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20 Top-Rated Things to Do in Pensacola, FL

Written by Michael Law and Lana Law
Updated Sep 16, 2022

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Pensacola is a relatively small city that has built up a solid reputation as one of the best places to visit in Florida for those seeking fun things to do for the whole family. The area has countless opportunities for water sports on Pensacola Bay, water parks, as well as engaging museums and, of course, plenty of beautiful beaches.

More adult-themed things to do in Pensacola include shopping, dining, live theater, a popular symphony orchestra, a ballet, and even an opera.

In its popular culture, its inspiration, and even its cuisine, Pensacola has closer ties to the Deep South than to the rest of Florida. Sitting in the Panhandle, Pensacola is actually much closer in distance to Birmingham and Atlanta than it is to Miami. It also exists in a different time zone than much of the rest of the state, so be sure to adjust your watches to Central Time.

Plan your vacation with our list of the top things to do in Pensacola.

1. Pensacola's Beaches & Gulf Islands National Seashore

Langdon Beach near Fort Pickens
Langdon Beach near Fort Pickens | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Imagine beautiful — and empty — beaches stretching for 160 miles from the Florida Panhandle into Alabama and Mississippi. Imagine the calls of seabirds, the soothing sounds made by the wash of blue-green water onto beaches of fine white sand, and the caress of tropical breezes on your face. Imagine a place where all the cares and stresses of the outside world melt away, and where you can revel in the simple joys of life again.

Well, it can all be experienced at Gulf Islands National Seashore, just mere minutes from downtown Pensacola. Along this strip of peaceful pleasures are trails and uncrowded campgrounds, kayak spots (and rentals), historic forts, and plenty of wildlife. Once here, it's the kind of place you'll find hard to leave.

Official site: www.nps.gov/guis/index.htm

2. Wander through Historic Pensacola Village

A church in Historic Pensacola Village
A church in Historic Pensacola Village | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Pensacola, in conjunction with the University of West Florida has done an excellent job of researching and restoring the city's history. The best example of this is the delightful Historic Pensacola Village (also known as the Seville Historic District), which consists of 28 beautifully restored buildings, four museums, and the chance to walk in the footsteps of the pioneers.

The Pensacola Museum of History takes you on a wild ride through the cast of characters and countries that have made Pensacola what it is today. The Children's Museum makes history come alive — interactively — for the younger set. At the Museum of Commerce, you can walk along an 1890s street and step inside a trolley car.

The Museum of Industry depicts this city's transformation from a tiny wilderness outpost to a manufacturing and transportation center. Also worth checking out are Voices of Pensacola and Old Christ Church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Best of all, your ticket to all these attractions entitles you to come back for free any time within seven days. Guided tours are also available.

Address: 120 Church Street, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.historicPensacola.org

3. Palafox Street & the Palafox Market

Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola
Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Palafox Street is one of the best pedestrian areas in the city of Pensacola. Wide sidewalks, covered in many areas, front a variety of shops and restaurants. Shaded tables line the sidewalks, making this a great spot to grab a quick, or long, lunch and catch up on the latest news with friends.

Although Palafox Street runs for quite some distance, the main area of interest to tourists, with the greatest concentration of retail establishments, is south of Garden Street down to Main Street.

Every Saturday, no matter the weather, the Palafox Market springs to life from 9am to 2pm in Martin Luther Square. This free attraction is full of local vendors selling items they have made. Highlights include fresh produce, baking, meats, specialty cheeses, and of course, sweets. Other items for sale include handmade soaps, unique artwork, antiques, and aromatic fresh-cut flowers.

4. Wander around Historic Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Pensacola's barrier islands are a treasure trove of history. Fort Pickens, completed in 1834, played an important role in defending the shipyards of Pensacola Bay. Over the years, the fort was repurposed for other military duties, but today the massive guns are silent.

A trip to Fort Pickens from downtown Pensacola takes about 25 minutes across two scenic bridges and past countless spectacular beaches. At the site, you'll find a wide-open area with walking trails throughout the remains of the fort. It's a peaceful spot and rarely busy.

View over Fort Pickens
View over Fort Pickens | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

One of the best views is from the top of the walls on the right-hand side, just look for the large cannon. The route up is not immediately apparent; you'll need to walk under the arches and locate the staircase in behind.

Other areas around the fort that are worth a quick look include the fishing pier and the Fort Pickens Discovery Center.

5. Casino Beach and Pensacola Beach Pier

The pier at Pensacola Beach
The pier at Pensacola Beach | Photo copyright: Lana Law

A short drive over two bridges from downtown brings you to the community of Pensacola Beach. This is where you'll want to be if you are looking for sun, surf, and sand. One of the best spots to soak up all three is at Casino Beach. Easy parking and a lively scene draw day-trippers and locals to this spectacular stretch of sand. Other beaches in the national park may be more beautiful, but Casino Beach has all the things they don't offer, including restaurants, beach chair rentals, and retail shops.

Set up your beach gear and settle in for a day of looking out over refreshing waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the water is shallow for a fair distance from shore, making it ideal for wading or for those who are less than confident in their swimming abilities.

For a diversion from the beach, grab your hat and sandals and stroll out to the end of the pier for fantastic views up and down the coast.

6. Dining in Pensacola

Dining in Pensacola
Dining in Pensacola

Pensacola's proximity to the fertile waters of the Gulf of Mexico ensure that fresh seafood is on the menu at most local restaurants. One of the best spots to enjoy this fine fare is at the Grand Marlin of Pensacola Beach. Spectacular views out over the water make dining here a pleasure. Reserve a table on the covered outdoor dining area, and enjoy the cool sea breezes as you dine and catch up on news with your friends.

For a fun dining experience, swing by Flounder's Chowder House. You'll know you've found the place when you see the giant rusty old boat in front. Here, you can dine with your toes in the sand, on a patio, in a covered open-air area, or inside in the air-conditioning. Huge platters of deep fried everything may have you starting a diet after your visit.

For a good mix of restaurants that include everything from Thai food to pizza and traditional North American fare, head down to Palafox Street.

7. Visit Perdido Key

Perdido Key, Pensacola
Perdido Key, Pensacola

Perdido Key, located about 30 minutes southwest of downtown Pensacola, is another major resort and beach destination near town. Here, white soft-sand beaches stretch for miles and miles to the east and west.

One of the best beach areas is the Johnson Beach National Seashore. Rarely crowded and completely spectacular, this is one of the best beaches in the Pensacola area.

Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

Perdido Key is also home to Perdido Key State Park. The park was badly damaged by Hurricane Sally in 2020 and is still recovering. If you continue west along Highway 292, you will eventually end up in Alabama.

Most of the accommodation on Perdido Key is in the form of high-rise condominium towers or large multi-level homes.

8. Enjoy a Performance in Pensacola

Musicians in an orchestra
Musicians in an orchestra

Culture vultures will be in their element in Pensacola. One of the most delightful surprises of a visit here are the extensive arts and cultural options available.

For a mid-sized city, Pensacola is blessed with not only a fine assortment of museums and galleries, but also a symphony, ballet, live theater, and even an opera. This thriving arts scene is well supported by an appreciative and culturally aware local population.

Performances take place all yearlong and are the highlight of the local social calendar.

9. Historic North Hill Neighborhood

St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church
St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

Situated on a rise above downtown Pensacola is the leafy and pleasant residential area known as North Hill. If you are a fan of architecture, you'll be pleased to know the area is full of wonderfully restored homes dating from the late 19th century. Park your car on any one of the side streets and wander the cobblestone roadways, or sign up for a tour of the neighborhood.

Some of the more impressive homes include the W.F. Creary House, the J.S. McGauhy House (aka Hopkins House), and the Andrew F. Warren House. The St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church, dating from the 1930s, is also worth a quick look.

10. Catch a Memorable Performance at the Saenger Theatre

The Saenger
The Saenger | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For a night in the Roaring Twenties, catch one of the singing, musical, orchestral, lecture, or theatrical performances at what locals call "The Grand Dame of Palafox Street." The Saenger Theatre was built in 1925, in the midst of the opulence and excess that preceded the Great Depression, and featured many of the world's greatest stars.

Fifty years later, after being used for years as a movie theater and in a state of neglect, the Saenger closed down. It later underwent extensive renovation and expansion and re-opened with the same glorious ambience that it had in the old days.

Today, it again hosts world-famous performers. You can see them in one of America's cultural gems, and just outside the door, Palafox Street has some wonderful shops.

Address: 118 South Palafox Place, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.pensacolasaenger.com

11. Pensacola Museum of History

Museum of History in Historic Pensacola Village
Museum of History in Historic Pensacola Village | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

As you wander through Old Pensacola, one of the most beautiful buildings you'll come across is the former city hall, built in 1907. Today it is the home of the Pensacola Museum of History and it's well worth a stop. Inside, you'll find a regular roster of changing exhibits along with the two permanent collections detailing the history of the city.

The City of Five Flags exhibit is a fascinating look at Pensacola. More than just city memorabilia, the exhibit traces the evolution of the city through the use of archeological finds and interactive displays. The second permanent exhibit is Trader Jon's. This heartfelt recreation of Pensacola's most treasured tourist attraction, along with a detailed overview of his eclectic life, is a must-see.

Address: 330 South Jefferson Street, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: https://historicpensacola.org/plan-your-visit/museums-properties/pensacola-museum-of-history/

12. Pensacola Museum of Art

Located downtown, not far from the sights and sounds of Palafox Street, is the Pensacola Museum of Art. Housed in a former jail, the Pensacola Museum of Art is now a place of beauty, light, and learning.

Built in the Spanish Revival style in 1906, the building also served as home to the city courthouse, police department, and shore patrol. Times change, of course, and it became the Art Museum in 1954 and today is one of Pensacola's cultural hot spots.

A dynamic and interesting regular roster of traveling exhibits find their home here throughout the year. In addition to the traveling shows, the Pensacola Museum of Art is well known for its permanent collection. Two highlights in the collection are the Nettles Family Collection of antique art glass, including rare Tiffany pieces, and the Levandowsky Collection of 20th-century masks from the deepest reaches of Africa.

During your visit, be sure to search out masterpieces by the likes of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Thomas Hart Benton.

For those wanting to learn more about art, lectures as well as art classes are held frequently.

Address: 407 South Jefferson Street, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.pensacolamuseum.org

13. Catch a Ball Game at Blue Wahoos Stadium

Blue Wahoos Stadium
Blue Wahoos Stadium

Minor League Baseball is Major League fun at the recently-built Blue Wahoos Stadium in Pensacola. This ballpark is the home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, who play in the Southern League and are a minor-league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.

Ballgames here are just plain fun. Crazy contests, unusual prizes, sing-alongs, great food, and the big Blue Wahoo mascot (a tropical fish in local waters) are just some of the attractions.

You'll also find an atmosphere of relaxed informality that you don't usually find at Major League games, and, oh yes, some pretty good baseball. There are actually a good number of baseball fans who prefer Minor League Baseball to the majors, and an evening at this ballpark may show you why. Guaranteed low-cost fun for the whole family!

Address: 351 W. Cedar Street, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: https://www.milb.com/pensacola

14. Start an Epic Adventure on One of the Four Major Trails that Begin in Pensacola

Great blue heron in Pensacola
Great blue heron in Pensacola

Pensacola is the perfect place to start an adventure. The city is the jumping-off point for four of Florida's preeminent trails: The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail, the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, the Florida Circumnavigation Paddling Trail, and the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Whether it's spotting a black skimmer bird on the beach, or dipping beneath the waves to see the San Pablo wreck from 1944, or beaching your kayak on an uninhabited desert island, no matter your interests, all trails start in Pensacola.

15. Hit the Waterways at Night in a Glowing Kayak

Looking for something completely different to do in the evening? How about heading out in the dark in a brightly lit kayak on the calm Pensacola waterways. Settle into a completely transparent kayak, and gaze down at the sea bottom and any visiting marine life as you paddle silently along.

The crazy colors make for Instagram-worthy photos like you've never seen before. Don't feel like kayaking? Rent a glowing stand up paddleboard instead. Some groups even take it up another level by applying glowing paint to their faces and bodies.

Sign up for a Night Glow Kayak Paddle Session, and depart at sunset each evening from three locations around Pensacola Beach.

Official site: https://www.glowpaddle.com/

16. Engage Young Minds at the Pensacola MESS Hall

MESS
MESS | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

At the Pensacola MESS Hall, science isn't taught like it is in school; here, it's fun. This fun-packed science museum is interactive with a capital "I." MESS stands for Math, Engineering, Science, and Stuff, and your kids are the ones actually performing the experiments, trying new ones, and searching for solutions to various science-related scenarios.

There are no planned outcomes to the experiments, only the ones kids discover. Children are given MESS kits, designed to help them develop a solution to a specific problem in the area they've chosen. When they solve the first one, they can move on to the next. A gift shop selling science and learning related materials is located on-site.

Address: 116 N. Tarragona Street, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.pensacolamesshall.org

17. Answer the Call of the Wild at Adventures Unlimited

Kayak on the beach
Kayak on the beach

If the adventurer in you - or the kayaker, zipliner, canoeist, camper, or hiker, for that matter - is itching to get outside, then this is the place to go. Adventures Unlimited can also take you on afternoon forays or on guided overnight river trips. In fact, they even have a resort where you can lodge in authentic old log cabins or in a wooden schoolhouse that's been turned into an inn.

Or, you can really make out like the old-timers did and camp out in the woods. The kids can enjoy scavenger hunts along beautiful nature trails, and adults will enjoy the wildlife and colorful birds that make their homes here.

You can zipline over five different streams on the Soaring Stream experience, or enjoy seven different zipline sensations on Taste of the Tours. This is Panhandle nature at its finest, with a large dose of adrenaline, too.

Address: 8974 Tomahawk Landing Road, Milton, Florida

Official site: www.adventuresunlimited.com

18. National Naval Aviation Museum

National Naval Aviation Museum
National Naval Aviation Museum | Danny E Hooks / Shutterstock.com

Although this attraction was one of the top things to do in Pensacola for many years, recent security restrictions have now limited access to those serving in, or retired from, the US Armed Forces, their families or guests.

The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is the largest museum of its kind in the world. These planes, and the young pilots who flew them, helped shape history with their roles in two World Wars. Some 150 classic combat aircraft are on display here, lovingly restored and cared for and once again in mint condition.

Many of these incredible machines are the only examples of their kind still in existence, including the first plane to land at the South Pole, and one that flew in the epic Battle of Midway during WWII. At this museum, the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of combat come alive, along with the daring exploits of the pilots who flew them.

But this museum is not just about the aircraft. It's also about the people who designed them, built them, repaired them, tested them, and flew them into combat. You'll also get a walk back through time, with countless uniforms, tools, machines, maps, newspaper headlines, communications equipment, training, and over 4,000 items of memorabilia from that era.

The museum isn't all about history; it's also about the thrill of flying. To that end, exciting flight simulators and other 4D rides are well worth a try. One of the more sensory overload inducing experiences is the Apollo 11 VR exhibit. Strap on a set of virtual reality glasses and settle into a special chair to feel what it was like to blast off to the moon and return to Earth's surface.

After all your adventures, settle in and check out the movies shown in the 325-seat theater featuring a state-of-the-art 4K giant screen.

Address: 1878 S Blue Angel Pkwy, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.navalaviationmuseum.org/

19. Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum

Pensacola Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Pensacola Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

The lighthouse is located on the Naval Air Station Pensacola. Fortunately, access is still available to civilians, however, you must sign up for a tour that includes a shuttle bus.

While Spanish explorers like Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto arrived here 500 years ago, they never experienced the stunning views from the top of the Pensacola Lighthouse that visitors can today. The beacon from this historic tower has been lighting the way for mariners since 1859. There are 177 steps to the top, but it's a worthwhile workout.

When you reach the top, you might be able to see one of Pensacola's most thrilling sights: the famous Blue Angels from the adjacent Pensacola Naval Air Station performing their incredible maneuvers.

According to local legend, the lighthouse has been haunted by ghosts for many years, and there's even a fun ghost tour on which you may see a few of these mysterious residents yourself.

Be sure to also spend time exploring the adjacent Maritime Museum, with its fascinating displays related to the US Coast Guard and the history of illumination.

Address: 2081 Radford Boulevard, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: www.pensacolalighthouse.org

20. Explore Historic Fort Barrancas

Fort Barrancas
Fort Barrancas

As with the Naval Aviation Museum, recent security restrictions have now limited access to those serving in, or retired from, the US Armed Forces, their families or guests.

Its setting is not only historic, but also stunningly beautiful. Fort Barrancas, completed in 1844, lies on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and is one of three forts built to protect the Pensacola naval base in the 1800s. The others are the Spanish Battery and the Advanced Redoubt Grounds, and all are open for your exploration.

When you walk on the hiking trails that meander around the fort, you'll be following in the footsteps of the soldiers who were garrisoned here. You'll see camouflaged artillery bunkers, underground passageways, brick-fortified cannon placements, food storage areas, ammunition depots, soldiers' quarters, and more.

And you'll have one pleasure probably never afforded the soldiers who were stationed here: you'll be able to enjoy a picnic on the tranquil, lush grounds.

Address: 3182 Taylor Road, Pensacola, Florida

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/guis/planyourvisit/fort-barrancas-area.htm

A Brief History of Pensacola

Pensacola also has a long history, and the distinction of existing under five different flags. The Spanish established the first European settlement in America when they landed here in 1559. The French arrived in 1719. Then the British came in 1763 and were chased away by the returning Spanish after the American Revolution. In 1821, Pensacola became part of the United States and was incorporated back into the Union after the American Civil War.

Pensacola is in a friendly war of words with St. Augustine for the title of oldest city in Florida. Pensacola claims to have been settled by Don Tristan De Luna six years earlier than the founding of St. Augustine in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez, but there is some back and forth discussion on whether Pensacola was "continuously settled" after its founding or not.

Where to Stay in Pensacola

There's a good selection of accommodation options when it comes to choosing somewhere to stay in Pensacola. Whether you're looking for a luxury resort, a mid-priced hotel, or a budget motel, you'll find somewhere suitable on this list of the best resorts in Pensacola.

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