As the westernmost of Florida’s cities, and located on the narrow strip of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama known as the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola is the county seat of Escambia County and boasts miles of scenic shoreline.
The area is popular with outdoorsmen, nature lovers, and golfers from all over the gulf coast region, and it’s got more than its fair share of cultural and historical attractions too.
Compared to many of the state’s more touristy destinations, Pensacola is relatively inexpensive and is more family-friendly than many other premier tourist centers like Daytona and Miami Beach.
Below are 15 things to do in and around Pensacola.
1. Florida Welcome Center
For travelers new to an area, there are few better places to check out first than official state welcome centers.
They’re usually staffed by knowledgeable and enthusiastic locals and include interesting and informative exhibits, as well as stacks of travel magazines and brochures that are free for the taking.
You’ll get great ideas for things you’ll likely want to see and do, and probably a lot of coupons and special offers that may save you a few bucks.
Located just off Interstate 10 outside of town, the Florida Welcome Center has clean bathrooms, a cool ‘Welcome to Florida’ sign, and a historic navy jet too.
2. The Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
Since it was built in 1859, the Pensacola Lighthouse has been a well-known beacon for mariners traveling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the northwest corner of the Sunshine State.
Now, the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are favorite destinations for those looking for some local perspective on the area’s maritime history, or who just want to burn some calories climbing to the top of this impressive structure.
The museum is open daily and kids are welcome, but they’ll need to be taller than 44 inches to climb to the lighthouse’s top.
3. Historic Pensacola Village
Comprised of eight acres and nearly a dozen properties that are open to the public, Historic Pensacola Village is the region’s premier destination for those interested in getting a unique glimpse into the past of the Pensacola and panhandle areas.
The village features several historic homes, a church, and a multicultural center. Many guests take advantage of the guided tours offered by village staff dressed in historic clothes and using the vernacular of the day.
The cost of admission is less than a burger and fries, and there’s ample parking as well. The village is open from Tuesday through Saturday.
4. National Naval Aviation Museum
The gulf coast region has a long naval aviation tradition, and Naval Air Station Pensacola is the oldest base of its kind in the country, established more than a century ago.
The museum features more than 100 historic aircraft that have been restored to near-original condition and contains one of the most complete collections of memorabilia relating to the famous Blue Angels that do much of their training in the area.
If the Angels are practicing, the museum is a great place to watch. There’s an onsite IMAX theater as well.
Free guided tours are available, so sign up at the reception desk when you arrive.
5. Pensacola Beach
Generally speaking, Florida’s beaches on the Gulf of Mexico have calmer and warmer waters than their Atlantic coast counterparts, so for travelers who aren’t interested in hearty waves and refreshing surf, Pensacola Beach would be the perfect alternative.
The beach is known for its white sand, stunning views, and laidback pace, and there are a variety of recreation and entertainment options nearby that make it a great one-stop destination for families who’d rather not spend hours driving from one place to the next.
A boardwalk, shops, galleries, and eateries are all within easy reach, and a variety of lodging options to fit nearly every budget are close by as well.
6. Pensacola Museum of Art
Located on the campus of The University of West Florida, the Pensacola Museum of Art is home to an expansive and ever-growing collection of contemporary art, most of which is from the last few centuries.
The museum is housed in the city’s old jailhouse that dates back to the turn of the 20th century and is one of the area’s most well-preserved examples of Spanish Revival architecture.
Much of the art on display was produced by local and regional artists and features Florida related themes, though a number of international influences are present as well.
Check out their website for directions and hours of operation.
7. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Admission to the Gulf Islands National Seashore is paid on a per-vehicle basis, making it a cost-effective destination for families looking to maximize the impact of their hard-earned travel dollars.
Those arriving on foot or by bicycle will also pay a nominal fee, but with such stunning scenery and varied outdoor activities at your fingertips, you’ll probably think it was money well spent.
It’s a rural destination, so don’t expect to find exclusive bistros or coffee shops; if you plan on making a day of it, you’ll need to bring your own food and drinks.
There are nearby historic attractions too for when you’ve had your fill of sun, sand, and surf.
8. Fort Barrancas
Located on Taylor Road in Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Barrancas’ structures were built in the 1840s, and the fort itself wasn’t officially decommissioned until more than 100 years later.
The fort played a crucial role in defending the coastline and nearby settlements during the Civil War. In addition to the well-preserved fortifications, there’s a visitor’s center that’s great to check out first, as it’ll give you an interesting historical overview of the things you’re about to see.
Self-guided and ranger-led tours are available, and there is hiking, a picnic area, and an onsite bookstore full of unique items that you won’t likely find elsewhere.
9. The Historic Pensacola Museum of Commerce
Over the years, Florida’s economy has evolved with the times. Though it’s still home to a thriving commercial farming industry, these days, tourism has catapulted to the top spot.
Consisting of reconstructed buildings that originally date from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Historic Pensacola Museum of Commerce gives guests a unique glimpse into the past and includes a variety of realistic shops that were common in the day.
Located on Zaragoza Street, the museum is open to self-guided tours daily and is a particular favorite for children and history lovers. Most guests spend about an hour.
10. 5 Flags Speedway
Since it opened in 1953, the 5 Flags Speedway has held a regular racing season that typically lasts from March to October, and the speedway’s flagship NASCAR event is held in December.
Considered by many race fans to be one of the country’s best short tracks, it features highly banked curves that make it exhilaratingly fast and a real blast for spectators.
Located on Pine Forest Road in Pensacola, it’s possible to buy individual tickets or a season pass that grants entry to all of its yearly events. For race fans who’ll be in the area for a while, it’s the best value.
11. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos
During the winter months, major league baseball teams from around the country descend on the Sunshine State to take advantage of its beautiful weather and get in a little practice before the regular season starts.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos are a Double A team for the Cincinnati Reds, and the stadium is located on West Cedar Street in Pensacola.
It’s the perfect place to spend a few afternoon or evening hours taking in some competitive play without spending an arm and a leg for a beer and a dog like you’d do at a major league park.
Season tickets are available for those who’d like to catch every game.
12. Pensacola Pedal Trolley
Pedal trolleys are great ways to see lots of amazing sights while burning calories, and since they’re people-powered, they don’t contribute to air pollution like noisy and dirty diesel and gasoline engines do.
Pensacola’s historic downtown area is full of shops, eateries, and galleries, and most tours last about 90 minutes and can accommodate up to 15 people.
Plenty of photo ops will be available along the way, and many local establishments offer food and drink deals for tour guests.
Their pub and Sunday brunch tours are among the most popular options, so book in advance to reserve your spots.
13. The Wharf in Orange Beach
Though you’ll have to spend a little time behind the windshield to get to the next few attractions, the drive from Pensacola, Florida to Mobile, Alabama is a scenic one, and it’s really not that far.
The Wharf in Orange Beach is a family-friendly destination on the water which is home to a variety of entertainment options, including shopping, dining, movies and live music.
Most of The Wharf’s shops and restaurants are moderately priced and are open from 10 AM until 10 PM daily.
The Wharf is handicap accessible and the perfect destination for those traveling in large groups. There’s plenty of onsite parking.
14. Zipline at the Wharf
Rumor has it that the zip line facility at The Wharf is the highest and most extensive in the entire state; a few of their lines are more than 100 feet high.
It’s not uncommon for guests to zip along at 40 miles per hour or more, so it’s not necessarily a good fit for the faint of heart, but it offers incredible views of the surrounding wetlands and bay that you won’t get from the ground.
Groups of up to ten are led by a trained professional. Before visitors take to the skies, they’ll get all the training and equipment needed for a safe and exhilarating experience.
15. Ferris Wheel at the Wharf
Standing more than 100 feet tall and sporting two dozen gondolas that can hold nearly 150 people, the Ferris wheel at The Wharf is large by any standards; it’s one of the things most guests choose not to pass up when visiting Mobile.
The gondolas are handicap accessible, and the wheel’s relatively slow rotation offers terrific views of nearby wetlands and the bay that are particularly stunning in the late afternoon and early evening hours.
Most visitors to The Wharf stay a few hours. With so much to see, do, and eat, keeping busy won’t be an issue.