How to plan the best trip to Destin Florida

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Want to know how to plan the best trip to Destin Florida? From where to stay to what to do to what to eat, here's what you need to know about visiting these lovely beaches along the Emerald Coast.

Destin Florida.
Image credit: Deposit Photos.

How to plan the best trip to Destin Florida

Want to know what to pack for the ultimate day at the beach? Download my free beach packing checklist.

This picture was taken at Crystal Beach in Destin. It was definitely populated but we had no issues staying to ourselves, both in and out of the water.

Traveling from San Antonio to Pensacola

We drove from San Antonio to Pensacola (about a 12-hour drive including stops) and then continued to Destin after spending two days in Pensacola. Destin is about 40 miles from Pensacola but the drive takes about 90 minutes, due to a combination of two-lane roads and the notoriously terrible traffic. 

There are lots of opportunities to go scuba diving or snorkeling in Destin. Photo: Visit Destin/Fort Walton Beach

There's also an airport in Pensacola with lots of options for flights, including lots of options for nonstop flights from all over the United States.

This is pretty much what I did in Destin.

Where to stay in Destin Florida

Vacation rentals are the way to go in Destin. 

I'm a big fan of a vacation rental versus a hotel when going to the beach. Vrbo has some great ones – just check your proximity to the water before you book. If you're not beachfront, you'll want to look for a rental that includes a golf cart or find a place to rent one. It makes getting your gear to and from the beach much easier than driving a car. 

Check out what Vrbo has to offer:


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There are lots and lots of condo rental options in the Destin area. Photo: Visit Destin/Fort Walton Beach

My two kids and I stayed in a beachfront two-bedroom two and a half bath unit with a full kitchen. There was a sleeper sofa in the living room so the place could have accommodated a larger family than just the three of us. As a parent traveling with young children, I can't stress how important it is to have some space from them at the end of the day. 

Our unit was beachfront, which meant lots of sand. I absolutely loved our little individual outdoor shower and as a result, we had zero issues with tracking sand into our rental. Most condos have a shower or faucet at the place where you come off the beach, which is fine, but that leaves more opportunity to get more sand all over yourself before you get to where you are going.

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I loved the easy beach access, the room to spread out, and the kitchen where I could fix our own meals. There was also a gas grill on our balcony.  

Our best vacations have been when there's a sense of normalcy. Although I'd like to say our kids totally unplug when we travel, that's not true and I'd venture to guess that few people really do. Having this space at the end of the day to play a game or relax in front of the TV makes the rest of the trip go more smoothly because everyone is relaxed.

Condo rentals run from $160 to $500+ depending on size, season, amenities, and location. You may be able to save some money by renting a place with gulf access versus gulf front, which means you might have a few more steps to get to the beach.  Some gulf access rentals will come with a golf cart, so that makes it a little easier to get your gear down to the beach.

Some units come with a pool and hot tub access, which is a nice feature for us. I know the gulf is right there but lounging poolside is fun, too. 

Our rental came with beach service, which was two chairs and an umbrella set up for us each day. This was just steps from our front door and I loved the easy access to the water.

Destin Beaches

You can choose to do as much or as little as you want in Destin. We chose to stick close to our condo and enjoy the beautiful Destin beaches. We live about two and a half hours from the Texas Gulf Coast and go every chance we get but the beaches are not the same.

These powdery white sand beaches where you can stand in waist-high water and see clear to the bottom are a far cry from our murky Texas ocean water and dark sand, although our sand with higher clay content is better for sand making sand castles.

We like to go to the beach early in the morning or in the early evening. The sun is strong here and you'll need lots of sunscreen and an umbrella if you're going to be out during the heat of the day.

Because the Florida beaches are such a huge treat for us, we spent most of the time just enjoying the water. Our condo came with beach chairs and an umbrella so it was easy to just walk out the door and set up our little place in the sand.

Most beaches have some sort of beach rental service, which is nice because you don't have to bring your own chairs and umbrella. And, you really do need an umbrella if you’re going to be on the beach for any length of time. The sun is very strong. 

Henderson Beach State Park

State parks are such a big part of our lives in Texas that I love to visit state parks when I travel. Henderson Beach State Park is a great place to go camping, hike, enjoy the Destin beaches, check out wildlife, or go hiking.

The park's website lists the types of wildlife you might expect to see and I was surprised to see bobcats listed. We did not see any – they are very shy – and I think your chances would probably be better in the very early or late hours. 

There is a little bit of shade on this 3/4 mile loop trail. Even though it's a short hike, make sure you take plenty of water.

My kids and I did a short, easy hike early in the morning. The three-quarter mile loop trail covers the highest point in the park and offers some beautiful views. It is hot during the summer, which is why we went early. There’s a little shade on the trail, although not much. 

If you wear tennis shoes or hiking shoes on this hike through the dunes, you will get sand in your shoes. I don't recommend going barefoot, though. The sand is too hot and we did see some snake tracks in the sand. You never know what you might meet.

When we visited, there was a line to get in the park in the morning and an even longer line to get in when we left a couple of hours later. If you pay the daily admission fee to get in, you can leave and return but you are not guaranteed readmission if the park becomes too full while you're gone. 

Destin Snorkel

We did one excursion while we were in Destin that was a lot of fun. We went on the two stop shelling and snorkeling adventure with Destin Snorkel. The excursion lasted about three hours so that leaves plenty of time in your day to do something else.

You’ll have a couple of choices of times to go but I recommend going on the earlier run. It’s not as hot and it gets you up and out early. Make sure you book online to reserve your spot.

The two stop tour with Destin Snorkel is a great way to introduce snorkeling to kids or first-timers. Photo: Destin Snorkel

The Destin Snorkel tours leave from the Destin harbor area. There are lots of shopping and dining options in this area but be aware you’ll have to pay for parking. We paid for parking in the morning and were given a voucher when we left that allowed us to come back again that day without being charged for parking again, which I thought was nice. 

The harbor area is really fun to explore. There are lots of shopping and dining options as well as sightseeing, tours, and equipment rentals.

The two stop excursion offers one spot to get out and swim and collect shells and another, deeper spot to snorkel. The snorkel mask and fins are provided and you don’t need any special experience to participate.

There’s a captain and first mate on the boat and they can help you with anything you might need help with. We found the crew to be great and friendly – make sure you tip!

Getting our wiggles out before we get on the boat.

There are other options you can explore with Destin Snorkel. This one was manageable for me as a solo mom with two kids, one who hadn't been snorkeling before. 

We probably saw a dozen dolphins on our way to our snorkel site.

My kids and I had a great morning adventure and I recommend it for a beginner snorkeler. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some dolphins at play on your way to and from the snorkel and shelling spots. We saw several. 

Where to eat in Destin

If you like fresh seafood, Destin will definitely be your happy place but there are more things to dig into here than just seafood. Here's my short list of where to grab food in Destin. 

  • Lulu’s Destin
  • Harbor Docks in HarborWalk Village
  • Camille’s at Crystal Beach
  • Dewey’s Destin Harborside
  • The Back Porch
  • The Donut Hole
  • Fudpuckers

If you go during peak tourist season – summer – be prepared for long waits at dinner. Check with the restaurant you intend to eat at to see what their policies are for reservations and virtual lists. 

Harbor Docks and Camille's are owned by the same family, so the seafood and fresh sushi will be similar at both locations. We had sushi at Camille's and it was amazing and worth the wait. Photo: Visit Destin/Fort Walton Beach.

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Other things to know about Destin

Our visit was very short and if we’d had more time and wanted to do more things, we would not have run out of activities. Before planning a trip, I recommend you spend some time visiting the Destin Fort Walton Beach Tourism site to get a full scope of everything you can do in this area.

Like all coastal communities, there are no shortages of water activities, such as dolphin-watching cruises, kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba, snuba, surfing, and more. The main drag also has a large water park, Big Kahunas, and lots of other little adventure parks and arcades.

I recommend at least four full days in Destin, to make sure you get your do-nothing beach day in as well as be able to pick whatever activities you really want to do. 

The Destin beaches, particularly Crystal Beach, are gorgeous. We will be back.

Summer is the busy, tourist season so if that’s when you go, plan for wait times and traffic. A local recommended late summer or early fall visits, if you can swing off-peak season travel. It’s still warm enough to swim and the beaches and attractions won’t be as crowded. 


I was a guest of Visit Florida.

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  1. would you mind sharing the link or name of where you stayed? Also, if you had rented bikes, where would you bike and would it be safe for kids? I picture just lots of busy roads.

    1. We stayed here in this exact unit: https://www.destinvacation.com/rentals/unit/crystal-port-heron

      If we’d have rented bikes, I probably would have gotten them at the rental place that’s next to Camille’s (directly across from this condo) although there are probably lots of place up and down the beach. I’ve seen condos come with loaner bikes, too, so I’d ask/check it out before renting.

      There are a lot of bike paths/sidewalks but yes, the streets were busy. I think older kids, no problem but younger ones or not-so-great riders, I would probably hesitate. Keep in mind, June is high season, so lots of traffic. I don’t have anything to compare it to but I’ve heard it is lighter in the late summer and fall. Let me know if you have more questions!

  2. FYI – as a former resident of Destin, I just wanted to let everyone know that the Donut Hole also offers a great breakfast menu!

    1. I noticed this one when we were driving and wanted to try it. Hopefully next time, we’ll have more time. Anything with the word “donut” in the name is A-OK with me.