Most people have never heard of South Walton, but Florida’s Best-Kept Secret is one of the state’s most charming, adventurous and unique beach destinations.
Located on the Florida Panhandle just off the Gulf of Mexico, South Walton (affectionately known as 30A by locals), has 26 miles of sugary white sand beaches, crystal clear emerald waters, and the added fun of 16 distinct neighbourhoods all with their own personalities.
South Walton is located along the scenic Highway 30A (hence the nickname), and is located only 40 minutes from the more well known coastal destination of Panama City Beach.
South Walton’s official motto is “Find your Perfect Beach”, which refers to the diverse beach communities that make this location appealing to every kind of traveler.
In this 30A travel guide I cover where to eat, stay, and play in the Sunshine State’s best-kept secret.
Why Visit 30A?
Nestled quietly between Panama City Beach and Destin, 30A doesn’t have any big hotels or high rises, there is more of a family feel than student hotspot and boutique local shops trump chain stores in every way.
In the US it is known as the “Hamptons of the South” as it attracts celebrities and the wealthy.
Why is 30A so Popular?
30A is popular for its perfectly pristine beaches, relaxed holiday vibe, and access to 4 state parks and countless coastal dune lakes.
Why do they call it 30A?
The name 30A comes from the actual road in South Walton County (County Road 30A) that spans the Florida Panhandle coastline.
Where is 30A? How do you get to 30A?
Located along the Florida Panhandle between Destin and Panama City Beach, the closest airport is Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), which is 35 miles from South Walton.
You can catch a direct flight to ECP on one of these four airlines: Delta, American, Southwest and United Airlines, from the following US airports:
- Atlanta GA
- Dallas TX
- Houston TX
- Nashville TN
- St Louis MO
- Washington DC
Other nearby airports are Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS), and Pensacola International Airport (PNS) which is around 2 hours drive away.
From abroad, the easiest route is to fly to Atlanta (ATL) and then fly 1 hour directly to ECP.
When is the Best Time to Visit 30A?
June to August is the busiest time of year to visit 30A, with Memorial Day kicking-off the summer season.
However there are quieter (and more affordable times to visit) such as April/May.
In fact I visited in late April, and we had perfect weather the entire time, at a fraction of the summer prices.
September and October are also cheaper times to visit but they do coincide with hurricane season.
However it is during this time that the Monarch butterflies migrate through the Panhandle of their way to Mexico.
How many Beach Towns are in 30A?
There are 16 charming beach communities in South Walton county.
From East to West: Inlet Beach, Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, Seacrest Beach, WaterSound, Seagrove, Seaside, WaterColor, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Gulf Place, Dune Allen, Sandestin, Seascape and Miramar Beach.
The Beach Communities of 30A
The beach communities across 30A all have their own personalities, this is visible to visitors through the architecture and the overall vibe.
Below is a lowdown of the 6 most popular beach towns in South Walton, so you can pick which one resonates the most with you:
Santa Rosa Beach
Great for: Adventure seekers
The largest beach community in 30A is Santa Rosa Beach.
It is more of a laid-back, golf cart-friendly, part of South Walton.
There are some stunning public beaches (with free parking), and it felt like a hidden gem on it’s own.
One of the most unique things to do in Santa Rosa Beach is visit The Underwater Museum of Art.
It is a permanent sculpture park located in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, within a mile of the shore at a depth of 58 feet.
Snorkelers can view the museum from a comfortable depth above the installations, but certified scuba divers can observe the sculptures at depth.
The museum is free but you do need to pay for entrance to Grayton Beach State Park.
Great for: Creatives
The oldest beach community in the area is Grayton Beach.
It is an eclectic and quirky place with plenty of art galleries.
It is also one of the most pet friendly places in 30A, as it’s unofficial motto is “Nice Dogs, Strange People” which you’ll find depicted in the street art.
Unique things to do in Grayton Beach include driving a Jeep on the sand (with the proper permits) and exploring the rare coastal dune lakes on a SUP board or a kayak.
Great for: Coastal charm
The pastel-coloured houses and unique white picket fences of this quaint town were made famous by the movie “The Truman Show”.
Chosen for its picture perfect looks, this planned city was designed with New Urbanism in mind.
Meaning it is extremely walkable, shopping and amenities are in close proximity and it has accessible public spaces.
In the case of Seaside, there are three green spaces worth visiting, Ruskin Place, the Amphitheater and the Lyceum.
MUST VISIT: For street food make sure you head over to the airstream trailers that serve as food trucks just outside the Central Square.
Great for: Luxury stay
Alys beach (pronounced Alice beach) is an Bermuda inspired architectural gem and an Instagram hot spot.
The all white exteriors will remind you of the Mediterranean, and whilst you can explore its perfectly pristine streets, there is a “members only” vibe to this town.
It is so exclusive that you can’t access the beach here unless you are a resident or a guest of the area, but the streets are still great for cycling, and there plenty of interesting art sculptures dotted around.
The best time of year to visit Alys Beach is for the annual Digital Graffiti Festival in May.
The white walls of the buildings provide a large-scale blank canvas for artists to project their colourful work onto the walls.
Festival goers get to experience an immersive and interactive art show under the stars at this unique exhibition in Florida.
Great for: Couples break
Rosemary Beach is known as one of America’s most romantic small towns.
It is packed with artisan boutiques, restaurants, and independent stores.
The best way to get around is by bike, or simply walking, as there are plenty of parks with public art, fountains, and playgrounds, that you would otherwise miss out in the car.
Great for: Family vacation
This beach is the perfect choice for large groups or families as everything you need is within walking distance.
The beaches here are impeccable and the best place to eat has to be the famous FOOW (Fish Out Of Water) located at the Watercolor Inn.
Where to Stay in 30A
One of the best places to stay in 30A is Osprey Point at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort.
It is made up of spacious 2, 3, and 4 bedroom apartments with a full kitchen, living room and balcony area.
The Village, houses plenty of restaurants, shops and entertainment facilities. It reminded me of a ski village in the Alps. All the amenities under one roof, but without the snow!
Tips for Visiting 30A
Getting around 30A
One of the best ways to explore 30A is by golf cart or bicycle.
There are plenty of cycling trails and if the heat puts you off, hire an e-bike from Pedago, it will take all the sweat out of the journey, so all you’ll feel is the cool breeze on your skin.
Note: The majority of the 30A beach communities allow golf carts but Alys Beach, Seaside and Rosemary Beach do not.
Explore the Beach Communities
Regardless of the beach town you choose to stay in, make sure you visit as many of the other areas as you can, they differ so much and you might find the perfect place for you to stay on your next visit to South Walton.
Follow the Beach Rules
- Drinks are welcome, but glass containers are not allowed.
- Leave no trace – the beaches here are the cleanest I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and visitors are expected to keep it that way.
- Respect the sea turtles and their nests, it’s against the law to harm or disturb them in any way.
- Beach bonfires are allowed with proper permits, but the most stress free way to experience this is with 30A Blaze.
Best Things to do in 30A
Beyond the beach trips, South Walton is bursting with outdoor experiences, from bicycle routes to stand up paddle boarding.
There are also plenty of activities for culture vultures, like art galleries and distilleries.
Soak up the Art Scene
Address: Justin Gaffrey Gallery, 21 Blue Gulf Dr, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Visit the art studio of Tik-Tok famous Justin Gaffrey.
Located at Blue Mountain Beach, Justin uses a technique of painting with heavy acrylics to create dreamy landscapes and fun unique paintings.
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself and experience an art demonstration where I got to experience painting with a palette knife myself (I have to say, it is harder than it looks!).
Explore the Unique Coastal Dune Lakes on a Paddle Board
30A is one of the few places in the world (alongside Madagascar and New Zealand) that has coastal dune lakes (there are actually 15 of these freshwater lakes that dot the coastline here).
The best way to experience this rare ecological gem is to get out onto the water and see it for yourself on a kayak or a stand up paddle board.
Head down to Grayton Beach State Park, and explore the backwaters of their unique 100-acre Western Lake.
The lake water is calm and tranquil so is suitable for all skill levels, but you’ll notice it is a dark, rich tannin-colour, which is caused by water seepage from the nearby sea.
This ensures Western Lake is one of the most biodiverse places in Florida.
Jump in the Sea
It’s as simple as that!
I have always preferred a swimming pool to the sea, but the water at Grayton Beach was calling to us all and we couldn’t help but jump into the waves.
Art Bicycle Tour
Address: 174 Watercolor Way #106, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Hire an e-bike and cycle along the Highway 30A.
The route is only 3 miles long, so is manageable by all age groups and fitness levels.
Visit a Distillery and a Brewery
Just steps away from each other in Santa Rosa Beach, is Distillery 98 and Idyll Hounds.
Distillery 98 produces small batches of handmade vodka made from locally sourced ingredients and family farmed crops.
They use a oyster shell filtration process to distill their unique Dune Laker vodka. They also provide tours, tastings, and cocktail classes for visitors, that I can highly recommend!
Next door is, Idyll Hounds Brewery, a microbrewery that features creative flavours and new takes on beer, ciders and hard seltzer drinks.
Luxury Beach Picnic and Bonfire
The beaches of the Florida Panhandle are one of the best places to experience a luxury picnic and bonfire.
The setup is catered for your group, but expect a handcrafted table, lounging pillows, blankets, flowers, and candles, alongside the most beautiful charcuterie boards and even a guitar player or two to serenade you into the evening.
Pictures don’t do this experience justice but trust me, once you’ve tried it, you’ll be too spoilt to go back to a simple picnic in the park.
After the 2 hour beach picnic you can also opt for a bonfire, fully equipped with tiki lights, a fire pit, and all the ingredients to make the perfect s’mores, whilst you soak up the sunset.
Where to Eat in 30A
There are countless places to eat in 30A, but here a collection of places I have visited first hand.
It is such a great place for quick and tasty food, that I visited twice in 3 days!
You can pick up breakfast (I loved their 1920’s style donuts and breakfast burrito), or grab lunch to go (I went for the classic grilled cheese with red pepper gouda soup).
Address: 34 Goldenrod Circle Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
FOOW- Fish Out of Water, is located in the WaterColor Inn, and is one of the few family restaurants in 30A that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico.
It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu focuses on fresh seafood, but there are plenty of choices to suit everyone, and I can thoroughly recommend the “Georgia Peach at the Beach” drink.
Address: 2235 E. County Highway 30A
As already mentioned, Airstream Row in Seaside is one of the best places for street food in South Walton.
You can enjoy quality barbecue, hot dogs, grilled cheeses, donuts, snow cones, and crêpes — all prepared from custom retrofitted Airstreams.
Address: 1 Grand Sandestin Blvd, Miramar Beach, FL 32550
Located in Hotel Effie in Sandestin, Ovide is a must visit if you are looking for fine dining.
The cuisine showcases Gulf Coast flavours and classic French techniques.
Highlights included, Effie’s biscuits with bacon jam, and the pasta primavera pictured below.
Ara Rooftop Bar
Address: 1 Grand Sandestin Blvd, Miramar Beach, FL,US 32550
Hotel Effie Sandestin, is the only hotel with a rooftop pool on Florida’s Emerald Coast.
It also happens to be the best place for sunset cocktails.
Whether you fancy a dip in the heated pool, a cosy evening in one of the cabanas or a game of life-size Connect 4, Ara rooftop bar is most chic space to spend an evening in 30A.
Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse
Address: 85-117 Defuniak St, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Located in Grayton Beach, this hidden gem is the perfect breakfast cafe.
It has plenty of veggie options like vegan biscuits and gravy next to staples like smoothies, granola, waffles, cinnamon rolls and organic drinks.
There is limited seating inside but plenty of outdoor space where you can sit under the oak trees and enjoy your breakfast in nature.
Where to Visit After South Walton?
After taking in the atmosphere of South Walton, you can drive just 40 minutes to Panama City Beach for a more laidback beach vacation or drive 2 hours in the opposite direction to Pensacola, where you can soak in more of the history and wildlife of the Florida Panhandle.
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