Are you a huge beach buff who dreams of invitingly warm, brilliantly green, and irresistibly soothing seas? Look no further than the northwest Florida panhandle and Pensacola! While gorgeous weather and pristine beaches are the main reasons for constant tourist influx to Pensacola, the region offers much more for those interested in history, art culture, and all things nautical. Here’s our list of some of the top attractions in the Pensacola area.
Compared to the buzzing Miami Beach, Pensacola’s shoreline is much more secluded and serene: you won’t feel like you are on top of people while sunbathing in this low-key environment. Even relative to more populated beaches like those around Tampa Bay or Daytona, Pensacola flies under the traditional Florida tourist radar. But that’s good news for you! Take your time, find your perfect sunspot, and stretch out on the snow-white sand, leaving all your troubles behind. Let the wind tell you its story about the many miles it’s traveled and the places it’s been to. Let the sun caress you like a mother caressing a baby in her loving arms. Let go of everything and enjoy some of the best beaches in the United States.
You may even drift away while listening to the sound of the whispering waves, playfully touching the sand, and retreating back “home.” Whether you’re looking to take in a magical sunset, do some fishing into the clear waters off the Gulf Coast, or spot sea turtles from above, the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier is among the most popular spots in the region.
Just next to the pier and a short walk from the iconic Pensacola Beach Ball Water Tower sits Drift, a posh seafood spot and very cozy place perfectly suitable for all special occasions. If you want the best seat in the house (in my opinion it’s the terrace overlooking the magnificent Gulf shoreline), you better reserve it in advance as it gets booked up swiftly. The menu might not have the most abundant selection of entrees, but, no matter your pick, be prepared to satisfy your taste buds, whether you are feeling meat or fish tonight. Desserts are to-die-for at Drift, so, if you still have room in your tummy, go ahead, and indulge! Take some pictures overlooking the beach when you are done with your meal; the terrace offers outstanding views.
Pensacola Beach is a popular tourist spot especially for Midwesterners from April through August, but, in the fall and winter, mostly only the locals remain. Hot spots like Peg Leg Pete’s, Flounder’s Chowder House, the Sandshaker Lounge, and Bamboo Willie’s Beachside Bar slow down considerably in the offseason, but there’s still fun to be had on the weekends.
The legendary Blue Angels perform their annual NAS Pensacola Homecoming Airshow show every November. It’s impossible to miss, as you’ll hear the fighter planes before you see them. For two days, they fly low and loud during the afternoons across Pensacola Beach. It’s a spectacular show and there’s not a bad seat along the beach.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Looking for peak serenity? The Gulf Islands National Seashore spans the Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi to Florida, making it the longest stretch of protected seashore in the nation. The national seashore includes Santa Rosa Island, which plays host to Pensacola Beach, neighboring Navarre Beach and Okaloosa Island.
While Pensacola Beach has no shortage of restaurants, bars, and tourist attractions along the beach, the more deserted National Seashore sections of Santa Rosa Island offer even more untouched beaches and dunes. While the west side offers access to the Fort Pickens Area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the east side along Via De Luna Drive (Route 399) offers several miles of isolated coastline (and more importantly, beachside pull-outs and parking) that can feel like your own private island, especially early in the morning.
Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
For those of you who live and breathe all things nautical, come take a tour through the Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. If you’re curious about what life was like for an average lighthouse keeper, you’ll have your chance to find out here. The landmark was built in 1869 and housed lighthouse keepers’ families all the way until the middle of the 20th century.
It has been used as a full-time museum since 1995 with exciting exhibits to choose from. To name a few: walk through the Coast Guard exhibit where you learn about how this lighthouse (and most lighthouses in the U.S. for that matter) had a very tight-knit working relationship with coast guards all the way through the mid-1900 to react to any emergencies at sea. The History of Illumination exhibit will tell you about the main techniques used to light up this “sea beacon” and how they evolved with technological progress.
Big Lagoon State Park
Nature and outdoor sports enthusiasts will be able to find an activity here at Big Lagoon State Park perfectly suitable for their needs. From camping and picnicking to swimming, fishing, and kayaking, the park is full of life here. Even if you are not into water sports, you can bring your beach chair and a book to kick back, enjoying some quiet time (that is, when the song birds aren’t chirping away). And the latter are super abundant here, especially during migration seasons: nearly 23 species of the feathered creatures made Big Lagoon State Park their home. Bring some sunflower seeds if you want to treat them while relaxing on the park’s premises. Want to meet up with some friends and go boating? No problem at all, don’t forget to pack sunscreen though!
Pensacola Historic District
History buffs out there will be able to immerse themselves in the past by visiting the Historic Pensacola Village with its informative exhibits and enlightening group tours. Find out how and when Pensacola was established, who the first settlers were, and what types of trade were popular. Pay a visit to the Museum of Industry to learn what kept Pensacola financially afloat, explore many different artifacts that young Pensacola resident Jane Peaden brought from her many overseas adventures, admire one of the oldest structures of Florida state: the Old Christ Church, and dive deep into the world of creativity in the Pensacola Museum of Art.
If you’re looking for nightlife in nearby Downtown Pensacola, you’ll find plenty of options along Palafox Street, the city’s main drag, as well as a few side streets. From craft cocktails at Old Hickory Whiskey Bar to dive-bar stylings at Intermission and arcade-style bar hopping in Seville Quarter, there’s an option for everyone’s taste on a Pensacola Saturday night.
Pensacola Museum of Art
Still have time to enjoy artwork? Come by and discover many contemporary pieces created by artists such as the American freelance painter Alexander Calder, Japanese artist Kyohei Inukai, Cuban postwar art wizard Emilio Adan Martinez, and many more.
The Pensacola Museum of Art was built first as a prison in 1906 and served its primary purpose for about 40 years until there were more inmates incarcerated than the structure could fit.
In 1954 a group of female art enthusiasts decided it was time to give former jail a more meaningful purpose and developed an art center instead. The modern-day Pensacola Museum of Art first saw the light of day in 1982.
Saenger Theatre Pensacola
Constructed in 1925, Saenger Theatre Pensacola housed many Broadway-style shows, silent-screen films, and road shows. As the movie industry evolved, it became more of a traditional movie theater until it ceased to exist in 1975. It was restored and reopened its doors in 1981, emerging as Pensacola’s major performing arts oasis.
Today the theatre is fully operational, inviting guests to enjoy symphony orchestra concerts, Broadway plays, ballet, and magical opera performances. If you have time while in Pensacola and would like to immerse yourself in the arms of esthetics, don’t pass it by.
Take a step back into the historic past with a tour of Fort Pickens, where reinforced walls have protected the harbor since the land around Pensacola became American territory in 1819. The construction launched in 1828 and lasted six years, concluding in 1834. Fort Pickens became an important Florida “guard” with its many cannons and guns at the ready to counterattack. By the time it was finished, the pentagon-shaped outpost became the largest brick fortress in the Gulf of Mexico area. Fort Pickens remained in use until 1947; today the site features a busy campground near the ruins of a once-proud military installation.
Want more of the beach life after all the historic site-hopping? Perdido Key is calling! This gorgeous island stretches from Pensacola all the way to Orange Beach in Alabama. If you are visiting the Big Lagoon State Park, you can hop right over onto the magnificently white beaches of Perdido; they are right next door to each other. You can start by soaking up the sun and maybe surfing a little if the seas allow. Note: it’s a good idea to get out of the heat during the sun’s peak hours between 12 and 3 pm.
In the meantime, you can cool off by sipping a few delish cocktails at a nearby restaurant or bar, staying safely in the shade. If you feel like fresh seafood, be sure to check out one of the most popular eateries in Perdido: The Shrimp Basket. This is marine heaven for those who just can’t live without the delicacies the sea has to offer.