10 Best Activities & Beaches in Pensacola FL

January 18, 2021

beaches in pensacola fl

As you can probably guess, beaches in Pensacola FL are the biggest draw. A humid subtropical climate combined with shimmering turquoise water lapping onto impossibly white sand makes it arguably the prettiest beach in the U.S.

Pensacola is the largest metropolitan area between New Orleans and Tampa, yet still maintains a small-town vibe, especially around the beach area. It’s home to several annual festivals, events, historic tours, and landmarks.

Pensacola at a Glance

  • Location: Westernmost city in the Florida Panhandle
  • Population: 52,975
  • Settled: 1559
  • Nickname: “The City of Five Flags”, due to the five governments that have ruled it during its history: the flags of Spain (Castile), France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.

Hurricanes

beaches in pensacola fl

It can get very windy on the pier in winter!

Even though the humid subtropical climate makes it pleasant to visit even in the chillier winter, Pensacola’s location on the Florida Panhandle makes it vulnerable to hurricanes. Hurricanes that have made landfall at or near Pensacola since the late 20th century include Eloise (1975), Frederic (1979), Juan (1985), Erin (1995), Opal (1995), Georges (1998), Ivan (2004), Dennis (2005), and Sally (2020).

Brief history

Pensacola, originally inhabited by the Muskogean-speaking indigenous people, is the site of the first Spanish settlement within the borders of the continental United States. In 1559, predating the establishment of St. Augustine by 6 years, Spanish sailor Tristán de Luna led America’s first settlement attempt here. The settlement was abandoned due to a hurricane and not re-established until 1698 when the Spanish established a presidio in the area, from which the modern city gradually developed.

10 Historic Pensacola Village

historic pensacola village

If you want to learn more about the history of this beautiful city, head out to the 8.5-mile stretch of Historic Pensacola. You’ll see 28 different properties that will offer you a glimpse of this area’s past, some with period-dressed living history interpreters at Historic Pensacola Village.

historic pensacola village

The historic area is a complex of unique museums, an intriguing Colonial Archaeological Trail, and furnished houses. 27 of the properties are listed in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Eleven of these properties are open to the public, and the properties range from museums to actual homes.

9 Seville Quarter

seville quarter

Spanning a full city block in the historic district, Seville Quarter includes seven rooms of liquid libations, food, and entertainment. Opened in 1967, the original bar, Rosie O’Grady’s Goodtime Emporium still operates today and features a dueling piano bar. Adjacent rooms include a café, oyster bar, billiards, dance hall, and courtyard with live music. Gas-lit, brick-paved hallways are a hallmark of this building.

8 Pensacola Lighthouse

beaches in pensacola fl

Climb 177 steps up the historic Pensacola Lighthouse for one of the most beautiful views on the Gulf Coast. Built in 1859, the lighthouse is well-kept and in excellent condition. For your efforts to reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Pensacola Pass (where Pensacola Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico), the Pensacola skyline, three historic forts, and the historic Naval Yard. The grounds also house the Richard C. Callaway museum with exhibits on the lighthouse as well as local history.

7 Pensacola Pedal Trolley

For a hilarious and unique way of exploring Pensacola, hop aboard a Pedal Trolley. This 100% pedal-powered vehicle has enough seating for fourteen people and is a great way to make new friends and have a ton of laughs. From historical tours to pub crawls the two-hour tour is also an eco-friendly way to explore the Downtown Historic District.

6 Kiteboarding Okaloosa Island

okaloosa

If you are a fan of kiteboarding (or just like to watch, like me!), take a short drive to Okaloosa Island. Kiteboarding is an adrenaline water sport where you use a large kite to pull yourself around on a board on top of the water. Steering and jumping into the air are controlled by the bar and lines that connect to your harness.

Leeside and Beasley Parks on Okaloosa Island are popular launch spots. They are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and there is typically some wind and chop here to make it thrilling.

5 Sunset Over the Pier

beaches in pensacola fl

Because it’s west-facing, Pensacola Beach is the perfect spot to catch a stunning, romantic sunset. There are a variety of beach bars and restaurants that take advantage of this opportunity from which you can enjoy a cocktail or meal while watching the brilliant orange orb sink into the sea.

4 Palafox Street

Named one of 10 great streets in America by the American Planning Association in 2013, Palafox Street is the heart of downtown Pensacola.

Ground zero for entertainment in the charming street is reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter, lined historic architecture framed with wrought iron balconies dripping with bougainvillea, bars, bistros, coffee houses, trendy boutiques, and boutique shopping.

This neighborhood was historically a melting pot for jazz and blues musicians and delicious southern food vendors during the early 20th century.

3 Fort Pickens

fort pickens

fort pickens

If you want a unique look into Pensacola’s military significance going back before the American Revolution, head to Fort Pickens. Dating to 1834, the fort was constructed to defend Pensacola Bay and its naval yard. Fort Pickens was one of four Southern forts never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War.

fort pickens

Within the ruins, we had a great time exploring the fort’s intricate tunnels and authentic cannons. Tours are available where you can learn little-known facts such as Fort Pickens served as a temporary prison for Geronimo. There are also two additional historic forts nearby — Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee.

2 Pensacola Beach

beaches in pensacola fl

If you’re looking for a Florida beach but don’t really like the mega-resort vibe, Pensacola Beach might just be for you.

beaches in pensacola fl

The white sand and gorgeous blue-green are irresistible and the water is warm and inviting. The tourist part of the beach has a pier and a boardwalk with ocean-view restaurants, bars, and shops.

1 Gulf Islands National Seashore

gulf islands national seashore

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the beach is my happy place. So I trust you’ll believe me when I say that the white-sand beaches on Gulf Islands National Seashore are my favorite and most beautiful in the contiguous United States. 160 miles of almost blinding-white powdery beaches and dunes juxtaposed against iridescent turquoise water that you normally only find in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, and unobstructed views across the Gulf of Mexico, will make you fall in love with these beaches.

beaches in pensacola fl

In addition to the pristine beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, there’s access to reactional sports such as scuba, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, biking, and hiking.

Where to Stay

beaches in pensacola fl

We stayed at the Days Inn by Wyndham. While it wasn’t luxury by any means, the location on the beach was perfect, and we had a better-than-anticipated view from our room.

beaches in pensacola fl

The pool area had live music at dusk and lots of fun things to do.

Where to Eat

Crabs on the Beach

beaches in pensacola fl

This was our favorite! Right on the beach, the view is gorgeous during the day or sunset and the fun is always rolling! If you dare, try the “Bucket O’ Rum” – a bucket (that you can keep) filled with dark rum, vanilla rum, and 151, mixed with pineapple and orange juices.

Red Fish Blue Fish

Across from the beach, this restaurant is also a great place to devour delicious food while watching the sunset from their open-air deck.

Destin Seafood Festival

beaches in pensacola fl

We happened to visiting during the nearby Destin Seafood Festival, one of the biggest fall events on the Emerald Coast. From the moment you see the venue coming into view, you know it’s going to be something special. Located at Harborwalk Village at the wharf at Destin Harbor, you’ll see one stall of seafood after another, along with souvenir and jewelry vendors, live music, and street performers.

Photos by Kary Kern.

Disclaimer: The COVID pandemic has caused tourist activity openings to remain fluid. We recommend that you contact each activity or location in advance to see if they are open and/or entrance conditions meet with your approval.

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About the Author

Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.

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