With more than 450 years of history and cultural heritage along with pristine beaches and natural beauty, Pensacola is a playground the whole family can love.
Pensacola is a scenic seaport protected by the Santa Rosa barrier island along the Gulf of Mexico. You can go fishing in the gulf, enjoy the pristine beaches that crunch under your feet, take in the wonder of a historic fort, and enjoy the freshest of seafood caught right in Pensacola. From the protected Gulf Islands National Seashore to the charm of downtown, my family and I were in awe from the moment we got here.
What to do?
Pensacola is known for its sugar-white beaches, historic military significance, the Blue Angels, and its exciting downtown.
If you love old buildings or like to hear fascinating, historical stories, head to the far west tip of Santa Rosa Island for a tour of Fort Pickens. My children loved exploring the sprawling brick structures. This secluded former military fort also will give you a unique spot to catch the beauty of the Pensacola Pass. Fort Pickens is named after American Revolutionary War hero Brigadier General Andrew Pickens. It was completed in 1834 and remained in use until 1947. I’d recommend stopping in the visitor center first to get an overview. You can opt for a guided tour or venture out on your own. Cost: Free.
The beaches in Pensacola are award-winning, beautiful, and very clean. Perdido Key Beach is part of a barrier island just west of Pensacola, where you can swim, fish, surf or relax among the protected dunes. Pensacola Beach takes up almost eight miles of the 40-mile-long Santa Rosa Island. It has two beach parks: Casino Beach and Quietwater Beach. You can swim, kayak or fish on both. My children were particularly fond of Quietwater, where we had several options for lunch. It’s also closer to the businesses and has its own boardwalk and concert area.
KidTripster Tip: The weather is still warm and water perfect for swimming in September and October. Book your stay then to enjoy lower rates and fewer crowds as compared to summer.
My favorite Pensacola attraction? Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum (2081 Radford Blvd.). This neat piece of history was completed in 1858. And wow, what a fun experience for my six-year-old son and me. Because of the 44-inch height requirement, my four-year old wasn’t allowed to climb the steps. And there are lot of steps - 177 to be exact! The Pensacola Lighthouse is the oldest and tallest lighthouse along the U.S. Gulf Coast. It’s located on the Pensacola Naval Air Station, so be prepared to drive through the security gate; all adults need to show identification to get in. You can’t beat the view! Cost: Youth $4; Adult: $7.
KidTripster Tip: The spiraling staircase is gorgeous, but it’s a lot of steep steps, so you have to wear closed-back, flat shoes. No sandals, heels or flip flops are allowed.
My husband and I grew up as military brats, so we were excited to tour the National Naval Aviation Museum (1750 Radford Blvd.). Walking through 291,000-square feet of exhibits, we both were impressed, and our children were mesmerized. You can tour aircraft and exhibits for free or for a $20 admission cost, enjoy the Max Flight simulator. This immaculately kept, world-class facility is stunning. On display, you’ll find more than 150 historic and one-of-a kind aircraft and spacecraft, representing the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. My kids loved the interactive exhibits the most. There’s also a cafe and IMAX theater. Truly, there’s enough to do here to warrant a full-day visit. Cost: Free; donations are welcome.
KidTripster Tip: Watch the Blue Angels practice from the museum most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings between March and November. Check the schedule here.
History comes alive at Historic Pensacola Village (205 E. Zaragoza St.). My son fell in love as soon as we drove up. I’m not sure if it was the people dressed in Colonial costumes or the charming, old structures, but he could hardly wait to see inside the old houses. The complex of 28 historical buildings includes cottages, houses, museums, and a church in downtown Pensacola. We joined a guided tour which gave us a look into several homes that reflected life during pre-colonial times up to the Civil War, reconstruction, and the Gilded Age. The price of admission gets you access to the entire complex plus a guided tour for seven days; some buildings are only accessible by tour. Cost Youth: $4; Adult $8.
Finally, there’s something everyone at Sam’s Fun City (6709 PensacolaBlvd.). You can drive go-carts and bumper boats, ride amusement rides, play miniature golf or get in a round of laser tag at the arcade. Sam’s Fun City also serves pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers, corn dogs, salads, and sandwiches. Unlimited access cost: $37.99/person. Sam’s also has a small water park, called Surf City.
Where to eat?
For down-home and delicious with a whole lot of soul, try the Five Sisters Blues Cafe (421 W. Belmont St.) The owner opened this restaurant as an homage to his mom, who shared her family recipes to create the cajun and southern comfort food menu. The classics are my favorites: fried chicken, cornbread, and collards. My daughter couldn't refuse macaroni and cheese, and husband couldn’t stop talking about the gumbo. Open for lunch and dinner, you also can enjoy brunch on Sundays.
KidTripster Tip: Plan dinner around the live blues and jazz performers. Music begins at 5 p.m. every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Take a break from the surf and sand with lunch at the Cactus Flower Cafe (400 Quietwater Beach Rd.) It serves some of the best Californian-style, Mexican cuisine that I’ve ever had. I struggled to get some chips and salsa, because my children devoured them, but the servers were great and kept 'em coming. The food is fresh, the staff is friendly, and the margaritas are mom-approved. Even after eating all the chips and salsa, my kids devoured their tacos. That’s four thumbs up from two tough customers.
For a relaxing time with waterfront views and a laid-back, island vibe, make plans for lunch or dinner at Red Fish Blue Fish (5 Via de Luna Dr.). You’ll notice the unique structure from the parking lot as the restaurant is made mostly from repurposed shipping containers! Try to resist, if you can, the mouthwatering bread (which none of us could refuse) as you study the expansive menu. Frog legs and gator bites make great starters. For the main course, your options include salads, sandwiches, raw oysters, burgers, tacos, fresh catch, and Po Boys. My children were happy with the kids’ fish bites and hand-cut fries. All kids’ meals are just $5.
Where to stay?
The nicely-decorated, two- and three-bedroom condos at Portofino Island Resort (10 PortofinoDr.) offers plenty of room for everyone to kick back and relax before heading out in search of adventure. Five towers, seven pools, an impressive lifestyle center, and restaurants and bars right there at the resort make it an oasis that you won’t want to leave. Each condominium has a fully-equipped kitchen, if you choose to stay in for meals. My son loved walking out onto the balcony each morning and evening, just to take in the view. We enjoyed a complimentary dolphin cruise aboard a 63-foot catamaran, where we saw several bottlenose dolphins. The kids were so excited that by the end of the cruise, they wore themselves out and fell asleep on the ride back to the dock. Adventure packages also include kayaking, paddleboarding, sunrise bike rides, jet skis, and a water park, which was a hit! Rates start at $275/night during the low season and $550/night during the high season; there’s a minimum three-night stay and $150 resort fee.
For a full review of Portofino Island Resort, click here.
KidTripster Tip: The resort fee includes a morning or sunset dolphin cruise. Opt for the morning cruise for a chance to see the dolphins when they’re most active. And keep an eye out for a unique and beautiful water view of Fort Pickens. Also take some cash aboard for snacks and drinks.
If you want to enjoy “barefoot elegance” and a Jimmy Buffet inspired-lifestyle in a tropical setting, head to Margaritaville Beach Hotel (165 Fort Pickens Rd.). This hotel has 162 guest room with 24 corner rooms featuring wrap-around balconies. It’s right on the beach with a pool that the kids will love. Rates start at $220/night in the low season and $329/night in the summer.
Photo courtesy: Portofino Island Resort
Pensacola is the westernmost city in Florida’s panhandle with a convenient regional airport. It’s about a 6-1/2-hour drive from Tampa and Orlando.
Tracy Atwood lives in Central Florida with her husband, two children, and their cat. As a former Army brat, she’s lived in 11 states and one foreign country. Alaska was her favorite; Florida takes a close second.