The Ultimate Guide to Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Fort Walton Beach is known for its beautiful white sand beaches, laidback vibe, and abundance of outdoor activities, and is a beloved vacation destination along Florida’s Emerald Coast.

Families flock here for the spacious public beaches, water sports, and variety of amusement parks and attractions.

In this complete guide to visiting Fort Walton Beach, you’ll discover the best things to do, places to eat, events to attend, and so much more to help you plan an amazing trip to this Gulf Coast paradise. Let’s dive in!

Getting to Fort Walton Beach

Fort Walton Beach is located just south of the Alabama/Florida border in the Florida Panhandle along Highway 98. It’s about 16 miles east of Destin and 45 miles east of Pensacola.

The closest major airport is Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) in Panama City Beach, about 1 hour and 10 minutes away. Alternatively, Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) offers limited commercial flights.

You can also fly into major hubs like Atlanta, Dallas or Houston and drive 2-4 hours to Fort Walton Beach depending on traffic.

Once in town, a car is recommended to fully experience all the area has to offer. Taxis and rideshares are also available, and the Sunshine Express trolley system connects much of Okaloosa Island.

Best Time to Visit Fort Walton Beach

With its prime Gulf Coast location, Fort Walton Beach enjoys warm weather for much of the year. Peak season runs May through August when kids are out of school. Expect big crowds and prices during this peak summer period.

For smaller crowds and lower hotel rates, aim to visit in April/May or September through November. Temperatures are still pleasant in the 70s-80s range during fall before the weather turns chilly in December.

Winters are relatively mild, ranging from the 40s to 60s most days. But the water will be too cool for swimming comfortably. For the lowest hotel prices, visit between January and March.

No matter when you visit, you can count on sunshine and warm weather ideal for the beach during most of the year!

paddleboarding at Fort Walton Beach

Top Things to Do in Fort Walton Beach

With over 24 miles of shoreline in the area, beachgoing and water activities dominate most itineraries. But there are still plenty of things to do off the sand as well. Here are some of the most popular activities and attractions to enjoy:

  • Relax on the White Sand Beaches
  • Charter Fishing Excursions
  • Golf on Championship Courses
  • Visit Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
  • Ride Go-Karts at the Track Family Fun Parks
  • See a Show at Village of Baytowne Wharf
  • Kayak or Paddleboard Santa Rosa Sound
  • Splash Down Gulf Islands Water Park
  • Take a Cruise on the Southern Star Dolphin Boat
  • Rent Jet Skis and Parasail on Okaloosa Island
  • Zip Line Through the Treetops at Adventures Unlimited
  • Check out the Indian Temple Mound Museum
  • Take Surf Lessons at YOLO Board Surf School
  • Rent Beach Equipment From Brooks Bridge Bike & Beach Shop
  • Enjoy Local Seafood and Nightlife at HarborWalk Village

With so many options, there are activities the whole family will enjoy in Fort Walton Beach! Now let’s detail some of the top attractions and things to do:

Soak Up the Sun at Fort Walton Beach

Fort Walton Beach has over 24 miles of coastline, much of it covered in soft white sand that makes it ideal for all kinds of beach fun.

Fort Walton Beach Access Points

The main public beach areas in town include:

  • Beach Access 1 – Near Brooks Bridge with a large parking area
  • Beach Access 2 – In the downtown area and closest to the boardwalk
  • Beach Access 4 – Next to the fishing pier on Santa Rosa Blvd
  • Beach Access 5 – Close to Gulfarium marine park with 200 parking spots

These wide public beach areas provide restrooms, outdoor showers, snack bars, volleyball nets, and lifeguards on duty. You can easily spend entire days relaxing on the beach and swimming in the emerald green waters.

Bring or rent beach chairs, umbrellas, surf boards, kayaks, and other gear to enjoy the expansive coastline. The white sand and gentle surf make it a perfect beach for families.

Go Fishing Along the Famed Gulf Coast

With fertile fishing grounds in both the Gulf of Mexico and Santa Rosa Sound, the area is a prized fishing destination. Late spring through fall offers prime fishing for hugely popular Gulf species like snapper, cobia, king mackerel, and more.

You can fish right off the long Okaloosa Island Pier or book one of the many charter fishing excursions that go miles offshore. Try boats like the Angler’s Adventures or Two…

golf Fort Walton Beach

Play a Round of Golf at Award-Winning Courses

With its year round pleasant weather, the Fort Walton Beach area is a golfer’s paradise with more than a dozen courses. Top choices include:

  • Shalimar Pointe Golf Club – championship layout known for challenging greens
  • Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club – 200 acres along the bay with waterfront holes
  • Kelly Plantation Golf Club – semi-private course with excellent course conditions
  • Fort Walton Beach Golf Club – very affordable municipal course dating to 1955
  • Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club – combines beach club amenities with a Richard Emery designed course
  • Make advance reservations, especially during peak months when tee times book up. Twilight and late afternoon specials can offer significant discounts off normal rates.

Visit the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park

The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park provides a fun and educational way to learn about local marine life. The facility dates back to 1955, making it one of the oldest oceanariums in the country.

Unique exhibits let you see and even interact with dolphins, sea lions, tropical fish, alligators, otters, and more. Feedings and training sessions are held daily so you can see the animals in action up close.

Other highlights include the stingray touch pool, seaside penguin habitat, reptile encounters, and the shark and turtle lagoon. This is a great rainy day or family activity with something for all ages to enjoy.

Track Family Fun at The Track

For go kart racing and amusement, head to The Track Family Fun Parks. Their massive complex along Highway 98 contains go-karts reaching 50mph, bumper boats, mini golf, and an epic arcade room.

Kids will love racing the go karts on the slick multi-turn course. The dual track layout allows side-by-side racing action. They light up the track for special black light rides at night.

Grab some tokens for the huge arcade filled with games, bowling lanes, laser tag, and a ropes course suspended over a small lake. The Track offers nonstop entertainment for the whole group.

Enjoy Theatrical Shows at Village of Baytowne Wharf

The Village of Baytowne Wharf is a charming dining and entertainment district packed with activities. Throughout the year they host free concerts, outdoor movies, and live theater shows.

Rock out at Friday night concerts headlined by tribute bands and popular acts. Enjoy a free family friendly flick under the stars on Monday movie nights.

For live shows, the Village Theater hosts musicals, comedies, and kids shows year-round like Winnie the Pooh and Junie B. Jones. With so much going on, there is always something new to experience.

Paddle or Kayak Through Santa Rosa Sound

For a relaxing outdoor excursion, rent a kayak or paddleboard and cruise along Santa Rosa Sound. Paddling along the sound allows enjoying views of Navarre Beach across the bay.

You may spot dolphins, herons, pelicans, and other coastal wildlife. Many outfitters along the sound like Coastal Paddle Company also offer guided eco tours.

Rentals are very affordable, starting at around $20/hour for kayaks and $30/hour for paddleboards. Or sign up for a romantic sunset tour while paddling at dusk.

Make a Splash at Gulf Islands Water Park

On hot summer days, cool off with a visit to Gulf Islands Water Park, located on Okaloosa Island near the Gulfarium. The expansive water park is packed with fun rides and slides for all ages.

Kids love the giant pirate ship playground and lagoon pool. Adults can grab a tube and relax floating down the lazy river. Thrill seekers tackle steep drop slides like Terror Falls and Double Dragons.

Other highlights include the RipQSlide tandem raft ride, surf simulator, and splash zones for little ones. Cabana rentals provide a home base with shaded seating and lockers. Enjoy the park all day with unlimited visits.

Cruise With the Southern Star Dolphin Tours

One of the best ways to admire Fort Walton Beach’s beautiful seashore scenery is from aboard the Southern Star Dolphin Tours yacht. This 93 foot vessel offers daily dolphin sightseeing cruises along the coast.

As an added treat, they track wild dolphin pods and follow along as the dolphins ride the boat’s wake and put on quite a show. Along with dolphins you may catch sight of sea turtles, sting rays, and soaring ospreys.

Afterwards you can upgrade to access the upper observation deck for an even better vantage. Enjoy light snacks and drinks from the on-board bar. Watching dolphins never gets old!

Get Out on the Water at Brooks Bridge Watersports

Stationed right under the Brooks Bridge, this iconic outfitter has the full array of water sports covered for renting and lessons. Test your skills at stand up paddleboarding or take out a speedy WaveRunner jet ski to zip around offshore.

Parasailing adventures lift you high in the air for amazing aerial views. Ride solo or tandem up to 500 feet over the beautiful emerald waters.

They also rent pontoon boats for leisurely cruising, along with kayaks and paddleboards perfect for exploring the bayou. Get out and enjoy the water!

Zip Through the Treetops at Adventures Unlimited

Discover an adrenaline rush zip lining and rope climbing at Adventures Unlimited. Their massive aerial adventure park lies just north of town.

Soar on zip lines over wooded ravines and wetlands as guides share fascinating nature facts. Test your coordination on rope challenges criss-crossing the canopy. Kids and adults alike have a blast.

Other activities like disc golf, archery, fishing and bicycling are also available. Feel the rush while enjoying the great outdoors.

Learn Local History at Indian Temple Mound Museum

Gain insight into the area’s rich Native American roots at this fascinating museum in downtown Fort Walton Beach. Exhibits detail the history of tribes like the Muscogee Nation who inhabited the region for thousands of years.

The museum sits beside the historical Temple Mound built by the inhabitants with over 155,000 basketloads of earth. You can walk the grounds and explore the preserved temple mound to admire this amazing feat of engineering.

Don’t miss the permanent exhibit hall with artifacts unearthed from local excavations showcasing authentic tools, weapons and pottery. An ideal indoor activity for learning about indigenous culture.

Take Surf Lessons with YOLO Board

Catch a wave taking lessons from YOLO Board Surf School, located right on the beach. Great for newbies, their expert instructors teach you proper surfing fundamentals in small groups to maximize learning.

Practice popping up on the board during their thorough land lessons before hitting the water. Before long you’ll be riding the swells like a pro.

They offer both private one-on-one lessons and more affordable group lessons if you’re short on time. All gear is included. Hang ten on the Gulf’s friendly waves!

Rent Beach Gear and Bikes from Brooks Bridge

Planning to spend days on the sand and surf? Rent all the gear needed from Brooks Bridge Bike & Beach Shop near the main public beach.

Stock up on essentials like chairs, umbrellas, surfboards, kayaks, and bikes delivered right to your hotel or condo. No need to drag a bunch of bulky gear on the plane.

They also rent popular beach games like cornhole toss and spikeball. Avoid the headache of coordinating all the small details and just show up ready to play with rental delivery.

Explore HarborWalk Village and The Island Hotel

No visit to Fort Walton Beach is complete without checking out HarborWalk Village. This lively waterfront district bustles with attractions:

  • Local seafood restaurants and bars with outdoor seating
  • Retail shops selling beach apparel, toys, decor and souvenirs
  • Nightly live music filling the air
  • Seasonal festivals and events
  • Waterfront playground and splash pad
  • Marquee Harbor marina with dining boats

The Village surrounds The Island hotel featuring a tower with breathtaking Gulf views, spa, pools, and restaurants. Grab dinner and drinks while watching the sun sink into the sea.

Where to Eat in Fort Walton Beach: Top Restaurants and Seafood

Seafood naturally dominates menus in Fort Walton Beach, with countless spots serving up deliciously fresh catches.

But you’ll also find excellent steakhouses, barbecue joints, and global cuisines. Here are some of the best places to eat:

Five Bar + Table

Creative fine dining with an ever-changing menu focused on local ingredients. Dishes like grouper Oscar and pork osso bucco shine.

Shrimp Boat Restaurant

No-frills spot for heaping seafood baskets of fried shrimp, oysters, scallops and more. A local favorite over 50 years running.

Angler’s Beachside Grill

Laidback sports bar right on the sand serving up huge portions of seafood, wings, burgers and tacos. Plus live music.

DiamondHead Beach Grill

Beachfront restaurant perfect for grabbing tacos, ceviche, burgers and tropical drinks on their patio.

AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar

Elegant dining featuring fresh raw bar selections along with steaks, pastas, and their signature soups.

Old Bay Steamer

Authentic Maryland-style blue crabs shipped fresh daily. Also excellent for steamed shrimp, lobster, clams and seasonal catch.

Pandora’s Steakhouse

Sizzling hand-cut steaks in an intimate fine dining atmosphere. Extensive wine list and side options.

Beef O’ Brady’s

Lively sports bar chain dishing out wings, burgers and other bar fare. Great specials during big games.

La Rumba Mexican Bar & Grill

Top Mexican fare like fajitas, burritos, and their sizzling chimichangas that come flaming tableside.

nightlife at Fort Walton Beach

Things to Do at Night: Bars, Breweries & Nightlife

After dark, the nightlife heats up in Fort Walton Beach. Relax over drinks at a beachfront bar, laugh it up at comedy clubs, or two-step at live music venues.

Top nightlife options in Fort Walton Beach include:

  • Choctawhatchee Bay Trading Company – waterfront bar with live music nightly
  • Props Brewery & Grill – local craft brewery with trivia nights and weekend bands
  • Luna’s Fresh Mexican Cuisine – Mexican dishes and margaritas on their rooftop bar
  • Boathouse Landing – signature cocktails and pub fare with a view
  • Magical Event Productions – entertainment company hosting local comedy shows
  • The Gulf Restaurant – drink and dine on their courtyard overlooking the Gulf
  • McGuires Irish Pub – iconic Irish pub with brews, food and live entertainment
  • Mojo Sports Bar & Marina – late night destination for wings, beer and games
  • Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone – indoor/outdoor bar with huge arcade, ax throwing & more
  • Nightown – premier LGBT+ nightclub open until the early morning hours

Try a fun pub crawl throughout HarborWalk Village and Destin Commons to experience different hot spots. Take a taxi service like Yellow Cab Okaloosa to get home safely.

fort walton beach where to stay

Where to Stay in Fort Walton Beach: Best Hotels & Accommodations

You’ll have no problem finding places to rest your head, with hotels and rental condos lining the shoreline.

Here are some top-rated options for families, couples and all travelers:

Resort Accommodations

  • The Island, by Hotel RL – massive tower with Gulf views, pools, restaurants
  • Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach – great pool complex and location on Okaloosa Island
  • Four Points by Sheraton – reliable chain with modern decor and balcony rooms

Budget Friendly Hotels & Motels

  • Residence Inn by Marriott Fort Walton Beach – affordable suites with full kitchens
  • Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott – new hotel with central location near shopping
  • Destin West Inn & Suites – value hotel across the bridge from Destin
  • Regency Inn Fort Walton Beach – cheap and basic motel ideal for cost-conscious travelers

Condo Rentals & Vacation Rentals

  • Rosemary Beach Cottage Rentals – charming cottages for rent in nearby upscale community
  • Wyndham Vacation Rentals – 1 to 4 bedroom condos along the coast in Destin, Sandestin and beyond
  • Compass Resorts – luxury condos with resort amenities and easy beach access
  • Airbnb – privately owned homes, townhomes and condos in great locations

A rental property with a kitchen can save you money by letting you cook some of your own meals. But book early for next summer as the best condos fill fast!

Annual Events and Festivals in Fort Walton Beach

Along with gorgeous beaches and water sports, one draw to Fort Walton Beach is the constant slate of fun annual events happening year-round.

Some of the most popular annual events and festivals include:

  • Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival – Multi-day pirate invasion with parades, music and a mock battle
  • Restaurant Week – Prix fixe deals at local restaurants during August
  • Mardi Gras Parade – Floats and costumed dogs march along Santa Rosa Blvd
  • St. Patrick’s Day Block Party – Street party at McGuires Irish Pub with live bands -Bands on the Beach Concert Series – Free concerts at The Gulf restaurant
  • Seafood Festival – Savor local seafood dishes, with live music and kids activities. Held each October.
  • FWB Christmas Boat Parade – Festive boat parade along Santa Rosa Sound to kick off the holidays.
  • Half Shells on the Harbor – Oyster festival with raw bars, Gospel brunch, and oyster eating contest.
  • Playground Pumpkin Patch – Family fall event with costume contests, pumpkin painting, hayrides, and trick-or-treating.
  • Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam – Major 3-day country music festival every September with big name headliners.
  • Movies on the Beach – Free movies projected on a giant screen right on the sand every Tuesday evening in spring and summer.
  • Concerts in the Village – Live music under the stars every Friday night from May to September in Baytowne Wharf.
  • Emerald Coast Cruzin’ – Classic car enthusiasts parade down Highway 98 showing off vintage hot rods.

The lineup of fun events happening year-round gives you even more great reasons to plan a trip to the Fort Walton Beach area. Check the calendar and try to schedule your visit around one of these lively festivals!

Final Bit of Advice

With its prime beachfront location along Florida’s Emerald Coast, Fort Walton Beach offers the perfect mix of laidback seaside charm and endless outdoor adventures.

Miles of beautiful white sand beaches, top-rated seafood restaurants, and watersports galore fill your days with fun.

When the sun goes down, enjoy nightlife performances and entertainment at venues like HarborWalk Village.

Throughout the year, a packed events calendar celebrates everything from pirates to wine to classic cars with community spirit.

With so many ways to soak up the coastal lifestyle, it’s easy to see why Fort Walton Beach remains a favorite Gulf Coast retreat.

Start planning your own getaway in paradise today and discover all the memorable experiences waiting in Fort Walton Beach.

Leave a Comment