Panama City Beach, Florida Guide

By
Cortney Tarell
Panama City Beach Guide

Panama City Beach, or PCB as it’s often called, is one of Florida’s oldest tourist destinations. Its 28 miles of beachfront have been attracting visitors for over a century. There are signs of that history everywhere you go along the beach, but there are plenty of new attractions and accommodations as well. Having such a long beachfront gives PCB the opportunity to have some of everything. There’s luxury hotels and there’s low income housing, there’s high end shopping and there’s entertainment venues that have been mostly unchanged for decades. Your opinion of this city is going to vary greatly depending on what part you visit. If PCB is famous for anything, it’s the rowdy spring break parties that have been well documented for decades, but locals are trying to change that image. Right now, Panama City Beach seems to be poised on the brink of something new. What that next phase will hold still remains to be seen, but the potential for greatness is there.

 

Panama City Beach Florida Guide

What this Guide covers

This guide features everything you need to know about this city broken down into easy segments for HistoryCultureFood & DrinkShoppingEntertainmentArtsSportsNatureEducation & SchoolsTourismTransportationHealth & Medical. It is an overview of the city from experts who have experienced the local culture. 

See our Ultimate Beach Guide to Panama City Beach for details about the beachfronts, and find businesses in the area in our Panama City Beach area business directory (coming soon).

History

Panama City Downtown
Historic Downtown Panama City
 

The early history of this area takes place in Panama City, which is a separate city from Panama City Beach. The first visitors to this area were pirates and other seafarers, many of whom did not have great luck navigating the waterways. The huge number of shipwrecks that have been discovered here have led St. Andrews Bay to be called the world's shipwreck capital. Some of the first settlers in this area lived in the fishing village of St. Andrew during the civil war. Historic St. Andrews is still a preserved area in Panama City, which is worth the visit if you’re interested in history. Panama City was officially incorporated in 1909, given the name probably to capitalize on people’s fascination with the Panama City Canal, which was currently being built.

Panama City Beach attracted visitors beginning in at least the early 1900s, though at that point they had to come mostly by boat. The Hathaway Bridge was built in 1929 to connect the mainland of Panama City to the beach directly. After this, tourism began to pick up quickly. The first hotel, The Panama City Beach Hotel, was built in the 1930s, and the area received its first post office in 1939. The city was officially incorporated in 1953, bringing together the individual communities of Long Beach, Edgewater, Gulf Beach, Panama City Beach, Dutchville, Playville, and Julia to collectively form Panama City Beach. This is why PCB is such a long city with lots of different sections.

Goofy Golf, Panama City Beach
Goofy Golf
 

In the 1950s and 60s, PCB was being developed as one of the premier vacation destinations in the country. Early amusement parks were built here to attract families of all sizes. the Petticoat Junction amusement park, the Tombstone Territory, and the Miracle Strip Amusement Park were all built during that time. The Starliner Roller Coaster from the Miracle Strip Amusement Park was the first roller coaster in Florida. None of those parks still remain, but there is one attraction from the old days that’s still around. Goofy Golf was built in 1959 and exists today almost exactly as it did then.

The 50s and 60s may have been the first big tourism boom for Panama City Beach, but they certainly weren’t the last. During the 70s and 80s, the number of attractions grew even larger and many more hotels were built, most of which still stand today. More recently, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport was built in 2010 north of PCB to make it accessible to even more people.

If you’re fascinated by history, you should visit the Man in the Sea Museum, which explores the history of humans' exploration of the sea through diving.

Culture

Panama City Beach

Because Panama City Beach inhabits such a long stretch of the panhandle, it can be hard to define the culture. There’s definitely a lot of southern influence in the culture. In the south, PCB is sometimes known as the capital of the “Redneck Riviera”, which is an affectionate nickname for the Florida Panhandle. Most of the visitors to the area come from the southern United States, and the locals are primarily white and conservative. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for everyone at Panama City Beach.

For several decades, Panama City Beach has been known as “the Spring Break capital of the world.” That reputation was cemented by MTV spring break shows that took place in PCB in the early 2000s and its longtime home to the "Girls Gone Wild" video series. The area once attracted a half a million college students a year during the months of March and April. In 2014 and 2015, Panama City Beach was receiving tons of negative national press surrounding the crime and general chaos of spring break, so the city officials decided to crack down. They made laws banning alcohol from the beach during the season to discourage debauchery. This has significantly decreased, but not eliminated, spring break in PCB.

The end of spring break has definitely brought down crime in the area, but it has had some negative effects as well. Many local businesses made the bulk of their profits in the spring. They have now lost a significant amount of that business. Losing spring break has also left a little bit of a cultural void in Panama City Beach, especially in the east side of the city where most of the party took place. This area is lacking the updates and amenities needed to attract other visitors such as retirees and families, who are much more likely to favor other nearby cities like Destin. If this area wants to survive as a tourist destination without the party reputation, it will need to figure out a way to update and rebrand itself.

Panama City Beach Pier Park

As you travel further west in Panama City Beach towards Pier Park and the communities of Laguna Beach, Santa Monica, and Sunnyside, you will find a more modern and charming beach town that’s doing a much better job of attracting travelers coming from Destin and 30A. It seems likely that this side of town represents the future of tourism in Panama City Beach. Currently, city officials are on the path of a 20-year improvement plan, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.

Food and Drink

Panama City Beach Food

Unsurprisingly, seafood and southern cooking are the specialties here in Panama City Beach. Waterfront dining and drinking is common, so you don’t even have to leave the beach to enjoy local specialties. Forget the shirt and shoes. Pineapple Willy’s, Sharky’s Beachfront Restaurant, Runaway Island Beach Bar and Grill, and Schooners Beach Club are just a few of the excellent beachfront options here. If you want your seafood as fresh as possible, check out some of the local seafood markets, such as Anderson Seafood Market and Buddy's Seafood Market. For a fancy meal, Firefly and Saltwater Grill are two upscale options that come highly recommended. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Panama City Beach, from high end dining to local dives and just about every chain restaurant you can think of. Pier Park also has tons of dining options, so it’s an excellent place to start if you’re not sure what you want.

Shopping

Panama City Beach Pier Park

Pier Park is the only shopping mall in Panama City Beach, but it has plenty of shopping to keep you busy. There are two parts to Pier Park, one is a strip of coastal shopping and dining that stretches back from the Russell-Fields Pier. Behind that you’ll find a classic open air mall that includes an IMAX theater and 2 department stores. In amongst all of that is also tons of entertainment for the whole family.

You won’t find another mall in Panama City Beach, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton more shopping to do while you’re here. All you have to do is take a drive down Front Beach Road and you will find over 100 gift shops where you can buy every souvenir you might want. If you want some coastal home decor, you can check out Decor By The Shore to learn about the best places to find the perfect piece you’re searching for.

Entertainment

Panama City Beach Wonderworks

Panama City Beach is an expert in beach town entertainment. It was doing theme parks and other off-beach activities well before most other towns. The first ever roller coaster in Florida, the Starliner Roller Coaster, was built here in 1963, and the city continued to be ahead of the curb for entertainment for the next several decades. There’s always been enough here to make sure you can’t be bored in PCB. The attractions here might not be described as “cutting edge” anymore, but they represent classic fun for the whole family. 

Everywhere you look in Panama City Beach you will find countless arcades, mini golf courses, and go kart tracks. If that’s not enough, there are also tons of amusement parks to keep you entertained for the day. The largest of these are Cobra Adventure Park, Shipwreck Island Waterpark, and Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, but that’s not even the entire list. If you want something a little bit weirder, check out Wonderworks or Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The unique buildings are right across the street from each other and are impossible to miss as you drive by. To learn more about the local animals on the Florida coast, head to Gulf World Marine Park, and if you want to learn about other animals, you can also pay a visit to The Panama City Zoo.

Panama City Beach Pier Park
Some of the entertainment available at Pier Park
 

And all of that is just what you can do if you want to spend time off of the beach. You can also have a perfect vacation without ever leaving the shoreline. The Beaches here are perfect for relaxing in the sand, collecting shells, or going for a swim. All forms of beach activity are welcome here: surfing, jet skiing, parasailing, ect. There are three beachside piers in Panama City Beach: the twin M.B. Miller County Pier and Russell-Fields City Pier and the St. Andrews State Park pier. 

Another great way to spend a day is to visit Captain Anderson’s Marina where you can rent a boat for the day or take a chartered fishing trip or a Shell Island Tour. If you’re traveling with kids, take the Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise to be immersed in a world of pirate adventures.

Arts

Panama City
Panama City Center For The Arts
 

Art in Panama City Beach is powered by the Beach Art Group. They host events, workshops, and services that allow people to show and sell art in Bay County, making the arts accessible to people of all ages. 

There is one performing arts theatre in PCB, the Todd Herendeen Theatre. Most of the shows there are put on by Todd Allen Herendeen and his Follow That Dream (FTD) Band. For more performing arts, take a trip into Panama City and check out the Martin Theatre.

The best place to experience the arts of all kinds is the Panama City Center For The Arts.

Sports

Panama City Beach Sports Complex

There are no sports teams in Panama City Beach or the nearby cities, but there are plenty of opportunities to participate in sports yourself. Frank Brown Park has 200 acres of space for pretty much any sport including an aquatic center. The newer complex is the Panama City Beach Sport’s Complex, built in 2019. It is designed as a premier location for sports tourism to attract visitors for tournaments and other events.

Golf is probably the most popular leisure sport in Panama City Beach. The entire panhandle is full of world class golf courses, so you’ll have plenty to discover no matter how long you stay. The amazing golf courses in PCB are the Holiday Golf Club, Signal Hill Golf Course, and Shark’s Tooth Golf Course.

Nature

St Andrews State Park
St Andrews State Park
 

Most of the beach in Panama City Beach is very developed, with condos, hotels, and houses all along the coastline. But there are plenty of ways to experience the beach at its most natural. There are two state parks at either end of Panama City Beach. On the west end, there’s Camp Helen State Park, which is a beachside park that’s also home to Florida’s largest coastal dune lake. On the east side is St. Andrews State Park, which will give you all the nature you could hope for with five distinct ecological landscapes. It is also home to Shell Island, which is only reachable by boat and is the best place to find shells, as the name would suggest. 

Panama City Beach Conservation Park
Conservation Park
 

If you’re still looking to explore more natural Florida, check out Conservation Park. The park is over 2900 acres of protected acres established by the city. Head there for a hike on the 24 miles of trails the park has available.

Education and Schools

Panama City College

Panama City Beach is in the Bay County school district. The county is home to 18 elementary schools, 6 middle schools, 5 high schools, 2 multi-grade schools, 3 special purpose schools, 1 adult/technical school, and 6 charter schools, plus may more private schools. Students in Panama City Beach attend J.R. Arnold High School.

There are no colleges in Panama City Beach, but Gulf Coast State College is in Panama City directly across the The Hathaway Bridge, so it serves students in the Panama City Beach area. There is a small Florida State University campus located here as well.

Tourism

Panama City Beach

Panama City Beach has been famous for its tourism for a long time, so you know you’ll find lots of great places to stay when you visit. One of the things that makes PCB unique among Florida panhandle destinations is the number of cost effective options. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also high end hotels. In addition to that, plenty of houses and condos here are available to rent short term and long term. If you’d rather camp, you can do so at St Andrews State Park or at one of the many other camping locations around town.

Transportation

Panama City Beaches Airport

The airport that gets you to Panama City Beach is the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport which is located 8 miles northwest of Panama City. It’s a new airport, opened only in 2010, and its location is very isolated.

The Bay Town Trolley is Panama City’s public transit. It offers 2 routes around Panama City Beach, but there is no trolley that runs to the airport. To get from the airport you will have to take a taxi, shuttle, or rental car.

Health

Panama City Hospital

The largest hospital near Panama City Beach is the Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center in Panama City.

 

For Local Businesses including Food & Drinks, Services, Health & Medical, Education, Sports & Recreation, Arts & Entertainment and more, see our Panama City Beach Business Directory (coming soon). 

 

Who we are

We are locals and writers who love to research, explore, and share information about Florida. Our goal is simple: to share the positive (and sometimes not so positive) things that make the area unique. To be real without an agenda. And to support a strong local community. 

All images on this page copyright © FloridaSmart.com, FL Smart, LLC, Cortney Tarell, Photographer