From toes in the sand to Angels in the sky, there are a variety of free things to do in Pensacola. The Pensacola Bay Area, consisting of Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, offers miles of free beaches along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Pensacola Bay has one of the best natural harbors in the Gulf of Mexico.With the delightful Gulf breezes, you can enjoy outdoor activities year round. Once you shake the white sand from your bathing suit, you can enjoy the area’s free summer concerts. Bring a blanket or folding chairs and a picnic basket and enjoy the live music.
Free Things to Do in Pensacola Year Round
One of the best free things to do in Pensacola is to go to the beach. The sublime white sand beaches are especially good choice for families with lots of kids. Pack or pick up a lunch, grab the sand buckets and an umbrella and chairs and you are good for the day. With some of the best beaches in Florida Pensacola regularly wins titles like “Best Florida Beach.”
Unlike overcrowded, over-commercialized beaches in Florida, Pensacola has one of the best naturally preserved coastlines in the nation, and consistently ranks in Trip Adviser’s Top 10 beaches in the country. To find some of the most pristine beaches, head out along the barrier islands in Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach.
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Step Back in Time
Pensacola’s historic downtown reflects more than 450 years of history. The Pensacola Bay Area was home to the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna in 1559. Over the centuries, the flags of Spain, Britain, France, the Confederacy and the United States all have flown over the “City of Five Flags.” Each new culture influenced everything in the area from the art and food to religion, architecture and the general way of life.
The best way to see all the historic sites is to break out your walking shoes. Start at Plaza de Luna with the waterfront monument and work your way through the heart of downtown Pensacola. Stroll through Ferdinand Plaza where Andrew Jackson took back Florida from the Spanish in 1821. Some of the houses in the area date back to the early 19th Century, and are built in the Victorian, Spanish and Mediterranean Revival architecture styles.
When the kids start to complain about walking, take a break in Bubba’s Sweet Spot. The combo candy store ice cream parlor does wonders for kids’ attitudes! Try the homemade chocolates – they also make adults happy.
Cemeteries, Times Two
Stop by St. Michael’s Cemetery, one of the two oldest cemeteries in the state of Florida, dating back to the mid 1700s. The eight-acre cemetery has approximately 3,200 marked graves, with potentially 4,000-plus unmarked graves. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Barrancas National Cemetery, located at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, traces its history to 19th century forts that once guarded the entry to Pensacola Bay. Today the cemetery is the final resting place for more than 36,000 military veterans, including several Medal of Honor recipients. The cemetery is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Pensacola is also home to the “Wall South,” the only permanent replica of the National Vietnam Memorial. At Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park, there is a half-scale version of the Vietnam Memorial as well as a World War I Memorial, World War II Memorial, a Korean War Memorial, and a series of plaques to honor local warriors who have fallen in the Global War on Terror. There is also a Purple Heart Memorial and a monument to the submarine lifeguards who rescued many Navy pilots in WWII.
Learn about Flying
Pensacola naval air station (NAS Pensacola) is the home base for the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s elite, death-defying flight demonstration squad. One of the most popular free things to do in Pensacola is to catch the Blue Angels practicing their maneuvers. On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings visitors can see the Blue Angels practicing their aerobatic performances. You might even be able to snag a pilot’s autograph afterward. NAS Pensacola is not open to the public.
In addition to the Blue Angels, Pensacola is also home to the world’s largest naval aviation museum, the National Naval Aviation Museum. Visitors can see biplanes from WW I, along with more than 150 fully-restored aircraft. Kids (and adults) can climb into airplane cockpits and check out vintage military planes from earlier decades, along with more than 4,000 artifacts, posters, pictures and military uniforms on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and admission is always free. (For an extra fee, you can test your air-combat skills in a jet simulator or watch the IMAX film, “The Magic of Flight,” on the giant screen theater inside the museum.)
Free Things to Do in Pensacola in Summer
Bands on the Beach: on Tuesdays, May through October, listen to local bands playing at the Gulfside Pavilion. Concerts start at 7pm. Bring a beach, blanket and your dancing shoes.
Fiesta Days Celebration: The annual 10-day celebration, held in June, pays tribute to the founding of Pensacola. Enjoy a boat parade, huge street parade (complete with floats, costumes, and beads), sand-sculpting contest and more.
Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola is closed to cars on Sundays through June. Stroll the historic district and window shop.
Worth the Money
Historic Pensacola Village: The historic district offers self-guided tours, trolley tours and haunted house tours. Explore the 30 historic sites and properties with the weeklong ‘One Ticket, Seven Days to Explore.’
Pensacola Museum of Art: The Spanish Revival building once housed the city jail. The museum, part of the University of West Florida Historic Trust, showcases contemporary art.
The Big Lagoon State Park has kayaking, hiking trails and picnic areas.
Gulf Islands National Seashore charges an entrance fee for cars, pedestrians and cyclists. The area includes Ranger-led tours, a sand beach for swimming, Pensacola Lighthouse and Fort Pickens Discovery Center.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos Minor League Baseball team plays all summer. The Blue Wahoos are an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins (formerly the Cincinnati Reds). Fort Barrancas National Historic Landmark includes a visitors center with historic exhibits.
When to Visit Pensacola
While it is beautiful year round, think about planning a trip in the early spring before the Spring Breakers and summer vacationers take over. Or in late Fall when most kids are back in school. The weather is typically pretty temperate and beachfront accommodations, even big enough to fit a large family, can be affordable.