30A 30 Ways

Ideas for adventuring along a classic coastal road in Florida

Photo: Courtesy of Seaside, Florida

The beach at Seaside, Florida.

Scenic Highway 30A is a twenty-four-mile road running along the sugar-sand beaches of South Walton County in the Florida Panhandle. But it’s also an area—and, even more so, a vibe—anchored by a special slice of #beachlife across some sixteen coastal communities, from the boho artist enclave of Grayton Beach to the tony villas of Alys Beach. 

Seaside, the area’s original planned community built in 1981, catapulted 30A into national fame in 1998 as the backdrop for The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. These days, the corridor’s popularity shows no signs of dimming (and summer is, not surprisingly, insanely busy). Even so, 30A manages to retain its laid-back charm and character—something I, as a semi-local who was born and raised in the Panhandle, can attest to from my cherished visits home. Here, I drew on my own favorite memories and polled in-the-know locals to compile thirty ways to do 30A right, whether it’s your first visit or your thirtieth.  

Cruise the Timpoochee Trail on two wheels

That ribbon of concrete running the length of Scenic Highway 30A is called the Timpoochee Trail: an 18.5-mile stretch from Dune Allen Beach to Inlet Beach that’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists going both ways. Bike rentals are available all along the path—grab one with a basket to stash a towel and sunscreen, and cool off at a beach access point.

Lean into the longstanding allure of The Red Bar

In 2019, this Grayton Beach institution (its official name, which nobody really uses, is The Red Bar & Piccolo Restaurant) burned to the ground. But walking through the mural-painted front door you’d never know: The memorabilia-filled oasis, with its delightful hodgepodge of Christmas lights, street signs, and mismatched furniture, plus a dedicated corner for live music, looks almost identical to when it opened in 1995 in a former general store. The menu hasn’t changed much either (order the crab cakes before they sell out). The Red Bar’s chill vibe continues to draw as many locals as it does visitors, but it doesn’t take reservations—just grab a drink and prepare to wait, especially in high season. And don’t even think about finding parking: Instead, take the free Grayton Beach tram, which drops you off just down the street.

Visit The Zoo (Gallery)

Since 1979, this Panhandle art shop has been showcasing quirky, whimsical creations by American artists, from driftwood sculptures to funky jewelry; its unique Zoo Gallery T-shirts are top sellers too. At the Grayton Beach location, you can even stay in the Airbnb perched above the store.

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Enjoy a 30A art walk

This part of the Panhandle has drawn artists for decades, but sometimes it’s overwhelming for visitors to know how to dig in. Exhibits and gallery events pop up all the time around 30A, but standbys on the calendar include the First Friday Art Walk, featuring works by local artists across 30A and South Walton County, and Third Thursday by the Artists Warehouse of South Walton, a Santa Rosa gallery that opens up more than a dozen of its studios.

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Take a postcard-perfect photo

“If you’re a nature lover, be sure to bring a good DSLR or mirrorless camera when you visit,” says area photographer Susan Gunn. She has other tips for making the most of the “photographer’s playground” that is 30A: “Our most famous coastal dune lake, Western Lake, is the one not to miss. Be sure to carry a telephoto and wide angle lens if you decide to explore places like Point Washington National Forest, Deer Lake Park, or Topsail Preserve, just to name a few of my favorites. Of course, the beaches will not disappoint for photographing some of the world’s most dynamic sunsets. Pro tip: If you’re looking for that stunning ‘fireball’ effect, I recommend a telephoto shot just as the sun is preparing to sink into the Gulf of Mexico.”

photo: Susan Gunn
Western Coastal Dune Lake at night.

Enjoy Alys Beach’s architecture and festivals

Upscale Alys Beach is known for its Bermudan architecture; the entire beachside community is made up of stark white stucco homes, villas, and courtyards. Every May, the bright white walls transform into a sea of canvases glowing with eye-popping works by artists, producers, and other creative visionaries during Digital Graffiti. In the fall, Alys Beach Crafted gathers renowned “makers and shakers,” who share their talents in the form of handcrafted textiles, jewelry, and paintings as well as craft cocktails.

photo: Ally Sloway
A projection from the Digital Graffiti show.

Rise and dine 

Breakfast is the star of the show at the Inlet Beach outpost of The Donut Hole (located on the eastern end of 30A), a beloved Panhandle diner in business since 1978. Omelets and fluffy homemade biscuits are perfect fuel-ups for beach days, but the namesake treats are especially worth wrecking a low-carb diet. Order a dozen donuts in flavors like red velvet, devil’s food, and key lime.

Listen to world-famous artists at the 30A Songwriters Festival

“I probably spent every Sunday afternoon of my twenties listening to live music at the Red Bar,” says Jennifer Steele, the executive director of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County. “I’ve always appreciated the developments, restaurants, and bars along 30A and beyond that have supported local musicians by making live music a part of their business model. However, before the 30A Songwriters Festival, many of these places were closed during January.” Now, the winter festival brings music lovers back to the region with four days of performances from nearly two hundred artists (like Mary Gauthier and Lyle Lovett) across thirty venues.

Do a deep (scuba) dive into art appreciation

An octopus, a diamond ring, a pineapple: These are just a handful of the sculptures awaiting discovery nearly sixty feet below the aquamarine waters just off Grayton Beach State Park. Since its creation in 2018, the Underwater Museum of Art, which claims to be the first of its kind in the U.S., grows with a juried selection of works from artists all over the world. The installation pulls double duty as a living reef that attracts all kinds of marine life. 

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Hit the pillow at The Pearl Hotel

Breezy, elegant coastal decor, dynamite Gulf views from balconies with kicky black-and-white awnings, mini cheesecakes during turndown service: There’s a lot to love about the fifty-five-room Pearl Hotel, a boutique property in Rosemary Beach that also has its own dedicated beach, complete with complimentary beach chairs and umbrellas. The on-site Havana Beach Bar & Grill pays homage to Cuban cuisine and culture—order the El Supremo Cubano sandwich and a Hemingway Daiquiri (two signature items on the recently tweaked menu) and say salud to Papa.

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Live the YOLO vibe on a paddleboard

“When we first introduced paddleboarding to the 30A area in 2007, people were skeptical,” says Jeff Archer, owner of YOLO Board & Bike. “Now that most people realize how easy it is, the paddling population has exploded. With its diversity of flat water, 30A is one of the best places on the planet to paddle, including for first-timers.” He shares his best paddle trips and tips: “Western Lake, from downtown Grayton Beach, is a great take-off spot to explore the lake and offers a short scenic paddle directly to the beach. Another great paddle is out to the SWARA [South Walton Artificial Reef Association] artificial reefs, which always has local marine life like turtles, fish, and octopus. Check our weather and wind forecasts before planning a trip, and always, always, always wear a leash.”

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Celebrate sea glass

Finding a piece of sea glass is lovely, sure. But to really elevate your beach memento, create a DIY piece (a sea star or shell, perhaps?) from colorful glass bits at The Shard Shop in Grayton. For some inspiration for your next project, pop into local artist Mary Hong’s studio next door.

Snap up local seafood specialties

“30A is similar to some parts of the Philippines, where I grew up, and where it’s very laid-back and has that beachy small-town feel,” says Camille Withall, the executive chef at the upscale-casual eatery George’s at Alys Beach. “We are very lucky with such great seafood options available locally, and my favorite would be the red snapper. It’s the perfect mild, flaky white fish that is so versatile to prepare. It’s a staple at George’s, crusted with Caribbean jerk seasoning. Whenever I have it at home, just a simple piccata is my go-to, with a side of garlic pasta, or as fish ‘nuggets’ for my kids.”

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Eat your heart out at Airstream Row

This charmingly retro Seaside attraction started in 2000 with Frost Bites selling shaved ice from a vintage Airstream trailer. Nowadays, the vendor has plenty of company from other Airstream-based eateries, including Barefoot BBQ, grilled cheese purveyor The Meltdown on 30A, and Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs. Grab-and-go is, of course, the deal (order online for easy pickup sans lengthy lines), but half the fun is doing an impromptu picnic on the grassy area near the amphitheater. 

Go seaside shopping

The upscale retailers at 30Avenue, just off Highway 98 in Inlet Beach, offer an array of high-end, beach-inspired home goods, clothing, and more (as well as some solid restaurants for a post-spree nosh). For a well-edited selection of perfumes, soaps, and candles, Pish Posh Patchouli’s in Rosemary Beach hits the spot. If you’re more of a T-shirt type, the “I Called In Sea Sick” shirt by Coast Hippie, a lifestyle brand (with a brick and mortar shop in Seagrove) owned by two sisters and longtime residents, is a crowd favorite, especially among beach bums.

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Soak up the sunset at the original 30A rooftop bar

There’s no shortage of local watering holes from which to watch the sunset, but the inimitable original, Bud & Alley’s, stands in a class all its own. The Seaside establishment opened in 1987 when there wasn’t much else around, and its award-winning restaurant has since expanded to include a taco bar and pizzeria. But the rooftop bar remains the heart of the place: Grab a cocktail and join in the decades-strong tradition of ringing the bell when the sun slips into the Gulf.

Catch a wave

The Gulf of Mexico may not dish up waves as gnarly as its Atlantic Coast counterparts, but this neck of the woods still boasts a thriving surf community (which kicks into high gear when hurricane season churns things up). Newbies can learn how to start shredding with lessons from local stars: Austin Magee’s Surf School in Seaside or ​​Grayton Beach Surf Club, run by fourth-generation resident Taylor Frappier.

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Cheers to a locally made spirit

Distillery 98, which spans an on-site distillery and lovely tasting room in Santa Rosa Beach, opened in 2019. “We’re a true grain-to-table microdistillery and use all Florida grain to make our product,” says co-owner Harrison Holditch. Local corn, citrus, and honey are part of the spirits’ makeup. “Our area also has some of the world’s best oysters, and we wanted to make a label that showcased this: Half Shell Vodka,” Holditch says. “We also use a filter that has coconut carbon and oyster shells. The oyster shells are cleaned to remove the protein that messes with allergies. This also seems to help balance the pH out, making for a smoother spirit.”

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Toast s’mores over a beach bonfire

Surprising fact: Temperatures in the Panhandle can get quite chilly come late fall and winter, but a toasty beach bonfire is a terrific way to ward off the temps. DIYers can obtain a permit ($50) via the South Walton Fire District, but you can also hand off the hassle (and cleanup) to the likes of 30A Blaze Beach Bonfires or Pirate’s Life Beach Bonfires, which take care of everything from chairs to fixings for s’mores.

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Find inspiration in nature

Spend enough time outdoors around 30A, and you’re sure to stumble upon a memorable sight. Take it from Andy Saczynski, a mixed-media artist who has a gallery at the Shops of Grayton and also sells his work online. “I grew up in a time when nature was pretty much the only entertainment we had around here, and I’m forever drawn back to the outdoors. I usually start out every day in the Gulf either surfing, mostly longboard, or paddle boarding. I recently had a large spinner shark jump out of the water about ten feet in front of me—it was incredible and shocking at the same time.” 

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Chill (and pig) out at The Big Chill

Formerly known as The Hub, this open-air food hall near Watersound Beach is the place to go when your gang just can’t agree on where (or what) to eat. The half-dozen or so vendors span Mexican, seafood, all-American eats, and ice cream. Family movie nights and activities like cornhole keep kiddos happy, and dogs are welcome too. 

Camp near a quiet beach

Outdoor enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to find more pristine beach-centric sites than those in this neck of the woods. At Topsail Hill Preserve, a 1,600-acre preserve, campers can pitch a tent, bunk in a bungalow or cabin, or opt for an RV spot. At the 2,000-acre Grayton Beach State Park, fifty-nine scenic sites are available. Prefer a few creature comforts while roughing it? Fancy Camps partners with Florida State Parks to provide swanky tents decked out with pillow-top mattresses and air conditioning at both locations. Book as far ahead as possible for overnight stays, especially in high season; day visits to the parks are free during summer.

Run down 30A

Trade your flip flops for sneakers at the annual Seaside School Half-Marathon and 5K, a spring charity event for Florida’s oldest operating public charter school. The flat out-and-back course along Scenic Highway 30A itself means fast times for serious runners. Year-round, the organization also recommends a handful of trails for runners of all skill levels.

Take a self-guided design and film tour around Seaside

Design and architecture aficionados may recognize Seaside as one of the earliest examples of New Urbanism, a design movement based on walkability, with its charming town center and pastel-colored homes. Film buffs, meanwhile, should check out The Truman Show sites like Modica Market, the post office, and the Natchez Street cottage that Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank called home (no judgment if you can’t help quoting his signature line: “Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”)

photo: Courtesy of Seaside, Florida
Rooftops at Seaside.

Savor a perfect beach read

Family-owned Sundog Books has been a Seaside institution for nearly four decades. “Not surprisingly, I am always asked for recommendations for great beach reads,” says Michelle Hayes Uhlfelder, one of its directors. “There are almost too many to choose from, but here are a few of my top picks (and yes, you can find them all at Sundog!): The Golden Spoon is a fabulous light mystery about a baking show at a Vermont manor that turns into a version of ‘Clue.’ The Guest by Emma Cline is strange, deviant, and engrossing, and all about rich people. Drowning by T.J. Newman is very smart and has gotten amazing reviews, and I loved the first thriller she wrote, Falling. Finally, my cheekiest pick for beach reading is Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke, about how female backsides have been scrutinized and criticized over the years.”

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Sip local suds

Pioneer Grayton Beer Company started brewing 30A’s growing beer scene in 2011; its 30A Beach Blonde Ale now appears in grocery stores all the way to Texas but remains a mainstay on local taps. The landscape continues to expand, with more brewpubs, bars, and tasting rooms building buzz around an unofficial 30A beer trail of sorts. A few recommended picks: Beach Camp Brewpub, Idyll Hounds Brewing Company, and Growler Garage.

Admire open-air art

30A is brimming with excellent artist galleries, but there’s open-air art on display as well; you just have to know where to look. Along the Watersound Monarch Art Trail, eight original sculptures, complete with lighting, seating, and signage, line the mile-long walking and bike path connecting Highway 98 and 30A. At Alys Beach, the ever-growing permanent collection of artworks and sculptures include Leda, a mermaid statue (weighing a whopping 1,800 pounds) in Arboleda Park by local artist Steve Wagner.

Go for the royal treatment

“Royal Red shrimp taste like a cross between lobster and scallops, and most local places carry them,” says personal chef Dan Vargo of Fine Coastal Cuisine of the king of Gulf shrimp. Royal Red season usually runs from late summer to late fall. “Make sure you purchase Royal Reds that are bright red in color, and their flippers should be glossy and pink,” Vargo says. “A crowd favorite recipe of ours is Citrus Marinated Royal Reds. We use fresh lemon, lime, and orange zest mixed with chives, our Fine Coastal Spice Blend, and olive oil to infuse the shrimp before grilling them.”

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Visit the other 30A

“About an hour east of 30A in the Panhandle is the slower-paced ‘Forgotten Coast,’ which some refer to as the ‘Other 30A,’” says Melissa Farrell, who co-wrote the book Saints of Old Florida about the area. Farrell also owns the shop Joseph’s Cottage in downtown Port Saint Joe, and she and her family reside in Saint Joe Beach. “Our ‘day off’ ritual on most sunny Sunday afternoons is a beach drive on Cape San Blas, finding shade under a palm tree to lounge, and floating in the sparkling water of the Gulf of Mexico. On our way home, we’ll stop at St. Joe Shrimp Company and pick up fresh smoked mullet dip and steamed shrimp for Sunday supper. At home, we make a simple homemade cocktail sauce (ketchup, horseradish, and lots of fresh lemon juice) and a minty rum mojito. This is my way to reset for the start of a new week.”

Bring the beach home

“The 30A design aesthetic has become more elevated in the last several years with the continued development of communities like Alys Beach,” says Mary Clark, an interior designer and founder of Alys Beach shops including SummerStory, Parasol, Bebette, and Holiday Cafe. She shares some of her most helpful design pointers: “I love a neutral color palette in a coastal setting, with layers of bleached and patina-ed woods, plus natural fabrics and rugs like cotton, linen, and hemp. Right now I am adding textured linen sheers to windows that play off the beautiful, natural light in our area to create a moody, shadow effect. If you’re looking to add an element of color, muted tones that mimic the greens and blues of the Gulf are best. Shop the local merchants for teak side tables, woven or rope pendant lights, and vintage rattan chairs to add a relaxed, beachy vibe to your space back home.”