In Franklin County, easternmost in the Panhandle, Apalachicola is the best-known city. Once the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, reminders of those halcyon days of steamers and schooners, railroads and lumber mills remain. The city’s historic district has nearly a thousand historic buildings and sites from a bygone era. Along the waterfront, structures that once served as commercial fishing factories and warehouses have evolved into seafood houses and galleries, and old shrimp boats now reside for eternity.
Nearby Cape St. George Lighthouse had been lighting the way for mariners since 1852, until it collapsed into the water in 2005. Now it’s been rebuilt with a new museum. It’s no longer a working lighthouse (blame GPS), but you can’t tell the story of this region without relating the history of this structure.
Panama City has four very interesting neighborhoods in which to roam. Downtown is filled with galleries and arts facilities such as the Martin Theatre, the City Marina, the Visual Arts Center and the CityArts Cooperative. Historic St. Andrews still resembles the quaint fishing village it was in the “old days.” Downtown North serves as the cultural hub of Panama City’s African American community and Millville is named for its once-thriving paper-manufacturing and shipbuilding industries.
Holmes County has a population of only 20,000, however it boasts two noteworthy historic residences. Built in the 1920s by lumber baron George Orkney Waits, the Waits Mansion is a Mediterranean Revival home, recently restored and open to visitors. At the other end of the housing spectrum is the Keith Cabin, an authentic 19th century rural homestead on which William Thomas Keith grew cotton and tobacco… and expanded his land holdings from 10 acres to 190.
The Beaches of South Walton are home to a vibrant arts community, anchored by the local Cultural Arts Alliance, and enhanced by the opening of the Foster Gallery in 2016. Every month, the vibrantly colored community of Seaside holds the First Friday Ruskin Place Art Walk, featuring live music, hors d’oeuvres and wine in the largest collection of art galleries on the Northwest Florida Gulf coast.
Artists at Gulf Place is an art cooperative including potters, sculptors, painters, metal artists, candlemakers, photographers, folk artists and furniture-crafters, with workshops for kids. South Walton also boasts the Seaside Repertory Theatre, one of Northwest Florida’s premier professional theater companies.
In Okaloosa County’s Indian Temple Mound Museum, you can walk through 12,000 years of Native American life and admire one of the finest collections of prehistoric ceramics in the southeastern US. A more recent period of history comes alive at the Air Force Armament Museum, which takes you from the early biplanes of World War I to the SR-71 Blackbird—the fastest aircraft ever built. If Broadway shows and the Northwest Florida Symphony pique your interest, check the schedule at the Mattie Kelly Art Center.
The town of Milton is filled with historic homes and storefronts leading to the Blackwater River waterfront, once the epicenter of thriving timber and shipbuilding industries here. At the old post office, you can ogle the antiques while eating lunch. And you can step back into the 19th century at the renovated railroad depot at the West Florida Railroad Museum.
At the western end of the Panhandle, the city of Pensacola boasts two significant distinctions. It was the first settlement founded by emigrants to America (although later deserted for a few years, thereby ceding to St. Augustine the title of first permanent settlement). And this city of only 52,000 is one of the few in the US with five professional performing arts companies. Pensacola’s iconic Saenger Theatre first opened its doors in 1925, and is now restored to her original glory, hosting dance and musical companies, theater and a Classic Movie Series.