15 Best Things to Do in Pensacola (FL)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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The westernmost Florida city is 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 is endowed with miles of scenic shoreline.

This part of the state is a honeypot for outdoorsmen, nature lovers, and golfers from all over the region, and it’s got more than its fair share of culture too.

I can’t wait to introduce you to Pensacola’s historical highlights, from world-beating museums to preserved forts, 18th-century neighborhoods, and a lovable old downtown.

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 my top 15 things to do in and around Pensacola.

1. Florida Welcome Center

Florida Welcome CenterSource: Andriy Blokhin / shutterstock
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, as a nod to its military heritage.

I can’t think of a better way to be welcomed to the Sunshine State than with a free glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and that’s exactly what you get here.

2. The Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum

Pensacola Lighthouse and MuseumSource: Colin D. Young / shutterstock
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 Blue Angels are based at the adjoining Naval Air Station Pensacola, and I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of them training when I visited the lighthouse.

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

Historic Pensacola VillageSource: James Kirkikis / shutterstock
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. I recommend taking one of the guided tours, given by village staff dressed in period costume 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

National Naval Aviation MuseumSource: Danny E Hooks / shutterstock
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 150 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 another great place to watch.

Added to that is an eye-popping IMAX theater, flight simulators, and cockpit trainers, for a whole day filled with aeronautical wonder.

Free guided tours are available, so sign up at the reception desk when you arrive.

5. Pensacola Beach

Pensacola BeachSource: Rotorhead 30A Productions / shutterstock
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.

Pensacola Beach is known for its white sand, stunning views, and laidback ambience, and there are a variety of recreation and entertainment options nearby.

I’m the kind of person that likes to do as little driving as possible on vacation, and Pensacola Beach is a fantastic one-stop destination with everything you need close by.

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. For unforgettable experiences you could learn to surf, go paddle-boarding in the clear waters, or take part in a dolphin-watching tour.

6. Pensacola Museum of Art

Pensacola Museum Of ArtSource: pensacolamuseum.org
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 best-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.

When I was in town I took a look at the Depth of Field exhibit, with riveting selections of photography from the university’s permanent collection, as well as the UWF Trust Archives.

Check out their website for directions and hours of operation.

7. Gulf Islands National Seashore

Gulf Islands National SeashoreSource: Colin D. Young / shutterstock
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.

At the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the country, these are extremely remote barrier islands.

Don’t expect to find exclusive bistros or coffee shops; if you plan on making a day of it, I’d urge you to plan ahead and bring everything you need.

There are nearby historic attractions too for when you’ve had your fill of adventure.

8. Fort Barrancas

Fort BarrancasSource: William Silver / shutterstock
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.

From there, I had a blast exploring the network of tunnels serving the gun positions in the scarp and counterscarp.

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

Pensacola Museum of CommerceSource: Infrogmation of New Orleans / Wikimedia
Pensacola Museum Of Commerce

Over the years, Florida’s economy has moved with the times. Though it’s still home to a thriving commercial farming industry, these days, tourism has catapulted to the top spot.

First off, I fell in love with the museum building, a warehouse raised at the turn of the 20th century. Inside you’ll step into a lovingly reconstructed streetscape from late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Historic Pensacola Museum of Commerce gives you an enlightening glimpse of everyday life from a bygone time, 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

5 Flags SpeedwaySource: 5 Flags Speedway / Facebook
5 Flags Speedway

On the map since 1953, the 5 Flags Speedway has a regular racing season that lasts from March to October, and then there’s a flagship NASCAR event in December.

Considered by many race fans to be one of the country’s best short tracks, this circuit features highly banked curves for blisteringly fast races and maximum entertainment for spectators.

My only word of warning is to bring earplugs or buy a pair on site, because those engines are beasts.

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

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos StadiumSource: Bobby R Lee / shutterstock
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos Stadium

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.

You can take in some high-quality action without spending an arm and a leg for a beer and a dog like you would at a major league park.

I almost got distracted by the sweeping view of the bay from behind the outfield, which has to be one of the most beautiful sights at any ballpark.

Season tickets are available for those who’d like to catch every game.

12. Pensacola Pedal Trolley

Pensacola Pedal TrolleySource: Pensacola Pedal Trolley / Facebook
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. Big Lagoon State Park

Big Lagoon State ParkSource: Krista Hardin / shutterstock
Big Lagoon State Park

Between Pensacola Bay in the east and Perdido Key in the west, Big Lagoon is an enormous body of water, with a whole host of natural habitats on its shores.

You’ll find beaches, flatwoods, tidal marsh, and more at the 700-acre Big Lagoon State Park on the mainland at the lagoon’s western end.

Least terns and snowy plovers are a couple of the migratory shorebirds stopping by, and there are boardwalks and an observation tower for a better vantage point.

My ideal way to spend some time at the park is on a camping trip, mixing in some kayaking, lazy days at the beach, and as much nature spotting as possible.

The park took some damage during Hurricane Sally in 2020, but was getting back on its feet when I wrote this article.

14. Saenger Theatre Pensacola

Saenger Theatre PensacolaSource: User:TheCustomOfLife / Wikimedia | Public domain
Saenger Theatre Pensacola

Inside and out, one of Pensacola’s most beautiful landmarks is the Spanish Revival Saenger Theatre, completed in 1925. Seating 1,641, this stately venue started life as a movie palace, before losing its luster as the century progressed.

The theater closed in 1975, but this sparked a metamorphosis, and within six years there had been a complete restoration and a switch to a performing arts stage.

More than four decades and another major renovation later, the Saenger Theatre is doing better than ever hosting Broadway, ballet, live comedy, concerts, classic movie screenings, the list goes on.

If you’re in town during the holiday season, I’d suggest you get tickets for The Nutcracker. Generations of locals have grown up with this show.

15. The Wharf in Orange Beach

The Wharf In Orange BeachSource: The Wharf / Facebook
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.


15 Best Things to Do in Pensacola (FL):

  • Florida Welcome Center
  • The Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
  • Historic Pensacola Village
  • National Naval Aviation Museum
  • Pensacola Beach
  • Pensacola Museum of Art
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Fort Barrancas
  • The Historic Pensacola Museum of Commerce
  • 5 Flags Speedway
  • The Pensacola Blue Wahoos
  • Pensacola Pedal Trolley
  • Big Lagoon State Park
  • Saenger Theatre Pensacola
  • The Wharf in Orange Beach