In 1559, Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna arrived on the shores of what is now Pensacola, on the western tip of Florida’s panhandle, to establish the very first European settlement in the United States.
But wait, you say, isn’t St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the U.S.? Yes, most say so, but only because de Luna’s timing was unfortunate. He and his fleet of 11 sailing ships anchored in Pensacola Bay right in the middle of hurricane season. Only a few weeks after landing, a powerful storm blew in from the Gulf of Mexico, destroying most of de Luna’s ships and supplies, and dashing any hopes of a permanent settlement.
Today, an excavated anchor from one of de Luna’s sunken ships is proudly displayed in Pensacola’s T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum, proving to one and all that Northwest Florida is where European history in the United States really began.
More than 450 years since de Luna’s landing, the Pensacola area remains a treasure trove of historic and cultural sites.
During the winter months, when it’s a bit too chilly for white sand beaches, head inland to explore colonial forts and lighthouses, learn about aviation history and eat your fill of fresh seafood.
National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM)
Two words: must see! Admission is free, though donations are appreciated. I spent almost four hours in this museum with my 12- and 15-year-old sons, and we didn’t come close to seeing it all. The world’s largest naval aviation museum showcases more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation from the earliest days of flight. Marvel at the size of the NC-4, the first plane to cross the Atlantic by air, then channel your inner “Top Gun” Maverick by sitting in the cockpit of a F14 Tomcat. From Corsairs to Chinooks, they are all here. Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola is home to the U.S. Navy’s demonstration flying team, the Blue Angels. The museum offers a Blue Angels X4D theater experience as well as 360 degree pitch and roll flight simulators – a big hit with my sons. The Blue Angels themselves practice over the museum weekly from March to November, but spend the winter months in California. Make sure to grab a bite at Cubi Bar Café inside the museum, which duplicates the famous Cubi Point Officer’s Club from the Philippines. If time allows, enjoy an IMAX film on the largest screen in Florida.
Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
Located near the Naval Aviation Museum, the Pensacola Lighthouse, built in 1859, offers beautiful views of Pensacola Bay for those willing to climb the tower’s 177 steps. I did so at night, and was rewarded by a view of the full moon shining over dark water, with rotating beams of light from the powerful Fresnel lens stretching as far as the eye could see. The lighthouse survived bombardment by Union troops during the Civil War in 1861, and some say that ghosts from that era still haunt the Keeper’s Quarters.
Gulf Islands National Seashore and Fort Pickens
In the 1800s, the U.S. Army built four fortifications to protect Pensacola Bay and the Navy Yard from attack. Take a ranger-led tour of the largest of the four, Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, to learn how the fort survived attack by the Confederates during the Civil War. The drive to the fort takes you through the beautiful barrier island forests and sandy marshes of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Keep an eye out for ospreys and bald eagles.
Historic Pensacola Village
History comes to life through docent-led tours of Historic Pensacola Village, a collection of restored homes and buildings dating from the early 1800s through the 1940s. Explore artifacts and architecture unique to each era and hear interesting stories about the homes’ owners. Then head over to the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum, named for a local collector of Americana who “never throwed nothin’ away.” In addition to excellent exhibits on Florida history and culture, make sure to explore the room on the second floor housing some of Wentworth’s roadside attraction oddities.
Chosen by the American Planning Association in 2013 as one of “10 Great Streets in America,” Palafox Street, Pensacola’s main downtown thoroughfare, has enjoyed a recent rebirth, with new shops and restaurants combining with music and arts venues to create a hip, vibrant scene. Take a cooking class at So Gourmet, grab a snack at Al Fresco’s retro food truck plaza or sip Bodacious Brew coffee at a sidewalk table while listening to tunes from a brightly painted street piano, part of the University of West Florida’s public piano project, an initiative to promote music appreciation.
Pensacola is home to five Celebrity Chefs who, as a culinary team, have had the honor of hosting a meal at New York’s acclaimed James Beard House for four years in a row. Dan Dunn of H2O, Irv Miller of Jackson’s Steakhouse, Jim Shirley of the Fish House, Gus Silivos of Nancy’s Haute Affairs and Frank Taylor of Global Grill use talent and artistic flair to prepare modern Southern cuisine featuring locally harvested produce and seafood. Watch sailboats in the harbor from the deck of the Fish House while devouring Jim Shirley’s World Famous Grits a Ya. Or linger over a sampling of Frank Taylor’s upscale tapas at The Global Grill. My favorite? The amazing Applewood Bacon Wrapped Warm Water Lobster Tail.
Summertime brings sports fans to Pensacola Bayfront Stadium to cheer on the Blue Wahoos, a minor league Double-A baseball team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. But the winter months belong to the Pensacola Ice Flyers, a professional ice hockey team of the Southern Professional Hockey League and President’s Cup Champions for the past two years.
The Saenger Theatre
Dubbed the “Grand Dame of Palafox Street,” the 1925 Spanish Baroque-style Saenger Theatre offers a variety of entertainment, from ballet, symphony and opera to comedy and Broadway shows. Jerry Seinfeld and Cher performed at the Saenger in November. January and February will bring Michael McDonald, “Sister Act,” “Guys and Dolls,” the Pensacola Opera performing “La Boheme” and the Russian National Ballet’s “Cinderella,” just to name a few.
For information on lodging options, including the historic Crown Plaza Pensacola Grand, styled after a turn-of-the-century train depot, and a calendar of winter events in Pensacola, such as February’s Mardi Gras celebration, head to www.visitpensacola.com. ■