Pensacola Beach is a city on the western side of Santa Rosa Island, a barrier island in the Florida Panhandle. The island lifestyle rules here, but with Gulf Breeze just a short trip over a bridge and Downtown Pensacola another bridge past that, the beach never feels too disconnected from the city. You don’t need to leave the island to have a great time, though. There’s plenty of independent restaurants and entertainment venues right here. But the beaches themselves are the star of this Florida city. Both Tripadvisor and Southern Living rank Pensacola Beach as one of the top beaches in the country. It only takes a few minutes walking along the pristine, clear water of the Gulf of Mexico to understand why.
What this Guide covers
This guide features everything you need to know about this city broken down into easy segments for History, Culture, Food & Drink, Shopping, Entertainment, Arts, Sports & Activities, Nature, Education & Schools, Transportation, Tourism, Health & Medical. It is an overview of the city from experts who have experienced the local culture.
See nearby Pensacola City Guide for more information about the town of Pensacola, our Ultimate Guide to Pensacola Area Beaches for details about the beachfronts, and find businesses in the area in our Pensacola area business directory (coming soon).
The Pensacola Area has a long and rich history as America’s first European settlement led by Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano in 1559. The settlement itself was located in Pensacola, but plenty of events took place on Pensacola Beach. This includes the first ever christian religious service in the US, which is marked by a cross statue that has survived many years of hurricanes and floods. Throughout its history, Pensacola was a part of five different nations: Spain, France, England, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. It is a city with a lot of pride in its history. To learn more about that history, check out our Pensacola city guide.
Pensacola Beach was mostly used as a military location for many years. Fort Pickens was built at the end of Santa Rosa Island in 1834. It was the only fort in the south not to be taken by confederate troops during the civil war, and it is recognized as an underground railroad location.
The modern history of Pensacola Beach began with the building of the bridges that led from Pensacola to Santa Rosa Island in 1931. The Pensacola Beach Casino was built by the Pensacola Bridge Company and opened at the same time. It was not a gambling facility as the name suggests, it was a recreational complex to keep people entertained and fed while they visited the beach. For many years, the Casino and its pier were the only structures on the island. The Casino was destroyed in 1972, but the main beach where it sat is still called Casino Beach.
When Pensacola Beach first became a place for people to explore, the land was technically owned by the US federal government. In the 1940s, the government began leasing the land to homeowners. This has led to an odd quirk that continues today: people who live on the island technically do not own their property. Instead they have 99-year renewable leases with the Santa Rosa Island Authority.
Around this time, hotels began to be built along with houses, and tourism in the area began. In order to attract people to this new tourist destination, the iconic Pensacola Beach sailfish sign was built in 1960.
Pensacola Beach is a coastal town with a friendly vibe and plenty of southern charm. The city is built around tourism, so it’s accustomed to people just passing through. Many of the residents are seasonal, and a huge percentage of the houses are available for short term rental to tourists. The people who remain are used to constantly rotating neighbors and tend to be welcoming to visitors. The culture can change depending on the season. In the summer, it is often crowded with families. In the spring, you will find more college students here on spring break. Fall and winter tend to be much quieter, though some of the activities and amenities may close for the off season. If you’re visiting Pensacola Beach, the time of year you come will impact your experience. If you live here permanently, you will come to understand the different seasons and the changes they bring.
Retiring to Pensacola Beach is fairly common. There are not any specific retirement or 55+ communities on the island, but the culture here is very welcoming to older residents.
Most of the restaurants on Pensacola Beach are individually owned, so it’s easy to experience the local cuisine while you’re here. As you might expect, seafood is king here, with plenty of places serving the freshest catches you can find. There are many places you can enjoy it while relaxing on the water with a drink in hand, not a care in the world. Try Peg Leg Petes Oyster Bar; Red Fish, Blue Fish; or Flounder's Chowder House to try some of the best seafood. If you want something a little bit fancier, The Grand Marlin is often rated as the top restaurant on the island. For a non-seafood specific meal that’s still delicious, check out Cafe NOLA, where they serve authentic New Orleans style cuisine.
There’s also lots of places to get amazing drinks while you enjoy the ocean breeze. There are a couple of drinks you should definitely try, though. At Flounder's Chowder House, The Diesel Fuel is an iconic choice if you’re ready to party but you only want one drink. It has double shots of gin, rum, vodka, and triple sec, so this is not a drink for the faint of heart. But if there’s one drink that represents Pensacola Beach, it’s the Bushwacker. Made with rum, Crème de Cocoa, Cream of Coconut, and vanilla ice cream, this is basically a dessert. The original Bushwacker is from the Sandshaker Lounge, but you can find other versions all over the island.
Most of the shopping in Pensacola beach can be found at the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk. This is where you’ll find the Ron Jon Surf Shop and an Alvin’s Island gift shop. There are also several local boutique shops to help you live the island life stylishly. Elsewhere on the island you will find a few gift shops and surf shops including the Crab's We Got Em' Beach Store. It’s worth noting that there is no grocery store or supermarket on the island, but there are several convenience stores, and several standard grocery stores are easily accessible in Gulf Breeze.
If you’re visiting Pensacola Beach, obviously you already know that the entertainment here revolves around the beach. It’s a beautiful beach with gorgeous white sand and emerald waters. It’s been rated by Travel and Leisure as one of the best beaches in the country for shelling, so make sure you’ve got extra room to take home lots of shells. Check out the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier for one of the best views of the coastline.
If you want more fun in the sun aside from just hanging out on the beach, there are many ways to make the best of the vast waters here. You can rent a boat, jet ski, or kayak in lots of different places. You can also rent a surfboard and take surfing lessons if you’re a newby. If you’re looking to explore the waters even more, there are plenty of places where you can take a dolphin cruise or go out on a fishing exhibition.
For more entertainment, there is a mini golf course on the island that’s perfect fun for the whole family. Laguna's Beach Bar and Grill is an adventure park with activities such as go-karts, a 3 story ropes course, a splash pad, climbing structures, and a zip rail. They also offer rentals and food, so it’s your one stop spot for a fun day.
The Luna Fine Art Gallery is located at the Hilton hotel in Pensacola Beach, giving local artists an opportunity to showcase their work. You can enjoy music on the island on Tuesday nights from April until October with the Bands on the Beach series. During the series, a variety of bands play at the Gulfside Pavilion. Casino Beach Bar & Grille, Bamboo Willie’s, and Peg Leg Pete’s also sometimes feature live music. A great time to visit is during the Pensacola Beach Art and Wine Festival, where you can experience art from lots of local artists. A quick drive into downtown Pensacola gets you lots of additional art.
As to be expected, the most popular sports in Pensacola Beach are water sports. If you’re into fishing, surfing, or boating, there’s lots of opportunities to participate. Rent a surfboard or a boat, take a surfing lesson, or head out on a fishing expedition. There’s also great fishing on the beaches, on the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, and on the Bob Sikes Fishing Pier. For additional sports, there are several public places to play tennis, basketball, or volleyball on the island. If you’re looking for a place to watch your favorite team, check out Sidelines Sports Bar and Restaurant.
For the most natural beaches on the island, you can head either east or west of Pensacola Beach. Both sides of the city are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches from Florida into Mississippi. To the west, you’ll find the Fort Pickens Area and to the east you’ll find a long stretch of untouched Santa Rosa Island to explore. Both are great places for bird watching. There are two dog beaches in Pensacola Beach so you can bring your best friend with you.
If you want to experience nature as you can only find out on the water, there are several great spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. You can easily get to two artificial reefs, one in the gulf at Park East and one bayside at Park West. In the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve you can see the remains of a shipwreck while snorkeling or scuba diving. The USS Massachusetts sank here in 1921 and now serves as the home to another artificial reef. This is also home to more than 280 species of birds, bottlenose dolphins, and countless species of fish.
For something a little different, check out the James P Morgan Memorial Park and Botanical Gardens.
There is one school in Pensacola Beach: The Pensacola Beach Elementary School, which is a private charter school a block from the beach. All students who reside on the island are eligible to attend. If there’s more room in a class, a lottery is open for students who live off the island. For public school, students are technically zoned for schools in Escambia County, but they are given permission to attend schools on Gulf Breeze, which is in Santa Rosa County, since those schools are much closer.
Tourism is the leading industry in Pensacola Beach, so if you’re traveling there, you won’t be alone. There are multiple options for every kind of traveler. There are plenty of hotels for both upscale options and more budget friendly accommodations. If you’re coming with an RV, you can stay at the Pensacola Beach RV Resort or at the Fort Pickens Campground. Fort Pickens also has accommodation for tents. If you’ve got a large group of people, or you just want more space, many of the houses on the island are available for rental through several rental companies as well as AirBnB.
If you’re flying to Pensacola Beach, you will arrive at the Pensacola International Airport. There are airport shuttles available to transport you from there. The main form of transportation on the island is driving, but there are other options. In the busy season, The Santa Rosa Island Authority offers a beach trolly. Pensacola Bay Cruises also offers a ferry between the island and downtown Pensacola.
Most of Pensacola Beach is also accessible by bike, scooter, or even by foot. You can rent golf carts, scooters, or other fun transportation methods from The Scooter Hut on Pensacola Beach. There are also several places where you can rent a bike.
There is no hospital and few medical offices in Pensacola Beach, but there is plenty available close by in Gulf Breeze, including the Gulf Breeze Hospital, which is just over the bridge and very easy to get to in the case of an emergency.
For Local Businesses including Food & Drinks, Services, Health & Medical, Education, Sports & Recreation, Arts & Entertainment and more, see our Pensacola Business Directory (coming soon).
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