Located in the westernmost part of Florida’s panhandle, Pensacola is a coastal city known for its crystal-clear waters and white-sand beaches. It is the perfect destination for a road trip, quick getaway, or family vacation. It’s a city that offers significant historical and cultural attractions and thrilling outdoor activities. From world-class museums to beautiful natural landmarks, here are the top things to do in Pensacola, Florida, that left their mark on me.
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Explore the Historic Downtown
Pensacola’s downtown district is one of the city’s most picturesque and charming areas. The historic district has a wealth of beautiful Spanish Renaissance and Colonial-style buildings, the Rex Theatre (now a church), and boutiques.
Downtown Pensacola is the perfect place to spend an afternoon walking around, exploring the local shops, and soaking up the history and culture of the area. A few of my favorite shops are Bubba’s Sweet Spot (golf pro Bubba Watson’s shop for fudge, candy, and ice cream), Bodacious (epicurean market), Rusted Arrow Mercantile, and Scout (women’s clothing).
You won’t want to miss the 40+ artsy fiberglass pelicans (Pensacola in Paradise) scattered throughout the city, all paying tribute to a different military branch, etc. And pay close attention to the fun murals around town and even the cha-cha steps on the sidewalk.
I witnessed over a dozen people who stopped to try the dance inspired by the art installment.
If visiting Pensacola at night, the Plaza Ferdinand is lovely and 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.
Fun Fact: 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.
Saturdays bring an exciting buzz to Downtown Pensacola when the 14-year-old market opens. From 9 AM to 2 PM, see what treasures the local vendors bring, often including produce, plants, fine art, baked goods, art, and many creative goods. Please note the Palafox Market (at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, between Wright St. and Chase St.) is open rain or shine.
Pensacola’s Awesome Food Scene
According to Trip Advisor, the Pensacola area boasts nearly 600 restaurants, with seafood dining emerging as the preferred choice among diners. One of the best things to do in Pensacola is to indulge in your favorite seafood dishes at The Fish House or savor a delectable steak dinner at Jackson’s Steakhouse.
For an exquisite gourmet breakfast experience, look no further than Ruby Slipper, where the Eggs Benedict Trio reigns supreme. Conveniently located near Downtown Pensacola, Five Sister’s Blues Cafe offers a delightful lunch menu featuring its renowned fried chicken. It is an ideal spot for a leisurely stroll and sightseeing.
Create unforgettable memories by commemorating a romantic milestone at the elegant and intimate venue, The Melting Pot, a Pittman family favorite.
For more epic Florida eats, check out this dining guide to 50 restaurants with outdoor patios.
World of Beer
Are you a fan of craft beers? Then, World of Beer is the place for you, especially after you’ve worked up a thirst from all that downtown shopping and sightseeing. Located in Downtown Pensacola, this popular spot offers a wide range of beers (over 100) on tap, from local brews to international favorites.
It’s a great place to relax with friends or watch a game while sipping cold beer.
US Navy Blue Angels
The Blue Angels are the United States Navy’s daredevil flight demonstration squad and a real treat to watch. They call the Pensacola Naval Air Station home. Visitors can watch their incredible aerial stunts during their weekly practice sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the season.
The viewing is free, and visitors can also visit the National Naval Aviation Museum, where they can learn more about naval aviation history.
Pensacola Museum of Art and Others
The Pensacola Museum of Art is a fabulous find for art enthusiasts, featuring various contemporary and thought-provoking art installments, with works by local and world-renowned artists. It’s a great place to learn more about the area’s cultural history and appreciate beautiful works of art. They also have many live performances and events and ever-changing art offerings.
Historic downtown Pensacola is also home to several museums, including the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum, which focuses on Florida’s history, and the Pensacola Historical Museum, which tells the city’s story from its earliest days.
Located on the grounds of the Naval Academy, the National Naval Aviation Museum is a treasure trove of naval history and culture. Visitors can learn about the history of maritime education and the life of midshipmen. The museum also features exhibits on naval battles, a flight simulator, and an extensive collection of Blue Angels memorabilia.
Pensacola’s Incredible Beaches
Santa Rosa Island, nestled in the Gulf of Mexico, offers a picturesque coastline adorned with warm blue waters and expansive white sandy beaches. The serene waves of Pensacola Beach on the Gulf Coast create a delightful setting, making it effortless to frolic in the inviting surf.
Getting out in the sand and surf is definitely one of the top things to do in Pensacola Beach.
Revel in the scenery of Quietwater Beach as you relish a frozen tropical beverage from Bamboo Willie’s, or update your beach attire at one of the premier coastal outfitters lined along the boardwalk. For an unforgettable vacation experience, embark on a dolphin tour or rent jet skis from this locale.
Gulf Island National Seashore
To see a beautiful natural landmark, visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This park, part of the National Park System, features gorgeous sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters, and stunning scenery. Visitors can swim, hike, bike, and even camp in the park’s designated camping areas.
The park is also home to several historic sites, including Fort Pickens Discovery Center, which played a crucial role in the area’s military history. It was one of four southern forts never captured by the Confederates during the Civil War. Ask about the ranger-led tours if that interests you.
Please note that the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, circa 1859, is also in this area. Climb to the top for excellent photo-ops.
Sports in Pensacola
Sports are big in Pensacola, with hockey and baseball being the most talked-about minor-league options. The Pensacola Ice Flyers, a professional ice hockey team of the SPHL, play hockey from 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 Miami Marlins, play in a gorgeous Blue Wahoos Stadium in town. The low prices make this outing very attractive, and the stunning views of Pensacola Bay make it even more inviting.
See Photo-Worthy Signs & Murals
Pensacola presents many captivating signs and murals that beckon to be photographed, commencing with the neon sign of Pensacola Beach. Reminiscent of the 60s, the sign proudly displays a yellow-green-orange finned sailfish atop its flashing structure. While finding a suitable spot for an iconic Gulf Breeze landmark nighttime image is challenging, the endeavor is undoubtedly worthwhile.
Furthermore, the sign directing towards the Bob Sikes Bridge highlights Pensacola Beach’s claim to fame as home to the world’s whitest sand beaches.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Pensacola was known for blues, ragtime, jazz, and vaudeville in the early years?
Pensacola also boasts a multitude of historical markers that delve into the region’s rich heritage. These sites range from the Civil Rights Movement (Pensacola lunch counter sit-ins) to the historically significant Emanuel Point Shipwreck. Tracing these markers and immersing oneself in history is educational and enjoyable.
Among the highlights are the St. Johns Historic Cemetery, the North Hill Preservation District, and the remarkable fragments associated with the Mississippi Blues Trail, whose presence in Florida was a delightful surprise.
I had the opportunity to attend two remarkable festivals in Pensacola, and they truly exceeded all expectations. Pensacola hosts the renowned annual FooFoo Festival, a 12-day celebration in early November that offers an array of art experiences throughout the day and night.
They sum it up as events with “high artistic and cultural caliber”, which is a good way of putting it.
This festival provides something for all, from captivating gallery exhibits and inspiring readings to exhilarating live concerts and mesmerizing glass-blowing demonstrations. Hint: One of this year’s featured events is Xanadu: The Musical, which I saw on Broadway (starring Cheyenne Jackson). It has remained a favorite for years. Try to catch it! Also, Megan Hilty is doing an On-Broadway event, another must-see.
FYI: One standout artist at a previous FooFoo Fest was Fred Kahl, a world-famous glass artisan hailing from New York. As part of the 3D Printsacola event, he showcased his exceptional talent by creating a unique glassware piece using machine-generative glass art and intricately carved molds.
The masterpiece he crafted during the demonstration is valued at thousands of dollars, epitomizing the caliber of artistry found at this remarkable festival.
The second festival paid homage to the renowned Big Green Egg, a household staple for outdoor grilling. Also held in November at the esteemed Blue Wahoos Stadium, EggFest is a distinguished BBQ extravaganza on the Gulf, drawing over 100 participants who showcase their culinary prowess on ceramic Big Green Eggs for a chance to win enticing prizes.
Visitors can partake in the festivities from noon to 3 PM on Sunday, indulging in delectable offerings prepared for the contest. The tantalizing spread might include pulled pork, steaks, innovative appetizers, delightful desserts, and bourbon-infused treats.
It is worth noting that the philanthropic proceeds from EggFest are dedicated to charitable causes.
Where to Stay at Pensacola Beach
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Hotel, which offers spacious and stylish rooms. With its magnificent size, this property provides an array of amenities, including rooms with stunning views of the serene Gulf of Mexico.
For those requiring family-style accommodations, the hotel even offers three-bedroom options. Each room is well-equipped with a microwave, coffee maker, and refrigerator. The main restaurant, always bustling with both locals and guests, adds to the hotel’s vibrant atmosphere.
I was particularly impressed with the hotel’s attractive lobby, four restaurants, pool, and common areas, which exuded energy.
Lastly, the Hilton’s beachside swimming pool boasts ample lounge chairs and cabanas. Snorkeling gear use is complimentary, further enhancing the overall experience.
Pensacola is Making a Big Splash
Pensacola is a city filled with history, culture, and beautiful natural landmarks. Whether you are interested in exploring the city’s museums, catching a baseball game, or lounging on the beach, Pensacola has something for you.
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.
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