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Explore Pensacola Beyond the Beach

By Dakota Parks for Tampa Bay Times and Bay Magazine

At the western end of Florida’s Panhandle, the Pensacola Bay area is known for its white sand beaches and serene turquoise waters, home to the world’s largest artificial reef — the U.S.S. Oriskany — and abundant wildlife. The Gulf Islands National Seashore, stretching along both sides of Pensacola Beach, is the longest protected seashore in the United States and has routinely earned the title of Florida’s best beach. Visitors flock here to fish, swim, snorkel, bike and boat.


But Pensacola is more than just sun and sand. With a bustling downtown, vibrant art and cultural offerings and more than 450 years of history — from pre-Civil War forts to a historic district that captures the turbulent saga of America’s first Spanish settlement — there is plenty to do and see.


SHOP DOWNTOWN

Palafox Street, in the heart of downtown, is lined with restaurants, boutiques, shops and artisan markets that evoke the ambience of New Orleans. Every Saturday morning, the Palafox Market at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza draws thousands of visitors who come to browse the booths of local produce, handmade crafts and artisanal foods while sipping on coffee. Gallery Night Pensacola, held the third Friday of every month from 5 to 10 p.m., is another beloved fixture. Through traffic is halted as artists, vendors, nonprofits and food trucks converge on Palafox Street.

Downtown Palafox Street, Pensacola, FL

450 YEARS OF HISTORY

Get a glimpse into the city’s past as you tour the streets of Historic Pensacola Village, site of the original Spanish and British forts in downtown Pensacola. One ticket grants access to all of the museums in the district, which encompasses 9 acres and 30 historic properties including the Pensacola Museum of History, the children’s museum and several historic homes staged with artifacts and period-specific furniture. Visitors can also explore the sprawling brick battlements and labyrinth of arched tunnels of Fort Pickens, a pre-Civil War-era fort on Pensacola Beach.


The National Naval Aviation Museum, at Naval Air Station Pensacola, is a must- visit attraction for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs. The museum showcases an impressive collection of aircraft, spacecraft and artifacts.


Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach

THE ART SCENE

Pensacola has a thriving arts scene with annual art festivals such as Foo Foo Fest and the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival, monthly art strolls, revolving public art displays and a full calendar of events from professional groups like the Pensacola Opera, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Pensacola. Visitors can enjoy a variety of shows at the Pensacola Little Theatre, a community theater downtown that is home to a long-standing LGBTQ+ film festival, musical theater productions and the uproarious antics of an improv comedy group. If you’re interested in visual arts, head to the Pensacola Museum of Art or Artel Gallery, both of which feature curated exhibits from local and national artists.

Guests browse Pensacola Museum of Art, image courtesy of PMA


PENSACOLA BAY FERRIES

Pensacola Beach

If you want to see the city from a different perspective, hop on a Pensacola Bay City ferry. One ferry takes passengers on a scenic tour of Pensacola Bay past historic landmarks like Fort Pickens, and depending on the time of year, provides good views of the Blue Angels practicing aerial stunts. Guests can also take a ferry to Fort Pickens, where National Park Service rangers lead tours of two to three hours in length. The tours are a great way to learn about the history and ecology of Pensacola.


For those looking for a stress-free beach trip without the hassle of traffic and parking, another ferry runs directly from downtown Pensacola to Pensacola Beach and back. You can even catch a glimpse of dolphins and other marine life. Many local tour and charter boat companies also offer dolphin encounters.


THE FOOD SCENE

Pensacola is known for its seafood, and there are plenty of restaurants serving it

fresh and locally sourced. One must-visit spot: Joe Patti’s Seafood, a market and restaurant that’s been a Pensacola staple for over 90 years. In addition to shrimp, crab, oysters and other fresh seafood, it offers specialty items like alligator and Cajun boudin, a type of sausage.


For some of the best Italian food in town, try Bonelli’s homemade pasta dishes. George Bistro & Bar is another standout option with a menu of innovative Southern dishes. Vegan travelers won’t want to miss downtown Pensacola’s End of the Line Café, which serves vegan pastries, jackfruit sandwiches, burritos, kombucha, coffee and craft beer. And for what many consider the best burger in Pensacola, visit Blue Dot Barbeque, a family-owned restaurant first opened in 1946 in the historic Belmont- DeVilliers district.


If those local gems aren’t enough, check out the Seville Savories Food Tour. It offers tours through downtown to sample some of the best food and coffee while learning about the area’s culinary history.


ENTERTAINMENT

When the sun goes down, Pensacola boasts a vibrant nightlife scene. The city’s downtown area is home to many bars, clubs and music venues. The Vinyl Music Hall is a popular spot for live music, featuring local as well as big-name national touring acts. Seville Quarter, another popular club, has seven rooms with different themes, including a dueling piano bar, a sports bar, an outdoor patio bar featuring live music and a dance club. If you’re looking for a more low-key evening, check out some of the city’s 13 craft breweries. For more information about Pensacola, go to visitpensacola.com.

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