Things to Do
All sorts of adventures await you and your family along the Emerald Coast, as this strip of coastline is known because of the emerald green color of the Gulf waters. Whether you choose to visit the historic sites in Pensacola, hike the pristine beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, explore under the water or canoe on top of it, you're sure to find many activities to interest your entire family.
Pensacola has had a lively past, and virtually everything worth seeing lies within three adjoining districts downtown. Begin your exploration at the old Spanish plaza, the heart of the city. The Pensacola Historical Museum, operated by the Pensacola Historical Society and housed in Old Christ Church (the oldest Protestant church in Florida, built in 1832), divides the plaza into two halves, Plaza Ferdinand VII and Seville Square. Union forces used the old church as a prison, barracks, and hospital during the Civil War, and later in the nineteenth century, it acquired its stained-glass windows and Gothic arches. As you wander through it, you'll see a collection of Indian and Civil War artifacts, art glass, Victorian clothing, old photos, and memorabilia of the city's shipping industry. (Open Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday 9:00 A.M.–4:30 P.M., 850-433-1559, www.pensacolahistory.org)
What better place to have an old-fashioned family photograph taken than in the Pensacola Historical Museum. After viewing the exhibits, stop in at the Old Time Photo Studio, a project of the Pensacola Historical Society, where your family can dress in period costumes to have their portrait taken (850-434-5455).
As you walk the oak-lined streets of the twenty-block Seville Square Historic District — bounded by Bayfront Parkway, Tarragona, Romana, and Cevallos streets — you'll discover a number of smaller museums and important historic houses (850-595-5985, www.seville-district.com). The Museum of Commerce and the Museum of Industry occupy two restored fish warehouses. The former includes a recreation of Palafox Street at the turn of the twentieth century, with many of the storefronts and shop fittings of the time and a collection of antique buggies. The latter includes a working sawmill, for it was lumber that made the city prosper, and memorabilia of the fishing industry.
After visiting the museums, cross Church Street to the Pensacola Colonial Archaeological Trail, a series of outdoor exhibits along a marked path that features ruins of the British colonial commanding officer's house and its refuse pits. The foundations of the officer of the day's building lie just inside the western gate of the eighteenth-century British fort — the only one built on American soil — and the remains of what appears to have been a trader's home and warehouse sit just outside the western gate. You can pick up a map brochure at the Tivoli House in Historic Pensacola Village. Next door stands the Julee Cottage, the 1809 home of Julee Panton, a “freewoman of color,” who had her own land and business and even her own slave; it now shows an exhibit of local black history (850-595-5985).
In front of the Archaeological Trail stands the T. T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum, housed in the 1908 Pensacola City Hall within the Seville District and the oldest museum in town. Inside the yellow-brick Renaissance Revival building, 35,000 pictures, documents, and historical objects, arranged categorically, will show you more about Pensacola's fascinating history. Your kids will love the unusual collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia, plus over 100,000 of Wentworth's personal artifacts, including a bizarre petrified cat and shrunken head, as well as the third-floor Discovery Gallery with its giant aquarium, room of mirrors, and an old ship. (850-595-5985)
Pensacola gained prominence as a commercial center in the late eighteenth century. A mix of early settlers, Native Americans, and traders regularly gathered to sell and barter on the waterfront of the Seville District, about half a mile east of present-day Palafox Street. The wealthier ones built fine homes that today, together with several museums, form Historic Pensacola Village, bounded by Alcaniz, Government, Jefferson, and Zaragoza streets. A $3 per person admission gets you into all of the historic houses and museums in the Village. Stop first at the Hispanic Museum to see exhibits of sixteenth-century Spanish armor and household furnishings, and while you're there, sign up for the village tour led by costumed docents. (Open Easter to Labor Day, Monday through Saturday 10:00 A.M.–4:30 P.M., Sunday 1:00–4:30 P.M., and the rest of the year Monday through Saturday 10:00 A.M.–4:40 P.M., 850-595-5985, www.historicpensacola.org)
The West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc., a direct support organization of the University of West Florida, operates Historic Pensacola Village, consisting of twenty buildings in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Costumed docents staff ten of these buildings, all within a four-block area.
On the tour you'll see three fine old houses, restored and furnished in the style of the time, recalling the days Seville Square was Pensacola's most fashionable neighborhood. The first is a restored and furnished Creole cottage belonging to Charles LaValle, who moved to Pensacola from New Orleans with his mistress and built this one-story frame house in 1815. The second, the Quina House (850-434-3050), provides a look at a furnished Creole cottage of the 1840s, while the third, the Clara Barkley Dorr House, the late Greek Revival home of a lumber magnate's family, overflows with opulent mid-Victorian furnishings.
Be sure to visit the 8-acre Saint Michael's Cemetery, the oldest surviving cemetery in town, dating back to 1822 when the king of Spain deeded it to the city. Here, among the 3,200 marked burials you'll find old Spanish graves, plus the tombstone of Dorothy Walton, whose husband, Judge George Walton, signed the Declaration of Independence, and a replica of Napoleon's tomb. (850-436-4643, www.stmichaelscemetery.org)
If you have the time, you'll find more houses built by Pensacola's late-nineteenth-century lumber barons in the North Hill Historic District, the city's first elegant suburb, bounded by LaRue, Palafox, Blount, and Reus streets. Over 400 historic private homes, constructed of yellow pine, stand along the tree-lined and brick-paved streets, including examples of Tudor, Queen Anne, Mediterranean Revival, and Southern Vernacular styles. Though none is open for public tours, you'll be able to appreciate the craftsmanship of gifted artisans and the wealth of the lumber barons. (850-439-3384, www.historicnorthhill.com)
The Pensacola area provides you with lots of opportunities for bird watching — while strolling along downtown Pensacola's waterfront where Project Greenshores, a habitat-restoration project, attracts large numbers of water birds, or while playing a round of golf at Lost Key Golf Club on Perdido Key Beach, or while simply walking through Avian Alley at the zoo in Gulf Breeze.
In the converted cells of the old city jail, you can view changing exhibits at the Pensacola Museum of Art. (850-432-6247, www.pensacolamuseumofart.org)
While it's better to see the Seville District by walking, you'll learn more about the Palafox and North Hill districts by taking the hour-long historical van tour for $7.50 per person, departing at 10 A.M. and 1 P.M. Monday through Saturday from the visitor information center.
Pensacola's merchants saw a potential boost to their fortunes with the opening of the Panama Canal. Many new buildings appeared in the southern part of Palafox Street during the early twentieth century. Though their wrought-iron work and ornate detail reflected their optimism, the boom in business never came.
Stop at the Pensacola Area Convention and Visitor Bureau at 1401 East Gregory Street for helpful brochures, including a self-guided tour map of the Seville and Palafox historic districts, brochures on local flora and fauna, theater, and local events schedules.(http://visitpensacola.com/)
Take a look at the County Court House, which also served as a customs house, a post office, and tax offices. Opposite it, the Empire Building's slender form and vertically aligned windows exaggerate its height. In 1909, it was Florida's tallest building. A block farther stands the Spanish baroque Saenger Theater, now the home of Pensacola's Symphony Orchestra. If the door's open, be sure to peek inside for a look at its magnificent interior.
Pensacola Naval Air Station
Eight miles southwest of downtown Pensacola lies the vast U.S. Naval Air Station, home of the famous flying Blue Angels; the U.S.S. Lexington, a World War II carrier now used for training; and the Naval Aviation Museum. The Museum of Naval Aviation is one of the most comprehensive air museums in the nation, containing a collection of over 140 restored aircraft representing Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps aviation. The aircraft ranges from a replica of the first seaplane, purchased in 1911, to an actual Skylab command vehicle, and the latest Hornet and Phantom jets displayed both inside the 291,000-square-foot building and outdoors on 37 acres of airfield. Both you and your kids will enjoy gazing up at four A-4 Skyhawks suspended in a diving-diamond formation in the museum's seven-story glass and steel atrium. To get an eye-level view, ascend to the mezzanine level. Afterward, view the special IMAX film The Magic of Flight from a seven-story-high screen. You'll feel as if you're right in the cockpit with the pilot of a Blue Angels jet.
JUST FOR PARENTS
If you're a Vietnam veteran, you won't want to miss the Wall South, a one-half-scale replica of the design of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., at Veterans Memorial Park on Bayfront Parkway in Pensacola (850-455-www.pensacolawallsouth.org). World War II naval veterans will enjoy reminiscing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Cabot at the Museum of Naval Aviation.
What child won't find it a thrill to fly an F/A 18 mission in Desert Storm via a motion-based flight simulator — the ultimate computer game — then climb into one of the full-size training cockpits to tug on the controls. The museum also has memorabilia from important naval air battles, flight clothing and logs, and old equipment, plus missiles and bombs. You can take the Flight Line Bus for a free twenty-minute tour of the aircraft displayed outdoors, as well as a number of historic structures including an 1845 octagonal armory and chapel and some seaplane hangars from the first years of the base. Admission is free. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., Toll-free 800-327-5002, www.naval-air.org)
For the Kids
About 10 miles east of Gulf Breeze on Route 98 lies The Zoo Northwest Florida, the only accredited zoo in the Panhandle. You'll find over 700 animals, a petting zoo for children, and a small botanical garden (850-932-2229, www.the-zoo.com). Across the road, the folks at the Wildlife Rescue & Sanctuary Park will introduce your children to pelicans, alligators, raccoons, owls, and other wildlife (850-433-9453).
RAINY DAY FUN
If it rains, you can take the kids to Sam's Fun City & Surf City. Located in the heart of Pensacola, this family fun park offers a great arcade with over fifty games, a 1,600-square-foot Laser Tag arena, plus a new water park that's sure to keep your children occupied for hours. (www.samsfuncity.com)
The Gulfarium at Fort Walton Beach offers entertaining live dolphin and sea lion performances, as well as giant sea turtles and other marine life. The activities here should keep your little ones happy for about three hours (Toll-free 800-247-8575, www.gulfarium.com).
For go-cart enthusiasts, Fast Eddie's Fun Center in Pensacola offers four tracks, including a figure eight with a bridge and wild turns. Younger children can race Junior Racers, or they can ride with an adult in a double go-cart. There's also miniature golf. (850-433-7735, www.fasteddiesfunctr.com)
Festivals and Seasonal Events
When it comes to festivals and events, the Pensacola area has a flavor all its own. Celebrations of seafood, folk music, fishing, history, and pirate revelry are all a part of the area's more than sixty festivals and events celebrated annually. Here is a selection of some of the most popular:
The Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival: Held the first weekend of November, this festival features both visual and performing artists from around the country, plus a special children's art festival with hands-on activities. (www.ggaf.org)
Fiesta of Five Flags: For the first ten days of June, Pensacola celebrates its history with a costumed fiesta and the arrival of a heritage four-masted sailing vessel to mark de Luna's colonization attempt. (www.fiestaoffiveflags.org)
Pensacola Beach Air Show: Held in mid-July, this spectacular event showcases the Blue Angels. (850-932-1500)