Pensacola: A Shore to Explore
At least once a year my toes get itchy to walk on a sandy shore. Until four years ago, that generally meant spending a fortune on airfare. Then my husband and I discovered an easy-to-reach hidden gem: Pensacola Beach.
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Not to be confused with Pensacola, Pensacola Beach is on Santa Rosa Island and is known for its white sand.
Locals my husband and I know have been road-tripping to the Gulf of Mexico for years. But while most people seem to favor Gulf Shores, Alabama, or Destin, Florida, we took a chance on the beach in between. We found our happy beach place in Pensacola and to date we’ve left sandy footprints there in October, late summer and May.
Here, waterfront restaurants, bars, live music and shops are clustered in the festive area of Casino Beach, Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier and the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk area.
Yet within minutes you can wade the clear waters of uncrowded protected coastlines, explore a historic national park, wander beach trails or kayak quiet waters of the Santa Rosa Sound. Plus Kevin and I enjoy a good road trip. Now, with Allegiant Air’s new low-cost summer route to the Destin/Fort Walton Beach airport (an hour from Pensacola), 417-landers can be there in a snap. Book your flight, and get ready for fun.
To say we’re heading for Pensacola is shorthand for the actual destination, Pensacola Beach. Pensacola is the small waterfront city. Pensacola Beach is about 10 minutes south on Santa Rosa Island. Once in Pensacola (the city), drive south over Pensacola Bay Bridge, pass through Gulf Breeze (your go-to community for groceries and libations), and cross the Bob Sikes toll bridge ($1) to Pensacola Beach. Once on the island, the main intersection provides a snapshot first look at the beach town’s most active area.
See the giant beach ball–painted water tower? You’ve arrived! The narrow barrier island has two main thoroughfares via De Luna Drive heading east and Fort Pickens Road heading west. Most accommodations are found along these roads. Go far enough either way, though, and you’ll enter gorgeous, undeveloped lands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
We also like that getting around is easy, whether driving, walking or biking. The year our sons joined us, we found the island’s summer trolley system a convenient way to leave cars parked.
This Way to the Beach
Most days (though not always), the water is a stunning blend of sea glass green, emerald and blue. Dune beaches sprout more sea oats than palm trees, and the soft, brilliant white sand made of quartz crystals squeaks when you walk. Cross over dunes by clearly defined paths or boardwalks tucked between condos and beach houses; several have accompanying parking areas. It’s worth rising early to catch sunrise at the beach (my favorite time), and sunset is best viewed over the Santa Rosa Sound, but we’ve watched it from the pier also.
We favor beach areas west of the pier along Fort Pickens Road, close to where we’ve stayed. Park at the most western public beach (with bathrooms and picnic tables), and continue walking farther west along the coast. Within minutes you’ll hear only the rhythmic roll of waves and your own splashing footsteps as you enter the undeveloped National Seashore. It’s a great spot for beach photography. And shelling!
Another favorite adventure: Drive east on Via De Luna Drive, past the last development, toward Navarre. The slow scenic coastal drive is gorgeous, with sand dunes so white they look like snow. Watch for parking areas to pop up periodically for easy beach access. We find these shores are usually empty or sparsely visited. Closer to Navarre, look for Opal Beach, a public-use area with picnic tables and bathrooms. Pensacola also has east- and west-side dog beaches, and the family-friendly Quiet Beach, just north of the Boardwalk on the sound.
When in Pensacola
A few must-do’s and recommendations if you visit.
Snap a shell-fie
The Pensacola Boardwalk on Santa Rosa Sound is packed with bars, dining, shopping and people strolling about. Its most notable landmark is an outdoor music shell—literally, a giant man-made shell, the scene of many travel photos.
At least once, order a bushwacker (we do more than one!). The island’s signature drink, introduced in the ’70s, is a delicious frozen chocolate rum milkshake for adults. Get them anywhere, but we like them from The Dock (dockpensacola.com), a beachside bar and grill that seems to always have them on special.
Great sound waves
Don’t miss Bands on the Beach, a free, crowd-pleasing Tuesday night concert series, April through October, in the outdoor amphitheater near the pier. Bring chairs and something to nosh. Arrive early if you drive: The parking lot fills up fast.
Best pier review
For people-watching, try Casino Beach Bar & Grill (casinobeachbar.com) with its turquoise flags at the base of Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier. We love the festive, resort-like relaxing ambiance
Favorite gulf-view dining
Dine or sip tropical drinks while gazing at the gulf at Crabs We Got ’Em (crabswegotem.com). The restaurant has a nice selection of casual grill options and a variety of seafood dinners. Its red-themed twinkle light–lit beach deck makes a festive backdrop to start any evening.
Things to Do
There’s more to Pensacola than simply kicking back on the beach. Spend time in Fort Pickens National Park, at the west end of Fort Pickens Road. It offers camping, undeveloped beaches and nature trails. Its well-preserved historic Civil War fort is worth touring. We buy a seven-day park pass so we can come and go as we please. For a $1.25 day-use fee, stroll the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier. We meander to the end, watching anglers along the way, stopping now and then to search for sea life or to shoot photos of the shoreline. One year Kevin rented fishing equipment at the pier ($4.50–7.50). As long as you stay on the pier, the fee includes a temporary license.
Early morning is a good time to catch dolphins slicing parallel to the beach. Or scout them from the pier or in the sound. It’s thrilling to spot area wildlife, and we’ve seen sea turtles, sharks, jellyfish, crabs and a wide variety of fish off the pier. Our trip in May was best for beach bird–watching, and we saw hundreds of terns and dozens of pelicans and herons—more than any previous trip. After dark, get flashlights to hunt for white “ghost” crabs that come out along the shore at night.
During one trip we rented bikes for a week, making it easy to hop on the Pensacola Beach Trail, a long island path that’s shared by walkers, runners and bike-riders. Another time we rented electric bikes and rode them east past the last development and onto rolling trails. Watercrafts are also available; our crew shared two paddleboards one day when waves were low, and you’ll see plenty of kayaks and bodyboards. It’s not uncommon to encounter Blue Angels at practice, and we were thrilled one afternoon to see a jet formation fly nearby over the gulf. Twice a year they present local air shows. The best place to watch them is at the free National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Here you’ll find aircraft of all types, including biplanes and lunar landing crafts. We even found a Vietnam-era F-8 fighter jet—the same kind my father flew. A little farther down the road, visit the historic 177-step Pensacola Lighthouse, established in 1859.
We spent one lovely afternoon in downtown Pensacola. After a lunch in Al Fresco (the palm tree–shaded food truck park), we walked to the Plaza de Luna at water’s edge to marvel at the ships. From there we continued our day trip through Perdido Key and into Gulf Shores. We’ve also day-tripped east to Navarre and Destin beach areas. Pensacola’s central location—so convenient for excursions—is another draw. On our next day trip agenda? Big Lagoon State Park. Just writing about Pensacola has me longing for its shores. Time to start planning our next trip!
Where to Rest Your Head
Pensacola Beach has a wide variety of accommodations. And because Santa Rosa Island/Pensacola Beach is a narrow barrier island, you’re never far from the beach no matter where you stay.
Hotels and Resorts
On our first trip we stayed at the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach and loved its gulf-front balcony view and close proximity to the pier, beach bars and restaurants. More gulf-side hotels and resorts lie east of the pier and there are two on the pier’s less crowded western side.
Condos and Beach Homes
From apartment-style to resort complexes, condos are plentiful as are beach houses. We generally check the VRBO site first, but on our second trip we had a good experience booking through Pensacola Beach Properties. We’ve saved money staying on the north side of Fort Pickens Road (closer to the sound), which requires crossing the main street to reach the gulf beach.
Camp under the stars at Fort Pickens National Park, or check nearby Navarre and Perdido Key. The Pensacola Beach RV Resort, facing the sound, is indeed resort-like, aka not budget (we rode bikes through the attractive park and asked). There is another RV park in Navarre (St. Rosa RV Resort).