The Sunshine State has no shortage of world-renowned beaches, all offering their own unique draw. And for two of Florida’s most unforgettable oceanside escapes, it pays to look north. A winning mix of dreamy seascapes and uncrowded beaches, as well as laidback outdoor fun, Amelia Island and Pensacola provide travelers with the best of both worlds—and coasts. Take your pick or enjoy a road trip across the peninsula to visit both.
With 13 miles of pristine beaches along the Atlantic Ocean and a 50-block historic district studded with Victorian-era architecture, Amelia Island radiates charm. Discover the barrier island’s abundant natural beauty as you walk, bike, or kayak along its shores and salt marsh estuaries, and eat freshly caught seafood in downtown Fernandina Beach.
On the Gulf Coast, Pensacola’s famous white-sugar sand, emerald water, and ample watersports—from jet skiing to scuba diving—make for a playful, rejuvenating getaway. Home to the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the United States, Pensacola also affords endless opportunities for solitude and relaxation. Cap off your day with a picnic and unobstructed view of the Gulf. Here’s how to get outside and enjoy the best of these oceanside escapes.
Discover a Victorian seaport
The northernmost city on the Sunshine State’s Atlantic Coast, Fernandina Beach isn’t all about chilling on the sand and watching the waves crash—the area is also steeped in history. After a relaxing day at Main Beach Park, equipped with picnic tables, barbecues, volleyball courts, a children’s playground, two ocean-view restaurants, and mini-golf, stroll over to the city’s storied downtown area to admire its elaborate buildings that were once home to a cast of characters including pirates, Gilded Age millionaires, bootleggers, and shrimpers. The scene is still just as lively today. Pop into eclectic art galleries, dine on wild-caught shrimp, shop for souvenirs, and sip locally brewed beer.
Go horseback riding
One of the only places in Florida where you can ride horses on the beach, Amelia Island provides a gorgeous backdrop for equine tours along the Atlantic coastline. Travelers can even explore Amelia Island State Park with family-owned and operated Kelly Seahorse Ranch. Jaunt through a maritime hammock before reaching the park’s 65 acres of sand dunes, and keep an eye open for surfacing dolphins, soaring ospreys, nesting plovers, and grazing gopher tortoises. As you arrive at the southern point of the island, take in the 360-degree views across Nassau Sound or wet a line for the catch of the day—right from the shore.
Home to a rare maritime forest ecosystem, Amelia Island is an ideal place to take to the water. Snag a rental or join a guided tour with the likes of Kayak Amelia and come face-to-face with herons, egrets, and many other native species. Or try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding, with instruction if you need it or guidance to create your own spectacular adventure based on weather and tide.
Hunt for shark teeth
Florida is full of popular shelling destinations, but beachcombing enthusiasts have the chance to discover rarer finds at Amelia Island’s Fort Clinch State Park, including fossilized shark teeth. Because neighboring Saint Marys River serves as an important entrance channel for submarines at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, the inlet is regularly dredged. The sand is then moved to the beach next to Fort Clinch, giving treasure hunters easy access to all sorts of riches from the bottom of the ocean. For the best results, try your luck at low tide.
Enjoy the perfect beach day
Pack your sunglasses and head to Pensacola Beach, famous for its fine white sand and blue-green Gulf of Mexico waters. With miles of stunning shoreline, adventurers and sun worshippers alike rank it among the country’s top beaches. Anglers can practice their casting technique at the 1,471-foot Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, while water sports enthusiasts can take their pick from sailing, surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and more. Wrap up your visit at thePensacola Beach Boardwalk, complete with open-air bars, live music, restaurants, and shops.
Nearby at Perdido Key, a barrier island known for jaw-dropping views of still Gulf waters and rolling sand dunes, visitors can lose themselves in the area’s natural beauty. At Johnson Beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key State Park, and Big Lagoon State Park, enjoy a relaxing day swimming, fishing, crabbing, canoeing, and more.
Come face-to-face with marine life
A selection of nearshore artificial reefs at Pensacola Beach and Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Perdido Key attract a wide variety of colorful, tropical fish and sea turtles, making snorkeling a popular local pastime. When conditions are calm, look forward to visibility up to 30 feet. Scuba divers have even more to explore.
The USS Oriskany—a 904-foot US Navy aircraft carrier sunk 20 miles from Pensacola in 2006—is the largest artificial reef in the world. It’s now jokingly called “the Great Carrier Reef” by some divers. Divers can also explore the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, which features 12 different wrecks. Don’t want to get wet? Try the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail which includes every Florida coastal habitat type.
Go bird watching
The longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the United States, Gulf Islands National Seashore acts as an important nesting and hatching ground for shorebirds, such as elegant Black Skimmers and endangered Least Terns, and a stopover for migratory birds. Its diverse ecosystems, from beaches to salt marshes, attracts over 300 species of birds, forming part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Bring your binoculars and keep your eyes open for osprey, blue herons, and pine warblers.
Explore local history
Pensacola has a rich heritage, from the city’s downtown to the coast. Travelers can walk America’s First Settlement Trail, a three-mile marked path featuring sites from as early as 1756, and visit the historic village, where history interpreters bring the story of America’s first multi-year European settlement to life.
Another highlight is Fort Pickens, one of four Southern forts never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War. Open for tours of its intricate tunnels, cannons, and stunning views, the Fort Pickens area has become a popular destination for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, and more. When in doubt, grab a picnic basket and marvel at the beautiful scenery of the bay.