Off the Beaten Path Historic Towns while exploring the Emerald Coast!

Historic Towns
View of the entrance to Gulfarium – Fort Walton Beach, Florida. 1957. Black & white photoprint, 4 x 5 in.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <>,
accessed 19 June 2016.

Exploring these historic towns by foot gives you a different perspective on Emerald Coast. Wanders naturally pass through many small towns along the Emerald Coast, often wondering about the stories behind the grand historic houses, art deco theaters and well-worn mid-century diners. Where did the money come from to build? What was life like back then? Why is it like it is now? Walking the towns, you can gain answers more vivid than the azalea and magnolia blooms that grace the yards. Unique gifts, tasty local eats and warm acquaintances are just a few of the things you’ll find along the way.

Pensacola: Pensacola is a sea port on Pensacola Bay, which connects to the Gulf of Mexico. A large United States Naval Air Station, the first in the United States, and a home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team.  Pensacola is nicknamed “The City of Five Flags” due to the five governments that have flown flags over it during its history: the flags of Spain (Castile), France, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America, and the United States. The name Pensacola came from the Spanish word for the Indians they found in this area in the 1500’s when Panfile de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto were stomping around. Tristan de Luna y Arellano came to Pensacola in 1559 with 1400 people on 11 ships to settle the area. A giant hurricane came along shortly after they landed and killed hundreds of people. The Spanish decided not to settle northwest Florida for a while and abandoned the area for more than 100 years.

Milton: When kayaking the Blackwater River, you may not expect to find the most highly industrialized town along the Emerald Coast before the Civil War. Timber, riverboats, brick-making and later the railroad, gave rise to a what is now a small cluster of brick storefronts. Pick up a walking tour map at the downtown Chamber to explore the history of this small town.

Marianna: Wrong turns sometimes have their rewards. One error off Interstate 10 transports you to the mid 1800’s when antebellum mansions were novel and doctors saw patients at home. Several Marianna manors, including the Ely-Criglar (c. 1840) amazingly survived a Civil War battle. A sidewalk walking tour map was a great help. Get one at the eye-catching 1895 Russ House on Lafayette Street, which now houses the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. While visiting this town, make sure to stop by Florida Caverns State Park, one of the few state parks with dry (air-filled) caves and is the only state park in Florida to offer cave tours to the public. Underground caverns! It’s a great place to see some of the Earth’s natural wonders.

Fort Walton Beach: Not every north Florida downtown is rooted in the horse-and-carriage-era or was master planned in the last decades. Downtown Fort Walton is mid-Century Americana with a Native American holy ground. The historic downtown stretches along Miracle Strip Parkway Southeast on the mainland. On this walk, see the Temple Mound and museum as well as an eclectic mix of funky shops, antique stores, pool halls and mom and pop diners. A downtown resurgence has added condos, new shops and restaurants.

Grayton Beach: Grayton Beach, a favorite beach town, is a blend of “Endless Summer”, the Grateful Dead and Southern Accents. Unlike the new master-planned communities of South Walton, it has an organic authenticity that stems from its slower evolution from 14 old Florida beach cottages on dirt lanes into an eclectic mixture of bungalows; many now are artist residences. It’s still laid back enough for a safe flip-flop stroll. Be sure to drop into the funky Red Bar for a cold drink; the rustic two-story was once the only place for miles to hear live music.

Seaside: Play in the clean, gentle surf and run along the shores of this Emerald Coast beach community that is best known as the location for the film The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. You can’t miss the main beach access under a tall gray structure that is a cross between a pyramid and lighthouse. Enjoy a day in the Emerald Coast’s sun and surf, stop in one of the quaint shops along the beach or in the town center, or take a bike ride along the beach road. It’s a picture-book town that provides the perfect place to people-watch.

Panama City: Think of downtown Panama City as the yen to Panama City Beach’s yang – sand to brick, raucous college Spring Break concerts to sophisticated theater. In recent years the mainland city has grown and rejuvenated many of its older storefronts and buildings, including the art deco landmark Martin Theatre, crowned with a multicolored neon marquee. The other anchors are the Marina Civic Center and the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida. From all you can easily walk, shop and dine.

DeFuniak Springs: At first DeFuniak Springs was to be a pit stop – a place to fill up on gas and coffee. But just wait what you’ll be surprised by. Ornately detailed turn-of-the-century Victorian houses and one of Florida’s oldest libraries string around a small, almost perfectly round lake. The sidewalk circling the spring-fed lake is about a mile long, perfect for a casual walk, and the nearby chamber of commerce has walking tour maps that tell the homes’ history.

Information Source:

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