A quick setup: even though I'm a native Floridian, I didn't start frequenting the Panhandle until the early 2000s. I was used to hopping on the Southwest direct from Birmingham to Tampa, near the beaches where I grew up. But I came to know the City of Five Flags because my husband's family is right across the bridge in Gulf Breeze.
Much has changed since my first trip there around 2002. Among the area's challenges: the Deepwater Horizon Spill and economic downturn. But so many positive things have happened since then, including a concerted effort to revitalize downtown, the opening of a beautiful minor league stadium for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and a slew of new cultural offerings.
About two years ago, I wrote this story for Southern Living: A Weekend In Pensacola. Some of those places are no longer (Mainline Art House closed and so did Type, though its chef now owns another great restaurant). But overall, I'm happy to report that Pensacola and surrounding towns continue to grow. You should go.
Here are a couple quick highlights -- a mix of beach and downtown -- to help you plan your trip:
Is still the center of downtown activity. Lots has been written about it (see above). My best advice is to grab a coffee from one of the many lovely cafes that line the street and people watch. Below are the macaroons from Adonna's Bakery and Cafe. I also still love Artel Gallery, a not-for-profit entirely run by volunteers. And it's in an old county courthouse. Instagram alert!
Of course no trip to Pensacola would be complete without a meal at Jackson's Steakhouse. Chef Irv Miller was a pioneer at seeing the potential in the city's downtown. I loved how he prepared lionfish (pictured below). Chef Irv has been a leader in educating the public about this invasive fish species, and encouraging other chefs to cook with it. This was my first time trying it, and his version didn't disappoint.
Irv also shared with me that he's working on a new cookbook about oysters. The rest of the world is finally catching on that Gulf Coast oysters -- and no they aren't all one thing -- are delicious. There's even a new oyster farm here in Pensacola, though Irv didn't have any in that day. Drats ... will have to return to try them.)
Opened in 2015, UPH is a "crafty Southern Pub." Co-owned by Chef Blake Rushing and bartender Patrick Bolster, who met back in high school here, it's a Florida take on a gastropub. That includes beautiful locally harvested seafood as well as other ingredients from the region.
Pictured below is my lunch meal: drum sandwich, collard greens, and tots poutine. Perfection. I really can't say enough about the meal and the service. Chatting with Pat, hearing his take on how his hometown is evolving (more young people moving in, more businesses opening up) reminds me of the hospitality of these two. Shines through at their restaurant.
This actually opened in 2014 (oops, I missed it back then). Operated by the University of West Florida Historic Trust and part of Historic Pensacola, It's an oral history center where visitors can listen to recorded stories of Pensacola past -- by its residents. Very Storycore-esque. To listen, one sits in this space-age looking egg, presses "play" on a story, and sits back. I wish we had something like this in Birmingham. Do we? If so please point me in that direction because this is cool.
And now for ... The Beach
It's why you came, right? I was amazed that we were able to get a parking space on the main beach -- Casino -- with no worries. Granted, it was the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but still pretty sweet during the first week of summer.
We rented a catamaran at Key Sailing. For $60/hour, Nate had his first experience sailing -- totally worth it. Right across the street is The Drowsy Poet, which features British-inspired bites and a lovely view of the marina. Sailing and coffee -- what else can you ask for?
This go around we also ventured to Fort Pickens. WAIT WHY HADN'T WE EVER DONE THAT BEFORE? Part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, it is Old Florida personified. Pristine beaches, sea oats, and history. And a perfect place to go with kids and/or history buffs. Tours of the fort are offered throughout the day, or if you're like us, you can wander through with the self-guided tour. There's also a small museum that explain's this area's history and the ecosystem of the barrier island.
Finally, it wouldn't be a trip to Pensacola without a visit to the National Aviation Museum. The impressive collection is always being updated, so you never see the same thing twice. We went with my sister and her family, including five and two-year old Henry and Catherine. They were entranced too, and loved the opportunity to climb inside a real Blue Angels jet. And eat astronaut ice cream, of course! (You can watch the Blue Angels practice on select days -- how fun would that be?)