Everything You Need to Know About Destin, Florida in 2023
In addition to the sun and surf, things to do in Destin, FL, include a wealth of world-class entertainment and dining options, making it the ideal getaway spot for families, couples, and single persons alike. If you are planning on visiting Destin soon, you can discover activities, read reviews, and find out everything you need to know about Destin in our Destin, Florida Insiders Guide.
Table of Contents
- How Destin Was Founded
- Attractions & Things To Do
- Big Kahuna’s Water Park
- Destin HarborWalk Village
- Crab Island
- Destin Commons
- Silver Sands Outlet Mall
- The Village of Baytowne Wharf
- Gator Beach
- Okaloosa Island Attractions
- Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
- Emerald Coast Science Center
- Tours & Activities
- Dolphin Cruises
- Pontoon Boats
- Jet Skis
- Paddle Boarding & Kayaking
- How to Fish in Destin, FL
- Party Boat Fishing
- Private Fishing Excursion
- Surf Fishing
- Destin Bridge & Jetties
- How to Fish in Destin, FL
- Annual Events
- Destin Fishing Rodeo
- Destin Seafood Festival
- Beaches & Public Lands
- Birds of Destin
Destin is an outdoor sportsman’s paradise disguised as a family playground. Or as locals call it, “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” Surrounded on three sides by water, most of it a delicious emerald green, Destin’s history dates back to the seventh century.
The Indian Temple Mound Museum highlights the area’s rich history. Image from trailoffloridasindianheritage.org
Artifacts confirm Native Americans lived here, surviving off the abundant seafood in area waters. Spanish explorers visited around 900 years later, and divers are still finding the wreckage of their ships in area waters.
How Destin Was Founded
The city traces its history to Leonard Destin, a fisherman who moved to the area from New London, Connecticut, settling in northwest Florida around 1845. For decades, he and his descendants fished and navigated the only channel passage to the Gulf of Mexico between Panama City and Pensacola, known as Destin’s East Pass.
If ole Leonard could see it now, he’d certainly be impressed. Incorporated in 1984, by any measure Destin is no longer a sleepy little fishing village. Although its population hovers at a comfortable 13,000 residents, 2017 saw the Destin-Fort Walton Airport receive over one million passengers for the first time in its history. Considering the area is primarily a drive-to market, the total number of visitors to Destin topped five million that same year.
Attractions and Things to Do in Destin, FL
Some of the region’s top attractions are found in the once-quiet fishing village of Destin, Florida! Destin is a versatile destination through-and-through, teeming with both Destin kid activities and adult-only attractions.
From the sights and sounds of the Destin Harbor to the 19th-century coastal atmosphere of Baytowne Wharf, there is more to Destin than sugar-sand beaches! Learn more about the exciting attractions and things to do in our Destin, Florida Insiders Guide below:
Big Kahuna’s Water Park
A family laughing as they float down the lazy river at Big Kahuna’s waterpark in Destin, FL
With over 40 water attractions to choose from, Big Kahuna’s Water Park is easily one of the most thrilling things to do in our Destin, Florida Insiders Guide! Big Kahuna’s is found in the heart of Destin, within walking distance from many popular condos and hotels.
Inside the park, experience rides, slides, and splash pads fit for toddlers to adults. Outside the water park, enjoy go-karts, mini golf, and amazing thrill rides that will have your group talking for years to come. Take a break from the beach and enjoy an unforgettable day at Destin’s legendary waterpark!
Destin HarborWalk Village
View of HarborWalk Village from the Destin Dolphin Watch & History Cruise through Olin Marler Charters
HarborWalk Village rests in the heart of the Destin Harbor overlooking the harbor, bay, pass, and Gulf of Mexico. A relatively new addition to the Destin Harbor, HarborWalk Village is home to dozens of gift shops, boutique clothing stores, restaurants, and fun activities the whole family will love.
Face painters and carnival games are just the tips of the iceberg. Zip line courses are strewn across the walkways, and interactive activities entertain thousands of visitors each year. Lots of Destin’s top watersport companies are found in HarborWalk Village including parasailing, dolphin cruises, and jet ski rentals.
Zipline in the Harbor allows you to enjoy the sights, and is fun for kids (50lb minimum) - Image from emeraldgrande.com
Want to know where to go for nightlife in Destin? Look no further than the hip joints here in the Village including Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Coyote Ugly Saloon. If you’re looking for more great ideas for nighttime fun, check out our blog covering things to do at night in Destin.
Group of friends enjoying the water at Crab Island
Located just north of the Destin Pass, Crab Island is a boater’s dream. This giant sandbar plays host to thousands of boats each year. From single-rider kayaks to 65ft yachts, there is no shortage of visitors to this popular Destin landmark.
On-site floating restaurants and attractions provide feed and fun to all who visit. Although things can get a little wild during college Spring Break, Crab Island is mostly considered a family-friendly hangout and one of the best spots in Destin to take a vacation selfie!
The perfect spot for a family-friendly outing, Destin Commons is a giant outdoor mall located just minutes from the Mid-Bay Bridge. Bowling, movies, dining, shopping, and more, travelers will find themselves spending all day at this top Destin attraction.
Silver Sands Outlet Mall
Pictured above is a view of the Silver Sands Premium Outlets. Image courtesy of premiumoutlets.com.
Shoppers flock from across the country for premier shopping at the Silver Sands Outlet Mall in Miramar Beach, FL. From designer outlets like Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th and Coach to decadent sweet shops like the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, it’s definitely worth taking a break from the beach to check out the Silver Sands Outlet Mall.
The Village of Baytowne Wharf
A local favorite, the Village of Baytowne Wharf is a higher-end tourist attraction in our Destin, Florida Insiders Guide and is located in the Sandestin Resort in Miramar Beach, FL. Baytowne is modeled after a turn-of-the-century coastal fishing village. The family-friendly atmosphere is popular among groups with small children.
Kid-friendly things to do like arcades, ropes courses, putt-putt, and laser tag entertain the little ones for hours, while world-class dining, entertainment, shopping, and nightlife make Baytowne a prime location for bachelor/bachelorette parties and work retreats.
The Solaris Dining Cruise departs from the Village of Baytowne Wharf
Looking for an unforgettable evening of romance? The luxurious Sandestin Fine Dining Cruise departs from Baytowne Wharf, offering visitors an exquisite 3-course meal complete with drinks and dancing.
Want to dance the night away? Try one of the many nightclubs in Baytowne including The Village Door and Rum Runners. Whatever your adventure, The Village of Baytowne Wharf is sure to have the answer!
Pictured above is an alligator at Gator Beach. Image courtesy of gatorbeach.com.
Gator Beach, located inside Fudpucker’s restaurant in Destin, FL, is dubbed as the “The World’s Greatest Alligator Park.” This claim is well-deserved! You can get up close and personal with alligators in the Fudpucker’s Gator Pit and take photos of yourself holding a live alligator. The Crocodilla Discovery Zone includes exhibits such as a 3D underwater view of an alligator habitat, a life-sized alligator nest, and more!
Okaloosa Island Attractions
Neighboring Okaloosa Island, FL, is just a short drive west over the Destin Bridge. While most of the island is covered in protected dunes, the west end is a happening spot for all-ages entertainment. The Boardwalk is the main hub of Okaloosa Island, with shops, dining, and a generous portion of public beach to lay down your towel and soak up rays. Check out a few of Okaloosa Island’s other awesome attractions!
GULFARIUM MARINE ADVENTURE PARK
A smiling dolphin greets visitors to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island
Find daring dolphins, silly sea lions, scary sharks, and MORE at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island. The Gulfarium is located at the west end of the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk overlooking the Okaloosa Island Pier and beach.
This incredible marine park and aquarium features educational exhibits highlighting popular marine species like penguins, gators, and sea turtles. A favorite activity for travelers on both rainy and sunny days, the Gulfarium is most known for its thrilling dolphin and sea lion shows.
The Gulfarium has lots of marine animals including giant gators!
Expect to witness leaping dolphins and playful seals during your time at the Gulfarium on Okaloosa Island! If you plan on visiting this awesome aquarium and adventure park during your trip to the Emerald Coast, you can save $2 on tickets when booking in advance online.
EMERALD COAST SCIENCE CENTER
The Science Center is the 3rd museum in the country to house SMALLab Learning. Image by Wikipedia.
Emerald Coast Science Center is packed with tons of hands-on learning in an interactive museum. This one-of-a-kind experience showcases more than 45 exhibits, more than 30 animals, and state-of-the-art technology.
The hands-on exhibits and education are perfect for all ages and interests.
Tours and Activities
There are so many things to do in Destin, FL it will make your head spin. The best part of all is that you can treat your whole family to a day on the water or out on the town without breaking the bank. From dolphin cruises to stand-up paddle board yoga and jet ski rentals, check out a few of our favorite Destin, Florida tours and activities.
The Hannah Marie Dolphin Cruise is a popular choice for dolphin sightseeing and sunset cruises
A dolphin cruise is the ideal family activity for a variety of reasons. Safe, scenic, and cost-effective, you and your loved ones can get up close and personal with curious pods of bottlenose dolphins as they dance and dash among the waves. Both sociable and intelligent, the dolphins of Northwest Florida seemingly enjoy the spotlight and love to put on a show for your family and friends!
Another great thing about dolphin tours in Destin, FL, is the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes. Where some double-decker vessels provide sweeping views, spacious seating, and all the accommodations, you can also cruise smaller boats or jet skis for a more personalized and intimate viewing experience.
The spectacular Screaming Eagle dolphin cruise gets you close to wild dolphins on a giant speedboat
How about your very own sunset dolphin cruise on a sailboat? Now that’s living! Best of all, convenient scheduling means no matter what time of year you visit or what time you want to venture out, you are sure to find a convenient time slot for everyone!
When you’re talking about the sun and surf of beautiful Destin, Florida you can’t help but think of water sports like jet skis, pontoons, and stand-up paddle boards. Sure, you can partake in these activities elsewhere, but what makes Destin an exceptional place for watersports is the abundance of safe, inshore waters.
Indeed, the Destin Harbor and Choctawhatchee Bay deliver everything you need from the Gulf of Mexico like beautiful white sandy beaches, picturesque sunsets, and amazing saltwater fishing opportunities all minus the madness of the open ocean.
Watersport companies offer rentals of pontoons, waverunners, and more in Destin
Pontoon Boats - If you’re bringing the whole gang down to the Panhandle we suggest an unforgettable Destin pontoon boat rental. A 24-foot ocean pontoon is easy to operate and can accommodate up to 12 passengers. Most pontoons also come fully equipped with Bluetooth stereos and cabanas to protect you from the harsh sun; so go ahead, and make a day of it!
Jet Skis - If pontoons aren’t your speed then jet ski rentals may just quench your thirst for fun! Also known as wave runners, these zippy watercraft can really fly.
A great option for couples, active persons, and parents with thrill-seeking kiddos, rip through the waves with ease as you explore the inlets and jetties of the Bay. Jet skis are especially handy on those summer weekends when Crab Island is packed as you can navigate your way in to find the perfect spot!
Paddle Boarding & Kayaking - Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) is one of the hottest activities on the beach. Surprisingly stable, pet-friendly, and a great way to get in some exercise while you’re on vacation, there are few better ways to slow down and connect with nature.
Similarly, kayaks afford similar perks except you are sitting down. As discussed earlier, kayaks are also a great idea for Destin bay fishing trips. Stand Up Paddleboards and Kayaks are the perfect blend of adventure and exercise! Reserve your rental in advance for the best availability and lowest rates.
Parasailing in Destin offers unforgettable views of marine life and more
Fly over 500 feet high in the sky on a parasailing excursion and behold the Destin Harbor, Crab Island, Jetties, and the Emerald Coast in all of its glory. Parasail chutes can accommodate up to 3 people so you can share the experience of spotting dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine wildlife from above with your best buds!
Want a more intimate trip? No problem! You can fly solo or with one other friend, sibling, or romantic partner for the ride of a lifetime. A TripShock favorite and one of the most popular things to do in Destin, FL, it doesn’t get much better than the exhilarating experience of Destin beach parasailing provides!
Thousands of travelers to Destin, Florida have only one thing on their mind... the next biggest and best fish to catch and eat! Of all the things to do in Destin, FL, fishing is a favorite for many visitors. In fact, the city of Destin has grown from a sleepy fishing village in the mid-1900s into a world-class destination for inshore, nearshore, and deep sea excursions.
Whether casting a line from the white sandy beaches or trolling for tuna miles from shore, the thrill of the catch is alive and well here on the Emerald Coast!
How to Fish in Destin, FL
There are countless ways to catch that prized fish here in Destin. While bow fishing, spearfishing, cast netting, and other specialized ways to catch fish and other game are practiced here on the coast, let’s cover some of the popular ways to fish in Destin.
Father and Son fishing with the Vera Marie in Destin, FL
Party Boat Fishing - “Party Boat Fishing” refers to a chartered fishing excursion that is group and family-friendly. These tours typically depart from the Destin Harbor for a duration of 4-12 hours. The vessels are usually large, holding over 100 people and offering such amenities as air-conditioned cabins and restrooms.
Destin party boat fishing trips provide licenses, tackle, bait, and fuel. Professional crew members assist amateur anglers by setting up the rod and reel, taking the fish off the hook, and even filleting the fish when the tour is over! Party boat fishing is the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of deep sea fishing in Destin, FL, with a family-friendly atmosphere and rates starting around $50/person.
FISH SPECIES CAUGHT: Snapper, Grouper, Triggerfish, Amberjack, Mackerel
Private Fishing Excursion - If you’re looking for a more in-depth fishing experience, book a private charter for inshore/bay fishing, nearshore, or offshore fishing. These tours usually cap off at 6 anglers, which is perfect for a special occasion or targeted fishing trip.
Catch anything from Speckled Trout to Yellowfin Tuna on a private fishing excursion in Destin. Like party boats, private charters will usually supply bait, tackle, fishing license, and knowledgeable crew members to assist you and your group. Private trips will cost more out of pocket, but the experience, extra fishing time, and ability to target a specific fish species are worth the higher cost to many serious anglers.
In a recent TripShock Traveler Story, a young angler catches a catfish on a kid-friendly fishing trip
Another great feature of a private tour is hands-on bonding time with your son or daughter. Kid’s fishing trips are growing in popularity, with several Destin Captains offering specialized tours for parents with young children.
FISH SPECIES CAUGHT: Red Snapper, Shark, Tuna, Redfish, Speckled Trout, Cobia, Billfish
Surf Fishing - You never know what you can catch when casting a line from the shore! A favorite of many local anglers, surf fishing offers the best of two worlds, fishing and relaxing on the beach! Tackle, bait, supplies, and Florida fishing licenses are available at local fishing shops like Half Hitch Tackle, for example. Most surf fishermen head out extra early or extra late to avoid the beach crowd. Keep in mind that this method of fishing requires a bit more experience, but can provide a cheaper alternative to a paid charter boat trip.
FISH SPECIES CAUGHT: Redfish, Pompano, Kingfish, Speckled Trout, Catfish
The Destin Jetties are a popular fishing spot - Image by PensacolaFishingForum.com
Destin Bridge & Jetties - If you’re searching for a more extreme method of fishing, head to the Destin Pass. Fishing the Destin East and West Jetties makes for some of the best fishing on Okaloosa Island, and can yield some pretty awesome angling for adventure seekers.
Climb the giant seawall and set up shop atop a hulking boulder overlooking the Destin Pass. Fishing here is open to the public, but it is recommended to wear protective gear and a life jacket in the event of a fall from the jetties.
The Destin Bridge as seen from the Harbor
The Destin Bridge, also known as the Marler Bridge, can also present some solid opportunities when searching for a new place to hang your hook. Stay within the marked zones on either end of the bridge and watch out for boats and you just may bring home some tasty table fare!
FISH SPECIES CAUGHT: Redfish, Sheepshead, Black Snapper, Ladyfish, Mackerel
There are plenty of things to do in Destin, FL year round. Check out weekly farmer’s markets, music showcases, magic shows, art walks, cooking classes--you name it! On top of the daily events, Destin also plays host to a couple of major annual events that attract tens of thousands of visitors. Both the Destin Fishing Rodeo and the Destin Seafood Festival embrace the city’s heritage as a fishing and seafood mecca.
Destin Fishing Rodeo
Lots of Destin Fishing Charters participate in the Fishing Rodeo
As you may know, Destin, Florida carries the nickname “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” because of its bountiful waters, abundant charters, and a long list of amazing seafood restaurants. One of the ways that Destin embraces and promotes this title is by holding its very own month-long fishing tournament every year, the Destin Fishing Rodeo, with over $100,000 worth of prizes. What started out in 1948 as an effort by local fishermen to extend the tourism season past September and into October, this perennial fishing fiesta is now one of the most popular tournaments in the United States.
Children can participate in the rodeo with youth categories in the tournament - Image from Destin Fishing Rodeo Facebook
No Boat, No Problem: What makes the Destin Fishing Rodeo so special is the fact that it accommodates a variety of skill levels, techniques, and fish species. No matter who you are or what resources you have you can still compete for the top prizes!
For example, you can fish inshore, nearshore, or offshore. You can also choose how you want to fish, whether that’s on a big boat, a kayak, off of the pier, or even in the surf! There are 20 plus divisions and 33 species eligible in all, and public weigh-ins let non-anglers in on the action!
Destin Seafood Festival
Lots of fishing means lots of great seafood! Just ask the 70,000 or so guests that flock to Destin every year for the 3-day Destin Seafood Festival. A celebration of crustaceans and culinary creations that are sure to impress, this event has been piquing the interest of hungry mouths and top chefs alike since 1978 when the Destin Charter Boat Association Women’s Auxiliary organized the first event.
Like the Destin Fishing Rodeo, the event was intended to promote Destin, Florida as a premier destination for anglers as well as raise money for the Association. The event is held every October at various venues along Harbor Boulevard at places like HarborWalk Village, the Destin Fishing Fleet Marina, and Heron Harbor.
Fun, Food, and Fishing Fleets: On top of the food and celebrity chef showcases, the Destin Seafood Festival also features great live entertainment options, art exhibits, craft markets, and perhaps best of all, a fishing boat showcase!
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has been known to attend local events in Destin - Image courtesy of southflorida.com
Get a firsthand look at the life and times of a commercial fisherman, pick the brains of the most talented captains and crews in the Southeast, and see the latest and greatest fishing technologies in action! From monster, double-decker rigs with bunks and balconies to smaller, private charters, this is an opportunity that no angler should miss.
Admission for the Seafood Festival is absolutely free and with family-friendly activities aplenty, this is an event that the whole gang will enjoy! Learn more about the festival with our recent blog detailing what you need to know before going to the Destin Seafood Festival.
Beaches and Public Lands
Destin, Florida’s Henderson Beach State Park features pristine white sugar sand beaches and more than 6,000 feet of natural scenic shoreline. Shifting sand dunes and coastal scrub provide habitat for a wide variety of plants, birds, and mammals.
Henderson Beach State Park - Image by Ed Hart via Flickr
Henderson’s well-maintained boardwalks also provide access to the beach for swimming, sunbathing, and fishing. A total of six pavilions allow for picnicking and grilling, and outdoor showers are available for rinsing off after a day of playing in the sand. The kids can enjoy a playground along the park’s nature trail, which educates visitors on coastal dunes.
This trail truly distinguishes the park from Destin’s neighbors to the east and west. Its coastal dune ecosystems are both ancient and rare, and three-quarters of a mile-long trail weaves through sand pine, sand live oak, saw palmettos, cacti, and wildflowers.
Birds flock to this natural setting during migration, and almost a hundred species have been recorded. Interpretive signs throughout the nature trail provide information on native species and wildlife.
Bonus—the trail is pet-friendly! From May through October, this truly is the spot for breathtaking sunsets. With 60 campsites located in a secondary dune system, Henderson’s amenities include water and electric hookups and a central waste station. The park is A.D.A accessible and includes beach wheelchair availability.
Destin, FL is a veritable one-stop-shop for sightseeing enthusiasts! The dunes themselves are vegetated with lovely sea oats and wildflowers, while the water is warm and emerald green, and anglers can try their hands at catching redfish, flounder, catfish, cobia, whiting, and pompano.
Image by Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to admire the birds of the Emerald Coast. The majesty and variety of these creatures draw nature lovers from all over the world. Bird watchers will get a chance to spy a wide range of avians including pelicans and herons! Loons, northern gannets, and various sea ducks paddle offshore and are clearly visible with a good spotting scope. From May through August, the very rare least terns and snowy plovers nest in the sand.
Birds of Destin:
- Brown Pelican (common)
- White Pelican (rare)
- Great Blue Heron
- Little Blue Heron
- Black Skimmer
- Reddish Egret (fall)
- Northern Gannet
- Least Tern (rare)
- Snowy Plover
For local fauna and birding, head to the following locations around Destin:
- Bluewater Bay Marina and Swamp
- Bayou Plaza Shopping Center and Kiwanis Park
- Florida Park
- Ft. Walton Beach Landfill
- Okaloosa Holding Ponds
- Ferry Park
- Oak Tree Nature Park
- Destin/Olin Marler Bridge west side/jetties
- Mattie Kelly Park
One of the many local trees you’ll see includes the longleaf pine, an essential element in making resin, turpentine, and timber for sailboats. Its extremely long needles are popular for use in the ancient craft of coiled basket making. With over 250 species of plants and flowers, the Destin, Florida area is rich in wildlife, and a natural fit for a relaxing family vacation!
Destin, Florida: Come for the Beach, Stay for Everything Else
Pictured above is a beautiful sunset setting the scene over the Destin Harbor and Crab Island
If you’re looking for the perfect destination for a family getaway look no further than Destin, Florida. From the parties at Crab Island to the premier shopping and recreation of the Destin Commons, you had best believe that this once-tiny fishing village has everything you need to make your next beach vacation extra special!
Cruise the Choctawhatchee Bay and its many bayous and inlets, or stick to one of Destin’s many picturesque beaches including Holiday Isle, Crystal Beach, and Henderson Beach State Park. Become one of the many Destin travelers that get to experience this area’s incredible activities and attractions with their friends and families!