Native Americans left pottery shards and artifacts in the coastal dunes here centuries before Tristan de Luna arrived with a band of Spanish colonists in 1559. Although the settlement lasted only for two years, historians claim that de Luna made this town the oldest in North America. Pensacola actually dates back from a Spanish colony established here in 1698; however, St. Augustine remains the oldest settlement, having been permanently settled in 1565.
France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Confederacy subsequently captured this strategically important deep-water port. They left Pensacola with a charming blend of Old Spanish architecture, colonial French balconies reminiscent of New Orleans, magnificent Victorian mansions built by British and American lumber barons, and its motto, “City of Five Flags.”
West of Pensacola, lies the magnificent National Naval Aviation Museum located at the U.S. Naval Air Station celebrating the storied past of navy and marine-corps pilots who trained at Pensacola. Based here are the Blue Angels demonstrating the high-tech present with thrilling exhibitions of precision flying in the navy’s fastest fighter jets.
Situated on the Naval Air Station is historic Fort Barrancas looking across the bay to Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island, which reach out like narrow pinchers to form the harbor. Sugar- white-sand beaches beckon sun-and-surf lovers to their spectacular gulf shores, which include Pensacola Beach, a small family beach community that includes Gulf Islands National Seashore and historic Fort Pickens.
Stretching eastward for some 50 miles along Florida’s gulf coast is beautiful Santa Rosa Island. The island features a number of resorts, condominiums, cottages, restaurants, and shops located on Pensacola Beach. The island resort began life a century ago as the site of a beach pavilion, or “casino” and up to this day still referred to as Casino Beach.
A number of shops, restaurants, and bars located on the Quietwater Boardwalk are just across the road on the bay side of the island. For those seeking an active beach vacation, it’s all here on Pensacola Beach.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore that is part of Pensacola Beach was established in 1971 and covers Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. This magnificent protected preserve includes mile after mile of undeveloped white-sandy beaches and rolling dunes covered with sea grass and sea oats. More than 280 species of birds occupy the preserve.
Visitors enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, scuba diving, camping, and ranger-guided tours of both Ft. Pickens and Ft. Barrancas as well as nature hikes.
Fort Pickens, built in the 1830s separated by water across from Fort Barrancas was built to guard Pensacola’s harbor entrance. This huge brick structure saw combat during the Civil War, and it’s famous today as the prison home of Apache medicine man Geronimo from 1886 to 1888. A small museum features an exhibit about the Apache, as well as a number of other exhibits outlining military history and the seashore’s environment. The national seashore also maintains historic Fort Barrancas on the U.S. Naval Air Station west of town. Fort Barrancas sits on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Pensacola Bay.
Fort Barrancas is definitely worth a visit while you’re at the naval station. This imposing brick structure overlooks the deep-water pass into Pensacola Bay. The British built the first fort in 1763. The Spanish built the water battery in 1797. Linked to the battery by a tunnel, the incredibly intricate brickwork of the upper section was constructed by American troops between 1839 and 1844. Entry is by a drawbridge across a dry moat, and an interior scarp gallery goes all the way around the inside of the fort. Meticulously restored and operated by the National Park Service as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, the fort is open seven days a week 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Guided tours are available.
The National Naval Aviation Museum features more than 100 aircraft dating from the 1920s to the space age. There’s even a torpedo bomber flown by former Pres. George Bush during World War II. Both children and adults can sit at the controls of a jet trainer. You can almost feel the tug of gravity while watching the Blue Angels and other naval aviators soar above the skies in The Magic of Flight, a stunning IMAX film shown on a screen six times the size of the average cinema.
The Pensacola Lighthouse, opposite the museum entrance has guided ships to the harbor entrance since 1825. The lighthouse is open to the public seven days a week and offers guided tours. Visitors can climb the 177 steps up to the top for a magnificent view of the Pensacola Bay area.
For more information visit: http://www.visitpensacola.com/