Fort Walton Beach-Okaloosa Island, FL Visitor's Guide

Grown out of "Camp Walton", an 1861 Confederate Military Camp, Fort Walton Beach has blossomed into its own in recent years. Many would describe Fort Walton Beach as a fluid blend of beach-driven industry, and small town charisma. While visiting Fort Walton Beach, Florida, it is easy to experience a wide array of fun-filled festivities right for all ages and interests. Catch a bite to eat at the famous Okaloosa Island Boardwalk, or stop by the Fort Walton Indian Temple Mound Museum and be transported through time by Native American history and artifacts. Read below for an in-depth look at what Fort Walton Beach has to offer as a vacation destination!

Weather
Visitors to Fort Walton Beach, Florida will spend most their stay soaking in sunlight. Northwest Florida typically is adorned with an average of 320 days of rich, vibrant, vitamin D filled sunshine a year. Mid-Western and New England residents, as well as many foreign visitors, find themselves unprepared for the warm, humid climate producing hot, hot, summers, and no dry season. The "warm season", lasting May 24th to September 30th, produces an average temperature of 83.5 degrees Fahrenheit, while the "cold season", lasting November 30th to March 5th, cools even the bravest beach goers with an average daily temperature of 56 degrees (and a low of only 46 degrees)! Be prepared to dress in layers in the late fall, winter, and early spring, and to peel those layers down to a bathing suit when May comes around.

Landmarks
During a drive down US HWY 98, an interstate highway that runs East to West through Fort Walton Beach, passengers will witness ever-changing imagery. The locally owned businesses, ranging from hotels to marinas, stretch along the bayside giving way to the popular Downtown Fort Walton Beach Miracle Strip. The strip is home to many of Fort Walton Beach's festivals and fairs, and is ornamented with dozens of shops, bars, eateries, and the occasional street vendor peddling handmade art.

After crossing the Brooks Bridge onto Okaloosa Island, a connecting strip of land between Fort Walton Beach and neighboring Destin, you will immediately find yourself submerged in beach culture. Souvenir shops and high rise condos are first to catch your eye, but continue on about a 1/4 mile to find Fort Walton Beach's top tourist destination, the Boardwalk of Okaloosa! A 1960s vintage style driftwood structure overlooking the shimmering, emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico make this massive beach-side mall a cherished local landmark. Candy stores, novelty shops, night clubs, and more are the backdrop to a large public beach offering volleyball nets, public restrooms, and life guard services. Take a stroll on the Pier, or gaze at the beauty of the rolling, white-sand dunes of Okaloosa Island while rambling down the wet sand.

Things To Do
Fort Walton Beach has something for everyone! Beaches, museums, shops, top-notch cuisine, the list goes on and on. Vacationers are urged to start with a day trip to the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk. From there, walk right next door to the famous Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park which features dolphin shows and multiple distinctive aquariums. Rent a pontoon and explore the waters of the Choctawhatchee Bay, or Parasail high above it. With the surrounding areas of San Destin, Destin, and Pensacola just a stone throw away, the list of activities grows to encompass the desires of even the pickiest (not to mention most budget cautious) travelers.

Dining & Nightlife
It's been a long day of sun and sand, and you and your fellow beach goers are ready for some grub. Luckily, if vacationing in Fort Walton Beach, you don't have far to go! The culinary scene in Fort Walton Beach, Florida has grown to fit a diverse assortment of pallets, with both locally owned and chain restaurants lining the streets. Seafood is on the forefront, offered at most coastal restaurants, but don't be surprised to find nearby eateries specializing in various cuisines including Italian, American, Asian, and Mexican!

Upon arriving in Fort Walton Beach, visitors feel at home in the small town atmosphere. But once the sun descends beneath the crimson and gold horizon, the city transforms into a night owl's paradise. World class comedy and dance clubs take center stage, but if in the mood for something different, a plethora of sports bars, eclectic craft beer taverns, and live music venues are available all throughout Okaloosa Island, the Fort Walton Beach Miracle Strip, and surrounding areas. In fact, most of the aforesaid establishments are within walking distance of one another, making for an unparalleled night of excitement.

Lodging
Fort Walton Beach offers multiple hotels and condos to accommodate all plans and budgets. Looking to save on your rental? Choose a hotel or condo just a short drive from the beach. Is waking up to a floor of crashing waves supporting a newly risen sun a top priority? Then maybe a beachside condo like the Islander Beach Resort on Okaloosa Island is right for you! But with hundreds of hotels and condos to choose from, picking the best lodging for a trip to Fort Walton Beach is no easy task. The first thing to consider is: Hotel or Condo?

Hotels typically offer limited amenities, more traditional rental rooms, and less proximity to the beach. But the average Hotel makes up for what it lacks by offering lower and negotiable rates, and 24 hour service. Many renters consider Condos for their stay because of the large room size (to more easily accommodate larger families and longer stays), and proximity to the beach (many condos are Oceanside and feature gulf views and instant beach access). Also, condo management typically will include family-fun activities and events like movie nights, beach luaus, and pool parties to give guests more bang for their buck. Remember that rates for both Condos and Hotels fluctuate seasonally. Typically rental rates will increase in the spring and summer, and drop during fall and winter. If interested in booking a condo, always attempt to book in advance for the best prices and availability.

Shopping
Beach day ruined by an afternoon cloudburst? Then head over to one of the shopping hot spots located in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Uptown Station, a newly renovated super strip-mall, is outfitted with a children's playground, schedule of family-fun events like drive-in movie nights, and a wide array of retailers. If antiques and boutiques are more what you seek, then the Downtown Miracle Strip may end your search! Explore dozens of diverse shops, whose aged storefronts colorfully cemented together reflect the novel beauty that is Downtown Fort Walton Beach. If you find you just can't quite put your wallet away, then take a short drive over to Destin and Sandestin for a never ending shopping spree at Destin Commons, Grand Boulevard, and Silver Sands Premium Outlet Mall!

Annual Events
Are you looking for something extra during your stay in Fort Walton Beach? Then visit during one of these fantastic city-sponsored events:

Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival is Celebrated each year from June 5th to June 7th, Billy Bowlegs brings visitors nationwide to the shores of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Thousands of boats take to the bay, and thousands of festival goers invade Downtown Fort Walton Beach in a celebration of pirate culture. Now in its 59th year, Billy Bowlegs offers fun for all ages with live music, art and food vendors, and of course dozens of dastardly pirates taking to the streets and seas to spread fun and joy to the masses.

Other notable events include the Winter Guest Fest (January 10th), Mardi Gras on the Island (January 18th), Musical Echoes (April 25th-27), and Dog Daze (October 18th).

Top 10 Travel Tips
1) Never underestimate the sun, use sunblock at all times. The white sand may be cool to the touch, but it's also reflecting the sunlight upwards and accelerating the rate at which your skin will tan (or burn).
2) Winter and Fall lodging rates are typically 30-50% less than what are quoted in Spring and Summer. This is great for most visiting on a budget, however most leisure travelers will notice a lot of tour operations shut down, restaurants are short-staffed, and there are very few events offered.
3) Most families will find it less expensive to split a 2 or 3 bedroom condo rather than doing separate condos. The savings could be anywhere from 20-30% for each family.
4) Tour companies are typically slower on Saturdays and Sundays during the peak tourist season (June-August). Look for special deals and offers on these days to save on tickets.
5) Downtown Fort Walton has many eclectic shops and restaurants that most tourists overlook. Spend an afternoon in the downtown area and discover something new.
6) The first 2 weeks of June and the last 2 weeks of August are the slower weeks during peak tourist season. The rates are slightly lower and the beach are slightly less crowded.
7) Hurricane season starts through June and run through November. Make sure to check the policy on hurricanes before booking lodging or activities. Some rental agencies are more restrictive than others.
8) Just East of the Eglin Air Force Base, you'll find the Air Force Armament Museum. The museum has several decommissioned aircraft and historical artifacts. The entry is free and it's a great way to spend a non-beach day.
9) For those travelers who plan on going charter fishing, but don't know what to do with the meat, take it to a local seafood restaurant. Most seafood restaurants will prepare your fish into a meal for around $10 - Checkout Anglers on The Island.
10) Hotels on Okaloosa Island are typically 40-50% higher in rate than those in downtown. If you would like to save on your stay, check out hotels West of Okaloosa Island.

References
1. Roberts, Robert B., "Encyclopedia of Historic Forts", Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, London, 1988, Library of Congress card number 86-28494, ISBN 0-02-926880-X, page 212.
2. www.visitpanamacitybeach.com
3. www.weatherspark.com
4. www.uptownstation.com
5. www.fwbchamber.org


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