Fort Walton Beach is a city in the Florida panhandle on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is a part of the metro area that also includes the neighboring coastal cities of Destin and Miramar Beach. These cities are so interwoven that it’s hard to talk about one without talking about the others. But Fort Walton Beach is different than the others because most of the city is inland. It has a cute historic downtown to explore in addition to the beautiful beaches of Okaloosa Island, so you get the best of both worlds.
What this Guide covers
This guide features everything you need to know about this city broken down into easy segments for History, Culture, Food & Drink, Shopping, Entertainment, Arts, Sports, Nature, Education & Schools, Transportation, Tourism, Health & Medical. It is an overview of the city from experts who have experienced the local culture.
See our Ultimate Guide to Fort Walton Beaches for details about the beachfronts, and find businesses in the area in our Fort Walton Beach area business directory (coming soon).
The Fort Walton Beach Area was first inhabited by a native mound building culture known as the Fort Walton Culture. They were an advanced people who had their own agriculture and made their own pottery. It is clear that this area was rich in Native American culture up until about 1500 AD, but not much is known about these people. The Spanish reportedly found this area already abandoned when they sailed by in the 1500s. You can still visit the preserved Fort Walton Temple Mound and the Indian Temple Mound Museum (both located in the Heritage Park & Culture Center) to see uncovered artifacts and learn what has been discovered about this native group.
When the Spanish colonized Florida, this area was largely avoided due to the difficulty of navigating the inlets and bays. On a Spanish map from 1566 it was simply labeled "40 deaths a day”.
Fort Walton Beach was not settled until after Florida became a territory of the United States. The land was bought by a man named John Anderson and was called “Anderson” for several decades. In 1861 it was home to Camp Walton, a confederate army camp named for the county, which was named for Col. George Walton, the first secretary of West Florida. “Camp Walton” would come to refer to the entire city after the civil war. It would later change its name to Fort Walton in 1932. At the time it was a very small town, counting only 90 residents in the 1940 census. The nearby Eglin Air Force Base was built in 1935, causing the population to boom in the coming decades.
The name was finally changed to Fort Walton Beach in 1953 when it incorporated the coastal land then known as Tower Beach (now known as Okaloosa Island). Tower Beach had been operating as an amusement area with beach cottages and lots of entertainment venues including a boardwalk, a casino, and a dance pavilion beginning in 1928. Unfortunately, much of the complex was destroyed by a fire in 1942. When the beachfront was incorporated into the city, it began to build up as a new kind of destination for both residents and visitors.
The spot to learn about all of this history is the Heritage Park & Culture Center. In addition to the Fort Walton Temple Mound and the Indian Temple Mound Museum, it also contains a cannon used at Camp Walton from 1861, The Camp Walton Schoolhouse built in 1912, and the Garnier Post Office built in 1918.
Fort Walton Beach is a coastal town. Okaloosa Island is the name given to the beachfront area here, though it is technically the easternmost part of Santa Rosa Island. The beaches here are just as beautiful as the more famous Destin beaches, but this area tends to be a little more quiet and a little more local. There are still tourists coming to Okaloosa Island, but it is a less touristy beach than most of the others nearby. It is also slightly less updated, but that is something that will be changing in the coming years. If you want to see it at its most quiet, visit during the winter months, when tourists are few and far between. It is much more crowded in the spring and summer.
Inland Fort Walton Beach still carries some of that coastal attitude, but it is not very geared around tourists. Military is the biggest part of the culture here, due to the nearby Eglin Air Force Base. The locals are very welcoming towards veterans and current military personnel. There is even a beach on Okaloosa Island called Eglin Beach Park that is reserved just for military members and an air force gulf course, The Eglin Golf Course, located in Niceville.
The demographics of Fort Walton Beach are similar to the demographics of the United States as a whole, so expect the diversity to be about average. It is a very conservative area, but it’s welcoming to everyone. The New York Times even lists the area as an up and coming gay-friendly location, especially as a travel destination for lgbtq+ couples with kids.
There are tons of great independent restaurants in Fort Walton Beach for every kind of taste. On Okaloosa Island, seafood is king, with tons of places serving the freshest catch all year round. For some of the best, try Rick’s Crab Trap, Stewby’s Seafood Shanty, The Shack, and so many more. All along the gulf and the bay sides of the island you will find great places to grab a bite or a drink with a view of the water, so enjoying the water doesn’t have to end for meals. There’s also lots of dining options at the Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island.
Inland, there are a ton more options for every palette and budget. Start in Downtown Fort Walton Beach, a strip just across the bridge from Okaloosa Island, and you’ll find lots of cool local joints. If you want some local history, The Magnolia Grill, which refers to itself as “The Museum That Serves Food” is a great option. After dinner, grab a drink at The Craft Bar at Uptown Station to try some local brews.
Shopping is a huge part of visiting the Fort Walton/Destin area. Most of the most well-known shopping here is located in Destin or Miramar Beach, but Fort Walton Beach has plenty of options. If you want a beachy shopping day, head to the Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island. It has direct beach access, but it also has several boutique shops that sell anything you might need to enjoy the beach as well as unique souvenirs. Off the beach, Uptown Station is the premier shopping center with over 60 storefronts. Downtown Fort Walton Beach has tons of great local options including excellent vintage shopping and specialty boutiques. Visit on the second or fourth Saturday of the month to check out the farmer’s market! For more vintage shopping, check out the Fort Walton Beach Flea Market.
Entertainment in this area focuses around the beach. Fort Walton Beach’s Okaloosa Island is generally a little bit less crowded than Destin’s beaches. For more fun on the water, there are lots of fun excursions you can take. Take a fishing cruise or a dolphin cruise to experience some of the sea life of this area. Another great place you can cruise to is Crab Island, which is actually a sand bar in the harbor where people often visit by boat to hang out in the blue, 1-4 foot deep water. There are lots of services that can take you there, but you are also welcome to take your own boat or jet ski. Boating is big in this area, so there are tons of places you can rent. Surfing is also popular due to the jetty break. You can join in by renting a surfboard or taking surfing lessons. You can also take sandcastle building lessons!
Right on the beach you will find the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, a perfect place for the whole family to get up close to lots of local marine life including dolphins and sea lions. Another great way to entertain the family is a trip to Wild Willy's Adventure Zone where they have all kinds of attractions for kids of all ages. If mini golf is more your speed, you can play a round at Goofy Golf. For a more educational experience the kids will still love, head to the Emerald Coast Science Center. Another great educational experience is the Air Force Armament Museum, the only museum in the country focused on Air Force armament. For a piece of local charm, check out Suds n Cinema, an independent movie theater that features table service on wine, beer, and movie food.
There is a ton more entertainment to be found in Destin. To learn more about that, check out our Destin Guide.
There are not a lot of art museums and galleries in this area, but there are plenty of ways to participate in the arts. One of the best ways to learn all about the local art community is to check out the Okaloosa Arts Alliance, where you can take all kinds of classes as well as attend shows. The Young Philosophers Society allows kids to get involved in the arts. If you’re looking to buy some artwork by local artists, check out the Downtown FWB Art Walk on the first Friday of every month.
Fort Walton Beach is home to the Northwest Florida Ballet, which performs across the region. You can experience live music from local artists at the DownTown Music Hall in Fort Walton Beach. There are several bars and restaurants that also feature live music. If you want to perform music yourself, you can join The Fort Walton Beach Community Chorus or the Emerald Coast Chorus. Other performance opportunities are available at the Stage Crafters Community Theatre and the Emerald Coast Theatre Company.
There are no professional sports teams in Fort Walton Beach. The most popular sports in the area are the school teams. There are also tons of youth sports for kids of all ages to participate in. If you’re an adult, you can also play team sports through the Emerald Coast Social Sports League.
Golf is very popular in this area. The Fort Walton Beach Golf Club offers two great courses. There are even more amazing golf courses in Destin and other nearby areas.
For the most natural beach experience in Fort Walton Beach, visit John Beasley Park, which is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The area to the east of the park is not accessible to the general public, so it’s a great example of natural Florida. Other local parks include Liza Jackson Park, Ross Marler Park, and The Landing, all of which are located on the bay. Some of the best hiking can be found in the Eglin Air Force Base through the Choctawhatchee National Forest. In order to access it you will need an Outdoor Recreation permit.
Fort Walton Beach is part of the Okaloosa County School District. There are 4 public elementary schools (Edwins Elementary School, Elliott Point Elementary School, Kenwood Elementary School, and Wright Elementary School), 2 public middle schools (Max Bruner Jr. Middle School and WC Pryor Middle School), and 2 public high schools (Choctawhatchee High School and Fort Walton Beach High School). Okaloosa Technical College is also in Fort Walton Beach. It is a school that offers classes for high school students and adults. For college, there are campuses for Northwest Florida State College and The University of West Florida.
Tourism is a huge industry, but most of the tourism here revolves around the beach. Okaloosa Island where you’ll find most of the hotels as well as the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center, where all kinds of events are hosted.
If you are flying to this area you will most likely fly through the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, which is located on the Eglin AFB north of Fort Walton Beach. There is no public transportation that connects to the airport, but there are many shuttle and taxi services available to take you right to your hotel. There is bus transportation throughout the city as well as to Destin, Miramar Beach, Crestview, and the Eglin AFB available with Emerald Coast (EC) Rider.
The main hospital in Fort Walton Beach is the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, the area's only full service hospital. There are lots of specialists at the medical center and in the areas around it.
For Local Businesses including Food & Drinks, Services, Health & Medical, Education, Sports & Recreation, Arts & Entertainment and more, see our Pensacola Business Directory (coming soon).
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