Beyond the Beach: Discover Historic Pensacola

There's more to Pensacola than beautiful sandy beaches. For a change of pace, why not check out the city's vast historical chops, too?Read More

Christ Episcopal Church in Downtown Pensacola

If you need a break from life, consider a trip to historic Pensacola. The weather may not be ideal yet for lounging on the “sugar sands” of the Emerald Coast, but it’s perfect for a winter exploration of the rich history of the region. Northwest Florida is alive with military forts, missions, historic districts, and other heritage sites that chronicle the Native American, European, and Civil War influences on its history. Whether you’re a serious history buff or just curious, there is something here for you.

Historic Pensacola

As the site of America’s first European settlement, Pensacola is buzzing with historical spirit. The downtown area has 28 historic sites, with origins stretching from colonial times through WW II, including period homes, museums, and churches. Highlights include the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum, the famous Julee Cottage, and a hands-on children’s museum, among others. Pensacola’s “One Ticket, Seven Days to Explore” admission option makes visiting any (or all) these sites easy and affordable. When you’re ready for a break and a bite, head to nearby Palafox Street, the area’s main street and lively arts, dining, and entertainment thoroughfare.

Military heritage

Fort Pickins, Pensacola Beach (Source: iStock.com/stockphoto52).
Fort Pickins, Pensacola Beach (Source: iStock.com / stockphoto52).

Throughout history, access to the Pensacola mainland and adjacent waterways was defended via installations on and near its barrier islands. During the Civil War, the area was the site of ongoing conflict between Union soldiers and Confederate forces housed in Fort Pickins (Pensacola Beach) and the Florida and Alabama State Militias of Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. Among the giants of the country’s early coastal defense system, the forts are well worth a visit.

Pensacola’s majestic lighthouse, still in use today. (Source: iStock.com/gferdinandsen).
Pensacola’s majestic lighthouse, still in use today. (Source: iStock.com / gferdinandsen).

To really get a feel for Pensacola’s place in naval history, take a 15-minute walk south from Fort Barrancas to the historic Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. First lit in 1859, the lighthouse was used to watch for Unionist invaders. At 151 feet high, the towering lighthouse offers spectacular bay views. For those who wish to keep their feet on the ground, the renovated keeper’s quarters includes a prized collection of local artifacts from early Spanish settlements and the Civil War.

Day tripping

When you’re ready to go farther afield, head east along one of the panhandle’s two main routes — Interstate 10 or the smaller, more meandering U.S. Route 90. There is a lot to explore in historic towns and other heritage attractions along the way. Two of the best are Washington County’s seat, Chipley, showcasing homes constructed in late Gothic Revival and Queen Anne Victorian architectural styles; and Marianna, home to historic sites, massive natural caverns, and Civil War battlefields.

Museum of Florida History
Explore Florida’s vast and complex heritage at the Museum of Florida History. (Source: Shutterstock/ gadzius)

Tallahassee is just under three hours east from Pensacola and includes some of the best attractions in the region. During the 17th century, the Mission San Luis de Apalachee was both the principal village of the Apalachee native tribes and the westernmost capital of Spanish Florida. The Museum of Florida History, located in the city, includes exhibits and artifacts spanning the state’s vast history, while the Goodwood Museum and Gardens provides a taste of antebellum culture and heritage. The main Goodwood house has even been expertly restored, complete with furnishings original to the property.

Trip resources

Whatever your adventures in Florida may lead, don’t forget to rest and refuel. Exploring the past can take a lot of out of you, so you’ll want to make sure that you stock up and (periodically) slow down. Here are a few suggestions for both:

Eat. Pensacola is home to an abundance of eateries, whether you’re keen for fresh seafood served harbor side at The Fish House (try the Grits à Ya Ya), or a quick bite from one of Florida’s best taco stands, Taqueria El Asador. Don’t be fooled by the roadside location; this is a hidden gem. Other standouts include Restaurant Iron, serving Southern contemporary fare, and Jackson’s Steakhouse, noted for its historic setting and celebrated wine list.

Sleep. Pensacola offers a host of lodging options to fit most budgets and preferences. If you want a truly unique experience, though, check out the Pensacola Victorian Bed & Breakfast for a stay in a beautifully refurbished period property, or the Lee House for its uniquely appointed guest suites and wide porches overlooking the bay.

For more information, check out Visit Pensacola.