Florida is world-famous for its beaches. Names like Clearwater Beach and Miami Beach are instantly recognizable and conjure up images of miles and miles of soft, white sand, swaying palms, and turquoise waters.
When most people talk about the beaches of the Sunshine State, examples in the south of Florida come to mind. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Keys, and Sanibel Island are all gorgeous examples of the coastal glories that Florida beaches have to offer, but too much focus on Southern Florida risks missing out on some true gems. While the southern beaches are exceptional, no doubt, North Florida has more than its fair share of magnificent stretches of sand.
From untouched barrier islands on the Gulf Coast to the slightly wilder Atlantic coastline in the North East, there are treasures to be found in every corner of North Florida. And whether you want to discover the charming historical delights of St Augustine or the unique ‘barking’ sand of Pensacola in the Panhandle, there are some amazing sights and experiences to be had.
So if you are looking for something a little different for this year’s beach getaway, check out my list of the best beaches in North Florida below!
Panama City Beaches
Panama City is an eclectic mix with a little something for everyone and its beaches are no different. The main Panama City Beach is vibrant and full of life, a beach that attracts a party crowd (particularly around Spring Break) and promises a good time during the day and an even better time once night falls! If you prefer something a little more relaxed, however, the laid-back atmosphere of Mexico Beach might be more your style. Just 20 minutes from downtown Panama City, this Forgotten Coast seaside town is so remote and underdeveloped that they don’t even have traffic lights!
Part of the Sea Islands chain of barrier islands that stretch up along Florida’s Atlantic coast from Jacksonville to the state line, Amelia Island boasts a ton of gorgeous, under-the-radar beaches. Peters Point Beachfront Park is wide, long, and perfect for families, with loads of space to play. Fernandina Beach offers gorgeous Atlantic Ocean waves on one side and a wonderfully quaint riverside town on the Amelia Riverside. It also encompasses the picturesque Fort Clinch State Park and the historic Amelia Island lighthouse. It also includes the historic American Beach community which is full of beautiful buildings and fascinating heritage sights.
A short, easy drive from Pensacola itself, Pensacola Beach nevertheless retains a cute, small-town vibe that makes it feel a long way from the big city. Located on the Gulf Coast barrier island of Santa Rosa, it boasts powder-soft white sand beaches, a vibrant beach boardwalk, and a picture-perfect pier stretching out into the Gulf of Mexico. Opal Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is one of the prettiest, but it is also worth driving along to Navarre Beach and checking out the turtle conservation center there. One of the best parts of a vacation to Pensacola Beach is the opportunity to spot dolphins right off the beach, as there are a number of pods that migrate to this part of the world for the winter. They can often be sighted playing in the warm, shallow waters all the way along Santa Rosa Island.
St. George Island
For real North Florida beauty and true peace and tranquility, look no further than St George Island. This Gulf Coast barrier island is just 28 pristine miles of gorgeous sand dunes, sea oats, and incredibly impressive beach landscapes as far as the eye can see. There’s almost no development and it’s a fantastic opportunity to get a genuine taste for the slower pace of Old Florida, from boiled peanut stalls by the roadside to eating fresh oysters with the sea breeze in your hair. The beach looks out into the Gulf of Mexico, and stretches the length of the island, finally turning the corner around West Pass for a brief taste of Apalachicola Bay. Some of the best beaches on the island are to the far east in the secluded, remote, and stunningly beautiful Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park.
Henderson Beach State Park
The pick of the Emerald Coast beaches, Henderson Beach State Park is quite a sight. Backed by almost snow-white sand dunes, the beach and state park are fully protected and conserved which makes this corner of the world both calm and exquisitely untouched – absolutely ideal for glorying in the peace, quiet, and unspoiled natural beauty. But it isn’t just for relaxation – there are 60 campsites in the state park that lead directly to the beach, as well as wonderful opportunities for fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching along the nature trails. As the last surviving coastal scrub area near Destin, it is well worth taking the time to really dive into the biodiversity of the place and appreciate the special, at-risk landscape that is so important for North Florida.
Siesta Key Beach
Without a doubt the jewel in the already pretty darn impressive crown that is the collection of beaches in Sarasota, Siesta Key Beach stands head and shoulders above the rest. With sand that is, almost uniquely, over 99% crushed quartz (rather than coral), the beach is extraordinarily reflective, meaning that even on the hottest days it remains cool and comfortable underfoot. To the south of the key, the section of coastline known as Crescent Beach is regularly described as ‘the best white-sand beach in the world’ and is the perfect place to lay back, relax, and take in the dramatic, perfect beauty of Siesta Key. But if your tastes for a beach vacation run a little more active, there’s plenty for everyone on the key! Point of Rocks even further south offers a wonderful place for snorkelers to get a glimpse of the incredible marine life beneath the waves, while Siesta Key Village is a lively, buzzing little beach town with a lot to recommend it.