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When you think of Florida, chances are that visions of palm trees and sandy, white beaches come to mind. But how about a place that muddles a laid-back, coastal charm with Florida brazenness? Pensacola, the westernmost Florida city, mixes a lively downtown core with breathtaking beaches – meaning its visitors get to enjoy unspoiled beauty no matter what is on the bucket list. Here are the best ways to experience this city’s nature packed splendour:
This outdoor sport is more of a way of life in Pensacola, rather than a hobby. Bask in the sunshine and get hooked – well hopefully, just the fish – on a favourite Florida pastime. There are many scenic fishing spots, but here are the best three: The Fort Pickens Pier is home to numerous fishing habitats for those who prefer saltwater and is positioned on Pensacola Pass, making it a fish haven; Johnson Beach juts into the western flank of Pensacola Bay from Perdido Key, and while just about any beach will do, Johnson is perfect for surf fishing (especially if you’re after Pompano); and Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier is perhaps the most famous fishing spot in Pensacola, probably because you can fish off one of the longest piers in the Florida Gulf…and who doesn’t want to say they’ve done that?
While Florida vacationers typically stick to the theme parks or waterways (hey, no problem with that!), they often miss the wild beauty of Northwest Florida. Luckily, there are plenty of trails to hit in Pensacola, as long as you have your sneakers. Get up close and personal with wildlife year-round within the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Hike along the boardwalks and trails, where osprey, great blue herons and even bald eagles are often nearby or overhead, their nests visible in the treetops. Or, if you need to stretch your legs during a long car ride along the Gulf Beach Highway, stop off at Big Lagoon State Park where five miles of walking trails will take you along boardwalks over saltwater marshes to sandy pine flatwoods. If it’s swampland you’re after, Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park is home to the rare, carnivorous pitcher plants and the elusive bobcat.
Whether paddle boarding, kayaking or canoeing is your preferred method of paddling, Pensacola has everything to offer. Get away from it all at Big Sabine Bay, a coastal jewel with little to no development in sight. Be forewarned: this bay is not for the faint of heart, as it can only be accessed by either paddling from Pensacola Beach, trekking through the sand with gear in-hand or a boat ride. For the island lovers, White Island, at the mouth of Bayou Grande in Pensacola Bay, is the perfect day trip if you want to stick your feet in sand as white as snow. Extend your day trip into a romantic evening by bringing along some camping gear and staying for a night under the stars. Vacationers in search of oceanic beauty should paddle out from Park East. Just off the beach is an artificial reef for snorkelling where you may see bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, angelfish, napper, lizardfish and more.
Natural beauty can even be found in the heart of Pensacola. Visit Plaza de Luna’s waterfront park, where boats, fishermen and birds abound – plus, it makes a great picnic spot. Downtown also serves up a dedicated culinary scene ranging from Mediterranean cuisine crafted with local ingredients at Skopelos at New World, to bold Asian flavours at Nom Sushi Izakaya, to on-the-go service at Dog House Deli. For history lovers, Historic Pensacola Village will take you back in time to hear the stories of how Downtown Pensacola was established. After a full day taking in the perfect mix of nature and urbanscape, stop in at Perfect Plain Brewing Company to visit the expansive taproom and to experience the unique blends on tap. If a brewhouse is too low-key for you, Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium hosts sing-a-longs and a duelling piano show. Brave-hearted guests are invited to try a Flaming Hurricane drink – a local favourite.
What better way to experience the natural beauty of Florida than to pitch a tent and get exploring? Disconnect from the modern world and reconnect to the great outdoors at Fort Pickens Campground. Tucked into the pristine sand dunes lies a piece of Civil War history, but it is also the home of more than 200 tent and RV campsites. With the seawall nearby, you can spot dolphins or search for osprey dining on their fresh catches. Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a touch of luxury. Live large at Pensacola Beach RV Resort, located on the banks of Santa Rosa Sound. For the ultimate relaxation experience, lounge by the park’s private swimming pool or find complimentary beach chairs and umbrellas down by the water and take in the stunning shoreline.
Snorkelling & diving
Take to the waves and discover some of Pensacola’s most incredible scenery – underwater. Beneath the emerald green waters lies a colourful world to explore whether you want to venture just off the beach or dive the USS Oriskany, the world’s largest artificial reef. The best part? With year-round warm temperatures, the diving season is never limited, so you can enjoy the wonders of the water anytime you visit. Snorkelling can be found in multiple areas at Pensacola Beach in both the Gulf and Santa Rosa Sound. With two artificial reef systems available, in just a short 500-foot swim offshore, you’ll find yourself surrounded by fish, sea turtles and an array of marine life. If you’re an expert diver, there are five sites available along Pensacola Beach titled the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Dive Trail. The local favourite is Pete Tide II, a 180-foot oilfield supply boat that was reefed in 1993, where you can swim alongside the rare mahi-mahi and wahoo.
And, of course, the beaches
You simply can’t go wrong when it comes to choosing what beach to vacation at in the Pensacola area. Known for its world famous beaches with pristine sand and crystal clear water, it’s a no-brainer as to where to find some of the best natural beauty in Florida. Pensacola Beach features two completely different waterfront experiences: the easily accessible Gulf side or the tranquil Sound side. Regardless of what you choose, you’re sure to interact with marine life and enjoy famous Pensacola sunsets. Perdido Key is the perfect island destination with calm waters and rolling sand dunes. Stretching along the westernmost tip of Florida, it seamlessly blends coastal beauty with Southern charm for a unique experience. The best beaches to play in the sun? Johnson Beach, Perdido Key State Park, and Big Lagoon State Park are not to be missed.
With over 450 years of rich history and 18 miles of sugar-white beaches bordered by emerald-green waters, visitors from all over the world are lured to our pristine Gulf shores every year. Visit Pensacola is the destination management organization for Escambia County Florida, which includes Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.
Go to VisitPensacola.com for news and updates!