Perhaps you took a trip to the Gulf Coast when you were little. You ran along the white-sand beaches, turned rosy in the sun, scooped sand into buckets and peeled your first shrimp. As a Pensacola, Florida, native, these are the scenes that illustrated my childhood. Now, as someone who no longer lives on the Panhandle, I’m happy to report that when I return back home, the setting looks largely the same (if not slightly improved).
The beaches are still pristine with sugar-white sand and blue-green waters. Better yet, the downtown area has enjoyed a resurgence of local businesses, making it that much better to visit. Lucky for you, it’s still relatively under-the-radar compared to big-name South Florida spots (read: it’s cheap). Here is my quick guide on visiting Pensacola like a local.
Where to Stay
Though there are several cute inns and modern hotels in the area (like the quaint B&B, Noble Manor and the chic Lee House), you can’t beat the experience of staying in a beachside house or condo. Scout out listings on vrbo.com or airbnb.com and look at booking in the off-season (September-early May) for cheaper rates.
Planning tip: If you’re a seafood fan, load up on fresh-off-the-boat seafood from Joe Patti’s Seafood and enjoy a leisurely meal or two at the beach house.
Where to Eat
Food in Pensacola is eclectic and excellent. Southern, seafood, and low-fuss foods dominate, though you can explore high-concept eats, too. Don’t dismiss the run-down sign at Jerry’s Drive-In. It’s a local institution. Get the bacon cheeseburger and chocolate shake with a side of fries or the grouper sandwich. Go less than a half-mile away and get the best raw oysters in the area from Marina Oyster Barn. The window-lined restaurant sits on Bayou Texar where you can catch some fantastic sunsets while eating a not-fancy, super-fresh dinner.
Scarf down a dozen more—along with a monstrous fried seafood platter and a boozy Bushwacker (an adult milkshake)—at Peg Leg Pete’s on the beach. For more of a fine-dining seafood-eating atmosphere, take your appetite to Fish House and order the Grits- à -Ya-Ya (an indulgent spin on shrimp and grits).
When you’re exploring downtown Pensacola’s galleries, shops, and historic charm, you can find a smattering of hand-held eats at Al Fresco a food truck park. Order a bountiful salad and cup of Joe at The Leisure Club Coffee Bar & Restaurant. For brunch, get fried chicken with a side of blues at Five Sisters Blues Café.
Where to Drink
Downtown has a strong pocket of solid drinking spots. If you’re staying at the beach, grab Uber (or your Taxi service of choice), then pop over to downtown for some imbibing. Hopjacks has a huge beer list that spans the globe and is a prime people-watching spot. If you’re a beer nerd, add The Magnolia and World of Beer to your list too. On the beach, sip on Diesel Fuel (potent fruity beverages served in Mason jars) at Flounder’s Chowder House and get a margarita at Land Shark Landing (open seasonally March through October).
Tip: While drinking on the beach, utilize the free beach trolley, which runs from 4 p.m. to midnight, May 22 through Labor Day.
What to Do
When in Pensacola, you must visit Pensacola Beach. Just 10 miles from the historic downtown, the beach is an island bordered by the Gulf of Mexico. Typically, I like avoiding the crowds and park my beach towel on the tranquil coast near Ft. Pickens. If you prefer more of a party vibe (and margaritas within walking distance at places like Casino Beach Bar & Grille), claim a spot on Casino Beach.
Rent a kayak or paddleboard from Key Sailing and earn your supper with a full-body beach workout. Or, try your hand at surfing with a lesson from local surf shop, Innerlight Surf & Skate (starting at $35 for an hour, includes surf board).
Tip: If you forgot to pack a swimsuit, you’ll find a nice selection at Innerlight.
After you’ve checked off your daily allotment of beach time, get cleaned up and head downtown for a baseball game at the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium (if visiting between April and November). Whether you’re a fan or not is beside the point. The views of the bay are spectacular at this Minor League ballpark.
After an evening game, take Gulf Coast Pedicabs (free, just make sure you leave them a nice tip!) for a short ride to downtown Pensacola and eat and drink your way throughout the neighborhood.
If you’re able, plan to be in town during one of the city’s monthly Gallery Night events (held the last Friday of each month in downtown Pensacola). Residents fill the streets and businesses keep doors open late.
Are you a Pensacola regular? Share your favorite spots in the comments section below.
Images via Visit Pensacola, Inc.