Panama City vs Pensacola: The panhandle has long been one of Florida’s best-kept vacation secrets. While tourists from all over the world flock to Miami, Orlando, the Keys, and other south-Florida tourist hotspots, many of Florida’s locals and longtime visitors prefer to visit the sugar white sands and emerald-green Gulf waters along the panhandle. The panhandle has come to be known as the area where southern hospitality meets some of the world’s best beaches, excellent restaurants, stunning natural beauty, and a wealth of activities to get involved in. This 200 mile-long area of Florida truly has something to offer all vacationers, from spring breakers to retirees, families, solo travelers, and more.
Two of the most popular destinations on the Florida panhandle, Panama City and Pensacola have plenty in common, but there are also many differences between these two cities. While either one makes for a great vacation destination, the right destination for you may vary depending on the atmosphere you’re looking for, what you plan on doing, and how much you are looking to spend. Keep reading to learn about the major differences between these two popular vacation spots, and find out which one you should choose for your next trip.
When it comes to the atmosphere in Panama City vs Pensacola, there are some major differences. The first thing to note is that Panama City has traditionally had a reputation as a party city, attracting college students on spring break and summer vacation. Although the city has taken steps to shake this reputation, there is no denying that Panama City primarily draws a younger crowd, especially during peak season. The city is full of bars and nightclubs, with hotels right on the beach to cater to all the vacationers who come to enjoy the beaches during the day and party at night.
That being said, Panama City is a large city, with nearly 30 miles of coastline, meaning there are plenty of less-crowded beaches located away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist areas, where most college students congregate. So if partying is not your thing, Panama City can certainly accommodate you.
In comparison to Panama City, Pensacola has a much more laid-back and quiet vibe. Pensacola is the westernmost major city on the Florida panhandle, located just 25 miles from Alabama. It is a little more out-of-the-way for most travelers than Panama City, and therefore is less touristy. It also feels more authentic than Panama City, and is considered by locals to represent the “real Florida” much better. However, if you are interested in partying on your vacation, Pensacola still has plenty of bars and a couple of nightclubs and lounges that are sure to keep you entertained. Just don’t expect as lively an atmosphere as you would find in Panama City.
Attractions and Activities
The main attractions in both Panama City and Pensacola are the beaches. The whole gulf coast is famous for its beaches, which are widely considered some of the nicest in the world. Unlike the beaches you will find in some areas of south Florida, the white-sugar sand beaches of the coast are 100% natural, without the need to ship sand in from elsewhere to keep up appearances.
Aside from the beaches, one of Pensacola’s major attractions is its untouched natural beauty. Pensacola is home to some of Florida’s most breathtaking undeveloped beaches and protected wildlife areas. Gulf Islands National Seashore is a pristine and lengthy strip of beach that serves as the nesting and wintering ground for a wide variety of seabirds, and features miles of trails and campgrounds, with canoe and kayak rental spots and historic forts and other ruins to explore. It is the perfect place for vacationers to get back to nature.
Other major attractions in Pensacola include:
The Seville Historic District
The Seville Historic District is the oldest area in Pensacola, and contains 29 historical buildings and museums, some of which are profiled below. Prominent buildings in the area include the Old Christ Church, the T. T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum (previously Pensacola City Hall), Lavalle House, and the Museum of Commerce. Guided tours of the Seville Historic District and the buildings are popular.
A military and aerospace museum in Pensacola, the National Naval Aviation Museum features over 150 aircraft and spacecraft. Perfect for aviation enthusiasts and the average curious tourist alike, the museum features flight simulators, a big screen theater, and a cafe, so you can round out a whole afternoon here.
The Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
The historic Pensacola Lighthouse, first built in 1853, is a must-see attraction in the city. Climb to the top of the 177 step lighthouse for the best view in Pensacola, then check out the museum to learn the building’s fascinating history, from its construction, to its capture during the Civil War, up to the modern day.
The Pensacola Museum of Art
Founded in 1954 in the historic Old City Jail building, which was built in 1906, the Pensacola Museum of Art has built up an extensive collection of European, American, and African art. The museum’s collection includes art by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and more.
Located on Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, Fort Pickens was built in 1834 and is named after American Revolution hero Andrew Pickens, and was in use during the Mexican-American War, the American Civil War, the Indian wars of the late 1800s, World War I, and World War II.
In Panama City, some of the biggest attractions include fishing, scuba diving, cruising, shopping, bar hopping, and dining. Panama City is much more crowded and busier than Pensacola, and has more than enough cafes, five-star restaurants, bars, theme parks, clubs, and shopping centers to keep any visitor busy.
If you are interested in getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, or if you just want to spend an afternoon getting in touch with nature, Pensacola also has a wealth of other activities to participate in. Some of the most popular sites in Pensacola include:
St. Andrews State Park
A 1,200 acre state park located right by Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park features miles of beautiful beaches and campgrounds that are perfect for kayaking, bicycling, fishing, bird watching, hiking, canoeing, boating, swimming, and more.
Panama City Beach Winery
The Panama City Beach Winery is an excellent winery that makes a wide variety of unique wines, all of which are available to taste and purchase. Located right across the street from the beach, the Panama City Beach Winery is the perfect place to stop to enjoy great wines in a beautiful setting.
Shipwreck Island Waterpark
Shipwreck Island Waterpark is one of the best family attractions in the Panama City area. Consistently ranked as one of the best waterparks in America, Shipwreck Island features a wide variety of rides, from a 500,000 gallon wave pool to a lazy river, multiple 65 foot tall water slides, a 400 foot slide, a whitewater river ride, and more.
A seven-mile long undeveloped barrier island off the coast of Panama City Beach, Shell Island is one of the area’s most popular tourist destinations due to the excellent ecotours of the island. Shell Island is home to nesting shorebirds and deer, and is reachable via shuttle for tourists interested in experiencing the natural beauty of the panhandle.
Pensacola certainly has more of a small-town vacation feel than Panama City, but that does not mean that there is a shortage of beautiful luxury hotels and resorts to stay in in Pensacola. Both cities have a wide range of rental houses and condos, resorts, boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, and more. Here are some of the best accommodations in Panama City vs Pensacola, broken down by budget options, mid range, and luxury.
Most of the budget accommodations in Pensacola are chain hotels located on Plantation along I-10. Popular budget hotels in this area include:
Extended Stay America – Decent rooms with kitchens and laundry. Rooms go for around $70 a night.
Motel 6 – Some of the cheapest accommodations you will be able to find in the city. Rooms go for around $50-60.
Quality Inn North – Clean rooms and friendly staff. Rooms go for around $70.
Suburban Extended Stay Hotel – $50 rooms and free wifi.
Mid Range Accommodations
Quality Inn & Suites Pensacola Bayview – Nice rooms, an outdoor pool, courtyard, and free breakfast and parking. Rooms go for around $90.
Pensacola Victorian Bed and Breakfast – Beautiful, vintage bed and breakfast in downtown Pensacola. Amenities include a full breakfast, complimentary drinks, cable TV, free wifi, and more. Rooms start at $95.
Holiday Inn – Nice rooms in a convenient location near the airport and I-90. Rooms available for $110.
Hampton Inn and Suites Pensacola-University – Located on Plantation Road, Hampton Inn and Suites Pensacola-University has suites available for rent with a starting price of $125.
Pensacola Grand Hotel – A 15-story tall hotel with a 1912 passenger train depot as its lobby, the Pensacola Grand Hotel was formerly a Crowne Plaza but has operated independently since 2016. Rooms go for around $150.
New World Inn – A small but luxurious boutique hotel located in downtown Pensacola, New World Inn features 16 beautiful rooms with all the amenities you need for a great stay in the city.
Days Inn by Wyndham Panama City Beach – A beautiful hotel on the beach, with free breakfast and wifi, and an outdoor pool. Rooms go for around $60.
Casa Loma – Nice beachfront hotel with a pool, fitness center, and great locations. Rooms available for around $70.
Beachside Resort Panama City Beach – Nice resort with a heated beachfront pool, hot tub, gym, and free wifi. Rooms go for around $60.
Mid Range Accommodations
Seahaven Beach Hotel – Located right on the beach, Seahaven Beach Hotel is a beautiful hotel with an outdoor pool, rooms with great views, and close proximity to Panama City’s major attractions. Rooms go for around $90.
Hampton Inn Panama City Beach – A beautiful hotel on the beach with a beachfront pool and hot tub and an excellent location, with great restaurants and shopping centers within walking distance. Rooms go for around $100.
Holiday Inn Club Vacations Panama City Beach Resort – Beautiful oceanfront hotel with suites with ocean view balconies, an outdoor pool, BBQs, hot tubs, and more. Rooms go for around $170.
Grand Panama Beach Resort – 4-star beachfront hotel with condos that have full kitchens and balconies, in a hotel that has a pool and tiki bar. Rooms go for around $150.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest factors to take into consideration when weighing Panama City vs Pensacola for your next vacation is the cost of each destination. In general, Panama City, as the larger, more tourist-focused city, is slightly more expensive than Pensacola, with the average daily cost of a vacation (including food, accommodations, etc.) in Pensacola adding up to $166, while Panama City costs $188.
That being said, either city is certainly manageable on a budget, and it is possible to have a great vacation in either Panama City or Pensacola for much cheaper. You just need to plan ahead, book your hotel and transportation well in advance, and look for deals on restaurants and activities.
Regardless of which city you choose to visit, you will be blown away by the natural beauty, hospitality, fun, and excitement of the panhandle. Book your next vacation, and enjoy!