Why a Pensacola getaway is a "shore" bet
Pensacola is an easy choice for beach getaways merely by virtue of its uniquely accessible location. It’s perched on the western edge of northwest Florida, within a short drive of both the Alabama and Mississippi borders, and just a 3-hour drive from New Orleans. Pensacola International Airport has nonstop flight service from more than 20 U.S. cities — so travelers from as far as Denver, Chicago and Dallas can also reach the beach with ease.
But near effortless entry is only the beginning of this Gulf Coast town’s appeal. Its beaches aren’t just accessible — they’re exceptional, and include the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the United States. And Pensacola’s eclecticism — its active arts community; leafy, lovely and strollable downtown; and intriguing, far-reaching historic roots — give it even more gravitas as a destination fit for all kinds of trips. Add in its family-friendly and affordability factors, a dining scene replete with inspired restaurants and food festivals, plus its wealth of outdoor activities by land and sea, and there’s little room for objection that Pensacola is a ready-made crowd pleaser among beach vacation spots.
Here’s a closer look at what makes Pensacola so universally appealing.
Beaches: exceptionally beautiful (and plentiful)
With a staggering 40 miles of lounge-ready coastline, Pensacola is unequivocally a must-visit for any serious sun seeker. The sands here literally glimmer, thanks to their composition of snow-white quartz, crushed to a fine powder over eons. Their ultra-white color also keeps them cool, even in the middle of summer — while the calm, blue-green Gulf waters stay warmer than those at Atlantic shorelines.
Santa Rosa Island, more widely referred to as Pensacola Beach, is Northwest Florida's longest barrier island, located just south of Pensacola proper. Reachable via a short drive across bay-view bridges, and it's home to some of the area's dreamiest shores.
The most popular place to swim, lounge or toss a frisbee is Casino Beach, set at the core of Pensacola Beach and in front of a can't-miss beach-ball-shaped water tower. Entrance is free and there's ample parking, beachside food and drink spots, a beach boardwalk and a 1,471-foot-long pier. You can stroll out on said pier for lovely views of the sparkling Gulf, for a look back to see the gorgeous coastline from afar or to angle for snapper (Pensacola is unofficially known as The Red Snapper Capital of the World), wahoo, bonito and many other Gulf fish, depending on the season.
Pensacola's Perdido Key, whose name comes from the Spanish cayo perdido, or "lost island," is just as romantic and stunning as its name implies. The narrow barrier island is known for its uncrowded, quiet and wide white sands, miles of them part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore protected marine area. Hit the peaceful shores at the small public access beach or the 247-acre Perdido Key State Park, among other entry points across the island. It's also a great place for moving meditation; walk the long wooden boardwalks for unobstructed views of the Gulf and sea oat-covered dunes. On the island's north side, you'll find abundant wetlands, estuaries and wildlife — including more than 200 bird species, like ospreys (known also as Florida's "fishing eagles"), brown pelicans and blue herons.
In addition to glorious shores, top-notch waterfront dining and bars lure visitors to Pensacola's beachy barrier islands. Red Fish Blue Fish on the north side of Pensacola Beach is a go-to spot for coastal specialties with a Cajun flair (seafood gumbo, shrimp po-boys and char-grilled oysters, for example). There's a large outdoor patio with lawn games (giant Connect 4, anyone?), umbrella-shaded picnic tables and Santa Rosa Sound views. Also remarkable are the restaurant's efforts to operate sustainably, which include solar panels, the clever use of a repurposed shipping container as an outdoor hostess stand and a no-plastic-straws policy.
Located on the narrow, peninsular northern tip of Pensacola Beach (read also: surrounded by water on all sides), The Grand Marlin is a fine-dining restaurant with a focus on ultra-fresh, locally-caught seafood and seasonal ingredients. As a bonus for boaters, the lengthy dock that trails into the Santa Rosa Sound on the east side of the restaurant means "docking and dining" is an option. Indoor and covered open-air dining areas both offer water views, which make an exceptional accompaniment to dishes like parmesan-crusted Grouper piccata with crispy capers; and Gulf shrimp with grits in white wine lemon butter.
The Crab Trap on Perdido Key is especially family-friendly, thanks to the large playground set on the sand within sight of the outdoor dining area, and they've got a special kids' menu, too. Parents will appreciate the selection of fresh seafood, including local blue crab claws, along with peel and eat Gulf shrimp. The Flora-bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar — whose tradition of thrilling guests with live music on multiple stages, delicious frozen Bushwacker cocktails and gorgeous beachfront views dates back to 1964 — is an absolute must-visit as well.
Beyond the beauty of its waters, there are worlds of heritage and art to uncover in Pensacola. It stands alone among beach destinations for its substantial roots in American history, stretching back more than 460 years. Its status as the first European settlement on what is now U.S. soil is a little-known fact, but indeed Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna y Arrellano made landing here in 1559. He and 1,500-some fellow travelers established an ill-fated and short-lived settlement on the same site where Pensacola's modern Naval Air Station now stands. In 2015, archaeologists identified the site of the Luna settlement, and ongoing research has surfaced a number of artifacts visitors can view at the Pensacola Museum of History.
Dive head first into Pensacola's storied past with a trip through Historic Pensacola, an 8.5-acre area within downtown Pensacola that includes 28 sites, including museums (the aforementioned Pensacola Museum of History among them) and historic homes complete with live re-enactors. Voices of Pensacola showcases the mix of cultures that have shaped Pensacola throughout the centuries. Little ones have their own chance to travel back in time at the Pensacola Children's Museum, whose first floor features a miniature interactive model of 16th-century Pensacola. There's also an Indigenous Americans exhibit where youngsters can learn about tribes of the region, as well as their individual cultures and traditions, through hands-on activities and installations.
You can literally walk through Pensacola's eclectic history via the 3-mile America's First Settlement Trail, a path marked with twenty historic stops, from the public square where Florida was officially transferred from the rule of Spain to the United States in 1821; to commercial areas once ravaged by fires; to a memorial park for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Continue your exploration in the nearby, historically black Belmont-Devilliers neighborhood, where you'll find plaques commemorating 1960s-era civil rights sit-ins, vibrant murals and more points of interest.
One of four military forts built to defend Pensacola during the 19th century, Fort Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a historic landmark complete with tunnels, cannons and plaques with details about the ruins and illustrations of the pentagonal fort in its original state. The surrounding national park, with its sparkling shoreline, expansive quartz-sand beaches and scenic coastal marshes make for a relaxing and enriching way to spend a day outdoors.
Besides its claim to fame as the site of the first American settlement, Pensacola has bragging rights as an arts and culture hub as well. It's the only city between New Orleans and Jacksonville to boast "the big five" — not elephants and rhinos, but these cultural epicenters: an opera house, a ballet, orchestra, theater and an art museum.
Now in its 40th year, the Pensacola Opera is offering particularly intriguing performances this season, including a kid-friendly adaptation of the Bremen Town Musicians and a "Brown Bag Opera," a 45-minute midday opera you could literally take in on your lunchbreak. Best of all, both of these programs are free and open to the public — though Puccini's La bohème, the famously romantic Italian tear-jerker, is also on the current calendar and worth buying a ticket to see.
For more entertainment, you can catch Broadway shows, ballet performances and a host of concerts at the Pensacola Saenger Theatre (the Book of Mormon is running now), or support local artists with a ticket to The Pensacola Little Theatre at the Pensacola Cultural Center. The latter has been a hub for community theater for more than 80 years. Its upcoming productions include works by local playwrights and family-friendly shows.
Downtown Pensacola is home to the Artel Gallery, a nonprofit art venue housed in a regal building, which showcases experimental and contemporary art, as well as a number of smaller local art galleries. If you time your visit right, you can see art take over the streets during the city's monthly Gallery Night. The event includes live local performances in the open air, food truck vendors serving up pizza, shawarma and more tasty bites, and of course a host of local artists who specialize in crochet, watercolor, nature photography and a wide variety of other art forms.
Speaking of downtown, there's loads to do and see any day of the week. Palafox Street serves as Pensacola's main street, and it's a great place to start an exploration of this dynamic city. Shops here range from indie clothing boutiques (adorable frocks and accessories have kept Indigeaux Denim Bar & Boutique in business for more than a decade) to home furnishing shops where you'll just want to touch, squeeze and sniff everything (Rusted Arrow Mercantile is a case in point).
Palafox Street is also the site of Pensacola's weekly farmers' market, held every Saturday from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., where greenhouse-grown microgreens, hand-canned jams and local baked treats are all for sale, alongside goods like air plants, jewelry, botanical soaps, hand-blown glass and other art work.
Downtown is also overflowing with delicious dining spots offering casual down-home eats, international flavors and refined foodie fare alike. Consider a visit to the ever-popular Dog House for a bite on the move. The resident hot dog specialists dole out buns topped with everything from nacho cheese and jalapenos to Fruity Pebbles cereal (no joke) — plus outside-the-bun dishes like breakfast burritos, dressed-up burgers and even a vegan sausage dish.
You can also find a little bit of the Emerald Isle in Pensacola, at McGuire's Irish Pub. Built inside the city's original 1927 firehouse, McGuire's has the ambiance of an old Irish pub you'd find in Dublin, and brews its own red ale, porter, stout and more beers on the premises in traditional oak and copper fermentation vessels. Of course, people also come for the great lunch specials (including traditional Irish favorites like shepherd's pie and fish & chips) and the peppercorn prime steak served at dinnertime. There's a leprechaun-themed kids menu as well, which includes ice cream floats made with house-brewed, sassafras-infused root beer.
For a white-tablecloth dining experience featuring surf and turf specialties like lobster tempura, bacon wrapped oysters and prime cuts, Jackson's Steakhouse is the restaurant of choice. (Gulf Coast lionfish is also a menu mainstay, and ordering it doubles as a contribution to marine conservation, since the slow-moving striped fish is an invasive species wreaking havoc on local reefs.) Though Jackson's intercontinental wine list and attentive service undoubtedly give the restaurant an upscale ambiance, the "Florida casual" dress code is in keeping with the laid-back vibe that characterizes the area.
Family friendly and affordable
Young travelers will of course delight in every minute spent building gleaming sandcastles and splashing in Pensacola's gentle surf. But if a break from the sun and sand is in order, there are plenty more kid-friendly diversions to fill the day — or multiple days. Amusement parks like Fast Eddie's Fun Center, Splash City Adventures and Lagunas Adventure Park are the stuff of kid dreams, with go-kart tracks, ropes courses, zip lines, water slides and arcades offering all-day play.
There are innumerable nature encounters to be had along Pensacola Beach's 8.5-mile Footprints in the Sand Eco-Trail — no tickets necessary. Running from the west end of the beach to the east, the trail invites visitors to walk, bike, jog, drive or even swim its length while keeping watch for 29 points of interest in the natural world — dolphins, sharks, rays, seagrass beds, crabs and wildlife tracks among them. Walking the trail with little ones is a great way to encourage awareness of the natural world, and to introduce the idea of traveling sustainably by "leaving only footprints" wherever their explorations take them.
If your trip lands between March and November, you may be treated to another sighting that will elicit excited squeals from little ones: a Blue Angels practice flight or show. Officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, these high flyers are stationed at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and are one of the longest-standing aerobatic teams in the world. Their blue and yellow planes can be seen cutting, rolling and diving across the skies in breathtakingly perfect (and tight!) formation Tuesdays and Wednesdays from various points around Pensacola, with two yearly shows taking place in July and November.
On top of all these activities, Pensacola's affordable and kid-friendly lodging options put the destination over the top as a contender for your next family vacation. With sprawling suites, oceanfront locations, heated lazy rivers, included kids' meals and hot breakfasts among their numerous collective draws, Pensacola's hotels pack in plenty of amenities while keeping prices low.
Including the aforementioned Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola is home to four national and state parks, each rich with precious and protected ecosystems, serene waters and a wealth of trails to explore. Big Lagoon State Park, a 705-acre coastal oasis set on between mainland Pensacola and Perdido Key, is a "natural" choice for hiking, swimming, fishing, boating and even camping. It's also a prime spot for birdwatching, thanks to the numerous ducks, sandpipers and adorably speckled black-bellied plovers, plus 23 species of warblers who visit or inhabit the park throughout the year.
The Pensacola Bay Area is a pilgrimage site for any serious diver, since it's home to many thriving natural reefs, including limestone ones that plunge to depths as low as 130 feet, as well as artificial reefs. There are remarkable wreck dives and sunken ships, like the famed Oriskany, a turn-of-the-century aircraft carrier the Navy sunk in 2004 for the purpose of reef creation. There's even an entire trail of shipwrecks to explore — namely, the Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, a 20-long string of dive sites, five of which are located right off the coast of Pensacola.
And beginners, take heart: Some snorkel and dive sites can be accessed simply wading in from the shore. Pensacola Beach has one such site — in the water just east of the popular pier, divers can find the remains of the former pier, which has now become a habitat for a variety of local marine life.
Species you're likely to observe include rays, sea turtles, jellyfish and crustaceans; a variety of Gulf fish like mullet, red drum, flounder and speckled trout; and invasive ones, like the aforementioned lionfish. You may even luck out and spot a spinner dolphin.
If an above-water exploration is more your speed, though, it's exceedingly easy to rent a kayak, stand-up paddle board, jet ski or even a boat charter in the Pensacola Bay area. The Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park on the west side is a beloved spot for such water sports, as well as hiking, camping and picnicking. Fun fact: Visitors can easily glide back and forth across state lines as they paddle across the park's waterway, Perdido Bay, since it straddles the border between Alabama and Florida.
Or for a boating experience that's big on enjoyment and low on effort, you can hop on a cruise tour of the area. Some are aimed at dolphin sightings, others at savoring the sunset. You can even hop on a local ferry for transport between downtown and Pensacola Beach — or just for fun. Regardless of which one you choose, and whether or not you spy a marine mammal leaping alongside the boat, the open waters, the wind in your hair and the drink in your hand are bound to make for a memorable addition to your Pensacola getaway.