Beaches are the best, but coastal towns are even better. Destinations like Pensacola offer the best of both worlds: long walks on sandy beaches and every ocean activity you can think of, mixed with a dose of city culture. The revitalized downtown area in Pensacola is already hopping, with plans for even more destinations on the books.
Pensacola is located on the far west side of the Florida Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico, which means that the same turquoise seas and sugary sand seen at popular destinations like Destin and Panama City are also here. Its location off major highways gives this city an edge, however; driving there doesn’t involve so many routes through those small towns with 30 MPH signs. For those who would fly, the Pensacola airport offers non-stop service to 17 major cities with 100 daily flights. Having a car is handy, since the Pensacola beaches are 10-15 minutes from downtown, although drivers for Uber and Lyft are plentiful.
How to Spend a Weekend in Pensacola
Check your bags at the Hilton Pensacola Beach and hit the expansive beach right out the back door. The hotel can set you up with a beach chair and umbrella, or you might want to go for a walkabout on your own. An indoor and outdoor pool, plus a fitness room, provides plenty to do on-property at any time of year.
Walk across the street for dinner at Red Fish Blue Fish, a casual waterfront establishment with a relaxed vibe — i.e. playing Jenga around a fire pit. The restaurant likes to point out that all their seafood comes in fresh that day (never frozen), so fish tacos are always a popular choice. They’ve also got an impressive raw bar, with Ahi poke, ceviche and oysters on the half shell.
Get a hearty breakfast at the Hilton and then cross the bridges to downtown Pensacola for some exploring. Start at a charming interiors store that’s off the beaten path, 1514 Home, the showroom for In Detail Interiors. Sure, you can buy an amazing light fixture or chair easily shipped back home, but the smaller treasures in there are just as fun: vintage barware, witty plaques and paintings by local artists. Down the road on Ninth Avenue is Duh, a sprawling home and garden store that also has clothing, jewelry and smaller gifts.
When you’re hungry, the permanent food trucks (actually, Airstream trailers) at Al Fresco are where a lot of the locals eat, with offerings that run the gamut from chicken and waffles to barbecue. Top off the meal with a gourmet coffee and some sweets across the street at The Bodacious Brew, a popular coffee shop started by local entrepreneurs. From there, stay on Palafox Street for a good stroll of the revitalized area. Stores and bars will beckon you, but if you want to be more high-brow, there’s the Pensacola Museum of Art, an art museum associated with University of West Florida. A walk through historic Pensacola Village will take you by houses and churches centuries old — but there’s even a brewpub in a converted building to wet your whistle.
End the day at a downtown restaurant on the water for a sunset cocktail and dinner, such as The Fish House, with Southern-inspired specialties. Start with the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer, then move on to a catch-of-the-day with sides of smoked gouda grits and black-eyed peas.
Who doesn’t like a dolphin cruise? Catch a regularly scheduled tour through Chase-n-Fins in Pensacola Beach, with likely dolphin sightings and other marine life, along with a dose of local history. Other popular attractions on the beach side of Pensacola include touring Fort Pickens or walking the 177 steps of the Pensacola Lighthouse.
Learn more about Pensacola and plan your visit at visitpensacola.com.
All photography by Lisa Mowry.
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