What makes a great winter getaway location? Obviously, first and foremost is warm weather. The winter (November–February) thermometer in Pensacola typically reads highs in the mid-60s to low 70s. But with the sun shining most days, it feels warmer. The nighttime lows range in the low to mid-40s. I don’t know about you, but these temps sound way better than “below freezing”!
Pensacola also has something for everyone — whatever your likes and dislikes, activity level, and accommodation preferences. For example, are you a hiker or a cultural enthusiast? Do you like shopping or fishing? Do you like RVing, prefer a rental house, or love to check into a hotel? There’s something for you in Pensacola.
Here is our list of why we think Pensacola, Florida fits anyone’s bill for being the perfect warm winter getaway location.
Note: Thank you to Visit Pensacola for hosting our visit. The opinions offered are my own.
1. Easily Accessible By Plane Or Car
Pensacola, which includes Pensacola Beach and Perdido Keys, is located on the westernmost end of the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf Coast. Getting to Pensacola has never been easier. Most major cities, including Boston and Chicago, offer direct flights to Pensacola International Airport.
For those living in neighboring states, the destination can be reached via road trip in 5 hours or less. From our home in North Carolina, we can drive down in the morning and arrive in time to have dinner on the waterfront and watch the sunset. Perfect!
Pro Tip: There is a plethora of accommodations in the Pensacola area — something for every kind of winter getaway. Everything from campgrounds, vacation rentals, and B&Bs, to major hotels — right on the beach or downtown, giving visitors a true urban vibe.
2. Emerald Coast Beaches
Pensacola is home to some of the world’s whitest beaches on the Emerald Coast. Just over the bridge from downtown lay 18 miles of stunning white quartz sand beaches and clear emerald-green water. We’ve been to a lot of beach locales, and I’ve got to say that without a doubt, Pensacola beaches are some of the best I’ve ever experienced.
Pro Tip: Unlike some beach towns, Pensacola beaches offer tons of free public access points including some in Gulf Islands National Seashore. There are several boardwalks and beach access mats for accessibility.
3. Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
Stretching out 1,471 feet, Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier has something for everyone. The pier is the perfect place to fish, stroll, or just sightsee. Along with some great fishing, the pier is great for bird and marine life watching. On any given day, you might see a variety of seabirds including gulls, great blue herons, and brown pelicans. Or keep your eyes peeled and turned to the water and witness dolphins and sea turtles playing in the surf. It is also the best vantage point for some of the greatest sunsets on Pensacola Beach!
Restaurants On (And Near) Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
The Pensacola Pier area is home to some of the region’s finest restaurants. Boasting fresh coastal cuisine and stunning beach views Drift sits closest to the pier, right on the beach.
If you’re looking for a casual and fun barefoot tiki bar, look no further than Whiskey Joe’s Bar & Grill. Travel less than a mile east from the pier on Via De Luna Drive and discover the best brunch (in my humble opinion) in Pensacola, Native Cafe. It’s where the locals go.
4. Palafox Street
I love downtown Pensacola! And apparently I’m not alone. Palafox Street was named one of America’s Top 10 Streets by the American Planning Association. Downtown, you will find an array of shops including restaurants, bars, boutiques, and galleries.
Palafox (and surrounding streets) has a very French, Old-World feel, reminiscent of New Orleans, with wrought iron balconies, outdoor dining, and music wafting through the air. There is an abundance of restaurants downtown, sure to meet everyone’s delight. It is also very walkable. I’d even suggest that walking is the best way to experience downtown.
5. Historic Downtown Districts
Did you know that Pensacola was the first European settlement in modern-day America? It was first founded in August 1559, preceding St. Augustine by 6 years. While you’re downtown, be sure to take a walk on America’s First Settlement Trail. This historic “trail” is a 3-mile marked path through downtown, the Historic District, and Pensacola Village (more on this in my museum recommendations below). Along the trail there are 20 stops and over 70 points of interest that invite you to discover over 260 years of history, learn about Pensacola’s humble beginnings, and understand how it became the city you see today.
Four blocks south of Palafox Street is the historic neighborhood of Belmont-DeVilliers. A long-standing African American neighborhood, Belmont-DeVilliers has undergone revitalization measures to once again become a melting pot, especially when it comes to music and food. “The Blocks” as the area is known, was an important center for blues, jazz, and ragtime. Early music legends such as Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Fats Domino, and many more toured here. Today, in the heart of “The Blocks” on the site of the old Gussie’s Record Shop and WBOP Radio Station is Five Sisters Blues Café, offering what some critics call the best soul food in the South.
6. National Naval Aviation Museum
The National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) is located on Naval Air Station Pensacola and is free to the public. My family has its own Naval history, so this museum was at the top of my “must-do” list. The museum exhibits hundreds of vintage Naval Aviation aircraft and preserves the history of Naval Aviation through displays, symposiums, IMAX movies, and tours. I was astounded by the displays and information here. I even talked my husband into “flying” with the Blue Angels in the Blue Angels 4D Experience
Pro Tip: Just down the road from the Naval Aviation Museum is the Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. Climb the 277 steps to the top for amazing views and peruse the old lightkeeper’s cottage, now the Maritime Museum.
7. Pensacola’s Museums
During the summer it’s hard to pull yourself away from the crystal-clear water and sandy-white beaches. Winter, on the other hand, gives snowbirds added adventure by perusing the many, and oft uncrowded, museums.
This is the best place to learn more about The City of Five Flags. Pensacola’s colorful history is on display at the Museum of History, which is housed in the three-story Mediterranean Revival architecture of the former Pensacola City Hall (circa 1907).
Historic Pensacola Village
Just behind the Museum of History on 8.5 acres sits Historic Pensacola Village, dating back to the early 1800s. Visitors can take a guided Historic House Tour, which goes through the Lavalle House (1805), Old Christ Church (1832), the Dorr House (1871), and the Lear/Rocheblave House (1890).
Museum Of Art
The Pensacola Museum of Art is more than just an art museum. Centrally located in Pensacola’s historic downtown district, the Museum of Art is housed in the old 1906 City Jail. Visitors can immerse themselves in all forms of art through two stories of exhibitions.
Pro Tip: Take advantage of the seven-day ticket, which gains you entrance to all the Pensacola Museums (except NNAM). Keep in mind that the museums are all closed on Mondays and only the Museum of History, the Children’s Museum, and the Museum of Art are open on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
8. Gulf Islands National Seashore
On the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, stands Fort Pickens. This national park offers beautiful beaches, scenic trails, overnight camping, and a massive pre-Civil War fortress, including cannons, that once housed Union troops and the Apache leader Geronimo.
Pro Tip: You could easily lose yourself exploring Fort Pickens — expect to spend several hours here at least. Park rangers offer free tours daily. Also, be sure to stop in at the gift shop for one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs.
9. Mardi Gras
The iconic Mardi Gras celebration returns to Downtown Pensacola as its largest street party. It features live music, food and drinks, and free public access to the vibrantly decorated Mardi Gras floats. Mardi Gras is Pensacola’s must-attend event of the season. It runs from the first Friday in January until Fat Tuesday.
In February, visitors can experience the most extravagant parade of the season with the downtown Pensacola Grand Mardi Gras Parade, then the Parade on Pensacola Beach, followed by an Illuminated Parade featuring hand-built pirate-themed floats. Finally, there’s the unique Mardi Gras Pirate Flotilla — an annual floating boat parade that travels down the Intracoastal Waterway in Perdido Key.
Pro Tip: Arrive early and expect traffic delays for all parade events. Allow extra time if you have to cross any of the bridges to get to an event. If you’re staying in or near downtown, we suggest leaving your vehicle parked and walking to the downtown events.