Pensacola is putting the Florida panhandle on the map — with 40 miles of sugar-sand beaches, rich history and culture, and Blue Angels air shows twice a year.
On the western edge of Florida's panhandle, one underrated city offers an oasis of surprising history, a bucolic beachfront — among the best in the nation — and a culture-rich downtown. Welcome to Pensacola, a Florida city like no other, where the sugary-white beach shares turf with roaring Blue Angels aircraft, the oldest settlement in America, and a veritable gumbo of Southern flavors.
“We have exactly what you need in terms of sand and sun, and you get the best of both worlds from a sun and sand perspective here, but also a rich cultural experience,” said Sid Williams-Heath, executive director of the Pensacola Little Theatre. “I don’t think a lot of beach towns have both.”
Williams-Heath cited the city’s thriving food and arts scene, and a community that’s welcoming, progressive, and unpretentious. “There’s a sustainable nostalgia here,” he added. “You can have a very high-quality experience, but you can also put your hair down and your flip-flops on and have a very unpretentious trip as well.”
For Nicole Stacey, one of Pensacola’s 100,000 residents who serves as the curator for the city’s annual Foo Foo Festival, the locals make it special. “People know the Gulf Coast and they think they know the panhandle, but they come here and it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she explained. “It’s a beautiful beach city with a great downtown. The rest of the panhandle doesn’t really have that, and the people take so much pride from being here.”
Hotel: In 2023, an abandoned church was converted into Lily Hall, a game-changing boutique with artful decor, an excellent restaurant, and Pensacola’s first speakeasy bar.
Restaurant: It’s contemporary American cuisine with a rigorously local and seasonal through line at George Bistro + Bar, an elegant dining staple — and date night requisite — famed for an ever-changing menu with dishes like Gulf grouper with brown butter–roasted spaghetti squash.
Thing to Do: Spanning miles of Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Beach offers the kind of sugar-white sand that people imagine when they fantasize about Florida beaches.
Nightlife: Since 1967, Seville Quarter has been a downtown cornerstone for live music, dancing, and dueling pianos, in a sprawling, multiroom space reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Shopping: Open every Saturday year-round, Palafox Market is the foremost farmers’ market in the region, comprising myriad farmers and purveyors selling everything from local meat and cheese, to arts, crafts, antiques, and soaps.
Best Hotels and Resorts
What was once a baptist church in the Old East Hill neighborhood has emerged as Lily Hall, a 15-room boutique hotel with a lofty, art-filled common area, a terrace, and some of the city’s most exciting new dining and drinking destinations. “Lily Hall is such a cute boutique place to stay,” Williams-Heath said. “And from a restaurant perspective, it’s stunning, too — visit Sister Hen for that speakeasy moment.”
Pensacola Beach Resort
Another new hotel entry, Pensacola Beach Resort is the only property on the beach with 800 feet of frontage on both the Gulf Coast and the sound of Little Sabine Bay. With water views from all 161 guest rooms, and a blue-green color scheme inspired by said water, it’s a quintessential coastal abode, complete with a sleek pool deck, a restaurant, and The Salty Rose pool bar — the latter of which is open to the public.
Hilton Pensacola Beach
Rising like a beacon over the beach, the towering Hilton Pensacola Beach hotel is mere steps from the surf and sand, outfitted with a vast pool deck and a hidden gem restaurant, Bonsai, serving some of the best sushi in town.
Oyster Bay Boutique Hotel
There isn’t a bad room in the house at Oyster Bay Boutique Hotel, an intimate, chic property downtown, where each of the rooms sports balconies and/or garden views, along with posh furnishings and decor inspired by Pensacola’s coastal environment.
Best Things to Do
“I’d put our beach against any beach in the world,” said Stacey, who loves the free-access beach for its silky-smooth sand. “We have over 40 miles of it, and a lot of that is not developed on, so it doesn’t feel overcrowded. You can go be by yourself or be with hundreds of your newest friends.”
“We are America’s first settlement, and people don’t realize the history,” said Stacey of the fact that Pensacola was established in 1559 by Don Tristan de Luna, making it older than oft-cited St. Augustine. That history is on full display at Historic Pensacola Village, an 8.5-acre downtown district filled with of-the-era homes, museums, and interpreters clad in period garb.
Pensacola Little Theatre
A something-for-everyone playhouse at the heart of downtown’s cultural enclave, the Pensacola Little Theatre offers year-round events for all ages, from musicals to immersive theater experiences, in a volunteer-driven space that highlights inclusive and diverse programming.
A star attraction of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which encompasses thousands of acres of Florida coast, Fort Pickens is a maritime sentinel completed in 1834 to protect Pensacola Bay with an imposing five-bastioned behemoth of brick and cannon fire. Today, it’s open for guests to explore its myriad passageways and rooms, with a 360-degree view of the coast and bay from its roof.
National Naval Aviation Museum
In Pensacola, you’re just as likely to spot Blue Angels aircraft in the sky as pelicans. The iconic Navy squadron is based here, and best experienced at the National Naval Aviation Museum, where hundreds of aircraft are on display in the 350,000-square-feet of exhibits and 37 acres of grounds from which to watch the jets soar overhead. “Every time I see them, I get goosebumps,” said Stacey. “What they’re doing up in the air is unlike anything else you’ll see. People can go and sit on the flight-line and watch them, or if you don’t have that time, you can go to Fort Pickens and watch them from the National Seashore seashore.”
George Bistro + Bar
From husband-wife team George and Luba Lazi, two hospitality pros from Europe who came to Pensacola via New York City, George Bistro + Bar is where the “South of France meets The South,” according to the restaurant. Here, seasonal ingredients weave their way through a dynamic menu, from curried mussels to grilled lamb chops, in a setting that’s as comfy as it is convenient. “If you’re flying in, it’s quite literally right beside the airport,” Williams-Heath said of his favorite restaurant. “I always plan to squeeze in George Bistro by the airport, whether I’m coming or going.”
Carmen’s Lunch Bar & Tapas
A bustling taste of Europe in downtown Pensacola, Carmen’s Lunch Bar & Tapas is an afternoon-only hot spot that’s famed for its crab dishes, tapas, and especially for Williams-Heath, its soups. “For daytime, we are going to Carmen’s and sitting outside,” he said. “I don’t even need to know what her soup of the day is, I’m getting it every time.”
Located on the ground floor of Lily Hall, Brother Fox is a wood-fired restaurant that fuses local ingredients with Spanish inspirations (indicative of the city’s Spanish origins). Chef Darian Hernandez, a Pensacola local, stokes the flames of a menu filled with char-broiled oysters, grilled catch of the day, sous-vide pork chops, and ember-baked cabbage.
Atlas Oyster House
Anchored on Seville Harbour Marina, Atlas Oyster House is an essential stop for local seafood — including bivalves served raw, Rockefeller, or fried. Newly reopened following a remodel, which included the addition of an ample outdoor dining area on the deck, executive chef Jason Hughes presides over a nautical menu that matches the maritime aesthetic, including clam pasta, lobster rolls, seared snapper, and sushi.
Union Public House
With a menu that runs the gamut from grouper corndogs to mushroom toast and molasses-cured smoked pork butt, Union Public House goes far beyond the call of pub duty downtown. “What Blake Rushing has done, it’s delicious and it’s amazing,” Stacey said of the restaurant’s chef. “He loves Pensacola and he lives here. He trained all over the world, but this is where he wanted to come back to.”
Joe Patti’s Seafood
The seafood source for the best restaurants in town, Joe Patti’s Seafood is an institution worth seeking. “While the restaurants are great, and you can have that experience in terms of culinary, you have to go to Joe Patti’s,” Williams-Heath suggested. “If you just want to see the most amazing array of local fresh-caught seafood in a very back-in-time mom-and-pop shop, it’ll give you that feel for that small-town market experience, which is fun.”
A longstanding fixture downtown, Seville Quarter has evolved since its founding in 1967 into a vast collective of adjoining bars, courtyards, and late-night entertainment, which spans from dueling pianos and billiards to a polished dance hall. The whole space has the look and feel of the French Quarter, right down to its signature beignets and Hurricane cocktails.
When Lily Hall opened in 2023, it brought the city its first speakeasy — a clandestine basement accessed via payphone. Inside, guests are met with an impossibly cozy nook of a bar, where soft candlelight illuminates a space bedecked with vintage books. Classic cocktails are the main bill of fare, along with interesting seasonal originals, and a curated wine selection.
Pensacola’s marquee gay bar, The Cabaret is the reliable go-to for an inclusive dance scene and spirited drag shows, in a lofty space that surrounds a central bar with an attached sidewalk patio.
Vinyl Music Hall
A go-to for live entertainment, concerts, and events, Vinyl Music Hall is an expansive ballroom-style space with a food truck-equipped courtyard bar and an always-packed slate of shows, from Fleetwood Mac tribute performances to Matisyahu.
A nightlife haunt since 1983, The Handlebar puts alternative and underground music front-and-center. While the space itself, clad in bricks and steel beams, feels historic, its state-of-the-art sound system provides an energizing soundtrack for a night on the dance floor.
“No trip is complete without a stroll through Palafox Market,” Williams-Heath said of downtown’s year-round farmers market, held every Saturday on Palafox Street. “All of the local artisan cheeses and foods and juices, to local artists. Saturday is the day to go, because it just takes over.”
Blue Moon Antique Mall
A wonderland of vintage ephemera, Blue Moon Antique Mall is the oldest and largest of its kind in the area, home to a collection of eccentric creatives and crafty artisans. Here in this maze of trinkets, expect to find anything from a zebra-print booth and a chrome dining set to ornate lamps, funky sweatshirts, and lacquer room dividers.
Rusted Arrow Mercantile
A perennially popular stopover on downtown’s main Palafox drag, Rusted Arrow Mercantile is a modern-day general store teeming with gifts, accessories, decor, and seasonal goodies. The always-stylish shop has it all, from kitchenwares and art to stationary, dog toys, and mugs.
A locally owned boutique since 1967, Artesana bills itself as the “largest importer of wooden dinnerware in the Southeast.” Beyond wood, customers can find all manner of charming gifts and furnishings, including candles, pillows, cocktail books, and plenty of Pensacola-themed items, like puzzles and platters.
Come for the lattes, and stay to peruse the shelves and samples at Bodacious Shops, a bi-level downtown staple that doubles as a cafe, kitchen store, olive oil shop, and chef’s kitchen for events and classes. On one side, you’ll find an array of infused olive oils to sample, while the second floor is fully stocked with cookbooks and esoteric kitchen wares.
Best Time to Visit
While there’s never a bad time of year to visit Pensacola, one pro tip is to think beyond the summer months. “You think beach town, you think summertime, but at its best, it’s always early fall,” explained Williams-Heath, calling the end of October through November the “perfect weather in a perfect town.” Stacey also called October her favorite month in Pensacola. “The sunsets are incredible,” she said, while pointing to April as another optimal time. “There are kickoffs for our different festivals and events [in April], so there’s always something going on, and the weather is gorgeous.”
The Blue Angels perform their home shows in July and November, making this the only city in the country where they perform twice. Also held in November, the annual Foo Foo Festival has emerged as an epicenter of culture and art — a 12-day spree of theater, gallery pop-ups, parades, performances, and music that engulfs downtown.
How to Get There
Located on the western edge of the Florida panhandle, Pensacola is drivable from cities like New Orleans (200 miles), Atlanta (324 miles), Jacksonville (357 miles), and Orlando (450 miles). The easiest entry, however, is via Pensacola International Airport, a conveniently small hub with quick access to rental cars and the rest of the region.
How to Get Around
Depending on how far you’d like to venture, it’s entirely possible to visit Pensacola via ride-shares alone. Uber and Lyft are both prevalent, while the Pensacola Bay City Ferry provides convenient — and scenic — access from downtown to both Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens. The ferry operates morning through evening, all year-long, and tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for active and retired military, $15 for seniors, $10 for people with disabilities, and $10 for children ages 3 to 17. Note that Pensacola Beach is actually a separate barrier island from downtown, about eight miles away, so ride-shares can tally up if you expect a lot of back-and-forth travel. Car rentals are abundant at the airport, and will also allow you to visit farther-out icons, like the Flora-Bama bar that straddles the Alabama state line on Perdido Key.
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