Photos : Jamie Ross / Riley
In this list of fun things to do in Pensacola, travel writer Jamie Ross visits Florida’s Northern Panhandle where he discovers fascinating history and delectable coastal cuisine served up with seaside charm.
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Life is better at the beach. Or so I’m thinking as I look out on the swirling snow and frosty drifts of my northern home while dreaming about an escape to the white, sugary sand beaches along Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Nestled in the Florida Panhandle, the city of Pensacola is known for its seaside charm, delectable coastal cuisine, and a unique and engaging character that is an attractive alternative to the bustle of Florida’s better-known centres.
Pensacola also offers an attractive assortment of accommodations and attractions, minus the hustle, bustle, and crowds. And the Florida Panhandle is imbued with a southern hospitality, more akin to its neighbouring deep south states of Georgia and Alabama, that will have Y’all returning home talking in a southern drawl and saying strange things like, “Well, butter my biscuit!”
To help convince you that you should visit and explore this beautiful part of the Sunshine State, read through our list of the best fun things to do in Pensacola.
Fun Things To Do in Pensacola
Make Your Way to the Beach in Pensacola
Fishing, diving, snorkelling, golfing, dining, and shopping are fun things to do in Pensacola, but it is the famous beachfront, a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of silky sand, that remains the region’s main attraction. Dotted with windswept dunes, the area’s distinctive quartz sand is blindingly white and soft as flour.
Brushing up against the sands are the clear emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a welcome gulf breeze, and the golden touch of the ever-present sun reflecting off the water’s rippled surface.
Cast a Line from Pensacola Pier
Head out on the 1,471-foot Pensacola Beach Pier to chat with some of the local anglers, do some fishing yourself, or just take in the splendid views of the expansive white sand beach.
Many Gulf species are caught from the pier such as king and Spanish mackerel, cobia, pompano, mahi-mahi, flounder, and whiting, white and speckled trout.
Explore the City of Pensacola’s History
Besides its inviting beach, Pensacola is unique among beach destinations because it is a city with an old soul, offering over 460 years of rich history. Its beaches welcomed the first European settlers to the New World in 1559 when Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna established Pensacola as the first European settlement in North America.
The flags of Spain, Britain, France, the Confederacy, and the United States have flown over the region. As a result, there are many cultural influences reflected in the city’s architecture, cuisine, and festivals.
For a direct taste of some of this history, drive out to the western tip of nearby Santa Rosa Island. Here the Gulf Islands National Seashore Preserve offers beaches, camping, hiking trails, and a massive pre-Civil War fortress, Fort Pickens. These brick battlements once housed Union troops and interned the renowned Apache leader Geronimo. Park Rangers offer daily tours through the battlements.
Head to Downtown Pensacola for Gallery Night
Downtown Pensacola is a thriving corridor rich with history, theatre, parks, coffee shops, and fine dining options. Keep your eyes focussed overhead as well, as the famous Blue Angels are situated here at the first ever US Naval Air Station and are often seen practicing their acrobatics in the sky.
Head to Palafox Street on the third Friday of every month to experience Gallery Night, where food trucks, street performers, artists, and merchants converge, and the streets are transformed into pedestrian walkways, with music, art, and food.
Take in a Show and Have a Cocktail
Get cultured at the interactive Pensacola Little Theatre. Here, as a member of the audience, you follow the characters through the action of the story as it weaves throughout the beautiful Clark Family Cultural Center.
I must admit, in a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I kind of fell for Juliet here, and almost tried to upstage Romeo. I will put my Oscar-worthy performance down to the wonderful drinks I had at The Well Cocktail Bar and the Perfect Plain Brewing Company beforehand.
Visit the Pensacola Historic District
Also known as the Seville Historic District, Pensacola’s Historic District is fun to explore. Also close is the Pensacola History Museum, and the Historic Pensacola Village which encompasses 8.f acres and 28 properties.
If you find the pursuit of history a bit dry, pop into the taproom of the Pensacola Bay Brewery located in the heart of the historic district for some refreshment.
Satisfy Those Seafood Cravings
Pensacola offers an amazing and expansive culinary scene. Its unique coastal cuisine draws on the city’s colonial roots and its proximity to the teeming fisheries of the Gulf. Beachfront restaurants abound, serving seafood as fresh as it can be.
Find everything from Spanish and French flavours to southern Cajun cooking. The Creole influence on the local cuisine reminds you that you are near Louisiana, but the wide variety of experiences suit every taste, with restaurants ranging from fine-dining establishments to ocean-side crab shacks, and everything in between.
A few favorite Pensacola restaurants include The Grand Marlin, a tranquil, relaxed destination that serves the area’s best selection of fresh seafood highlighted by delectable, daily specials from the kitchen of award-winning Chef Gregg McCarthy; the Casino Beach Bar and Grille, a laid-back spot that sits right on the Gulf of Mexico; and Drift, nestled overlooking the Gulf of Mexico where you can enjoy casual fine dining that embraces modern coastal cuisine of crudo, small plates, prime steak, seafood, and crafted cocktails.
Room for more? Book a table at Angelena’s Ristorante Italiano, where Chef Briscione’s menu brings creative, southern touches to classic Italian cuisine. Handmade pastas and thoughtfully prepared vegetable dishes are served alongside an abundance of Gulf seafood. The dining room’s wood-fired oven lends flavour to its Neapolitan-style pizzas.
If it’s just a drink you’re after, check out The Wine Bar on Palafox which boasts the best wine selection, for the best price.
Find a Great Place to Stay in Pensacola
Set overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, The Hilton Pensacola Beach beachfront hotel offers a variety of watersports to try out, as well as two waterfront outdoor pools. This quality 3-star property also has a hot tub, sushi bar, and poolside dining. Historic downtown Pensacola is a 20-minute drive away and the Naval Aviation Museum is 35 minutes away.
You can laugh with a comedian at the Saenger Theatre or catch a band at Vinyl Music Hall.
The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola, and the Pensacola Museum of Art are all conveniently located within walking distance of the downtown core, too.
Riley Recommends: To find out more about these and other fun things to do in Pensacola, FL, visit www.visitpensacola.com.
Contributor James Ross is a travel writer and columnist, and author of the books Cottage Daze and Still in a Daze at the Cottage. He lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.
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