further west, just after 30A ends, Dune Allen is all about nature. In addition to the trail, you can paddleboard three coastal dune lakes—rare bodies of water that are only found in a few places in the world. We almost guarantee your friends have never heard of these beaches, but they’re going to want to.
What to Eat and Drink: A locally loved, family-pleasing breakfast spot, The Donut Hole has everything from breakfast food to sandwiches for lunch and, yes, amazing donuts.
Where to Stay: Vacation properties, like the oceanfront 30A Peace of Paradise or Dune Allen Realty Vacation Rentals, are the way to go here.
For High Energy and Trusted Hotel Brands
WHERE: Miramar Beach, Sandestin, and Seascape
Okay, so you love a Florida beach without crowds, but you also want to stay at a trusted hotel brand with a big pool and full service that has the best activities for families. What to do? The three adjacent Florida beach towns of Miramar Beach, Sandestin, and Seascape fit the bill, because they’re a little bigger and more bustling but still fly under the radar compared to big Florida beaches like Panama City Beach and Destin. They also have trusted hotel brand names you won’t find in the smaller planned communities. Bigger and more active with lots of facilities, they’re definitely the choice for golfers, tennis players, and social butterflies. Check out the village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin for restaurants, shops, and nightlife.
Where to Eat and Drink: Sandestin’s Tommy Bahama restaurant is a good choice for good food and drinks near the beach.
Where to Stay: Affordable for the region, the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa offers Gulf views and all you’d expect from a hotel with lots of amenities. If that’s not your thing, you’ll find a more sophisticated luxury option in Hotel Effie.
So, there you have it—the best Florida beaches you’ve never heard of are waiting in the state’s northwest corner. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly beach where you can splash around in a hotel pool or a hidden gem where you can find total seclusion, South Walton, Florida, is home to the best beaches to find it all and then some.