You would think after visiting upwards of a dozen different Florida beach towns in a year, they would all start to look the same. We’re used to east coast beaches, though, so taking a vacation to Pensacola on Florida’s Emerald Coast was like stepping into another world.
Naturally, the beaches are different from Atlantic beaches, with their sugary bleached-white sand and calm Gulf of Mexico water, but the entire look and feel of the town were unique. With a history as old and rich as St. Augustine, pristine natural settings and the influence of the Naval Air Station, this sunny Florida city is a must-visit for families who want a relaxing beach vacation sprinkled with education and outdoor fun.
Experience Pensacola History
I’m a big fan of St. Augustine, with all of its history and billing as the Oldest City in America. That’s why I was surprised to learn that Pensacola was actually settled prior to St. Augustine, although it was not continuously occupied in those early years.
Regardless of which city wins the oldest city claim to fame, Pensacola is rich in colonial history ready for families to discover. We purchased our tickets for the Pensacola Children’s Museum and learned they were good for 7 days and would also get us into the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and the Historic Pensacola Village. That’s a great deal for families that want to take their time exploring the area or come back on a rainy day.
The Children’s Museum focused on teaching kids about colonial life and local military history through imaginative play. Afterward, we wandered around Historic Downtown Pensacola and popped into the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum to learn about the history of this city’s five flags (Spanish, French, British, Confederate and U.S.A.).
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If you’ve got the time or inclination, you can wander over to Historic Pensacola Village to explore historic homes and buildings. Even better, you’re likely to encounter history interpreters dressed in colonial outfits who bring history to life. Finish your day with a delightful dinner of fresh seafood at Nick’s Boathouse on Pensacola Bay. We loved the fish tacos!
Get Out in Nature
If your main objective is to get outside and experience nature. you’re in luck. The area is rife with parks and beaches where families can hike, bike, swim, kayak or canoe.
Start with Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches along Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. It’s 160 miles of protected shoreline including several barrier islands. For $20 you can get a 7-day pass for your whole vehicle to the National Seashore. Search for seashells, go bird watching, swim or go for a walk along the emerald shoreline.
You can also visit Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, which was used to defend Pensacola in the 1800s. Take a self-guided tour of the fort or visit the Discovery Center, the Fort Pickens Bookstore or the Mine Storeroom.
Aside from Gulf Islands National Seashore, there are several state parks that are perfect for short hikes and nature walks with kids. Big Lagoon State Park boasts a lagoon and saltwater marshes, and Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park has a boardwalk where you can view the bayou and the plants and animals that live in and around it.
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The Cradle of Naval Aviation
My kids, like many young children, are obsessed with all things transportation-related. They are especially in awe of airplanes and talk about them incessantly. If that sounds familiar to you, your kids will absolutely love this place, as it is home to Naval Air Station Pensacola, the cradle of Naval Aviation.
Set aside at least a few hours for the National Naval Aviation Museum in the Pensacola Bay Area. Admission is free, and kids can spend as long as they want admiring the aircraft, playing on the playground and climbing into designated plane cockpits. The museum has a café so you can take a lunch break or grab a coffee, and you can pay for special experiences like the 3D flight simulators on the second floor.
Take your love for Naval Aviation outdoors to watch the Blue Angels practice on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. You can even meet the pilots afterward at the National Naval Aviation Museum to take photos with them or get an autograph. Another option is to take a Blue Angels Practice Cruise with Pensacola Bay Cruises on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m. This is what our family did and it was such a fun way to watch the practice!
Where to Stay
There are lots of options for places to stay, but our family loved staying in a ResortQuest condo in Perdido Key. It was away from all the action, which made it an oasis for us at the end of a long day of exploring. We also enjoyed being steps away from the beach and having access to a swimming pool during the warm days.
The best part of staying in a vacation rental, though, is being able to put your kids to bed in a bedroom and hang out in the living room at night. Hotels are lovely, but unless you’ve booked a suite, it’s lights out and quiet time by 8 p.m.
If you want to cook your own meals and save some money, you’re also able to do that in a ResortQuest condo’s fully stocked kitchen. If you don’t like cooking, we found a great family-friendly restaurant nearby called The Crab Trap with a playground and picnic tables out back!
A Great Place for Family Vacation
Pensacola was so different from many other Florida beach towns we’ve visited, and I highly recommend it to any families looking for a beach vacation that involves history, nature and education. This beautiful, sunny city truly has it all!