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Known at the Western Gate to the Sunshine State, Pensacola is a city with a longstanding tradition of welcoming travelers to its shores. In 1559, Spanish explorers landed here only to be forced into a hasty retreat following a devastating hurricane, preventing the city from becoming the nation’s first colony. Today, Pensacola is home to an impressive array of colonial structures. In addition, several of Florida's finest institutions, including the National Naval Aviation Museum, make the city a target for history buffs and beachgoers looking to soak up some sun.
By 1754, Spanish settlers had established a presidio, or military settlement, at the site of present-day Pensacola, and many of the original colonial buildings remain. Whether you want to mine these troves of living history or stroll the working port and waterfront, the neighborhoods of Pensacola offer something for everyone.
A quick 15-minute trip from Pensacola International Airport, Downtown Pensacola beckons with 450 years of Florida Panhandle history alongside regional restaurants that serve up mouthwatering seafood with a side of Southern charm. Blossoming crepe myrtle trees shade the shopping district, where laid-back boutiques and gourmet food trucks dominate the scene.
An enclave of Downtown, the Seville Historic District marks the site where Spanish explorers first set foot on Pensacola's sugary sands. Stepping inside this charming district feels a bit like time travel, and tourists flock here to visit the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum, whose permanent City of Five Flags exhibit offers a top-notch introduction to the history of Pensacola.
Stroll through the North Hill Preservation District and you'll be rewarded with views of 19th- and 20th-century homes built from the felled yellow pine forests that once blanketed the hillside. Idyllic green spaces break up the landscape in this area that appeals to the architecture-obsessed as well as adventurous travelers looking to work off Sunday brunch.
To truly immerse yourself in the history of Pensacola, the University of West Florida Historic Trust offers walking tours through the city's most historic region. Duck inside saltbox cottages and red-brick buildings that bring the city's lineage to life. Inside a former jail, the Pensacola Museum of Art brims with European, American, and African art that calls to mind the region's diverse heritage. Across the street, the Pensacola Little Theatre stages plays inside the oldest continually operating community theater in the Southeastern United States. If it's music you're after, pay a visit to the esteemed Pensacola Symphony Orchestra or Vinyl Music Hall for contemporary acts.
With so many things to do in Pensacola, it can be tricky to know where to start. After whetting your appetite on the seafood in town, consider joining a regional outfitter for a guided fishing expedition in the protected waters of Pensacola Bay. To beat the heat, head to Sam's Fun City, where an amusement park and waterpark promise hours of family-friendly fun. Finally, a trip to the National Naval Aviation Museum is a must. Next door, at the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, you can climb the lighthouse catwalk and watch the navy's high-performance flight squadron—the Blue Angels—complete their gravity-defying acts.