Inside: Everything you need to know to plan the perfect Pensacola Beach vacation. Including where to stay & what to see on Florida’s brilliant Emerald Coast.
I hesitate to write this post. Mostly for selfish reasons.
You see, I recently discovered the Gulf coast paradise of Pensacola Beach and I’m not entirely sure I want to share it.
But it’s my job to write about beautiful travel destinations so I feel duty-bound to enlighten beach lovers everywhere as to the beauty of this Florida panhandle gem. Darn it.
I should start by saying that I grew up in Southwest Florida and I truly thought all Florida beaches looked like those in my home town of Fort Myers. Nice enough, but nothing special.
I mean sure, I’ve been to Miami and I know their turquoise waters and white sand beaches are more Caribbean-like than Florida-like. But I thought that’s where the Caribbean comparisons ended with my former home state.
I was so wrong.
Fellow beach lovers, I give you…Florida’s Emerald Coast.
What is the Emerald Coast?
Nick-named for its sparkling, emerald-hued waters, this 100-mile stretch of Florida’s upper Gulf Coast includes Panama City, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Navarre Beach, and Pensacola Beach (and all the smaller beach towns in between).
Destin is considered the superstar of the region and has regularly taken top honors on the “Best Beaches in Florida” list. Its well-deserved fame is mostly due to incredibly clear waters. But all that good press has lead to wall-to-wall condo buildings and resorts along Destin’s powdery shores. Lots of available rooms equal lots of visitors.
Why is the Emerald Coast sand so white?
Our my first visit to the area several months ago, I was stunned when I got my first look at the sand on Santa Rosa Island (home to Pensacola Beach and Navarre). It was so incredibly white and silky soft. Almost like baby powder.
Remarkably different from other Florida beaches and uniquely beautiful in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.
The secret, I later learned, is quartz.
Thousands of years ago, warming temperatures at the end of the last Ice Age eroded quartz from the Appalachian Mountains. Over time, these quartz particles traveled all the way down the Apalachicola River and flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ultimately, these tiny crystals were deposited along today’s Emerald Coast and became the sugar-white sand that’s so smooth it actually squeaks when you walk on it.
But, hey, what do I know about beaches?
In the course of traveling around the world for the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the world’s most amazing beaches.
From Bora Bora, Seychelles, and the Maldives to Fiji, Australia, Greece, and Thailand. I’ve seen the top sandy shores the world has to offer on six continents (sorry, none worth mentioning from Antarctica!).
As a result of all this diligent, umbrella-drink-required research, I feel uniquely qualified to proclaim a terrific beach when I see one. And the Emerald Coast has some pretty terrific beaches.
How on earth I managed to completely overlook this part of Florida my entire life, I’ll never know. Especially considering it’s a mere 5-hour drive from my current home.
You can’t win ’em all.
What’s the best beach on the Emerald Coast?
The answer to that question depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re in search of endless activities and entertainment (think mini-golf, attractions, shopping arcades, etc) on your beach vacation, Panama City or Destin could be the best choice.
If you don’t care much about restaurant options or activities and just want to lounge your days away on an empty, lovely beach, the quiet town of Navarre could be just right.
All of the popular destinations along the Emerald Coast feature the same clear blue-green waters and silky-white sand so your choice really comes down to how you like to vacation.
After two in-depth visits to the Emerald Coast in the last several months, I have developed a clear favorite.
Allow me to elaborate…
3 Reasons Pensacola Beach is the Best Choice
There are a number of reasons Pensacola Beach won me over, these are just a few.
1. All the beaches, half the crowds
We first visited the area last December, during what’s considered “low season.” Even then, I found the traffic in Destin mildy alarming for the off-season. We discovered on our recent visit that it’s much worse in the summer.
The same can be said for bustling Panama City. I don’t know about you but I like to avoid traffic jams on my beach holidays.
To be fair, Navarre Beach is the sleepiest of them all with just a handful of hotels and restaurants and zero traffic. But for my money, Pensacola Beach has the ideal laid-back beach town vibe. From small, locally-owned shops to just the right amount of restaurants and nightlife options.
Compared to the big box stores, mega-resorts, and mini-golf courses of Destin, Ft. Walton Beach, and Panama City, Pensacola has the perfect balance of amenities and elbow room.
2. Wide Open Spaces
And speaking of elbow room…Pensacola Beach is book-ended by long stretches of protected Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Fort Pickens recreation area to the west of town and the Santa Rosa area (including Opal Beach) to the east.
These two vast park areas are lined with stunning gulf seashore boasting endless options to find your own private spot on that sugary sand (good luck with that in Destin!). The protected areas also limit the possibility of further development so it’s unlikely Pensacola Beach will lose its small-town charm anytime soon.
Bottom Line: It’s the perfect place for a socially-distanced beach vacation.
3. The Navy’s Blue Angels
Sure, I could probably rave about Pensacola’s great restaurants or drone on about the picturesque beaches and all the cute dolphins swimming about. But every other Emerald Coast town has all of those things.
Know what they don’t have? The Blue freaking Angels.
Officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the awe-inspiring Blue Angels call the Pensacola Bay area home. Pensacola Beach hosts an annual Blue Angels show every July and that’s about the only time you’ll find this town at truly max capacity. Every November, they host their last show of the year over Naval Air Station Pensacola.
But you don’t have to catch an air show to see these incredible pilots perform. They practice regularly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11:30am from March to October. You can easily spot them from anywhere on the island but the best views are from the Fort Pickens recreation area at the western tip of the island.
We were lucky enough to catch them in action on our visit last week and they are simply incredible to watch.
And there you have it! My 3 top reasons to choose Pensacola Beach as your next vacation destination.
Ready to plan your trip?
Here’s everything else you need to know…
What’s the best time of year to visit Pensacola Beach?
Unlike South Florida, which welcomes snowbirds in the winter months, the Emerald Coast high season starts in the spring and continues through early fall. The summer holiday weekends of Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day are peak times for visitors to the area.
In Pensacola, the annual Blue Angels Air Show (scheduled for July 11th, 2020) is perhaps the most popular weekend of all.
Yet, according to the locals, September is the best month of the year to visit. With fewer crowds, plenty of sunshine, and a welcome break from the peak summer heat.
Where to stay in Pensacola Beach?
Like most Florida beach resort areas, the primary accommodation options are hotels or vacation rentals. If you’re staying for a week or traveling with a large family, a vacation rental can be a terrific option. If you’re just planning a weekend getaway, a beachfront hotel is a perfect choice!
Here are a few of my favorite options for both:
Best Pensacola Beach Hotels
- Springhill Suites Pensacola Beach – Consistently rated as the top choice in the area, this property sits right on the gulf within easy walking distance to dining and shops. Rooms are a spacious 450 sqft and sparkling clean. Breakfast is included and the breakfast area features panoramic views of the gulf (not a bad way to start your day!). When it comes to value for the money, this hotel is my top pick.
- Hilton Pensacola Beach – Standard rooms measure slightly smaller than the Springhill Suites but just by a smidge. Need more space for the family? Book the roomy Gulf View Queen Suite with bonus bunk beds (683 sqft). Like the other two hotels listed here, the Hilton features a large pool area right on the gulf and it’s a short stroll to shops and restaurants. Breakfast is not included in the standard rates.
- Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach – While the pools at the other two hotels are lovely, the Holiday Inn Resort wins the prize for my favorite hotel pool in town. It’s hard to top a cascading waterfall, hot tubs, and a 250-foot lazy river. The only downside? Standard rooms are considerably smaller here, measuring just 325 sqft. Even the pricier suites are smaller than a standard room at the Springhill Suites (though they do feature bunk beds for families). Like the Hilton, breakfast is not included.
Best Pensacola Beach Vacation Rentals
1. Baywatch E5 – This is where we stayed on our most recent visit. The Baywatch complex sits directly on Santa Rosa Sound (the bay side) and has both a pool and a sandy beach area with calm water for swimming. This 2- bedroom unit is a little on the cozy side at 764 sqft but comfortably sleeps 4. It’s located directly on the bay and has spectacular sunset views from the terrace. The master bedroom also faces the bay and with the window cracked you can hear the waves at night.
It’s about 2 miles from the island’s lively downtown area but you can catch the free trolley (more on that below) for dinner or shopping. Tip: If this particular unit isn’t available over your dates, any other unit in Building “E” will have the same great direct waterfront view. Try Baywatch E7, E8, E9, or E10.
2. Portofino Island Resort – You can’t miss the 5 Mediterranean-inspired towers of the Portofino complex as you cross the bridge from Gulf Breeze to Santa Rosa Island, it’s a behemoth. The spacious 2-bedroom (1,333 sqft) and 3-bedroom (2,034 sqft) “Sky Homes” all feature gourmet kitchens, large balconies, and panoramic water views.
The amenities are ridiculously endless. Each tower boasts its own heated pool and hot tub, there’s a Boardwalk with shopping and dining, as well as golf, a spa, watersports, even a 63′ catamaran available for cruising.
It’s basically a 5-star resort (at a 5-star price). The Portofino complex is 4 miles from downtown but the free trolley stops here as well. And honestly, there’s so much to do within the resort that you might never leave it during your stay (which would be a shame!). There are numerous units available for rental, here are two top-rated units in addition to the one linked above: 1103, 1908.
3. Emerald Isle – This gulf-front condo building is close to town and an easy walk to restaurants and shopping. At 1100 sqft, this beautifully-decorated 2-bedroom unit sleeps 6 and has direct facing ocean views. The complex features a swimming pool, fitness center, and a wellness area with hot tub and sauna. If you’re looking for the additional space of a condo with a walkable location to town, this one is a great choice.
Now that we’ve covered all the best places to stay, let’s talk about things to do on your Pensacola Beach vacation!
5 Awesome Things to Do in Pensacola Beach (if you can tear yourself away from the beach!)
Yes, Pensacola has all the usual Florida beach town attractions like Laguna’s Adventure Park, Fast Eddie’s Go-Kart tracks and even Goofy Golf. (Though thankfully they’re lesser in quantity than their Emerald Coast neighbors.) Any of these can be fun for an afternoon.
But here are few top local picks for history, nature and the best of Pensacola:
1. Ride the free trolley!
From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, three trolley cars run 7 days a week from 4:00pm-midnight. If you’re staying further down the beach from town, the trolley is the perfect way to roll into town for dinner in style.
Trolley stops connect the entire beach area from the Portofino complex on the east side to the last condo complex on the west end. Wherever you are on the island, you’re not far from a trolley stop. You can check the latest schedule and live map here.
2. Fort Pickens
Located at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, the vast Fort Pickens recreation area features a discovery center, picnic pavilion, campground, fishing pier, and the swim-friendly waters of Langdon Beach. But its most impressive asset is definitely the historic U.S. Military fortification.
Constructed in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay and its Navy Yard from foreign attack, Fort Pickens is a fascinating place to explore. Designed to look threatening from the sea, the fort’s five 40 ft walls were intended to support more than 200 cannons and unleash “a ring of fire” during a siege. The fort remained in use through 1947.
Don’t forget to check the Blue Angels practice schedule. The perfect time to visit Fort Pickens is when the Blue Angels are flying. Not every practice is officially listed, though, so keep your eyes peeled any Tuesday or Wednesday (the practice we watched recently was not on the schedule).
Park Entrance Pass Fees: $15 per person or $25 per car, one pass is good for up to 7 days at all Gulf Island National Seashore areas. For regular visitors, an annual pass is $45. Check current hours and additional park information here.
3. Joe Patti’s Seafood
This world-famous seafood market has been delighting seafood lovers for more than 75 years. Founded by Captain Joe and Anna Patti in the early 1930’s, the market earned a reputation for the highest quality fish at a fair price. You’ll find everything from Florida’s freshest gulf shrimp and grouper to northern specialties like lobster, swordfish, and salmon.
Today, the family-run store has expanded to include a gourmet deli, wine bar and sushi shop. If you’re renting a condo and want to try your hand at cooking up some of Florida’s freshest gulf seafood, this is your one-stop-shop.
Open Monday-Saturday, 7:30am – 7:00pm and Sundays, 7:30am – 6:00pm.
Tip: Go early for the best catch of the day.
4. Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail
As you wander from shore to shore on Pensacola Beach, keep a sharp eye out for the 29 stops that make up the 8.5 mile Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail.
Each stop tells a different story about Pensacola’s unique island ecology. Learn how to spot the footprints left behind by the native birds, crabs, and turtles or find out more about what kind of sea life you’ll spot in the water.
Read about the sea turtles that nest on Pensacola Beach in the spring or the types of dolphins who make frequent appearances just offshore. The trail is a fun activity for kids and adults alike. Get more information and view the Eco Trail map here.
5. Downtown Pensacola
One more perk of Pensacola over the rest of the Emerald Coast is its charming and historic downtown.
Pensacola’s fascinating history began in 1559 with the arrival of Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Lun who founded the first European settlement in the New World. Over the next 450 years, the flags of Spain, Britain, France, the Confederacy, and the United States would fly over Pensacola earning it the nickname, the “City of Five Flags.”
Today, Crepe Myrtle trees shade the brick sidewalks of downtown Pensacola. You’ll discover quaint shops, cafes, and restaurants ranging from fine dining to food trucks. Be sure not to miss the living history museum, Historic Pensacola Village, while you’re in town.
So what are you waiting for?
18 miles of white-sand beaches lapped by a gentle turquoise gulf.
343 days of brilliant sunshine a year.
An average annual temperature of 75 degrees.
Epic sunset views from Santa Rosa Sound.
It’s all waiting for you in Pensacola Beach, the crown jewel of Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Start planning your trip today!
And if you’re searching for more socially-distanced vacation ideas, here are 3 more fabulous destinations for exploring the best of the USA: