Pensacola offers 52 miles of sugar-white beaches, a 400-year history, year-round festivals, outdoor adventures, and a world class aviation museum, as well as outstanding accommodations, facilities, and professional service. Southern hospitality combined with an uncluttered coast provide you with an ideal setting.
Located in the westernmost corner of Florida’s Panhandle, Pensacola’s vibrant cultural events and potpourri of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs make for a memorable vacation.
Pensacola was the first city settled by Europeans in America, making for a history that dates back more than 400 years. The city has changed hands more than a dozen times in actions involving Spain, France, England, the Confederacy and the United States, giving Pensacola the nickname “City of Five Flags.”
With just over 400,000 population, Pensacola is small enough to have the personal touch and large enough to be cosmopolitan. We were surprised to learn that Pensacola is North America’s oldest European settlement, dating back to 1559. Spanish settlers soon started to grow grapes here, but more about that later. The city itself has been under the control of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the United States, hence the nickname City of Five Flags.
In and around the area, you’ll find historic sites, pristine beaches nuzzling up to emerald green waters and good old fashioned Southern charm. There are ample hotels on Pensacola Beach, many with fantastic offseason deals in January and February. Our plans called for a beach stroll, dinner with a view and a splash of Irish pub style nightlife.
Pensacola area visitors will find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world at Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach. We had a chance to explore Gulf Islands National Seashore, the longest tract of protected seashore in the country. You can fish, surf, collect seashells or just soak in the sun and scenery.
Pensacola’s breathtaking beaches offer the perfect setting for a seaside vacation. Most are protected by federal and state programs that keep them pristine and easily accessible to the public. Spend a day at Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key Beach, or the Gulf Islands National Seashore to experience the Gulf Coast at its finest.
Out on Pensacola Beach is the Paradise Bar and Grill, a comfortable destination we imagine would be buzzing in high season. The view is spectacular, the fish is fresh and the beer is cold. Our dinner consisted of grilled fish sandwiches (grouper and amberjack) and beer boiled Gulf shrimp. The sunset was an added bonus!
From here, it was off to a place we’ve long wanted to visit, McGuire’s Irish Pub. Located on Gregory Street in downtown Pensacola, McGuire’s is housed in Pensacola’s original firehouse building. Billed as a “turn of the century New York Irish saloon,” McGuire’s is friendly and fun. They offer a pub menu but the real star is the beer — it’s brewed onsite. McGuire’s is Florida’s original brewpub, and you won’t go wrong with a pint or two of McGuire’s Irish Stout or the chocolaty McGuire’s Porter. We learned McGuire’s is quite renowned for their steaks and burgers, and they looked and smelled great coming out of the kitchen. There’s nightly entertainment and a congenial, welcoming crowd.
The next morning proved ideal for exploring a bit of Pensacola’s natural beauty. Several state parks offer perfect vistas for enjoying views of the Gulf, particularly Bay Bluff Park, with huge dune bluffs overlooking the water. We also spent some time at nearby Edward Ball Nature Preserve, home of “Captain Thunder,” a 10-foot-long three-legged alligator, who seems thriving and content despite loss of limb.
With some late morning time devoted to sightseeing, we hit the Pensacola Historic District to wander the specialty shops. Of particular note is Atelier Alcaniz Art and Gift Gallery, where you won’t be able to help yourself from taking home a unique piece of pottery, hand spun in back. There’s also Suellen’s Secret, a fresh and feminine resale shop offering great bargains on previously loved fashions. And don’t miss the Aragon Wine Market for unique wines from around the world. Top it off with lunch at the renowned and entirely approachable Atlas Oyster House, just steps away from all the shops.
Historic Pensacola Village
Numerous sites around Pensacola tell stories about the area’s engaging history. Historic Pensacola Village offers peeks into several restored homes in the city’s downtown historical district. Two forts – Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens – were held by opposite forces during the Civil War.
Several museums, including the National Museum of Naval Aviation and T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum, provide more educational outlets. The Wentworth museum features a special children’s area with hands-on activities and displays of particular interest to children.
Pensacola’s outdoor activities abound. Fish off the 1.5-mile-long Pensacola Bay Fishing Bridge, which parallels the three-mile bridge that links the mainland to the town of Gulf Breeze; or the Bob Sikes Fishing Bridge, connecting Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Windsurf, snorkel, or scuba in the Gulf or Pensacola Bay. Canoe through the Blackwater River State Recreation Area or camp at dozens of sites throughout the region.
Experience wildlife up close at The ZOO near Gulf Breeze, which is home to more than 700 animals and an eye-catching botanical garden. Windows in the commissary let visitors watch foods being prepared for the animals. Elsewhere at The ZOO, a tall platform gives visitors a chance to hand-feed a giraffe. And for an up-close look, catch a ride on the Safari Line train for a fun-filled excursion through 30 acres of free-roaming animals in their natural habitat.
Dozens of golf courses dot the area. With Pensacola’s sunny weather, golfers can play year-round. Pensacola Greyhound Track packs a full slate of live greyhound racing and frequent simulcast horse racing. Bikers enjoy 25 miles of a nearly unbroken pavement that winds around Santa Rosa Sound from Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach along Santa Rosa Island and through the town of Gulf Breeze.
Festivals, scheduled throughout the year, add to Pensacola’s cultural attractions. The Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival draws tens of thousands to historic Seville Square to view and purchase a range of art. The city’s downtown also offers the Pensacola Museum of Art, housed in the old city jail, and the Pensacola Cultural Center, which stages several theatrical performances each season. In addition, local and national musical groups and theater troupes perform at the beautifully restored Saenger Theatre.
Florida SpringFest, held in May, features nationally recognized musical groups during the well-attended, popular festival. Sam’s Fun City Amusement Park hosts events throughout the year and features re-creations of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, a 45-foot tall Ferris wheel, carousel, several amusement rides, an arcade, miniature golf, and go-kart tracks. Sam’s Surf City Water Park is the newest addition.
Pensacola’s cultural experiences don’t stop with the eyes and ears. Taste the delectable choices for which Pensacola’s restaurants receive acclaim. Sample Southern barbecue, fresh seafood, Cajun specialties, or stick with traditional dishes such as succulent steaks or juicy burgers.
The variety of Pensacola’s nightlife guarantees that everyone can find his or her niche. The majority of bars, restaurants, and dance clubs populate the beaches and downtown areas, and attract fans of all ages. Live music prevails at many clubs, with jazz, country, Cajun, reggae, folk, and rock tunes featured, and the techno-beat of dance clubs draws college students and the military crowd.
Known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” thousands of military aviators and support personnel have at one time or another made Pensacola their home. Several bases throughout the area continue to train military personnel. The National Museum of Naval Aviation, one of the three largest aviation museums in the world, is located on Pensacola Naval Air Station. The museum provides a stunning display of aircrafts from the early days of naval flight to space travel. The museum also features an IMAX theater and fascinating exhibits on topics such as prisoners of war in Vietnam, a recreated World War II town, and a walk-through partial replica of a ship. The aviation museum’s Flight Adventure Deck offers youth groups interactive, Smithsonian-quality displays on topics ranging from gravity to aerodynamics.
Just around the corner, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels practice at their home base. The team performs throughout the country during its season but gives Pensacola visitors a chance to watch weekly practices. They also perform two shows in Pensacola – one in July and one in November.
Other military-related sites in Pensacola include a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and two well-preserved forts, Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas.