A Dozen Things You Must Do in Pensacola
By Amy Minchin
For more than 450 years, people have traveled to Pensacola in search of new experiences. Tristán de Luna of Spain led America’s first settlement attempt here in 1559.
This westernmost Florida city is proud of its historic downtown and white sandy beaches, new Pensacola attractions and age-old traditions. You could easily spend a week or more, just exploring all the free activities in Pensacola, but to give you an idea of where to start, here are a dozen exciting things to do in Pensacola:
- Visit Pensacola
1. Eat Grits a Ya Ya at the Fish House
Created by acclaimed Chef Jim Shirley, Grits a Ya Ya is sautéed Gulf shrimp atop smoked Gouda cheese grits with a sauce of fresh cream, spinach, Portobello mushrooms, apple wood-smoked bacon, garlic and shallots.
“Grits a Ya Ya has become world-famous,” says Fish House Marketing Director Maria Goldberg. “We have served it for events in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and recently Emeril Lagasse featured it on the television show ‘Emeril's Florida.’”
Open daily, the Fish House serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch using fresh local ingredients and Southern flair. Peruse the menu and get more information at fishhousepensacola.com
- Colin Hackley
2. Tour the National Naval Aviation Museum
Trey Wimberly of Biloxi, Miss., recently took his children, ages 3 and 5, to the National Naval Aviation Museum.
“I highly recommend taking one of the guided tours given by retired pilots,” Wimberly says. “They have a wealth of knowledge and always tell interesting stories.”
Throughout the expansive museum and grounds, you will see more than 150 restored aircraft representing U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation. A motion-based flight simulator takes would-be pilots through an F/A-18 mission.
Admission and guided tours are free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Find out more at navalaviationmuseum.org
- Colin Hackley
3. Spend a Day atFort Pickens
Completed in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay and its naval yard, Fort Pickens was one of four Southern forts never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War. Fort Pickens is the largest of the Pensacola area’s four forts and remains open for visitors to explore its intricate tunnels and authentic cannons. You can camp, fish or enjoy a picnic lunch within the park, located on Gulf Islands National Seashore and governed by the National Park Service. Weekly and annual passes are available at the entrance; the park is open daily from 7 a.m. until sunset.
4. Enjoy the Nightlife at Seville Quarter
Spanning a full city block, Seville Quarter features seven rooms of liquid libations, food and entertainment. The original bar, Rosie O’Grady’s Goodtime Emporium, opened in 1967 and features a dueling piano bar. Adjacent rooms include a café, oyster bar, pool hall, dance hall and courtyard with live music. Gas-lit, brick-paved hallways are a hallmark of this bar. Seville Quarter is open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.
Explore Seville Quarter online at sevillequarter.com
- Suzanne Tuzzeo
5. Shop on Palafox Street
Named one of 10 great streets in America by the American Planning Association in 2013, Palafox Street bisects Downtown Pensacola.
Ground zero for entertainment in the city, Palafox Street has been home to the Saenger Theatre since 1925. Other venues and bars have opened in recent years, and organized Gallery Nights create a vibrant nighttime scene. Local historian and real estate developer Deborah Dunlap says Palafox Street at night is reminiscent of New Orleans, with “a much nicer crowd.”
Dunlap and other investors have helped return the once neglected Palafox Street to prominence as a destination. Cafés, sandwich shops, tapas restaurants and a cluster of food trucks with outdoor seating are interspersed between jewelers, boutiques and other shops.
Palafox Market offers locally grown produce, live plants, baked goods, art and antiques from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday in Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Wherever you go in Downtown Pensacola, you are never far from Palafox Street and its many options.
6. Take in a Minor League Game
Sports fans can find something to root for in Pensacola year-round.
The Pensacola Ice Flyers compete in the Southern Professional Hockey League October through March at Pensacola Bay Center. Find out more at pensacolaiceflyers.com
Baseball fans can take in a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game, called the “Best Minor League Ballpark Experience in 2013” by Stadium Journey magazine. Playing April through September, the Double A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds has called Pensacola home since the club’s 2012 inaugural season. Tickets start at $6. The team’s website is milb.com/wahoos
- VISIT FLORIDA
7. Buy It Fresh at Joe Patti Seafood
The name Joe Patti has been synonymous with fresh seafood on the Gulf Coast since the early 1930s, when Patti and his wife Anna opened Joe Patti’s Seafood. It continues to offer Pensacola’s largest selection of fish, shrimp and shellfish at wholesale prices to the public.
Shopping at Joe Patti’s, customers browse the long, ice-filled counter while waiting for their number to be called by Frank Patti, Sr. Wearing a newsboy-style cap, Patti speaks into a microphone, often telling jokes or calling out patrons for not paying attention when their number is called.
Joe Patti’s also sells produce, bread from an in-house bakery, Italian gelato, wine, sushi, prepared foods and other gourmet items. Joe Patti’s is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Find out more at joepattis.com
8. Take a Photo in the Clam Shell at Quietwater Beach
This is the requisite photo opportunity for Pensacola Beach vacationers. Snap a picture at this landmark between shopping and dining along the Portofino Boardwalk. Do some advance window-shopping at pensacolabeachboardwalk.com
- Emeril's Florida
9. Staple a Dollar, Eat and Drink at McGuire's Irish Pub
McGuire’s Irish Pub is an award-winning steak house in the heart of Pensacola. The traditional style saloon also regularly brews five beers in the pub’s onsite oak and copper brewery.
Stephen Brown of Atlanta was in town on business when he visited McGuire’s at the recommendation of local professionals.
“My steak, sides and stouts were excellent,” he said. “McGuire’s is an immersive and welcoming place.”
McGuire’s serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Bring a dollar bill to sign and staple to the walls; more than a million are said to hang throughout the pub, adding to the festive atmosphere of this Pensacola favorite.
10. Try a Bushwacker
For 40 years, the Sandshaker has been a Pensacola Beach icon. Its signature drink, the original Bushwacker, was invented here in 1975.
“The main ingredients are Kahlua, white crème de cocoa and Coco Lopez,” says Sandshaker owner Beverly Campbell. “We make all our batches by hand and customers choose regular or 151 rum. If you're a vodka drinker, you can choose that as well.”
Some customers add fresh fruit or liqueurs, she says. “There is no end to the variations our bartenders can come up with to satisfy the cravings of our customers.”
Photo Credit: Visit Pensacola
11. Go Pensacola Fishing
Fishing is a much loved pastime in Pensacola, where popular catches include red snapper, vermillion snapper, amberjack, triggerfish, grouper, mackerel, shark, mahi-mahi, marlin, redfish, speckled trout, flounder and sheepshead.
Chris Phillips, owner of Hot Spots Charters, says charters with four to 10 anglers cost an average of $450 to $1,600 depending on the length of time at sea and whether the trip is inshore or offshore.
“One of the best things about fishing in Pensacola is everything you get that has nothing to do with fishing,” he says. “We leave from Pensacola Beach and head out Pensacola Pass, so people get to see Fort Pickens, Fort McRae and Pensacola Lighthouse.”
“We always see dolphins, and a couple of days a week you get a private air show,” he adds, referring to regular Blue Angels practice demonstrations. “Our fishing is great and people get something special with all the extras.”
11. Go Nighttime Paddling
Go nighttime kayaking with Glow Paddle and explore coastal habitats and diverse ecosystems on two bodies of water, Little Sabine Bay and the Santa Rosa Sound. You can often see fish, stingrays and sometimes dolphins through the crystal-clear kayaks with innovative environmentally safe lights. For more paddling options, check out Experience Pensacola.