Pensacola boasts a surprisingly interesting and little-known past.
On August 15, 1559, Don Tristán de Luna established the 1st American settlement in Pensacola Bay. Since this time the flags of Spain, Britain, France, Confederacy and America have flown over the city, which is why Pensacola is nick named the City of Five Flags.
Pensacola Bay also played a historically significant role in the Civil War.
Luckily local business owners and residents have done an excellent job preserving their rich heritage and there are a lot of interesting cultural and historical sites to explore. So as tempting as it is to spend every moment of your vacation with your toes in the sand, we urge you not to miss out on the areas historical and cultural offerings.
The Palafox Historic District is like a theme park for architectural buffs. You will find beautifully restored Spanish Renaissance and Baroque buildings including the Pensacola Saenger Theatre - a 1925 movie palace that is now home to the Pensacola Opera and the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra. There are numerous great restaurants and shops housed in atmospheric historic buildings or behind beautiful wrought-iron balconies that are a legacy of the city’s Creole past.
The Historic Pensacola Village in Seville Square consists of twenty-seven buildings listed in the National Historic Register. Eleven of these are open to the public. There are thousands of exhibits to enjoy at the at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and Pensacola Historical Museum. Admission to all is free.
There is a statue of Andrew Jackson in Plaza Ferdinand VII square which is located on Palafox Street between Government and Zaragoza. This is the spot where General Andrew Jackson accepted the territory of West Florida from Spain in 1821. Another interesting site is the Veterans Memorial Park located just off Bayfront Parkway near 9th Avenue. Here you will find a three quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The nearby North Hill District contains fifty square blocks of residential streets listed in the National Register of Historic Homes. This southern architectural bonanza is clearly populated by descendants of Spanish nobility, timber barons, French Creoles, Buccaneers and Civil War soldiers.
Fort Pickens provides a great opportunity to explore a massive brick fortresses that, despite its southern location, once housed Union troops. It’s located on the far western end of Santa Rosa Island and is maintained by the National Park Service. It was originally built to defend Pensacola Harbor from foreign invaders but during the Civil War, it was manned by Union troops, who used it to attack the nearby Confederate occupied forts. The fort also enjoys notoriety for imprisoning Geronimo. There are both guided tours and self-guided tours available. It’s located near a spectacular sparsely crowded beach and several nature trails so bring your beach gear and make a day of it. Entry to the park costs $8 for a carload and the pass (which is good for all Gulf Island National Seashore entries) lasts a week.
Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum
Built in 1859, the historic lighthouse is one of the tallest in the United States. Climb 177 steps to the top for amazing panoramic views. The fact that it is located on Pensacola Bay across from the Naval Aviation Museum makes it the best place to watch the Blue Angels practice. Don’t miss the ‘Ghost Tour’ or ‘Light of the Moon Tour’ for a family friendly evening of ghost stories. Tours are held monthly, with more dates added during summer season. Note the tours often sell out, so book early. In 2012 a great national non-profit called Tourism Cares brought a team of high profile volunteers to Pensacola to restore the lighthouse. You can read about Tourism Cares and this project on our Toes in the Sand Blog.
National Museum Of Naval Aviation
Be sure to check out Pensacola’s most famous attraction. It’s located aboard the Pensacola Naval Air Station and has 300,000 square feet of displays. This makes it the world’s largest aviation museum. You can experience what it feels like to stunt fly in one of their Max Flight Simulators. There’s also an IMAX movie theater. The Naval Air Station is also home to the Blue Angels Flight Squadron. Check their website for their practice times! Entrance to the exhibits is free. You can read about how someone becomes a Blue Angel on our Toes in the Sand blog. Very inspiring.