Pensacola Beach is the True Gem of Florida’s Emerald Coast (Here’s Why)

Pensacola Beach White Sands Emerald Coast Florida

With sugar-white sands and calm turquoise seas, Pensacola Beach is an Emerald Coast gem with Caribbean-worthy beaches and sky-high entertainment.

I hesitate to write this post. Mostly for selfish reasons.

The thing is, I recently discovered the Gulf Coast paradise of Pensacola Beach Florida and I’m not entirely sure I want to share it.

But writing about beautiful travel destinations is what I do. So I feel duty-bound to enlighten beach lovers everywhere about this Emerald Coast Florida 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 hometown of Fort Myers. Nice enough, but nothing special.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

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).

Why is the Emerald Coast sand so white?

Our my first visit to the area, 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.

Emerald Coast white sand quartz
The white quartz sands of the Emerald Coast in Pensacola Beach

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.

Pensacola Beach things to Do Emerald Coast Florida
White sand and clear turquoise waters on Pensacola Beach

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 research, I feel uniquely qualified to proclaim a terrific beach when I see one.

And Florida’s Emerald Coast has some pretty terrific beaches.

But is Pensacola Beach nice? Oh, it’s way better than nice, it’s spectacular.

Fiji or Thailand? Nope, Pensacola Beach!

Which is better, Destin or Pensacola beaches?

There’s no doubt that Destin is the most popular destination along the Emerald Coast.

Both Destin and Pensacola (and all of the Emerald Coast towns) feature the same gorgeous clear blue-green waters and silky-white sand. But Destin and Pensacola vary greatly in visitor density and traffic.

So the choice between Pensacola vs Destin really comes down to how you like to vacation.

After three in-depth visits to the Emerald Coast in the past two years, I have developed a clear favorite.

It’s Pensacola Beach. Here’s why.

3 Reasons Pensacola Beach is the Best Choice

There are a number of reasons Pensacola beaches won me over, these are just a few.

1. All the beaches, half the crowds

We first visited the area in December, during what’s considered “low season.” Even then, I found the traffic in Destin mildly alarming for the off-season. We discovered on a later visit that it’s much worse in the summer. The same can be said for bustling Panama City.

Now, I could be alone here, but I generally prefer to avoid traffic jams on my carefree beach holidays.

Of course, 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.

Pensacola Beach Sunset Florida
Sunset by the pier in Pensacola Beach

Compared to the big box stores, mega-resorts, and mini-golf courses of Destin, Ft. Walton Beach, and Panama City, Pensacola beaches have 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 is to the west of town and the Santa Rosa area (including Opal Beach) is to the east.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens Pensacola
Entering the Gulf Islands National Seashore park at Fort Pickens

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.

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 Florida 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.

Blue Angels Pensacola Beach
The Blue Angels practicing over Pensacola Beach

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.

Check the 2024 Blue Angels practice schedule here.

Tip: You can also visit the National Naval Aviation Museum

We were lucky enough to catch Pensacola’s Blue Angels in action on our last visit and they are simply incredible to watch.

So those are my 3 top reasons Pensacola Beach is the perfect place for your next vacation.

Now, let’s start planning your trip!

Here’s everything else you need to know…like where to stay and all the best things to do!

What’s the best time of year to visit Pensacola Beach?

Unlike South Florida, which welcomes snowbirds in the winter months, the Emerald Coast’s 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.

Pensacola Beach downtown
The busiest part of Pensacola Beach, the public beach near the pier

In Pensacola, the annual Blue Angels Air Show (scheduled for July 10-13, 2024) 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 in Pensacola Beach are hotels, resorts, or vacation rentals. If you’re staying in Pensacola Beach for a week or traveling with a large family, a vacation rental is 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 & Resorts

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. When it comes to value for the money, this hotel is my top pick.

The Pensacola Beach Resort – Formerly the Margaritaville Resort, this gulf-front, full-service resort is located on the quieter end of Pensacola Beach where you’ll find endless white sand along pristine beachfront.

The Tiki Bar by the pool still captures the essence of Margaritaville. And the Salty Rose Beach Bar is a great spot for live music. Splurge for an Ocean View room.

Hilton Pensacola Beach – Standard rooms are 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 hotels listed here, the Hilton features a large pool area right on the gulf and it’s a short stroll to shops and restaurants.

Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach – While the pools at the other three 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.

Shells Pensacola Beach Florida
Morning walks on the beach in Pensacola

Best Pensacola Beach Condos & Vacation Rentals

1. Baywatch Condos – This is where we stayed on our most last 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.

These 2- bedroom units are a little on the cozy side at 764 sqft but comfortably sleep 4-6. Baywatch is located directly on the bay and some units even offer spectacular sunset views from the terrace.

Pensacola Beach Vacation Rentals
Nightly sunset views from Baywatch E5

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: Here are two other great options in the Baywatch complex – Baywatch A8 or Baywatch C10.

2. Pensacola Portofino Island Resort – You can’t miss the 5 Mediterranean-inspired towers of Pensacola’s 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.

Portofino Island is 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. There are numerous units available for rental, here are two other top-rated Portofino units in addition to the one linked above: Portofino 1103 and Portofino Tower 3.

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, in addition to pristine beaches, Pensacola Beach has all the usual Florida beach town attractions like Laguna’s Adventure Park, Fast Eddie’s Go-Kart tracks, and even mini golf.

But here are a few of my top local picks for history, natural beauty, 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.

Pensacola Beach Free Trolley
Riding the free trolley!

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 areas, a campground, a fishing pier, and the swim-friendly waters of Langdon Beach.

But its most impressive asset is definitely the historic U.S. Military fortification.

Fort Pickens Military fortification Pensacola
Fort Pickens

Constructed in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay and its Navy Yard from foreign attack, Fort Pickens has a rich history and 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.

Blue Angels Fort Pickens Pensacola Beach
Watching the Blue Angels practice over Fort Pickens

Don’t forget to check the Blue Angels practice schedule. The perfect time to visit Fort Pickens is when the Blues are flying. Not every practice is officially listed, though, so keep your eyes peeled any Tuesday or Wednesday (the last practice we watched 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 1930s, 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 best fresh seafood, Joe Patti’s is a great place for one-stop-shopping.

Open daily, 8:00am – 6:00pm. Check Joe Patti’s current hours here.

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 marine life you’ll spot in the water.

Sea Turtle Nest Pensacola Beach Florida
Sea turtle nest on Pensacola Beach

Read about the sea turtles that nest on the beautiful beaches of Pensacola in the spring or the bottlenose dolphins who make frequent appearances just offshore. The trail is a fun and educational experience 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 in the heart 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 and Historic Pensacola Village while you’re in town.

Tip: I love a good Segway tour and one fun way to explore the history of Pensacola is with this 2-hour Segway Tour of Downtown Pensacola.

Best Pensacola Boat Trips & Tours

There aren’t many boat trips and tours offered around Pensacola Beach but there are a couple of really great ones worth mentioning. From dolphin cruises to water activities, here are the best tours in Pensacola.

Just in case you’re looking for even more fun things to do.

Here are 3 of my favorite Pensacola Beach Tours:

  1. Night Glow Kayak Paddle Session in Pensacola Beach – The night glow kayaks are one of Pensacola’s newest and most popular activities. It’s a 45-minute paddle around the Bay in a see-through kayak illuminated with colorful LED lights. Each kayak seats two and the goal is to spot dolphins, stingrays, and fish as you paddle around. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but either way, it’s a fun family nighttime adventure.
  2. Frisky Mermaid Public Dolphin + Sightseeing Cruise – To get out on the water and spot some dolphins, this is the top boat trip in Pensacola Beach. You’ll learn “fin” facts about Pensacola and have a “mer-mazing” time on this 90-minute boat trip.
  3. Pensacola Beach Jolly Dolphin Cruise and Scenic Bay Tour – This is the other great dolphin and wildlife cruise in Pensacola. This one is a smaller, more comfortable vessel (a pontoon boat) with full shade so it’s great for smaller kids or anyone with limited mobility.

Pensacola Ferry Service (Spring/Summer 2024)

From March to October, the seasonal ferry service is a great way to go between downtown Pensacola and Pensacola Beach. The ferry operates on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The trip takes 50 minutes, adult tickets are $30 round-trip, and all-day parking is available free on both ends.

You can find more information on schedules and tickets on the Pensacola Bay Ferry site.

Tip: If you’re staying in Pensacola Beach, the ferry is a terrific way to explore the charming shops of downtown Pensacola without dealing with the usual beach traffic!

And just in case I missed anything, here are a few more common questions about Florida’s Emerald Coast:

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 for you.

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.

Pensacola vs Destin

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 led to wall-to-wall condo buildings and resorts along Destin’s powdery shores. Lots of available rooms equal lots of visitors.

How far is Pensacola from Destin?

The distance from Pensacola to Destin is just 43 miles and the drive takes just over an hour, depending on traffic. So why not just hop over to Pensacola instead?

So what are you waiting for?

Start planning your trip to Pensacola Florida.

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!

Pensacola Beach Florida Emerald Coast
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