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.
How to plan the best trip to Destin Florida
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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'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.
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:
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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!
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.
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
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.
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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.
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.