In the early spring we escape the cold Wisconsin winters by traveling to Pensacola, Florida. Since we travel by motorhome, we stay at RV parks and prefer state and national parks for their wilderness settings and hiking trails. As we had heard many good reports on it, we stayed at the Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore Park campground on the far western end of Santa Rosa island, a gulf barrier island includes the resort town of Pensacola Beach. The Fort Pickens campground and recreation area is about 6 miles west of the busy resort town and is a quiet and low-key contrast to the resort atmosphere.
While Pensacola has many beaches that face Pensacola Bay and has beaches on protected lagoons, only Pensacola Beach and Santa Rosa island have beaches that are actually on the Gulf of Mexico. So when Pensacola residents say they are “going to the beach” they are talking about Santa Rosa island’s lengthy and un-crowded beaches facing the Gulf. Many of these beaches, since they are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore Park, are quite secluded because they have no hotels or structures fronting the beaches.
Things to See and Do in Pensacola, Florida
Pensacola, home of America’s first new world settlement (1859), is known for its military and cultural history, its southern cuisine, and its sparkling sugar-sand beaches. We sampled some of the Pensacola’s military history at the National Naval Air Museum, Fort Barrancas, and at Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa island. The Naval Air Museum (with over 150 planes on exhibit) and the Blue Angels Flying Squadron is by far the most popular Pensacola attraction. We spent several hours there on both trips and there was still a lot we didn’t see. The actual restored Fort Pickens (the fort itself vs the park) was quite popular too. In 2016 there will be a ferry service from the mainland to the fort which if you are staying in Pensacola itself will save about 50 miles round trip by auto.
Pensacola Historic District Walks
There are two historic districts in the downtown area. Closest to and technically a part of downtown is the Palafox Historic District. The center-piece of this district is Florida’s State Museum which is built on the site of the former Spanish Fort San Miquel, Pensacola’s first settlement. Palafox street itself contains many historic buildings as well as interesting pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues, many with sidewalk cafes. This area has a New Orleans Bourban Street feel to it. Nearby downtown is the Seville residential neighborhood, also a historic district, with a number of carefully restored and cared-for homes from the 1800s and some from earlier eras.
Within the Seville neighborhood is the Pensacola Historic Village, a complex of unique museums, with restored pioneer homesteads, structures, and artifacts. There are self-guided and directed tours. During some hours the village is populated by costumed interpreters recreating artisan crafts from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Within the Pensacola historic districts are a number of interesting pubs and dining places. Link to our reviews and recommendations of best pubs and restaurants in Pensacola. (New Reviews added 2017)
Pensacola Golf Courses
Pensacola offers a nice range of golf courses from a modest-priced municipal course to meticulously groomed semi-private courses. Link to our reviews and recommendations of Pensacola Golf Courses. (New Reviews added 2017)
Pensacola Scenic Bluffs
We took a drive along the Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway that was advertised in a brochure we picked up. We expected to see quaint cottages, unique restaurants, secluded picnic areas, and bluff-top vistas of Escambia Bay. These bluffs are reputed to be the highest points along Florida’s entire oceon coastline. The scenic drive begins near the Pensacola Visitor & Welcome center (take 17th avenue to East Cervantes Street – also US 90) and ends 11 miles later when US 90 crosses the Escambia River. Bay Bluffs park has an interesting boardwalk trail with some good views of the bay but after that the drive offers little to be called a scenic drive. Unfortunately for us the actual experience fell short of the promotion.
More Pensacola Visitor Attractions
One of your first stops in visiting Pensacola should be at the Pensacola Visitor Center, conveniently located at the mouth of the Bayou Texar and at the base of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. Convenient parking, helpful staff, lots of maps and brochures, and hot coffee or chocolate. include map on location.
- Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas. History buffs will enjoy touring these forts and learning about their roles in US history.
- US Naval Aviation Museum. The largest naval aviation museum in the world! Just about anyone, including those interested in naval aviation history, will enjoy. You can spend days there.
- Best Pensacola Restaurants. See our reviews of best places to eat and drink in Pensacola.
- Visiting Pensacola Beach. This is Pensacola’s gulf side playground on Santa Rosa Barrier Island.
Gulf Islands Scenic Drive and Scenic Highways 98 & 30A
More impressive was the drive we took down the length of Santa Rosa Island to Destin and then south along Scenic Highway 30A. Our favorite spots along this route are Grayton Beach and Apalachicola.