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Destin vs Pensacola: Which is better? The Florida Panhandle can be found in the northwest corner of the state. In this post, we’ll be looking at the differences between these two cities to help you decide where to vacation!
Boasting spectacular white sand and clear waters, Pensacola and Destin offer a variety of activities and are two of my favorite areas for vacation.
From beaches to safety and cost to nightlife, we’ll go into all the details you need to decide which is better for your next vacation.
Destin offers beautiful beaches, and world-class restaurants and has earned the title of “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”.
It is a high-end area, catering to families, who flock there for the wide variety of activities it offers.
Pensacola, on the other hand, takes an alternate route with its relaxed beach town atmosphere and fewer tourists.
The city offers a laid-back atmosphere and is generally known as a great beach town with plenty of historic attractions and state park opportunities.
Me enjoying a relaxing night at Quietwater Beach in Pensacola Beach!
Destin vs Pensacola: What’s The Difference?
Destin and Pensacola are two beautiful beach towns on the Gulf of Mexico. Both have some unique experiences for travelers, but there are a few key differences.
If you’re looking for a more developed, higher-end experience that caters to families, Destin is the place for you.
With its stunning beaches and the popular fishing pier in nearby Okaloosa Island, Destin is a favorite for many Florida lovers. There are also several amazing beach towns that are an extension of Destin such as Fort Walton Beach and Miramar Beach.
Pensacola, on the other hand, has a more quaint beach town vibe. While it offers a fishing pier like Destin, Pensacola also offers visitors plenty to do from historic site seeing to the iconic Blue Angels flyovers.
It gives you the chance to have a more authentic beach vacation, such as Gulf Islands National Seashore since fewer tourists flock to this underdeveloped town.
No matter which one you choose, you will surely have an unforgettable beach vacation!
Destin vs Pensacola: Which Beach Is Nicer?
There are two main differences between the beaches in Pensacola vs Destin.
First, if you’re looking to escape the crowds, Pensacola is the beach for you. Pensacola Beach is located on Santa Rosa Sound (on the north side), which is perfect for its calm waters. Otherwise, the ocean water is very similar between Destin and Pensacola.
Second, Pensacola does offer something that no one else does: the longest stretch of protected shoreline in the United States at Gulf Islands National Seashore. This beach is located between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach and is a fun, scenic drive, with lots of ocean water and sand dunes to see.
The area provides endless opportunities for snorkeling and swimming in federally protected waters. You can search for dolphins, schools of fish, sea turtles, and crabs while exploring the reefs offshore.
On the other hand, Destin offers Crab Island. While not a beach but an underground sandbar, Crab Island is a spot where boats anchor down and visitors can explore the shallow waters on paddleboards, by snorkeling, and by swimming. There are also lots of dolphins and marine life in the nearby waters.
Other beaches in Destin include Henderson Beach State Park, Norriego Point, and James Lee Park.
Many visitors are shocked to find such beautiful beaches in the northern part of the state!
So which of these cities has nicer beaches? While both towns offer pristine beaches with soft white sand and clear water, Destin gets my vote as there are more beaches and more things to do.
But if you want amazing beaches with fewer crowds and more space, then you should go with Pensacola Beach.
Destin vs Pensacola: Which Beach Town Is Larger?
Destin is larger than Pensacola. Destin is more developed and has more accommodation options. This includes hotels, restaurants, shops, and more. As mentioned, Destin feels larger since Fort Walton Beach and Miramar Beach are so close.
Pensacola, on the other hand, has a very small-town feel with many undeveloped areas.
If you’re looking for a more developed, higher-end experience, with more shopping and things to do, Destin is for you.
Remember, this also means that Destin is going to be more crowded as it’s geared toward tourists and vacationers.
Destin vs Pensacola: Weather
Being just an hour away from each other, the cities of Pensacola and Destin have similar weather conditions year-round.
You’ll find the sun popping out about 200 days per year. On average, temperatures hover at 70 degrees F (21 degrees C).
In July, peak temperatures can reach the 90s. This is also when you’ll see peak rainfall, maxing out at 6-7 inches in the summer months.
But, from October to May, the temperatures are perfect. Highs in the 70s and lows in the 60s. Rainfall rarely goes above 5 inches during the winter and fall months.
Like most cities in Florida, hurricane season runs from June to November.
Many hurricanes pass through these gulf coast towns. This makes hurricane season a riskier time to visit.
But, if you want to avoid crowds and high tourist prices, the fall and winter months are the time to take your chance.
Destin vs Pensacola: Which City Is Safer?
Both cities are popular vacation destinations in the Florida Panhandle. And any tourist destination comes with its risks, such as petty theft and car break-ins.
Pensacola has a larger population and therefore has a slightly higher crime rate.
The downside to Destin is the larger crowds can cause increased pickpocketing and petty theft.
Destin is known as a family-friendly vacation destination. But, if you’re not comfortable bringing young kids through large crowds, you may want to opt for the calmer option of Pensacola.
As you should anywhere, never leave valuables unattended in cars, and always lock your car and hotel room doors.
In terms of swimming in the ocean, there is always a risk of rip currents, stinging marine life like jellyfish and stingrays, and sharks.
Florida uses a Beach Warning Flag system so you know when and if it’s safe to swim in the ocean.
If you plan to go swimming, take a look at the flag system each time before you head out. This will help you decide what precautions to take while you and your family take a tip in the ocean.
The best beach for kids would have to be Quietwater Beach in Pensacola Beach. This is located on the Sound Side and right next to the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk– its shallow waters and the fact that it’s not on the ocean side, make it the perfect spot to enjoy a family day at the beach. However, it’s not a very big beach and can get crowded fast.
Destin vs Pensacola: Which Is Cheaper
Pensacola and Destin are similarly priced. Hotels in each city range from 150-300 per night, on average.
It’s possible to have a range of accommodation pricing and options regardless of where you choose to stay.
Destin has more options when it comes to fine dining and specialty shops, but they also tend to have some higher tourist prices.
You’ll find more small businesses and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Pensacola vs Destin as it’s the less developed town of the two.
Destin vs Pensacola: Which Has A Better Nightlife
Both cities offer exciting bars, restaurants, and live music. However, Pensacola is the better option if you’re looking for lively nightlife.
Because it caters to families, many Destin bars tend to close earlier. Regardless, there are plenty of dive bars and live music around to enjoy before closing time.
Pensacola is the opposite. You’ll find parties all day and all night long in this coastal beach town.
From tiki bars on the bayside to downtown Pensacola dive bars, live music, karaoke, DJs, and more, there’s something for every nightlife lover.
In Pensacola, you can go downtown for a fun night out. Or if you’re in Pensacola Beach, the best options will be around the boardwalk and Casino Beach area, which are just a couple of blocks apart.
Places like Bamboo Willie’s, Flounder’s, The Dock, and Paddy O’ Leary’s Irish Pub all stay open until 3 am or later.
For Destin nightlife, you’re going to want to be by Destin Harbor. Here, there are several bars open into the early morning hours such as McGuires Irish Pub, Coyote Ugly, and Red Door Saloon.
Which City Has More Things To Do?
Destin is the clear winner here. Because Destin caters to larger crowds, there are more activities and things to do in Destin vs Pensacola.
Destin is also known as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Villiage”, making it a favorite spot for fishing enthusiasts.
If you want to go to Pensacola, you’re likely more interested in spending your time on the shallow water or on the beach.
Pensacola is home to some of the best beaches in Florida and has more late-night options to choose from, so you certainly won’t regret kicking back with your feet in the sand.
Ultimately, it’s up to you which city you prefer. Destin has more things to do overall but Pensacola is great if you want to spend your days relaxing on the beach or soaking in the sun.
Things To Do In Pensacola
1. Gulf Islands National Seashore
The Gulf Islands National Seashore Park goes from Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island, Florida.
Inside you’ll find miles of protected shoreline to boat, camp, snorkel, kayak, and more.
Fort Pickens, named after General Andrew Pickens from the American Revolution, has the largest collection of 1800s forts available to the public.
2. Pensacola Historic District
Pensacola comes with a long, rich history. The Pensacola Historic District stretches nine acres of Spanish and British forts.
You’ll also find museums, a children’s museum, and tours to explore America’s first multi-year settlement.
3. Keep An Eye Out For The Navy Blue Angels
Speaking of Fort Pickens on Gulf Islands National Seashore, that’s the best place to go to watch the United State’s Navy’s Blue Angels fly.
Aside from the two airshows the angels do each year, you can keep your head up and search for their practice flights frequently in Pensacola.
Things To Do In Destin
1. Fish In The “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”
Choctawhatchee bay is well known for its diverse fish population.
The waters that flow through Destin Pass bring along with them perfect bait fish and the big game follows! You can catch trout, redfish, flounder, and more.
If you can’t handle fishing at sea, you can head to Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier to take advantage of this popular fishing village.
2. Visit HarborWalk Village
HarborWalk Village is the heart of Destin Florida’s emerald coast town.
Here, you’ll find endless events, amazing restaurants, outlet mall shops, and even amusement parks.
Keep an eye out for fireworks displays and free concerts while you stroll through town.
You’ll even find HarborWalk Adventure Park where you can zipline and freefall over Destin. Or, play mini golf and go axe throwing.
Regardless, you’re sure to have the best time exploring HarborWalk Village.
3. Henderson Beach State Park
Visiting the many state parks in Florida is a must-do during your trip. This protected land on the Gulf Coast offers 30-foot sand dunes and multiple campsites to enjoy.
You can get a taste of natural beauty and marine life in and out of the water at Henderson Beach State Park.
For more things to do in Destin, check out this post!
Is Pensacola Water As Clear As Destin?
The water in both cities is very similar. Located on what we call “the emerald coast”, both Pensacola and Destin provide some of the clearest water in Florida.
The sparkling blue-green water is sure to take your breath away.
Is It Cheaper To Stay In Destin Or Pensacola?
Accommodations are similarly priced in Destin and Pensacola. However, the Destin area is a more crowded tourist destination.
Therefore, higher-end beach resorts along with restaurants and activities tend to be pricier compared to the city of Pensacola.
Is Pensacola Bigger Than Destin?
Pensacola has a greater population but is not bigger than Destin. Destin offers a larger area of things to do in the area compared to Pensacola.
Is Pensacola FL Worth Visiting?
Pensacola Florida is definitely worth visiting for its pristine white sand beaches and small beach-town vibes.
Downtown Pensacola also packs a ton of fun and nightlife into a small area! You’ll enjoy a quiet and peaceful beach vacation in Pensacola.
What Is The Prettiest Beach In Florida?
Although Clearwater, South Beach, and Fort Lauderdale are frequently rated as some of the most beautiful beaches in Florida, Destin, and Pensacola hold their own.
In my opinion, the best beaches in the Florida Panhandle are Gulf Islands National Seashore, Henderson Beach State Park, and Miramar Beach.
While this comes down to personal opinion, these are just a few well-known spots for being the prettiest beaches in Florida.
Where Is The Prettiest Water In The Florida Panhandle?
It’s hard to beat the crystal clear, sugar-white sand of Navarre Beach and Gulf Islands National Seashore.
But, the Gulf of Mexico is also known for its unique, sparkling-colored waters in Destin and down the coast.
Conclusion Of Pensacola vs Destin: Which Is Better For Your Vacation?
So, Pensacola vs Destin, which is better for your next vacation?
Destin and Pensacola have their own unique offerings that make them desirable vacation spots.
While Destin offers a high-end experience with world-class restaurants, golf courses, and activities for families, Pensacola is the perfect beach town getaway with its relaxed atmosphere and lack of tourists.
No matter which city you choose to visit in Florida’s Panhandle, there’s something for everyone!
So, if you’re looking for an exciting family adventure or just want to relax on the beach, these two cities are sure to provide an unforgettable experience.
Additional Destin & Pensacola Blogs
My family and I enjoying a beach vacation in Destin, Florida!
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Booking a last-minute trip to Destin or Pensacola?
If so, we have you covered. Here are some top recommended tours and experiences!
Top Tours in Destin
Crab Island Sandbar Adventure (Crab Island has been my favorite experience in Destin!)
Crab Island 12 Passenger Pontoon Boat Rentals (Half or full-day rentals)
Sunset Dolphin Watching Cruise (one of the most beautiful cities to catch a sunset)
Top Tours in Pensacola
Frisky Mermaid Dolphin Tours (A scenic cruise around Pensacola Beach)
Jolly Dolphin Cruise and Scenic Bay Tour (A relaxing Dolphin cruise around Pensacola Bay)
Night Glow Kayak Paddle Session (Hop on a transparent kayak with your choice of LED light color)
Top Hotels In Destin
Hotel Effie Sandestin – (Top-Rated Hotel With Lots Of Activity Options)
The Grand Sandestin – (Exceptional Guest Experience)
Top Hotels In Pensacola
Fairfield Inn & Suites By Marriott – (Highly Rated Hotel With Swimming Pool)
Hampton Inn & Suites – (Best Rated Budget Hotel)
Looking To Get Around In Destin Or Pensacola?
Check out rental car rates here! 🚗