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Pensacola, Florida

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Did You Know … ?

  • Pensacola is on the first attempted European settlement site on U.S. soil (1559).
  • The 911-foot USS Oriskany is at the core of the world’s largest artificial reef.
  • The 160-mile-long Gulf Islands National Seashore is America’s largest protected seashore (95,100 acres).
  • Pensacola’s beaches are sugar white because of quartz, which, over eons, washed down river from the Appalachians.
  • Gen. Andrew Jackson claimed West Florida from Spain in downtown Pensacola (1821).

Five flags, 25 festivals

Pensacola sits on a bay facing the Gulf of Mexico in the far western reaches of the Florida Panhandle. To control this coast, Spanish conquistadors founded a settlement here in 1559, but within a month, a hurricane destroyed it (St. Augustine gets credit for being America’s first European settlement — 1565 — because it survived).

The first permanent Pensacola settlement dates from 1698; even that was early by American standards. Over time, Pensacola, now dubbed City of Five Flags, was part of five nations — Spain, France, Britain, the Confederacy and the U.S.

For visitors, this history translates into photogenic architecture (historic districts, forts, a lighthouse), themed walking trails, information-rich museums, archaeological digs, varied cuisines and a similar variety in festival themes. Arts and crafts, music (jazz, blues and more), food (especially seafood, with emphasis on crayfish) and drink provide focus for many of the city’s 25 festivals. Events also include Mardi Gras and an annual heritage festival.

That heritage includes a significant military aspect. The Naval Air Station Pensacola is effectively heir to earlier forts designed for defense. The National Naval Aviation Museum is at the base.

However, it must be said, the city’s top attraction is the climate — warm year round and sunny most days — complemented by sugar-white beaches and the inviting waters of Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

As if that were not enough, the bay is sheltered by a string of barrier islands, now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a protected area that invites visitors for a host of activities, ranging from sunbathing and birding to fishing and camping.

In fact, fishing is big in Pensacola. Besides deep-sea fishing in the gulf, visitors can try their luck in several bays or the Escambia River, which boasts 85 recorded fish species, the greatest variety for any Florida river. Another popular alternative is diving to observe the marine life and check out old shipwrecks as well as the intentionally sunk USS Oriskany and the reef that now surrounds it.

Finally, golf is a logical follow on to a climate like Pensacola’s. The city’s several PGA-rated courses are duly noted here.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take a dive to explore the reef at the USS Oriskany, or explore other wrecks, such as the USS Massachusetts, one of the oldest existing American battleships, or the Antares, a 400-foot freighter. Plan an underwater wedding.
  • Try the Pensacola signature rum drink, suggestively called the bushwacker.  Come to the Bushwacker Festival in midsummer. BTW, there is a Martini Festival in late fall, too.
  • Participate in a summer archaeological dig near the University of West Florida.
  • Compete in the Pensacola Marathon in autumn. Or, for a seemingly pointless alternative, in April, compete in the Interstate Mullet Toss, where participants toss a mullet (fish) as far as possible across the Alabama-Florida state line. Actually, it’s a charity fundraiser.
  • Eat gator bites and fried crayfish pistolettes, among other choice options, at the September Pensacola Seafood Festival.
  • Camp in Big Lagoon State Park. Use its 655 acres for canoeing, hiking or fishing.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Nod to Pensacola’s military significance with a tour of the National Naval Aviation Museum. There are old forts to see, too, including the 1844 Fort Barrancas and the 1834 Fort Pickens.
  • Seek out ranger-led programs, such as snorkeling or barrier island walks, at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
  • If an angler, set your sights on game fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Or fish in the bays — East Bay, Escambia Bay or Pensacola Bay. (You can skip the license and toss a line from one of the area’s public fishing piers, too.)
  • Attend a revival service at the Brownsville Assembly of God church, if you can get a seat.
  • Climb the 177 steps to the top of Pensacola Lighthouse for the views.
  • Celebrate music at the Pensacola Jazz Festival (April); the Kayak, Barbecue and Blues Festival, a multipurpose fest held in late summer, or the outdoor Bands on the Beach (Tuesday nights, April through October).

Things to do for Authentics

  • In a city boasting 340 or more sunny days a year and nearly a dozen PGA-rated courses, play golf.
  • Learn about the city at the adjoining museums of industry and commerce. Also, the next-door Julee Cottage is devoted to African-American history.
  • Enjoy the beach at Big Lagoon State Park, which is a few miles southwest of Pensacola. Go crabbing in the shallow waters of the Big Lagoon.
  • Drive a bit east to Milton, an old mill town, to admire its historic district, and see its Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site.
  • Watch costumed re-enactors demonstrate early 19th century cooking techniques — and a number of other traditional skills — at the Historic Pensacola Village.
  • Come to town for the Fiesta of Five Flags, held in June. The fiesta, with parades and other events, is an annual celebration of the city’s founding and its affiliations with Spain, France, Britain, the Confederacy and the U.S.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Visit Pensacola at