Best Beaches along Florida’s Gulf Coast

Some people say “You see one beach, you’ve seen ’em all.” Well, not on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Most Gulf Coast beaches are entirely unique. There is a diverse amount of sand types, sea life, and natural settings and an equally wide range of waterside activity. In Florida you’ll also find an extremely large number of barrier islands off the coast of the mainland. Many times these barrier islands are very thin, and in a few minutes time you can walk from the beaches of the Gulf Coast to the beaches on the bayside, two very different and equally interesting and beautiful environments. Here’s a list of the Florida Gulf Coast’s most “sandsational” top picks.

Fort Myers Beach
Fort Myers Beach. Photo ©Meinzahn / iStock

Naples, the Everglades, and the Paradise Coast

  • Naples Municipal Beach and Fishing Pier (Naples): Take a break from the shopping on Fifth Avenue and walk a few blocks toward the sound of waves to find yourself sitting on one of the most beautiful beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast. Nestled among an upscale neighborhood, this beach and pier is known for its superb people watching, excellent swimming, and close proximity to some of the best fine dining and fancy boutique shops in the city.

Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva

  • Fort Myers Beach (Estero Island): Head to Bowditch Point Regional Park on the northern tip of Estero Island and enjoy the excellent beaches that border both the Gulf and Hurricane Bay.
  • Lovers Key State Park (Fort Myers): This very secluded beach park is spread out among four stunning barrier islands. The state park’s pet-friendly policy brings beach-loving pet owners to the 2.5 miles of beaches.
  • Captiva Beach (Captiva): Hands down the best beach for sunsets on the Gulf Coast. Search for shells or just enjoy the rolling dunes and clear water of the Gulf that is perfect for swimming.
Lovers Key State Park, Florida. ©Charles Hester, Dreamstime.

Sarasota County

  • Turtle Beach (Siesta Key): Tucked among villas and a residential district, this family-oriented beach has excellent picnic facilities and is much less crowded than the more popular Siesta Key Beach to the north on the island, yet it still has that special sugar-white sand that makes this barrier island a big draw for beach hunters.
  • Siesta Key Beach (Siesta Key): This beach is always drawing praise for its superiorly white sand. It gets crowded in the summer, but the exceptional size of this beach leaves sun seekers with plenty of spots to spike a shade-supplying umbrella or spread out a super-sized beach towel.
  • Venice Beach (Venice): This beach is famously regarded as the place to go to hunt for fossilized sharks’ teeth. The super-convenient location close to the heart of Venice makes this beach just a bike ride from most of the popular inns and villas. A great beach for families, it has nice picnic pavilions and shower facilities.

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County

  • Clearwater Beach (Clearwater): Go to this urban beach surrounded by seaside hangouts and hotels during the day to find the epicenter of oceanfront activity around Tampa. Sunsets from the beach pier are phenomenal, and by night the beach transforms into a fun spot with a nice mix of family fun and beach bar nightlife.
  • Fort De Soto Park (St. Petersburg): Take a break from the city and explore the seven miles of pristine, preserved beaches at this beautiful park. You can camp, hike, fish, launch a boat, and explore the historic fort on the southwest tip if you get tired of lounging on the sugar-white-sand beaches and the great swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.
Fort De Soto Park, Florida. ©Giovanni Gagliardi, Dreamstime.

The Forgotten Coast

  • St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (Apalachicola): Do you love long, quiet walks on the beach? The white sand and exceptionally tall sand dunes stretch down this preserved peninsula for more than seven miles. Combine that with one of the best oceanfront campgrounds in the state of Florida and you’ve found a special slice of paradise. If you only go to one beach in your life, go here.

The Emerald Coast

  • Panama City Beach (Panama City): Known as the headquarters for spring-break mania, this beach also has pretty beaches if you can look past the short-sighted development. The oceanfront has the same wonderfully white sand as the more upscale destinations like Destin to the west, but the rockbottom hotel and motel prices draw a large portion of tourists headed to the Emerald Coast each year. It’s the place to party, with more beach bars, dance clubs, and all-day-breakfast diners than anywhere else on the Gulf Coast.
  • Grayton Beach State Park (Grayton Beach): It’s a favorite beach for those visiting the idyllic, affluent beach communities like Seaside and WaterColor found along Highway 30A. The pristine vibe of this preserved beach make it a perfect spot to camp or find yourself in beautiful beach-bliss. Pensacola
  • Pensacola Beach and Fishing Pier (Pensacola): Just follow the three-mile bridge to the iconic beach-ball water tower and you’ll find yourself at the center of Pensacola’s beach activity. Surrounded by beach bars and restaurants, the beach and fishing pier is a favorite among surfers, sun seekers, and swimmers.
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore (between Pensacola and Navarre): This preserved beach is managed by the National Park Service and is a wonderful choice for beach lovers looking to shore fish, swim, or just lounge on the beach in an undeveloped setting away from all the hubbub found on Pensacola Beach. Hikers can also explore a section of the Florida Trail that traverses through the large, rolling dunes on the sound side of the park.
Dune fence and sea oats at Pensacola Beach, Florida, on Gulf Islands National Seashore. ©Colin Young, Dreamstime.

Alabama Gulf Shores

  • Gulf Shores Public Beach (Gulf Shores): Surrounded by beach hangouts, restaurants, and beach shops, this beautiful beach with excellent picnic pavilions is popular among tourists and young folks looking for a beach party.
  • Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (Gulf Shores): Whether you drive or hike in to the preserved beaches at the refuge, you’ll find miles of secluded rolling dunes and white-sand beaches. Enjoy hiking the inland trails around Little Lagoon for some excellent fishing and bird-watching in this beautiful sanctuary for wildlife.

Joshua Lawrence Kinser

About the Author

Joshua Lawrence Kinser is a native Floridian from Pensacola who spends the better part of each year traveling the entire length of the state's Gulf Coast. After bouncing between jobs for more than a decade, traveling around the world as a writer, a wildlife biology research technician, and a professional drummer on cruise ships, he returned to Florida to write full-time.

Joshua honed his writing skills working as a staff writer for The Pensacola News Journal and publishing articles for magazines such as SAIL and Times of the Islands. As a wildlife biology tech, he has worked in Florida, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Glacier National Park in Montana, and in the forests surrounding Yosemite National Park in California. He is passionate about the outdoors and is always searching for the best freshwater springs, hiking trails, campsites, and fishing spots along the Florida Gulf Coast.

When he isn't writing guidebooks, Joshua is busy writing fiction and nonfiction. He currently splits his time between Black Mountain, North Carolina, and Gulf Breeze, Florida.

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