(UPDATED OCT 2021) Pensacola is a hop, skip, and jump from the Alabama state line in Florida’s westernmost panhandle. Here, you’ll find spectacular beaches, delicious eats, impressive shopping, and a multitude of attractions in this Florida gem. You’ll also find these treasures at a fraction of the cost from some of Florida’s more talked about cities. I was shocked at how beautiful the water is, how delicious the food was, and how much I loved this part of the Sunshine State. Here are some of the top things to do in Pensacola, FL.
Stroll Around in the Historic Downtown
Palafox Historic District is the main artery running through Downtown Pensacola. You’ll find a wealth of alluring restaurants, cafes, boutique shops, historic theaters and churches, and interesting art offerings. Pensacola, The City of Five Flags, has been ruled by the US, Spain, France, Britain, and the confederacy since 1559 when Don Tristan de Luna founded it.
The Pensacola area’s history is noticeable in the Spanish Renaissance and Mediterranean-inspired architectural component, easily enough to justify a road trip to see it. Saturdays you can visit the Palafox Market. Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza holds the market where you can enjoy shopping for local wares, fresh produce, plants, baked goods, and art from 8 AM to 2 PM.
While strolling in downtown Pensacola, be sure to check out the historic Rex theater, which is now a church. You can also pick up your favorite candies, homemade ice cream, or retro candies at golf great Bubba’s (Watson) Sweet Spot or bath goodies at Belle Ame′ Bath and Body shop.
Pay close attention to the fun murals around town and even the cha-cha steps on the sidewalk, where I witnessed over a dozen people stopping to try the dance-inspired from the art installment.
Quench your thirst in Downtown Pensacola with one of the 100+ beers offered at World of Beer, a signature cocktail or adult milkshake at The Tin Cow, or a delicious coffee from Fosko Coffee Barre.
If visiting Pensacola at night, the Plaza Ferdinand is lovely adorned with dozens of lights. This National Historic Landmark is where Florida was taken from Spain 200 years ago. A statue of Andrew Jackson where he accepted Florida into the Union marks the spot.
Visit Pensacola’s Great Attractions
You’ll find that Pensacola is the home of the famous US Navy Blue Angels, the Navy’s daredevil flight demonstration squad and one that is a real treat to watch. You can enjoy a glimpse of them practicing their maneuvers a few days of the week.
I highly recommend this. Living in Florida, I’ve seen the Blue Angels fly in at football games, practice in several cities, and perform their aero-acrobatics in my town of Vero Beach. It is always a treat and keeps me biting my nails from nerves.
Sports are big in Pensacola, with hockey and baseball being the most talked-about minor league options. The Pensacola Ice Flyers play hockey October through March at the Pensacola Bay Center. If you’ve never attended a hockey game live, it is so much fun and you don’t have to know anything about the sport to enjoy it.
Pensacola’s baseball team, the Blue Wahoos, the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, play in a gorgeous stadium in town. The low prices make this outing very attractive.
Pensacola has several museums to visit. My favorite is the Pensacola Museum of Art, a contemporary space with thought-provoking local, regional, and international artworks. They have several noteworthy events at the museum, which was the city jailhouse at the turn of the century, too.
Those with kids will want to pop in the Children’s Museum for the interactive exhibits and then make their way to Pensacola’s Splash Pad.
One of the most popular Pensacola attractions is the National Naval Aviation Museum, housing 100+ restored military aircraft, a flight simulator, and an extensive collection of Blue Angels memorabilia. Admission to the National Naval Museum is free.
See the Cool Parks and Outdoor Opportunities
I’m always up for getting my National Parks passport stamped, and you can do just that at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You’ll find a private swimming spot, the Fort Pickens Discovery Center, Pensacola Lighthouse, hiking trails, and much more.
Fort Pickens Discovery Center is one of only four southern forts never captured by the Confederates during the Civil War. It was used to protect the naval yard from attacks. Be sure to inquire about ranger-led guided tours if that interests you. Admission to the park is by vehicle. Consider bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy the picturesque setting to its fullest.
The Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, circa 1859, has helped boaters navigate through the Gulf of Mexico for years. Climb to the top for excellent photo-ops.
Outdoor activities are abundant in Pensacola, fishing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, and boating being incredibly popular. Some of the fish you may catch are mackerel, Mali-Mahi, redfish, flounder, amberjack, and snapper.
Attend Two Fun Festivals
I had the chance to attend two kick-ass festivals in Pensacola and wow, were they fantastic! Pensacola’s annual FooFoo Festival is a great time, with 12 days of fun planned all day and night. The variety of art offerings at the festival range from gallery exhibits to readings, live concerts to glass-blowing, watching muralists and painters, and dance recitals—there is something for everyone.
Fred Kahl, a world-famous glass artist from New York, was my favorite part of the FooFoo Fest. During the 3D Printsacola, he combined machine generative glass art to demonstrate and make a one-of-a-kind glassware piece with carved molds that would sell for thousands.
The second festival pays tribute to The Big Green Egg, a staple at our household for outdoor grilling. EggFest, the best BBQ party on the Gulf, takes place in November at the Blue Wahoos Stadium and gathers over 100 participants cooking on ceramic Big Green Eggs for various prizes.
Visitors can attend from noon to 3 PM on Sunday to sample everything and anything being prepared for the contest. Some of the foods I saw were pulled pork, steaks, creative appetizers, desserts, and many bourbon-based treats. I only visited a handful of booths, but there was plenty of food and, what I tried was really delicious. EggFest proceeds go to charity.
Enjoy the Picture-Perfect Beaches
Warm blue water and spacious white sand beaches line the Pensacola Bay of Santa Rosa Island, situated in the Gulf of Mexico. The waves at Pensacola Beach are gentle here on the Gulf Coast, so you can enjoy playing in the surf easier than in some areas in Florida.
Within steps, you can even explore Pensacola Beach Boardwalk, an excellent family-friendly shopping and entertainment area without moving your car. Be sure to have your picture made in the legendary clamshell, famous on Pensacola Beach.
Sip a frozen tropical drink from Bamboo Willie’s while overlooking scenic Quietwater Beach or freshen up your beach wardrobe at one of the boardwalk’s coastal outfitters. You can even schedule a dolphin tour or rent jet skis from this location. To see more of Pensacola Beach, hop on the free trolley that stops here Memorial Day through Labor Day.
See Photo-Worthy Signs & Murals
Pensacola has a lot of neat signs and murals to photograph, starting with the neon Pensacola Beach sign is straight out of the 60s with a yellow-green-orange finned sailfish colored sailfish atop the flashing sign. It is hard to find a good pullover spot for the iconic Gulf Breeze landmark nighttime picture, but well worth the try. The sign pointing to the Bob Sikes Bridge also touts that Pensacola Beach has the world’s whitest (sand) beaches.
There are dozens of historical markers in Pensacola. From Civil Rights Sites (Pensacola lunch counter sit-ins) to Emanuel Point Shipwreck, it is fun to track them and learn history while you’re at it. A few of my favorites were the St. Johns Historic Cemetery, North Hill Preservation District, and the fragments that belong to the Mississippi Blues Trail, which I was shocked to see in Florida.
Did you know that Pensacola was known for blues, ragtime, jazz, and vaudeville in the early years?
Forty-one colorful fiberglass pelicans (Pensacola in Paradise) are worth checking out—and photographing around town.
Feast in Pensacola
There are nearly 600 restaurants in the Pensacola area per Trip Advisor, with seafood dining being the most popular option. Enjoy your favorites from The Fish House, or try a mouth-watering steak at Jackson’s Steakhouse.
Ruby Slipper was where I had the best gourmet breakfast, namely the Eggs Benedict Trio. Five Sister’s Blues Cafe has a scrumptious lunch menu (with the best fried chicken) and is a pleasant walk from Downtown Pensacola if you want to sightsee on foot.
You can read more about Pensacola’s delicious food in our Dining Guide.
Stay for a Few Days
I enjoyed the spacious and comfortable, stylish hotel rooms at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Hotel. This property is massive and offers everything you can imagine, with rooms overlooking the peaceful Gulf of Mexico. The hotel even has family-style accommodations with three bedrooms, if needed. Each room has a microwave, coffee maker, and refrigerator.
The main restaurant was packed each night with just as many locals as guests. I loved seeing so much energy in the hotel’s attractive lobby, four restaurants, pool, and common areas. The Hilton’s beachside swimming pool is fantastic, and offers plenty of lounge chairs and cabanas. Snorkeling gear use is complimentary.
Pensacola: A Place Worth Exploring
Pensacola gets my vote for amazing beaches and top places to explore in Florida. I was impressed with every little thing I saw and did, and can’t wait to visit again.
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