6 Of The Most Overlooked Towns In Florida’s Emerald Coast – World Atlas

St. Joseph Point Lighthouse from the bay. Image credit Stephanie A Sellers via Shutterstock

While it’s common knowledge that Florida is the USA’s most visited state—more than 135 million tourists flocked here in 2023 alone—many people are surprised to learn that there is more to “The Sunshine State” than popular spots like Orlando and Miami. The same is true for the Florida Panhandle, where visitors to the beautiful Emerald Coast region are increasingly traveling beyond popular destinations like Pensacola and Panama City Beach to explore numerous equally lovely destinations that are all too often overlooked.

From laidback Port St. Joe to tranquil Mexico Beach, with stops at places like Navarre, Apalachicola, and Carrabelle along the way, these small-town gems offer a quieter, more relaxed alternative to the larger cities and busier tourist spots along the Emerald Coast of Florida.

Port St. Joe

Setting sun behind Cape San Blas Lighthouse in Port St. Joe, Florida
Setting sun behind Cape San Blas Lighthouse in Port St. Joe, Florida. Image credit Arctyx Creative Studios via Shutterstock

Located overlooking St. Joseph Bay, St. Joe offers a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the larger, better-known beach destinations in Florida. Those who do venture here are rewarded with seemingly endless miles of white sandy beaches stretching along the Gulf of Mexico, providing a perfect setting for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, located just a short drive away, offers even more opportunities for outdoor adventure, including hiking, birdwatching, and kayaking in one of the Emerald Coast’s prettiest wildernesses.

Visitors to Port St. Joe should also explore the town’s historic downtown with its charming boutiques, art galleries, and eateries housed in colorful historic buildings dating from the mid-19th century. Top attractions include Cape San Blas Lighthouse, built in 1885 and boasting wonderful views of the coastline.


Facade of colorful houses along the bay in Navarre Florida scenic community.
Colorful houses along the bay in Navarre, Florida.

Despite being situated midway between the busy resort cities of Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach, Navarre has managed to retain a peaceful ambiance that makes it ideal for those who enjoy a quieter beach retreat. Beautiful Navarre Beach itself is part of an area known as the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Outstanding Florida Water, a sandy, narrow island shoreline that stretches for around 50 miles from Destin to Fort Pickens. The powdery white sands here are perfect for leisurely strolls, especially fun at sunset, as well as sunbathing, swimming, family picnics, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and even surfing.

Other fun things to do include exploring Navarre Beach Marine Park, which provides a glimpse into the area’s marine life and ecosystems; and visiting the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center to learn more about these enduring creatures.


View of Apalachicola, Florida, from a bridge over the river.
Apalachicola, Florida, from a bridge over the river.

Its location at the mouth of the Apalachicola River certainly hasn’t hurt Apalachicola’s reputation as one of the Emerald Coast’s most interesting small towns. Founded in 1885, visitors can explore a variety of well-preserved buildings dating from this period in the historic downtown area. Characterized by well-preserved 19th-century architecture, brick-lined streets, and charming old storefronts, it’s a delight to wander while admiring Victorian-era architecture and browsing boutique shops, perhaps even stopping for fresh local seafood.

The Apalachicola Maritime Museum is a must-visit and offers insights into the town’s maritime heritage, showcasing historic boats, artifacts, and exhibits detailing the area’s seafaring history (educational programs and guided tours are also available). Apalachicola is renowned for producing some of the world’s finest oysters, harvested from Apalachicola Bay and served fresh throughout the Emerald Coast. For nature enthusiasts, Apalachicola National Forest offers plenty of outdoor adventure in its dense pine forests, wetlands, and rivers.

Mexico Beach

Beach houses at Mexico Beach, Florida, on a sunny day.
Beach houses at Mexico Beach, Florida, on a sunny day.

Mexico Beach is located just 30 miles southeast of Panama City, FL, and is another small Gulf Coast town often overlooked. Those who do know about it are here for the mile-after-mile of soft, sugar-white sand, crystal-clear waters… and the lack of crowds. As tempting as it is to linger the day away at the beach, visitors will want to explore Canal Parkway, a waterfront promenade offering views of the Gulf and the docked leisure craft lining its route.


View of Carrabelle RV resort.
View of Carrabelle RV resort, Florida. Image credit Fsendek via Shutterstock

Carrabelle is also a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with boating and kayaking especially popular. Enjoy fishing? Anglers can cast a line from the shore, charter a deep-sea fishing excursion, or explore the winding rivers and coastal estuaries in search of trophy catches. Several fishing piers are also available for public use. Just a short drive away is Tate’s Hell State Forest, a wilderness area teeming with native flora and fauna with hiking trails, birdwatching opportunities, and scenic drives.


Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville, Florida, with boats docked along the pier.
Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville, Florida.

For a fun Emerald Coast getaway beyond the beach, check out the wonderfully named Niceville. Located across Choctawhatchee Bay from Destin, yet an easy drive from Gulf Coast beaches in Fort Walton, Niceville boasts no end of fun things to do. Indoor activities include visiting the Mattie Kelly Arts Center on the campus of Northwest Florida State College, a performing arts center that hosts a wide range of performances from Broadway-style shows to concerts. It’s also home to two first-rate art galleries. Enjoy a brew? 3rd Planet Brewing is a great spot to enjoy craft beer and socialize, boasting live music, trivia nights, and food trucks.

​​​There is also outdoor fun aplenty. Highlights include Turkey Creek Nature Trail, a scenic boardwalk that meanders alongside Turkey Creek, a popular destination for tubing, swimming, and kayaking; and Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, which features camping, fishing, and hiking.

Whatever your idea of fun, visitors to the Emerald Coast of Florida will find plenty of things to do away from the usual tourist spots. From the scenic shorelines of small resort towns like Fort St. Joe and the pretty historic downtown of Apalachicola, with stops at Navarre, Carrabelle, Mexico Beach, and Niceville along the way, each of these six overlooked towns in Florida’s Emerald Coast is well worth including on any Florida travel itinerary.