In the early spring we like to escape the cold Wisconsin winters by traveling to Northern Florida and the Florida Panhandle.
One of our favorite places to spend some time is in Pensacola and Pensacola Beach. Since we travel by motorhome, we stay at RV parks and prefer state and national parks for their wilderness settings and hiking trails.
On our first visit to the area we stayed at the Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore Park campground on the far western end of Santa Rosa island. The island is a gulf barrier island that is mostly within the Gulf Islands National Seashore but also 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 several return trips and there is still more to see. The actual restored Fort Pickens (the “fort” itself vs the park with the same name) is also a top Pensacola attraction. In 2020 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 you would normally take by auto to visit the Fort.
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 Bourbon 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.
See the Slide Show below of historic homes
Within the Pensacola historic districts are a number of interesting pubs and dining places.
Pensacola Golf Courses
Pensacola offers a nice range of golf courses from a modest-priced municipal course to meticulously groomed semi-private courses.
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.
Camping & RVing in Pensacola
In addition to some private parks and campgrounds, campers and RVers can chose from a Florida State Park Campground and a National Park Campground. Both offer beaches on the gulf, some decent hiking/biking trails, modern campgrounds with electric hookups, canoeing and kayaking and in the case of Fort Pickens some impressive historical exhibits.
- See our article and review of Big Lagoon State Park
- See our article and review of Fort Pickens National Historic Park and Campground.
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.
- Visit Pensacola Website. Official Pensacola tourism website offers other interesting places to experience.
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.
Look for our next gulf drive article covering Apalachicola to Cedar Keys