Destin vs Fort Walton Beach: Which Is Better?

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When you’re planning a Florida getaway, the Emerald Coast is often at the top of the list, and it’s easy to see why once you hit the beaches. Many of us Midwesterners make this area the focus of their Spring Breaks (here or Disney that is), so I know how popular it is!

On my last trip, I set out to discover which beach could claim the title of the best between Destin and Fort Walton Beach. Each has its unique charms and offerings, and I’m here to lay it all out for you.

beach in Destin Florida

Destin vs. Fort Walton Beach: The Beaches

When I go to Florida, I am there for the beaches, and I have to say I am always stunned by how beautiful the beaches are along the Emerald Coast. I checked out quite a few on my last visit to figure out which ones are the best!

Destin Beaches

Destin’s beaches are a slice of paradise known for their breathtaking white sand that feels soft underfoot, contrasting strikingly with the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The shoreline is dotted with hotels and vacation rentals and the beaches are full during the busy seasons with happy families vacationing. I know on our last Spring Break trip, my son knew almost 20 kids whose families had made the drive to Destin from Indiana!

🏖️ Insider tip: if you aren’t staying right on the ocean, consider checking out Henderson Beach State Park’s beaches – they are lovely and a nice alternative if you don’t have a beach in front of your accommodations.

Fort Walton Beaches

Fort Walton Beach’s coastline, particularly along Okaloosa Island, the jewel in Fort Walton Beach’s crown, boasts two distinct sides, divided by the bustling Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier and Boardwalk. This central hub is alive with shops, eateries, and entertainment, making it the heartbeat of the beach area.

To the west, there is a line of hotels and vacation homes, offering you direct access to the pristine Emerald Coast shoreline, complete with breathtaking views. Santa Rosa Blvd, which stretches across the island, is dotted with numbered access points offering parking, restrooms, and picnic areas, some even featuring boardwalk lookouts and covered areas that lead right to the beachfront.

On the island’s east side, visitors are treated to a more untouched slice of paradise with fewer buildings, natural dunes, and expansive open spaces, offering a tranquil retreat from the world.

Verdict on Destin vs Fort Walton Beach Beaches

After spending time on both beaches, I can guarantee that both are lovely places and you won’t be disappointed with either. Both Destin and Fort Walton Beach have gorgeous soft white sand and beautiful views, and there are plenty of beach access points in both cities.

The vibe I got from Destin is that it’s a bit more of an active, busy beach, with plenty of multiple family groups and teens hanging out in big groups and enjoying the atmosphere, while Fort Walton Beach felt slower, quieter, and with more empty nesters or young families.

Fishing in the ocean on Fort Walton Beach

Is Destin or Fort Walton Beach Better for Fishing Opportunities?

Is deep sea fishing on your wish list for your Emerald Coast vacation?

Fishing in Destin

Known as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” Destin offers a variety of fishing experiences that are sure to reel you in. Whether you’re up for deep-sea adventure hunting for massive grouper and snapper or prefer to keep it chill on the pier casting a line for mackerel, there’s a fishing adventure for you.

The fishing scene in Destin is vibrant all year round, thanks to its location on the Gulf of Mexico, providing rich waters teeming with fish. Plus, with plenty of charter services and experienced captains, even beginners can get in on the action and maybe snag their first big catch.

🎣 Book this highly-rated fishing charter from Destin for your fishing adventure!

Fishing in Fort Walton Beach

Fort Walton Beach is also a fantastic spot for fishing enthusiasts looking for a laid-back but rewarding experience. The waters here are just as inviting as in Destin, with a diverse range of fishing opportunities from the serene shores or the bustling Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier.

Whether you’re aiming to hook some pompano from the beach or venture out on a charter to battle it out with amberjack and tarpon, Fort Walton Beach has got you covered. The area is especially great for families or beginners, as local charters are well-equipped to guide you through your first fishing adventure, ensuring a fun and successful outing on the water.

🚤 Another fun option would be to book a 4-hour pontoon boat rental and take your family out on the water!

Verdict on Fishing in Destin vs Fort Walton Beach

So what is my verdict? I don’t think there is a “best” option for fishing at Destin or Fort Walton Beach. And, since the cities are right next to each other, my advice is to find the fishing charter or opportunity that suits your needs and book it – regardless of where it originates!

enjoying a Margarita as the sun sets at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Walton Beach

Which has a Better Nightlife: Destin or Fort Walton Beach?

Are you looking for a location with a fantastic nightlife? Or just want plenty of options for when the sun goes down?

Destin Nightlife

Destin might be laid-back during the day, but its nightlife is anything but sleepy! The city comes alive after dark with a vibrant mix of bars, live music venues, and bustling beachfront spots that promise a good time. Whether you’re in the mood to dance the night away at a lively club, enjoy a casual drink while listening to local bands, or just sip a cocktail with a view of the moonlit ocean, Destin has it all.

The atmosphere feels very “spring break beach vacation” welcoming and perfectly suited for a night out with friends or a romantic evening. So, after a day of sun and sand, Destin’s nightlife scene is full of fun and energy.

🍹Insider tip: Head over to the Destin Boardwalk for plenty of great nighttime options!

Fort Walton Beach Nightlife

Fort Walton Beach offers a more laid-back nightlife scene that’s just as enjoyable as its bustling neighbor. Here, the evenings are all about unwinding and enjoying the local vibe. You can find everything from cozy beach bars where you can enjoy a cold drink under the stars to lively pubs with live bands playing well into the night.

The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island is a hotspot, featuring a variety of venues that cater to all tastes—whether you’re up for karaoke, a game of pool, or just chilling with some good food and live music. It’s the perfect place to relax after a day of exploring and soak in the local culture in a friendly, inviting atmosphere.

My choice in Fort Walton Beach is to grab a cocktail or a glass of wine at the pool bar at the Hilton Garden Inn and watch the waves crashing over the beach (if I’m staying there) or if I’m in a vacation rental, head over to The Gulf Restaurant for drinks and a view.

Verdict: Which City Offers a Better Nightlife Experience?

In this area, there is a distinct difference between Destin vs Fort Walton Beach. If you want a little more action then Destin is the place for you. If a chill and relaxing nightlife is your jam, then you’ll be happier on Fort Walton Beach.

Helicopter at the Air Force Armament Museum in Fort Walton Beach

Family-Friendly Activities: Fort Walton Beach vs Destin?

If you are visiting with your kids, then family-friendly attractions are probably super important to you.

Destin Family-Friendly Activities

Destin is full of touristy places created just for family fun, making it a perfect spot for creating those cherished vacation memories. From thrilling water parks and miniature golf courses to go-karts, there’s no shortage of activities to keep the kids (and adults!) entertained – even if it rains there are plenty of fun things to do.

Head over to the HarborWalk Marina for an afternoon of shopping, dining, and walking, or explore the mysteries of the sea at the Destin History & Fishing Museum. For a more laid-back day, you can simply build sandcastles and play beach games on Destin’s gorgeous shores.

Fort Walton Beach Family-Friendly Activities

Fort Walton Beach is ideal if you are looking to mix relaxation with some fun adventures. The area is packed with activities both on and off the water. If your kids love marine life, check out the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, or if they are into airplanes, the Air Force Armament Museum is a must.

If you’re in the mood for some outdoor fun, the soft white sand beaches here are perfect for a family picnic or a volleyball match. With its mix of educational attractions and natural beauty, Fort Walton Beach guarantees a family vacation that’s both entertaining and enriching.

Verdict on Which is Better for Family-Friendly Activities

Honestly, either location is fine for family-friendly activities (especially since they are so close to each other) although I do think in general the activities in Destin tend to veer more toward the commercial type (aside from the fishing museum) while Fort Walton Beach has more educational options. I always like being able to switch between “fun” and educational when we travel, so Fort Walton Beach really fits the bill for our family.

Busy beach in Fort Walton Beach Florida

How to Get Around Destin and Fort Walton Beach

I’m not sure you could successfully stay in either Destin or Fort Walton Beach without a car. I suppose you could take an Uber to your accommodations and just take advantage of whatever is near where you are staying and could walk to, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice.

There is so much to discover in the panhandle area and having a car at your disposal makes it much easier to explore. So, I’d suggest if you aren’t driving, rent a car as soon as you arrive.

🚗 Find a terrific deal on car rentals at DiscoverCars!

kitchen from my VRBO in Fort Walton Beach Florida

Where to Stay in Destin or Fort Walton Beach

There are so many options when it comes to finding a place to stay in Destin or Fort Walton Beach, but my top suggestion is to cough up the extra money to stay on the water. You are there for a beach vacation so just do it – I tried saving money once and booked something a few blocks away and after one night canceled it and moved to an oceanfront accommodation. So don’t be like me, book oceanfront from the start.

Best Places to Stay in Destin

If you like a resort feel, then I’d recommend the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. It’s got three pools, nearby golf, tennis courts, and multiple restaurants, and is right on the beach. You get the idea – everything you need is right at your fingertips!

Prefer a rental? There are literally DOZENS dotting the coastline and it can be hard to pick the best option. Between our family and many of our friends who’ve stayed in the area, I can tell you that the best advice I have is to check reviews and look at the map to see if your chosen spot is in a good location.

🏖️ Here is a great rental option in Destin with plenty of positive reviews.

Best Places to Stay in Fort Walton Beach

I’ve stayed in both a hotel in Fort Walton Beach as well as a rental and I enjoyed both. I’ve always been a hotel girl because I like the conveniences, but a rental is nice for the extra space.

If you like hotels, I’d suggest the Hilton Garden Inn – it’s right on the ocean and has a nice pool and a cute beach bar. If you prefer a rental, check out a VRBO option like this one this is similar to one I’ve stayed at.

🏖️ Book your stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Walton Beach!

overcast morning at Fort Walton Beach Florida

FAQ: Fort Walton Beach vs Destin: Which Is Better?

Is Destin or Fort Walton Beach better?

Destin feels more touristy, Fort Walton Beach is more laid-back. So depends upon what you prefer.

How far apart is Destin and Fort Walton Beach?

They are only 9 miles apart.

Is Fort Walton as pretty as Destin?

They are pretty similar as they are so close to each other.

Do you need a car to vacation in Destin Florida?

A car makes your vacation in Destin much easier. It’s highly recommended.

Families enjoying the beach at Fort Walton Beach Florida

Conclusion: Which Is Better? Destin or Fort Walton Beach

After soaking up the sun and exploring all that Destin and Fort Walton Beach have to offer, it’s clear that both destinations have their perks. Destin boasts a more vibrant, busy beach scene with loads of activities and a lively nightlife that draws a younger crowd and families alike.

On the other hand, Fort Walton Beach offers a quieter, more relaxed vibe with spacious, less crowded beaches and a laid-back nightlife, ideal for those looking to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle.

Ultimately, the best choice depends on what kind of beach experience you’re after. So whether you’re seeking a touristy feel or serenity on your vacation, the Emerald Coast has something for you and your family. Personally – I’ll take either one for my next trip down there!


Destin vs Fort Walton Beach: A Comparison