Set in the most westerly part of Florida’s Panhandle, a stone’s throw from the Alabama border, Pensacola is a modern city with an old soul. It may be the sugar-white beaches that first draw you in, but beyond these coastal fringes lie distinct urban neighbourhoods, eclectic arts spaces and heritage sites that bring a 460-year history to life. And thanks to Pensacola’s location on the Gulf of Mexico, restaurants serve up seafood-heavy menus showcasing everything from local grouper to shrimp.
Florida’s coastal cities are known for their beaches and boardwalks and Pensacola is no exception. On the city's sandy shores, families can paddle in clear Gulf waters and anglers fish from the pier. At Pensacola Beach, the 8.5-mile Footprints in the Sand Eco-Trail features displays on sea turtles, local birdlife and dolphins, while the family-friendly boardwalk is lined with a colourful variety of restaurants and shops. Barrier island Perdido Key offers something a little wilder, with rippling sand dunes, secluded picnic spots and endless open-water views.
However, though its beaches and boardwalks are notable, Pensacola offers visitors the chance to discover a different side of the sunshine state. Dive into the city's historical sites, extensive museums and educational trails, before winding down with fresh seafood, craft cocktails and a buzzing live music scene.
The down-to-earth beach city of Pensacola was the site of the country’s first European settlement, where Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna came ashore with his crew in 1559. However, a hurricane ravaged the community in 1561 and as a result, it was lost forever. The Pensacola Museum of History tells this story and more. You’ll learn why Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags (in the past it’s fallen under the rule of the Spanish, French and British, as well as the Confederacy and the US) and experience modern temporary exhibits such as those celebrating the city’s LGBTQ+ community.
History-hungry visitors should also head out on America’s 1st Settlement Trail, a three-mile route taking in 20 heritage stops throughout the city. Using QR codes imprinted on bronze plaques along the route, walkers will be able to delve into the history of sites such as Plaza Ferdinand VII and the old City Jail.
Look skywards, and you might even spot the Blue Angels. This US Navy flight demonstration squadron calls Pensacola home and can regularly be seen performing daring swoops and spirals on routine practice sessions above the city.
All this sightseeing should help any visitor to work up an appetite. Pensacola menus showcase a variety of fresh Southern seafood in inviting, down-to-earth restaurants. Local favourites include dishes such as Grits à Ya Ya (shrimp on a bed of smoked gouda grits with a creamy sauce), steamed or baked oysters, blue crab and mahi-mahi.
Round off an evening with a nightcap in the Downtown area, where you’ll find plenty of spots to sip craft cocktails and local brews. Don’t miss Pensacola’s signature drink, the bushwacker. This boozy milkshake is best sampled at one of the area’s buzzy beachside bars, often accompanied by live music and a laid-back atmosphere.
Pensacola's top three historic sites
1. Historic Pensacola Village
The best way to delve into the city’s layered history is with a visit to the Historic Pensacola Village. The site sprawls across 8.5 acres and protects 28 buildings, each one preserving a slice of the past. Interpreters dressed in period costume bring Pensacola’s four-plus-centuries of history to life and highlights include the humble, early-19th-century Julee Cottage, an archetypal African American residence from the Reconstruction era.
2. Fort Pickens
This imposing fort was built by the United States Army in the 1800s to defend Pensacola Bay. It was once the largest brick structure on the Gulf of Mexico and can be explored on a ranger-led or independent tour. This hulking structure is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and there are various opportunities for hiking and bird-watching in its wild surroundings.
3. Downtown Pensacola
Pensacola’s downtown area is centred on Palafox Street, filled with Spanish-influenced architecture, and packed with landmark attractions from the Pensacola Museum of History to Veterans Memorial Park. You’ll also find an award-winning farmers’ market, a slew of independent stores and plenty of seafood restaurants.
Fly to Pensacola International Airport from London Heathrow via US gateways including New Orleans, Orlando, Chicago and Atlanta. A car affords you the freedom to beach hop and move easily between attractions, with various rental companies operating from Pensacola International Airport.
For more information, see visitpensacola.com