Pensacola, FL is a part of the state’s panhandle, and it’s hemmed in by more than 50 miles of coast. The green Gulf and the clear bays make for particularly stunning views from the shore, and there’s plenty of fun to be had out in the waters (alongside the frolicking dolphins and traveling sea turtles). If you’re visiting the area, you might wonder exactly what the vibe is of its city center.
Downtown Pensacola is a bit of a paradox: it has enough shops and restaurants to be metropolitan and enough character, charm, and respite to still be called a beach town. A bright and vibrant hot spot in the state, there’s a lot more to the area than meets the eye. Every time you visit, there are new attractions and landmarks to explore, ones that connect you to the local color of the city.
Of everything that speaks to its millions of visitors per year, it’s often the history of the region that ends up being the most memorable of the takeaways. We’ll look at what you need to know, including where to go and what to do when on your next trip.
City of Five Flags
Pensacola is sometimes called the City of Five Flags because of its international past. The Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna officially founded the Pensacola Bay Area in 1559, and since then, there have been a number of countries that have laid claim to the region. As America’s first European settlement, it’s laid a claim of its own as an important part of our country’s past. Over the centuries, Pensacola has managed to weather the good and the bad, and it’s only come out stronger on the other side.
The Spanish, Confederates, British, French, and, of course, the American flag have all flown over the city, and you can see the city celebrate and remember the major milestones that have shaped it into what it is today. From the statues to the parades, visitors and residents alike take part in learning about what came before them. You can see the international presence in the architecture alone, with everything from French to British styles in the 19th-century buildings all over the city.
Above all else, it’s the Spanish connections that have remained most intact. In 2009, Queen Sofia and King Juan Carlos I traveled to Pensacola to mark the 450th anniversary of the famous voyage. The city would have another visit from the Spanish in 2015, this time from the country’s Royal Navy ship. Greeting the monarchs and their military was centuries in the making of the famous downtown region, and it was symbolic of just how special the city is beyond its state borders.
Pensacola welcomed 2.5 million people from October 2021 and September 2022 alone. If you’re wondering how to map out your trip, we’ll tell you more about the major attractions:
Historic Pensacola Village
This area features one of the oldest churches in Florida, furnished period homes, museums, and interactive historical interpreters. It’s an excellent chance to absorb how everyday people would have lived. There are a variety of things to do in this village, which is why one ticket gets you seven full days to take part in the museums and tours.
Navy Air Station (NAS)
The public can access this institution in Pensacola during designated hours. Employing 16,000 military personnel and 7,400 civilians, the ship supports both the Navy and its sister armed services. Stop by the National Naval Aviation Museum to learn more about everything from bi-planes to modern fighting jets.
The Plaza Ferdinand is named after King Ferdinand VII from Spain, and it’s listed under the National Register of Historic Places in Pensacola. This park was once the center of town life during Colonial times, and it served as the home base when Spain finally ceded Florida to the US in 1821.
Pensacola Museum of Art
The collection in Pensacola has been carefully curated to showcase the best of the Northern Florida region and beyond. By building relationships with both the community and academic crowds of the area, the ever-growing treasures at this museum show the intersection of everything from culture to science and technology.
Pensacola Children’s Museum
For those traveling with their family, this museum is the perfect stop for curious kids of all ages. With fun programs and special events, every day in the Children’s Museum offers something new to discover. It’s filled with interactive exhibits that let kids use their senses as they explore.
The Wonders of Palafox Street
Running north and south through the city, Palafox Street is known as the gateway to the famous beach. It’s easy to spot with its distinctive oak trees and myrtles. Stuffed with retail stores, boutiques, venues, and eateries, you can find everything from gifts to nightlife here. This is a city that can be enjoyed from anywhere, whether it’s a hop-on bus, pontoon boat, or rental car. However, we highly recommend spending a few hours making your way through the streets on foot if you can.
Palafox is host to Gallery Night, a monthly event that highlights the local talents and brings culture and art right out in the open. Its farmer’s market is held on Saturday mornings, where growers, residents, and tourists mingle together over the fresh produce and unique handicrafts. All over the course of the year, the city holds events for families, couples, tourists, and locals, and every new event brings people together in ways they didn’t know they needed.
Pensacola is a beloved city in America, and it’s earned its reputation throughout the last 450 years. Starting off as little more than a humble settlement, the city was built through the hard and dedication of those who came before. No matter which flag was flying over its people, each piece of history contributed to the electric and exciting atmosphere you’ll find when you visit downtown today.