By Anne Braly
Dust the sand from your feet, don your comfortable walking shoes and take a stroll through Old Town Pensacola for a new adventure when visiting the oldest settlement along Florida’s Gulf Coast, predating St. Augustine by six years and Jamestown by 50. The city has so much charm with its architecture and brick-lined sidewalks. It takes pride in showing off its history, one that began with the settlement of Native Americans before the Spanish landed and claimed the land as its own in 1559, then ceded the land to America 200 years ago this year.
Today, a trip to the downtown area makes for a fun getaway from the sun, surf and sand for history buffs, foodies, bar hoppers and shoppers. It’s an easy drive from Chattanooga to Pensacola — about 6 hours. Or, Southwest offers direct flights from Nashville that will get you there in about an hour.
Pensacola Village, located smack dab in the center of downtown, is an all-encompassing look at who and what made Pensacola the town it is today. Its archaeology tells the story of battles on the water; its position as the Middle Passage during the days of slavery; its industry; the arts; and its people.
Pensacola Museum of History is one of 17 museums within a 44-block area and anchors Pensacola Village. The museum has a number of permanent collections that feature items discovered underwater and on land, as well as a re-creation of Trader Jon’s, a popular downtown restaurant/bar (now a law office) for military stationed at nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola.
The Village also features Julee Cottage, one of a very few remaining examples of Creole-style architecture that once dotted the landscape around Pensacola Bay. Costumed guides tell its story and are well-versed in the history of the area. Once you’ve learned about daily life in the 1800s, step across the street and into the Appleyard Storytelling Cottage to sit and listen to recordings of historian John Appleyard tell of local and regional history, then visit the Manuel Barrios Cottage, an example of small two-room cottages, a style of architecture common in the early 20th century.
The neighboring Museum of Industry and the Museum of Commerce are hosts to permanent exhibits and tell the stories of Pensacola’s early industries and downtown Pensacola circa the 1890s. And the Pensacola Children’s Museum will give the kids something to do besides building sandcastles and body surfing.
Tickets to experience Pensacola Village and its many offerings may be purchased online and are good for seven days. Tickets include admission to all of the museums as well as guided tours held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, log onto www.historicpensacola.org.
What to See and Do
Palafox Street is a main corridor that runs north and south through town. The area you’ll want to visit is known as SoGo (South of Government Street). A wide plaza stretches down the center of the street and is home to a Sunday market with local vendors and numerous activities the year round. You’ll notice the architecture of the area is very much like that you’d find in New Orleans.
Downtown is very walkable and offers free parking. Try to park somewhere close to The Artisan, a restored French-Quarter building that offers high-end shops and dining.
Downtown Pensacola also has a varied genre of musical offerings.
For a memorable night of music, magic or whatever entertainment happens to be on the menu, visit the Vinyl Music Hall located in the restored Masonic Temple. Or, get a ticket and a seat in the Spanish Baroque Saenger Theatre for ballet or a Broadway show.
Where to Eat
From tacos to tapas, downtown Pensacola has the restaurants you need to satiate your hunger and the bars you want to get a sip of relief from the heat of the day.
Get your sugar rush at Bubba’s Sweet Spot, owned by golf pro Bubba Watson, a shotgun-style ice cream/chocolate shop that will blow your mind. A long counter lined with all kinds of fudge and chocolates leads to a small cooler with a dozen or so ice creams. Take your pick and snag a seat outside.
Next door to Bubba’s is Nom, the place for fresh sushi and amazing ramen in SoGo. Around the corner, Jackson’s Steakhouse has a tempting menu of yes, steaks, but also seafood. Chef Irv Miller tempts the palate with entrees like his petite filet with fried green tomatoes, lump crab and Thibodaux andouille cream.
No matter how tempting, drive right past Kristy Kreme on Cervantes Street, bypass McDonald’s entirely and enjoy brunch at the Coffee Cup. No social distancing here. It’s one of those places known by t Locals recommend going early to beat the brunch crowd. Seating inside is rather tight, but there is outdoor seating for those wanting to social distance and enjoy a beautiful Florida morning. Specials change often, but might feature a dish such as Shrimp Eggs Benedict, and there are always ample Southern breakfasts on which to break the fast.
There are plenty of seafood places on the water around Pensacola — its beaches and its bay. One of the standouts is The Oar House just minutes from downtown Pensacola on Bayou Chico overlooking MarineMax Pensacola. Dine outside or beneath the tiki roof — either way, you’ll witness stunning sunsets and the bounty of nature in and out of the water while dining on a menu filled with po’ boys, fish tacos and numerous dishes featuring fruits de mer.
Where to Stay
If you want a beach, the best suggestion is Pensacola Beach with its numerous rental homes and hotels. Downtown Pensacola is less than 15 minutes away. But if you’d like a break from sand in your room and between your toes, there are a number of good hotels downtown.
· New World Inn is a boutique hotel on Palafox Street featuring 15 guest rooms named after figures tied to the history of Pensacola. It’s restaurant, Skolepos, is no longer there, thanks to Hurricane Sally, but its owner and chef, Gus Silivos, has now opened Agapi Bistro + Garden in East Pensacola and is serving award-winning Mediterranean cuisine. It’s the talk of the town, according to folks at VisitPensacola. Online: www.newworldlanding.com
· As the only Pensacola hotel overlooking the waterfront, Oyster Bay Boutique Hotel offers sweeping views of the downtown overlooking the waterfront and beyond. The ferry to Pensacola Beach is within easy walking distance. Online: www.stayoysterbay.com.
· Holiday Inn Express is a new property on Main Street and is within easy walking distance of the action around Palafox. It’s located next to Pensacola Village and many of the museums, and is also within walking distance of the ferry to Pensacola Beach. Online: www.ihg.com.
· Sole Inn and Suites features 45 rooms with a hip, modern flair, a beautiful courtyard with private cabana areas, free continental breakfast, free happy hour meet-and-greet for guests, and upscale amenities in all rooms including microwave, mini fridge and coffee maker. Online: www.soleinnandsuites.com.
· Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Pensacola is within walking distance to more than a dozen of Pensacola’s most popular restaurants and entertainment venues. There’s also an outdoor pool and spa. Online: www.marriott.com.
· Pensacola Victorian is a bed-and-breakfast in a beautifully restored Queen Anne Victorian house once the home of ship captain William Hazard Northup in the late 1800s. Today it is a place where vacationers and business travelers can relax and enjoy the hospitality of innkeepers Chuck and Barbee Major. Online: www.pensacolavictorian.com.