Seaside

Seaside is a small beach town in the Florida panhandle, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Seaside is known for its white-sand beaches, beautiful turquoise water and charming small-town feel.

It’s also famous for being the birthplace of New Urbanism and for being the filming location for The Truman Show.

Seaside has charming southern beach architecture throughout the town. The style was modeled after traditional family beach cottages which have been used in the Florida panhandle for generations. 

The entire town has a cute vibe – I describe it as upscale vintage new age traditional beach hippy chic. Everything about Seaside feels upscale, while also being down to earth and warm.

Seaside is filled with cute details everywhere you look, especially its lively, vibrant and walkable town center. 

Location

Seaside is located in the Florida panhandle, in the center of the Emerald Coast region. Seaside sits approximately halfway between Panama City Beach and Destin.

Destin25 Miles
Panama City Beach52 Miles
Pensacola67 Miles
Mexico Beach122 Miles

Seaside is located on a narrow strip of land between the Gulf and Western Lake, a freshwater coastal dune lake. 

The lake, and nearby wetlands, provide a natural green belt around the town and nearby Watercolor, which helps keep both towns small, neat and compact.

Seaside sits just east of Grayton Beach State Park and the neighboring town of Grayton Beach, another lovely small beach town which also has a lot of character.

Seaside is located in Walton County, and is an unincorporated community.

The closest airport near Seaside is the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. There are several other airports in the Florida Panhandle, within a reasonable drive.

Nearby Cities

Seaside is located in the heart of the Emerald Coast, which is known for its beautiful sugar-white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters. 

This part of the Florida Panhandle is filled with cute beach towns. They are all slightly different, and all have unique flavors, but they’re all cute and share the same beautiful beaches and emerald waters.

There are several cities and towns near Seaside that are worth checking out.

  • Destin: A popular beach destination located about 25 miles east of Seaside. Destin is a large town with many things to do including fishing, golfing, and shopping.
  • Panama City Beach: Located about 25 miles west of Seaside, Panama City Beach is a much larger city than Seaside and has a wide variety of things to do. Panama City Beach also has a larger selection of hotels and lodging options.
  • Grayton Beach: A small beach town located about 2 miles west of Seaside, across the waters of Western Lake and Grayton Beach State Park.
  • Watercolor: Watercolor sits just north and east of Seaside. Like Seaside, Watercolor is a charming, upscale master-planned community. It is known for having many cute boutique shops and restaurants.

Read more about the best beaches in the Florida Panhandle

Highway 30A

Seaside is one of many cities along Highway 30A, one of the most scenic highways in Florida. Highway 30A is approximately 24 miles long, and runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico coastline. 

This highway was once a small, rural two-lane road with a few small beach cottages, scrubland, and not much else. 

Today it’s become a high-end beach destination with a number of upscale beach communities. Other towns on 30A include:

  • Inlet Beach
  • Rosemary Beach
  • Alys Beach
  • Seacrest
  • Watersound
  • Seagrove
  • Seaside
  • Watercolor
  • Grayton Beach
  • Blue Mountain
  • Santa Rosa
  • Dune Allen

Beaches

The beaches in Seaside are beautiful. They are long and relatively wide, with brilliant white sand. 

Beaches in Seaside can get very crowded during peak times, but crowds are somewhat contained because the beaches in Seaside are private property above the mean high-tide line.

Many other beaches in this region are private property, including the beaches in Watercolor and Seaside. 

The beach sand in Seaside is brilliant white. It is as white as sugar, and the sand grains are a fine powder – almost like flour.

Beaches in Seaside are perfect for sunbathing, swimming, beach games, water sports, or just relaxing. 

The sand dunes in Seaside, and throughout the region, can be quite high. There are nine wooden boardwalk access points to cross over the dunes and access the beach. 

Access to the beach boardwalks are private, and are owned and controlled by homeowner associations on their respective streets. 

Each of the pavilions are slightly unique, featuring cute designs, and are all secured by codes and locked gates.

Even for people who pay to rent inside Seaside, their “beach rental” may not necessarily include beach access. 

Visitors may need to pay high prices if they want to access the private beach, in the form of mandatory beach chair and umbrella rentals, which can be expensive.

Continue Reading:   Mexico Beach

There are a few public beaches near Seaside, including one small access point at Van Ness Butler Jr. Regional Beach Access, and larger beach access at Grayton Beach State Park.

Note: The water in the panhandle is not always clear – visitors should be aware of that! Local wind and wave conditions play a big part in how clear the water is.

Van Ness Butler Jr. Regional Beach Access

There is a public beach access in Seaside at the Van Ness Butler Jr. Regional Beach access point. 

The beach is relatively small, and it does get crowded. But, there is a large public parking lot with restrooms. 

The public beach area is small, and is often very crowded during peak times. Everyone is squeezed into a very small area of the beach. 

There are flags to mark the boundaries of “Private beach” away from the public beach area. 

On the private beach areas there are far fewer people. The lines of umbrellas are only one line deep, as opposed to three-deep in the public beach area.

Things to Do

There are many things to do in Seaside. 

One of my favorite things to do in Seaside is to walk around the cute “downtown” area, which is very bike and pedestrian-friendly, and is fun to explore. 

Many parts of downtown Seaside have a European feel. The streets are quiet, walkable and are often shaded by beautiful oak trees. 

The main attraction in the town is the large central plaza, built around a giant grassy lawn. There are other small parks, green spaces and shaded courtyards hidden around town, with benches to stop and sit in the shade. 

Outdoor Activities

Some popular outdoor activities in Seaside include:

  • Bike rentals to explore the scenic 30A bike path
  • Boat rentals
  • Parasailing
  • Dolphin watching cruises
  • Jet ski rentals
  • Kayaking or paddle boarding on the Gulf of Mexico and in coastal dune lakes
  • Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and nearby lakes
  • Golfing: There are many golf courses near Seaside
  • Sandcastle and sand sculpture lessons
  • Road trip along Highway 30A

One of the best things to do in Seaside is to bike or walk the Timpoochee Trail. 

The trail is approximately 18 miles long and runs through beautiful nature, and connects Seaside with nearby towns.

Places to Visit

Some of the most popular places to explore in Seaside are:

The Seaside Farmers Market is held every Saturday. The market has fresh local produce and handmade crafts.

The Seaside Chapel is simple, elegant, and cute. It’s a popular place to get married and has weekly church services.

The Seaside Post office is the cutest post office you’ll probably ever see. It’s a popular place to visit and is a fun place to take photos.

Seaside has a number of boutique art galleries, a performing arts theater, and more.

There are sometimes open-air concerts in the central square amphitheater, and many restaurants have live music. There is also a very fun and popular “Airstream Row” of food trucks.

Events

Seaside hosts many events and festivals throughout the year. Many of the events are held in Cerulean Park, or the town square. Some of the most popular events in Seaside include:

  • The Seaside Half Marathon and 5K
  • Outdoor shows from the Seaside Repertory Theatre
  • The Seaside Seeing Red Wine Festival
  • South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival
  • 30A Songwriters Festival

Best and Worst Times to Visit Seaside

The best time to visit Seaside is in mid-April, in my opinion.

Mid-April is the best time because the weather will be reliably warm, but it’s not too hot or humid yet. 

Most spring break crowds will have left by mid-April, since spring break in Florida will have already wound down.

This ideal time to visit lasts until late May, when school vacations start and summer crowds begin arriving.

Here are the best and worst times to visit Seaside:

Best Times to Visit Seaside

January to February
These months are the least crowded and offer good deals on accommodations and activities. Many snowbirds are in town during this time. 
Downside: The weather can be surprisingly cold and will likely be too cold to swim for many people.
March-AprilMarch is often a busy time for the panhandle due to spring break. The first spring breakers begin arriving in late February and the last waves typically leave by mid-April.
May-AugustThis is a very busy time due to family travelers, who visit during summer vacation. The weather usually gets hot and humid by mid-May, which lasts until October. The sun, heat and humidity are intense. There are often strong afternoon thunderstorms with strong winds, lightning and heavy rainfall. Hurricane season begins in June and lasts until November.
September-OctoberThis is a good time to visit Seaside. The weather is pleasant, the crowds are smaller, and prices are lower than during peak season. Visitors will need to be on the lookout for hurricane season. Hurricanes and storms can strike with short notice and may result in ruined or canceled vacation plans.
November-DecemberThis can be a good time to visit. There are often surges of visitors around Thanksgiving and Christmas as families travel around school schedules. 
Fall and winter weather can be surprisingly cold during this time, especially when northern cold fronts push south. 
Hurricane season ends on November 30.

Worst Times to Visit Seaside

May to SeptemberThese months are the busiest and most expensive times to visit Seaside. The weather can be hot and humid, and the beaches can be at their most crowded. Hurricane season is a real threat.
Spring BreakMany people avoid visiting Seaside during Spring Break as the beaches can be overcrowded with spring breakers.
HolidaysSeaside can get crowded during holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. Weather in the Florida panhandle becomes surprisingly cold in the winter.

Off Season

The Florida panhandle used to have a very slow “off-season”, when there were no tourists in town. Many businesses closed down, due to lack of customers. 

Continue Reading:   Grayton Beach State Park

That began changing in the 1980s and 1990s, and now the region remains busy year-round.  Now summer is busy with families, and winter is busy with snowbirds and winter residents.

Overall, the best time to visit Seaside is during the shoulder seasons in spring or fall when the weather is pleasant and the crowds are smaller. 

But, many families can only visit during summer vacation due to school schedules. That can be a very fun time too, and the energy is often high because of energetic kids, families and many people having fun.

Restaurants in Seaside

There are many restaurant options in Seaside and nearby along Highway 30A.

Many options are located in the central town square, and are easy to access by walking, depending on where you’ll be staying. 

Many of the restaurants have outdoor seating options with shaded umbrellas, or sun shades. Some spots also have natural shade over their seating areas from southern oak trees.

Here are a few popular restaurants to look for:

  • Airstream Row: Outdoor food court with food truck style restaurants
  • The Shrimp Shack
  • Taco Bar
  • Wood Fired Pizza, can take pizza to-go
  • Pickles Burgers and Shakes
  • Modica Market
  • The Great Southern Cafe

Bud & Alley’s is a popular waterfront restaurant with nice views of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of their menu options include fresh seafood.

There are cheaper, more casual seafood restaurants too, including The Shrimp Shack. It’s more of a no-frills place which specializes in shrimp, caught from the Gulf of Mexico. They are also popular for their oysters.

Accommodations

Because of its New Urbanist design, there are not any high-rise hotels, or resorts in Seaside. Vacation rentals are the most common form of vacation lodging. 

There are many local vacation rental agencies in Seaside which rent beach houses directly, and the major names like AirBnB and VRBO are also popular. 

Booking sites sometimes have a higher cost than direct bookings. 

Vacation Rentals

There are many vacation rentals in Seaside and nearby. 

If you rent a beach house in Seaside, be sure to ask the owners about private beach access. 

Many people who rent beach houses are shocked to learn that their expensive vacation rental doesn’t automatically include access to the beach!

Hotels

There are a very limited number of hotels anywhere near Seaside compared to other Florida beach towns. 

The most obvious choice is the Watercolor Inn, a luxury beachfront resort with ocean views, a beach club with several pools and a lazy river, outdoor activities, watersports, beach bonfires and more.

It’s a good idea to book in advance, especially during peak travel season, to ensure availability and the best hotel rates.

Campgrounds

For those who prefer camping, there are a few campgrounds near Seaside to choose from. 

These campgrounds offer a more affordable alternative to hotels, vacation rentals or resorts. The most popular campgrounds near Seaside include:

  • Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
  • Grayton Beach State Park

It’s important to note that campgrounds can fill up quickly during peak travel season, so it is recommended to book in advance. 

Living in Seaside, Florida

Living in Seaside is a dream for many people, especially people who retire to Florida. But, like any place, living in Seaside does have downsides, including some that are unique to this community.

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Some of the best and worst things about living in Seaside come from its status as an unincorporated master-planned community, rather than a traditional city structure.

This designation gives the local community a large degree of control over the town’s direction – which can be good, but it can also create frustrations for residents when there are conflicts of opinion.

Seaside is not governed by a city council or representative municipal government. Instead, the community zoning regulations are determined by the community developers and HOAs.

Things like architectural review committees, HOA rules and other restrictions can provide a level of security and consistency throughout the community, but many people find these restrictions and rules to be annoying when they have to live under them. This is a common theme throughout Florida.

Other master-planned, New Urbanist communities near Seaside include Watercolor, Seacrest, Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach. Some of these sister beach towns were designed by the same team of architects and city planners who designed and developed Seaside, including Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach.

Each of these communities have unique architectural designs, but all share a similar feel and approach to community planning.

Pros of Living in Seaside

Seaside, Florida is a lovely town in a beautiful stretch of the Gulf Coast. There are many obvious benefits to living in Seaside:

  • Access to beautiful beaches with crystal-clear waters and white sand
  • A variety of nearly year-round outdoor activities, including swimming, tennis, walking trails, and biking
  • A close, tight-knit community of mostly friendly people and a strong sense of community
  • A wide selection of dining options with a variety of restaurants, including fresh seafood
  • A laid-back, relaxed lifestyle that makes it easy to unwind and enjoy life
  • A walkable city which may reduce the need for private car usage

Cons of Living in Seaside

While Seaside has plenty of great things to offer, there are also some downsides to living in this small town. Many of these things are the “flip side of the coin” to the good things about living in Seaside:

  • A high cost of living, especially because of expensive real estate and high fees
  • Limited local job opportunities. Most employment options are the tourism and hospitality industries, which tend to be low paying
  • Heavy traffic and crowds during peak tourist season, which can make it difficult and frustrating to get around town
  • Limited access to amenities and services that full-time residents want and need
  • Cold winter weather in the Florida panhandle
  • Some local residents and homeowners say they are frustrated by not having access to the private beaches, and squeezed into the small public beach access points.

Overall, Seaside, Florida is a wonderful place to live for the right person, especially those who are willing to acknowledge and accept the downsides.

History of Seaside and Surrounding Region

The Florida panhandle, and the site of modern-day Seaside, has been inhabited by humans for many thousands of years. 

Native American tribes lived in the region, and throughout Florida, long before Spanish explorers “discovered” Florida in the 1500s.

Several tribes lived in the area of modern day Walton County, including the Muscogee, Euchee and Creek tribes, among others. 

The panhandle began seeing its first “White” pioneer settlers arrive in the early 1800s. Timber harvesting, turpentine and forestry were the largest industries at the time. 

Walton County was founded in 1824, and various settlements were established. The population was approximately 1,207 as of the 1830 census.

The town of Seaside was founded in 1981 by Robert and Daryl Davis, a husband and wife team.

The founders of Seaside imagined a modern take on the classic small town. They imagined “human-centric” design which was pedestrian-friendly, and design elements which would help support a strong sense of community.

Before Seaside was developed this region of the Florida panhandle was mostly raw, undeveloped land, often described as “scrubland”. Most of the region was empty and undeveloped real estate was abundant and inexpensive.

That changed after builders transformed the area into an elegant, upscale destination.

Southern Architecture and New Urbanism

Architecture in Seaside is beautiful, charming, and often functional. The town has a strong classic southern feel, combined with a variety of contemporary design elements. 

Much of Seaside is modeled after classic southern cities. Many streets, buildings and courtyards feel like they would be right at home in Savannah, Charleston or New Orleans. 

Traditional southern architecture elements like high ceilings, large shaded porches, balconies and large windows are featured throughout Seaside. Many of these traditional southern architecture elements are practical features and help cope with intense summer heat and humidity.

Another strong architectural theme in Seaside is the use of wood-frame style beach cottage buildings, which were typical family beach vacation houses throughout the Florida panhandle. 

Many of the beach houses have large oceanfront balconies with sea views, and high “observation tower” rooms which offer sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Seaside’s architecture also incorporates a range of other architectural styles, including Victorian, New Classical, Modern, Postmodern, and others. This mix of styles creates a charming and eclectic feel.

New Urbanism

The small beach town of Seaside was the birthplace of the New Urbanism movement, and has become a model for many other New Urbanist communities.

New Urbanism is a design philosophy which prioritizes walkability and community-focused design, along with minimization of environmental footprint. The goal in Seaside was to create a community-minded model for future cities, which would promote strong communities.

The design of Seaside was intended to create a pedestrian-friendly community, where residents and visitors could easily walk or bike to shops, restaurants, and other daily necessities without the use of a car. 

When it was created Seaside was at the cutting edge of modern urban planning. Since then many New-Urbanist communities have been developed in its image.

Many of these New Urbanist communities are in Florida — The Disney community of Celebration feels similar to Seaside in many ways. Hundreds of other new urbanist communities have popped up around the U.S. and the world.

Overall, the architecture of Seaside is designed to create a sense of community and connection, while also providing a beautiful and functional living space for both residents and visitors.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Seaside is a great Florida beach town. It has a ton of character, many things to do, and the town itself is a monument to a different way of thinking about living, and urban planning. It’s interesting to see how different it feels when compared to typical urban sprawl.

Cover photo by M.Fitzsimmons, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons