Blissful beaches and emerald waters, as well as a buzzing downtown district and a smattering of top-class museums, make Pensacola one of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations.
The first European settlement in the US back in the 1550s, Pensacola’s heritage is evinced in the Spanish-era architecture and historic buildings that now house museums, shops and restaurants across the city. But natural attractions are by no means in short supply here, either, with a large number of walking trails that take you from the city fringes, through forests and parks, and often ending on the city’s sandy shoreline. Here are 12 of Pensacola’s most unique things to see and do.
Take in some arts culture
Positioned in the heart of downtown Pensacola, the Pensacola Museum of Art has served the community as an arts centre for more than 60 years. This intimate, two-story museum hosts rotating exhibits of modern and contemporary art throughout the year in its four galleries. The PMA also offers children’s programming, adult art workshops and artist discussions. The museum is one of the sites in the UWF Historic Trust, which spans nine acres in downtown Pensacola. The art museum building is a historic landmark in Pensacola, serving as the Pensacola City Jail until 1940. Some of the original jail doors stand in the museum as a testament to its history.
407 South Jefferson Street / Tues-Sun 10am-4pm Closed Mon
One of the biggest arts events anywhere in the United States, the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival draws more than 200 painters, potters, sculptors, jewellers, graphic artists, craftsmen and other artists to Pensacola each year for a three-day juried art show. First held over half-a-century ago, the festival also features live music ranging from bluegrass to Cajun and blues to jazz and classical, as well as performing dance schools and community groups, traditional arts and crafts, woodcarving and weaving demos, foodie treats, and tons of hands-on activities for kids.
Seville Square / November each year
Climb a historic lighthouse
Dating all the way back to 1859, the still operational Pensacola Lighthouse is one of the city’s most historic – and distinctive – landmarks. Visitors who climb the 177 steps are rewarded with panoramic views of the Gulf coastline, as well as access to a Maritime Museum which exhibits the quarters where the lighthouse keepers and their families once lived, as well as a number of other interesting displays that shine a light on the building’s long history as well as the area’s rich naval history.
2081 Radford Boulevard / Mon-Thurs 10am-4pm Fri-Sat 10am-5pm Closed Sun
Discover Pensacola’s rich cultural heritage
Part of Historic Pensacola Village, Pensacola Museum of History is spread across three floors within an eye-catching Mediterranean Revival-style building that dates back to the early 1900s.Visitors can discover the city’s rich cultural heritage, which includes Spanish, British and American influences, through an assortment of exhibits. Highlights include the City of Five Flags exhibit which chronicles the story of Pensacola as it was discovered through archaeology and preservation efforts, and Trader Jon’s Bar, a recreation of a once-famous downtown bar that attracted everyone from military personnel to movie stars and local politicians.
University of West Florida, 330 South Jefferson Street / Tues-Sun 10am-4pm Closed Mon
Embark on a dolphin watching adventure
The waters off Pensacola Beach are inhibited by a sizeable number of dolphins and visitors can see them for themselves by joining a dolphin watching tour. During the excursion, you’ll cruise around the bay aboard a 52-foot vessel looking for dolphins and other marine life, while the crew provide interesting facts about what you see. Passengers can choose their vantage point from walk-around decks, seating on the bow, or a covered mid-deck towering high above the water line. Music from a surround sound stereo system adds to the experience and there are also snacks and drinks to purchase while onboard.
Escape the city at a forest park
A 26-acre forest park nestled above Pensacola Bay, Bay Bluffs Park attracts large numbers of visitors keen for respite from the hustle and bustle of the more built-up areas of the city. Among the most popular activities is strolling the one-mile boardwalk trail that meanders through oak woodland and the stunning Florida red chalk landscape, winding over steep slopes before gradually ending up at the beach where you can take a breather while soaking up the ocean views
3400 Scenic Highway
Learn how to surf
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at surfing, then Pensacola Beach is a great place to start. There are a number of local companies offering small-group surf lessons for beginners, during which you’ll be taught all of the basics, including water safety and etiquette, on the beach before heading down to the water to put your new-found skills and knowledge to the test accompanied by an experienced instructor. Lessons are open to both children and adults and last for around two hours.
Explore a 19th-century fort
For over a century, Fort Pickens watched over Pensacola Bay, guarding it from enemy troops who had their beady eyes on the naturally sheltered harbor. Decommissioned in 1947, today the fort is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore Reserve and remains open to visitors who come to explore the historic coastal defenses which comprise five sides, four looking out onto the ocean and one facing land.
1400 Fort Pickens Road
Take in a theatre show
First opened in 1925, the grand Spanish Baroque style of the Saenger Theatre makes it a tourist attraction in its own right. But the venue is more than simply easy on the eye – it also plays host to a top class programme of acclaimed Broadway shows and productions, as well as music, orchestral concerts, dance, comedy shows and talks. There’s something on here most night of the week, so visitors can simply check the schedules for when they’re in town – though it’s advised to book in advance.
118 South Palafox Street
Go wildlife spotting
Take a coastal drive west of Pensacola and you’ll soon arrive at Perdido Key State Park. Located on a thin strip of land, the park offers rolling, white-sand dunes and sublime views of the Gulf waters. It’s also a bird lover’s paradise, with native nesting birds such as herons and gulls, as well as rare migratory species like gannets and black skimmers, calling the area home, while sea turtles are frequently spotted here during breeding season too. For swimming, Johnson Beach is a popular spot, and hikers can traverse the Discovery Nature Trail which runs along a coastal boardwalk.
15301 Perdido Key Drive
Catch a baseball game
Like most US cities, baseball is a seriously big deal in Pensacola, and the local Minor League Baseball team is the quirkily-named Pensacola Blue Wahoos, who play their matches at the Admiral Fetterman Field. As well as being home to the Blue Wahoos since 2012, the multi-use arena also features a waterfront public park and amphitheatre, with events such as Halloween festivities and athletics tournaments taking place here regularly throughout the year.
351 West Cedar Street
Attend a jazz festival
Pensacola has a lively jazz scene and at its heart is the annual Pensacola Jazz Festival. A free-to-enter event, the springtime festival is held over two full days in the historic surroundings of Seville Square and features music festival a mix of local school bands, regional acts, and national headliners who perform on the gazebo stage. In addition to the music line-up, there’s also food and drink by local vendors, arts and crafts and plenty of jazz merchandise to take away as souvenirs.
Seville Square / April each year