The Travel Dispatch

Downtown Pensacola: The New ‘It’ Destination Of The South

This post was born 06 Jan, 2015 68 Comments
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Move over downtowns of Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans, there’s a new southern rival in town and its name is Pensacola, Florida. I can already envision the open mouth, slack-jawed look on my friends’ faces as they read this with the thought, did Kristen really just say that? flashing through their shocked brains. I can’t say I blame them since I’m a little stunned myself. Afterall, I was the one who hightailed it out of dodge faster than the Road Runner evades Coyote.

But after a 4 year absence, I recently returned to my little ole boring hometown of Pensacola, only to find that it had turned into something unexpectedly amazing. I never thought I’d become a cliched victim of falling in love with something that had been there all along, but this little gem in the Northern Panhandle captured my heart with its sweet southern hospitality, long and rich history, old cannon-lined town squares, local breweries, museums and galleries, and its plethora of new restaurants and bars that could give the French Quarter a run for its money. The best part? It still remains a secret. As the rest of the tourists flock straight to the nearby blinding white sandy beaches, you should carve your own path towards Downtown Pensacola and checkout everything it has to offer before the rest of the world finds out…

Its Historic Heritage

Pensacola Historic Village

Pensacola is old. I’m talking oldest settlement in the entire United States old. Sure St. Augustine, FL gets all the credit, but read the fine print – it’s the oldest continuously occupied settlement. Pensacola was actually founded first in 1559 by the Spanish (more specifically my direct descendents – clearly my family has separation anxiety since they haven’t moved away since) but due to several factors such as its proximity to a hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico and a hostile Indian tribe known as the Pensacola, the first settlers were forced to leave the area and it wouldn’t be resettled until the mid 1600’s.

Pensacola has done an impeccable job embracing and preserving its cultural and historic heritage while keeping up with modern times, as evidenced by its well kept Historic Village located downtown on Zaragoza St. Old 19th century cottages stripe both sides of the street and proudly display their badges of honor inscribed with their name and year they were built. Many are still in use to this day and house everything from music schools to quaint shops and art galleries. Several of the historic homes are open for tours and celebrate an array of cultural diversity such as Pensacola’s Black heritage (Julee Cottage), its French Creole history (Charles Lavalle House), and middle-class life during the Victorian Period (Lear-Rocheblave House).

Other notes of interest in the area worth visiting include the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Museum, the Museum of Commerce, Old Christ Church, Pensacola Children’s Museum and the Museum of Industry. 

Its Up and Coming Palafox Street

Jackson's Steakhouse in Downtown Pensacola

If its richly detailed past forms the backbone of this charming city, then the heart and soul of Pensacola’s downtown area clearly lies on the walkable sleeves of Palafox Street, where 450 years of history combine to create a captivatingly picturesque epicenter that houses the trendiest boutiques, cafes, lounges, restaurants, and late night spots south of the Mason Dixon line.

Palafox Street Dining

The most notable and perhaps the biggest boom to hit downtown while I was away happened within the bustling restaurant scene. While still residing here, there were limited dining options with most places serving up typical American pub fare, sandwiches, pizzas, steaks, and massive amounts of seafood. While each place was delicious in its own right, the days of Pensacola Old drew up short with its lack of ethnically diverse dishes. However, the past few years have seen them bouncing back with the intermingling of an abundant crop of new and culturally varied restaurants amongst the classics already dotting the lively sidewalks of scenic Palafox Street.

In tandem with its impressive selection of sake, the new and trendy Nom serves up carefully crafted house-made ramen noodles and to-die-for octopus fritters, while just next door you can find flawlessly prepared filet mignon at Jackson’s Steakhouse, a Pensacola classic and one of the premier fine dining establishments in the entire state of Florida. Head further on up the street and you’ll hit The Tin Cow which serves up traditional mouthwatering burgers and milkshakes – with a twist. Before trying one of their meaty signature burgers or going nuts and building your own, start off with some scrumptious Blue Balls or Bacon-infused potato chips washed down with one of their 18 varieties of spiked milkshakes.

The Tin Cow in Downtown Pensacola

Continuing on up and across the street, one can munch on Mediterranean-style tapas at Global Grill which is known for an energetic atmosphere that caters to all groups big or small whether it be in the main dining room or in the cozy martini bar. In the mood for some Italian? Try the new and contemporary V. Paul’s that not only cooks up delectable plates, but also hosts a monthly wine club for a whopping yearly membership fee of $12!

What’s a downtown area without a hip sushi spot? Pensacola now boasts that as well with the recent opening of Khon’s Asian Bistro. Go say hello to Dot, the owner and chef who has been rolling me and my family the freshest sushi creations since his days over at the Hilton Hotel on nearby Pensacola Beach.

In a hurry or on a budget? No problem. Just hit up Dog House Deli which has been serving up the finest selection of ‘any way you want them’ hot dogs in Pensacola since the 1970’s. They’ve recently expanded into the breakfast market which I unfortunately wasn’t able to try while visiting but my dad swears upon his life that they have the macdady of all breakfast burritos. Pensacola has even gone so far as to redefine the food truck scene with Al Fresco, an outdoor promenade attached to their home base, Shux Oyster House. Here lies 4 outstandingly yummy food trucks including Z Taco, Gouda Stuff, Gunshot BBQ, and Fusion World.

Al Fresco in Downtown Pensacola

Palafox Street Nightlife

The Palafox strip has also given way to a growing surplus of lounges and bars with numerous alternatives to choose from, making it easy to spend an evening crawling from one place to the next until the wee hours of dawn.

Start the night off with a glass of vino at The Wine Bar, elegantly situated along the rustic brick-lined alleyway just off of Palafox. Or catch a game on one of the many flatscreens decorating everyone’s favorite sports bar, New York Nicks. Picky about your IPA? Head on over to World Of Beer and choose from over 500 specialty craft brews.

Still a kid at heart? Why not skip over to Play and well…play! With plenty of liquor choices accompanied by a side of skeeball, air hockey, pool, pinball, and more – it’ll provide entertainment that lasts for hours. After spending all that pocket change, it’s time for an intermission. Err wait, I mean it’s time to go to Intermission which is the epitome of a true down and out local neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name. I have fond (well, maybe not so fond at the time) memories of rather unsuccessfully trying to use my first fake ID here. To discover the true local color of Pensacolians, stop in and have a chat with the resident patrons. We don’t bite, I promise.

Subsequently following one or two shots of Rumple (the unofficial liqueur of Pensacola), one may wish to boldly try the mechanical bull at Wild Greg’s Saloon. Or for the less brave, try something tamer like a game of darts or jenga at the spacious O’Rileys Irish Pub (where the bartenders provide for amazing eye candy).

Pensacola Bars

More into the music scene? Palafox Street has that covered too with Vinyl Music Hall. Check out frequent performer (and my sister’s boyfriend’s band) Post Pluto or take a look at Vinyl’s full upcoming schedule. Tickets can be bought at the door and the bands are always great value whether they’re from around the panhandle or further afield. Tired from jamming at the front of the stage? Head to the adjoining bar 5 1/2 and listen to the music while seated on a barstool sipping one of Bartender Cambell’s splendid designer cocktails. I can personally attest that they surpass some of New York City’s best concoctions (and yes – I have had every drink on 5 1/2’s menu!).

Of course any nighttime bar-hopping is not complete without the 2am pizza, making Hopjack’s the perfect place for a nightcap. It’s hard to settle on just one kind of specialty pie when they offer up choices such as jerk chicken, cajun crawfish, and butcher block. Don’t forget to throw in an order of duck fries.

Its Thriving Theater and Arts District

Saenger Theater in Downtown Pensacola

Performance Theater

When anyone thinks of ‘performance arts’ destinations, Pensacola isn’t the first, second, or even third place that comes to mind. Well, it should be because downtown is bursting at the seams with theatrical opportunities with the Saenger Theatre at its central hub. Leading the way since 1925, it hosts every type of artistic melee imaginable including an impressive 2015 broadway line-up showcasing Guys and Dolls, Sister Act, and Memphis.

Audiences have laughed at stand-up routines from first class comedian Jerry Seinfeld, jammed to Music Hall of Famer Neil Young, crooned along with Harry Connick Jr, and danced to the Irish rhythms of Celtic Woman. Adding to its remarkable repartee of shows, the Saenger also supports the local artistic community with performances held on their stage by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Opera, Pensacola Children’s Chorus, and Ballet Pensacola who are well-known for their not-to-be-missed annual recital of The Nutcracker. Even I once graced the stage in my distant, drama-filled past acting in Gulf Breeze High School’s production of Anything Goes. Other notable performance venues in the area include the Pensacola Cultural Center and Pensacola Bay Center.

Galleries of Downtown Pensacola

The Arts

With countless museums and independent galleries lining the square blocks that make up downtown, it was only a matter of time before the area rose together to celebrate the arts. Hence, Gallery Night was born. One Friday night a month, the downtown streets close off and transform into large pedestrian walkways where locals and tourists of all ages can enjoy showcased art, music, and food as several establishments keep their doors open late. Be sure to stop by Seville Quarter as well as some of my favorite places: Blue Morning Gallery, Quayside Art Gallery, Belle Ame’, Jewelers Trade Shop, and The Bodacious Olive. Click here for 2015 dates and the full participant list.

Its Quirky Pelicans, Wahoos, and More

Pelicans of Pensacola

What’s a small town without its idiosyncratic charms? Or rather its public idiosyncratic charms? Well, Pensacola is chock full of them as confirmed by the copious pelican figures peppered throughout downtown. Originally numbering 41 and commissioned for an art project by the town’s local newspaper in the early 2000’s, each Pelican was sponsored by various local companies who selected artists to create designs capturing the character of the area.

What makes this wonderfully vibrant town truly special is its ability to continue forging ahead into the future while still maintaining its easygoing, natural charm. Whether it’s building a scenic waterfront baseball stadium near its deep-rooted port for their new Minor League team (weirdly named the ‘Blue Wahoos’) or expanding into the foodie scene near the plaza where Andrew Jackson raised the American flag after Spain ceded Florida to the US or hosting new festivals in the cannon-lined town squares, Downtown Pensacola is quickly emerging as one of the ‘must’ see destinations of the future while still respecting and preserving its historic past.

Where are you originally from? Have you ever rediscovered your hometown? Let me know in the comments below! 

Why Suffer From FOMO When You Don’t Have To?

Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!

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68 Comments on "Downtown Pensacola: The New ‘It’ Destination Of The South"

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Toni Nelson

What a quaint town! Love the photos:) That Pelican belongs here in SouthWest Florida.

Blake Rutherford

Your dad is right about Dog House. Pro tip: Mac and cheese dog, add chili and bacon. Healthy? No. But you’ll die of the foodgasm before your arteries can harden.

I am originally from New York City and still have family in the City. What I would share with any tourist to NYC is not to restrict themselves to Manhattan – they should venture out into other boroughs, especially Brooklyn. And, visit Governors Island for the day. A rustic island so close to the skyscrapers you can almost reach out and touch them! The ferry ride is fun, too. I was excited by your post, by the way. I lived in Florida 40 years ago, and was thinking of a vacation there in March. I’ve never been to the panhandle… Read more »
Alison from Perdido Key

Come see us! You will love Pensacola. It is authentic; not the canned and contrived version that feels more like a movie set than real life.

Joe Patti Seafood will blow your mind! Like a mall for seafood! The Museum of Naval Aviation and the associated Academy of Naval Aviation are world class.

Proud to call this amazing place home.

susan 30A Eats
Come visit the Panhandle of Florida. I have visited all my life, have resided in South Walton (where I raised my now college age children), Pensacola (where my husband has a medical practice) for the last 20+ years , and write about food & travel. You can reach me directly on my facebook page 30A Eats, and I’d be more than happy to point you to places to eat, see and things to do! This was great coverage of Downtown Pensacola, thriving now thanks to the Studer’s (my neighbors), and the city of Pensacola, but outside of the Downtown area… Read more »
Kevin Fox

Alana check out this hotel Great place!

Jessica (Barcelona Blonde)

I recently had a similar experience with my hometown! It’s funny how going away can make you appreciate it so much more. I love all the pelicans, those are really fun.

Geeky Explorer

Great shots!
And I love the idea of the street food promenade!

Anne Klien ( Meanne)

I originally from the Phillipines my hometown in Vigan City ( a UNESCO site) and im very proud its included recently one of the Wonder Cities of the World 🙂

Pensacola Native

I love this article! As a Pensacola native, born and raised, I’ve seen the different stages Pensacola has gone through. This article reflects the “New Age” of Downtown Pensacola that has something to offer for everyone, and shys away from the “Redneck Riviera” stereotype. I have a best friend who moved to Chicago, she just HAD to get out of Pensacola, and she also appreciates it more when she comes back now because she sees how much it has to offer. I love my little city. Thank you for a great article!

Larry Kuhn

Kristen, Well written. I agree with everything you wrote. Pensacola continues to grow and it is very exciting for us locals…hope your enjoying NYC!


great articke! We moved away from Pensacola 2 years ago and I loved downtown then.
We are moving back in May and Im so excited to see how its progressed!

Lindsay Wolff

I was born and raised in Pcola but have been in LA the past 8 years. My husband and I tied the not last summer downtown at 5eleven. Because buying a house is so expensive here we have decided to relocate back to Pensacola. I am a little scared about the job situation and stuff like that but I am sure things will fall into place in the coming months before we make the big move. Do you have any advice?

John Hogfoss

If you’re moving back to Pensacola, you should look into working for navy federal. Great pay and benefits, and everybody is actually happy to be there. Plus everybody is treated great. Right now they have between 3,500 and 4,000 employees and are continuing to grow. They will be the biggest employer here in the next 5 years. Getting a job here is one of the best things to happen to me.

Britian Eliana

WAHOOOOOOO! I’m a Pensacolian, and I proudly support this article! I love my hometown and the abundance of history that made it what it is today! City of Five Flags! And our baseball team is amazing! I miss home but I am marrying a Sailor so I had to move to where he is stationed. I hope to see it again someday! Great article Kristen, you did an amazing job catching our hometowns beauty! Thank you!

Bianca @itsallbee

Cute little place. I have never been to Florida but would love to visit some day.

Tania Grow

I have to say being a manager at Beef O Bradys this place is pretty great. We are downstairs from Wild Greg Saloon. We offer a variety of foods and have over 40 beers on tap. We also offer weekly lunch specials, show all your favorite games on our big screen tvs, we are the home place of the Pensacola Ice Flyers and and several football fan clubs. I love your review of downtown Pensacola. We have really grown and let’s not forget all the other wonderful businesses on Palafox and surrounding area. Pensacola is growing in many ways.

Bo English

I saw this article on Facebook and had to reshare. I can’t wait to see all the new developments with the Studer group acquiring the old PNJ building and the field across the street from the Blue Wahoo’s stadium.

Kim "Kimikal Imbalance" Medina
Kim "Kimikal Imbalance" Medina
I was very happy to read this. I’ve lived here all my life and seen this city grow, and when I say city that means from the outskirts of Pensacola near the Alabama state line, all the way through Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach (a true native Pensacolian would completely agree with my geographical explanation of this city). Plus, we have a new college football team coming out of our own University of West Florida who will be playing down at the Blue Wahoos stadium. Moreover, we have a certified WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) roller derby team, the… Read more »

I moved here 30 years ago and hated it. But I’ve watched the downtown area revitalize over the last decade and it’s amazing to see how the changes have brought out more of the locals to support the community.

You may also want to add a tidbit about “missions” involving the Pelicans and Palafox street on the game Ingress which uses your phone and gps to “capture portals.” It’s fun to do when you’re out walking the area and downtown Pensacola has a plethora of portals. Game on!


As a Pensacola Native I love and appreciate this article!! I’m sharing with all of my friend!! 🙂

Whitney Sande

*With Edits to prior post*
Wow! Thank You! That was such a well written and informative article. I am so impressed. Most ‘blog’ writers have bad grammar or perhaps they just don’t have an editor (as most blog articles are rife with errors), refreshingly, your article was both entertaining and grammatically flawless.

Aside from all of that good grammar etc… you make me want to move back to Pensacola, which is also my hometown, I now live in Newport, RI. Well done and Bravo! I hope to see more of your work.


This post completely changes the idea of Pensacola I had in my head, Kristen. Love the arts district, that was quite a surprise!

Kristal Cobb Walsh

Great article and beautiful photos showcasing my beloved Pensacola! I am a native born Pensacolian of 50 years and never got farther than Santa Rosa County. LOL! I am glad to see downtown come to life in the past few years. Just gets better and better!

Jason Roberts

I’m a Pensacola native, born and raised, I last lived there 2005-2006. It’s a beautiful place to live and have a lot of fun. I helped Chef Irv Miller, open Jackson’s back in March of 1999, so of course it comes highly recommended in my book. I recently visited The Bodacious Olive and The Bodacious Brew and they were excellent. Mardi Gras celebrations just kicked off this weekend, so things are going to be quite lively around Pensacola. Book your trip to discover Pensacola and the Florida panhandle today!

Leslie Karbassi

I have always thought that Pensacola is a gem. I loved visiting downtown and exploring the period historic houses and museums, love that you gave a shout out to my friend Sharon’s Dog House Deli, miss all the wonderful people and friends I have at Pensacola having lived there for 5 years. I should like you come back for a visit again soon!

Carl Nesbitt

You might want to mention the different Festivals that are held in downtown Pensacola, seasonal festivities like Mardi Gras with its parties and parades, summertime minor league AA baseball and a few off the beaten path places like McGuire’s Pub and Restaurant and top named entertainers that appear at the Pensacola Civic Center during the year. Anyway, your article is spot on and I think once people (Not Locals) pay us a visit they will be hooked. Tnx again……….

Jules @Don't Forget To Move

What an awesome town, can’t believe the history that is in places like this that I’ve never even heard of. Nice title claim as the oldest town. It really can be fun dissecting your own hometown, writing about it and exploring all the things that make it unique. Thanks for sharing 🙂

Keith Haynes

Great piece Kristen. I used to coach your bro at Catholic. I enjoyed your article so much that I shared it on my company’s (Haynes Van and Storage) Facebook page. Keep up the good work!


You shouldn’t stay away so long. Wonderful things are happening here!

Ryan Biddulph

Kristen how cool is that? The oldest settlement in the USA? I’d never have known it.

One note; you may wish to change the name of the fave sports bar; the New York Knicks are horrible this year. Like worst team in the league horrible lol. Take it from a NJ resident and Knicks fan for 30 years 😉

I loved Charleston and Savannah so Pensacola must be something.

Thanks for sharing the story and the wonderful images!


Kimberly Gettle

As a Realtor®, I get to travel this city from top to bottom on the days that I have buyers. I still can never get enough of it and I thank you for posting this article! I still think Pensacola and Pensacola Beach is one of America’s best kept secret! I am posting this article on my business page if you don’t mind. Thanks!!


Nicely done.

Alan Williams

Great article! Love me some Pensacola! Check out my hotel downtown right on Palafox Street. Sole’ Inn and Suites

Carol Abrams
Thank you for this article and insight on Pensacola. I too and from a hometown, Greenville, SC, that has seen a huge transformation in our downtown. We are now on so many top 10 lists and it makes us very proud. However, my family and I have decided it needs a new adventure so we have been looking at coastal cities to move to that can offer a lot of what we do here. Seems, based on this article and other research, Pensacola may be the place. We are taking a trip tomorrow to check a few houses! Wish us… Read more »
Mark Robertson

Hey everyone, While you visit the Old historic village stop by our local brewery for a fine hand crafted beer. Pensacola Bay Brewery has outdoor seating so you can enjoy the beautiful scenery we have to offer here in Pensacola. Cheers!

Great outline on the growth of Palafox Street! A large portion of your article was spent on restaurants or bars with the worst service, staff, and owners. As a long time local who has dealt directly with 95% of places mentioned I would NEVER send someone looking to enjoy themselves to Oriley’s or New York Nicks. With arrogant owners and food that has left multiple people sick please stear clear. Treat yourself to a dinner at Iron, which is upscale, quaint, and extremely delicious…also where you can find Campbell from 5 1/2. Last point is Rumple is no where near… Read more »
Kevin Fox

Great article! You painted a great picture with your words.

Michael Bliesener

I think Pensacola has finally reached the point where growth is now sustained. Great to see.