It has the laid-back chill of Key West with the white-sand beaches of Sarasota as well as the distinctive history that comes from living under five flags since it was settled back in 1559.
And Pensacola is perfectly positioned for road trips. You can easily hop over to Destin or Panama City Beach and back in a day. You’re only three hours from New Orleans, right off I-10 going west. Or you can drive about the same distance east to hit the state capital of Tallahassee.
But there are many more unexpected day-trip destinations close to Pensacola. You don’t need just any beach town (Pensacola has shoreline in spades) — you want something different. Here are four you shouldn’t miss:
- Seaside, an unbelievably Instagrammable waterfront planned community that’s less than a two-hour scenic drive from Pensacola
- Perdido Key, a barrier island filled with pristine nature, only a half hour from downtown
- Mobile, the big city, jam-packed with museums, about an hour west on I-10
- DeFuniak Springs, the classic Florida small town, hiding antiques and downright fabulous food, just over an hour away
Pensacola makes a good home base for all of these day trips. You might even want to overnight in one of them as I did in DeFuniak Springs (with ghosts!) to stretch out your trip.
Ready to get started on your Gulf Coast family road trip? Here’s where to stay, play, and dine in Pensacola and beyond.
Where To Stay in Pensacola
To really enjoy a beach town, you should make the most of it and stay on the beach. Our stay at the Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach was one of the highlights of our trip.
They have loads of family perks, including KidSuites with PlayStation and one heckuva pool deck. This thing had a lazy river, floaties, waterfalls, a tiki bar, beach access, and live entertainment including pirates and mermaids for the summer and music and movies on the weekend.
Start your day with a delicious breakfast and unwind in the cocktail lounge at the end of the night. I recommend getting a balcony room — we saw both sunrise and sunset since we were facing south — and the most comfortable bed you can imagine. Save a day to hang out at the resort and just relax.
Plus, everything on Pensacola Beach is walking distance, which makes it super convenient at the end of a busy day of sightseeing when you want to head to dinner or if you want to spend the day on the water fishing, kayaking, or lounging.
Things for Families To Do in Pensacola
There’s so much that I can’t list everything, but here are the top things you shouldn’t miss in Pensacola.
Visit Fort Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore. If I had to pick a favorite attraction, Fort Pickens would be it. You can climb pre-Civil War fortress walls, see cannons, check out the Discovery Center, photograph panoramic views, take ranger-led tours, or just admire the sea oats waving atop rolling dunes that look like snow. Even the drive to the end of Santa Rosa Island is gorgeous, and your parking pass is good for a week.
Watch the Blue Angels, and tour the aviation museum. Maybe you’re not super into aviation? Me either. But adults and kids alike will have a blast at the National Naval Aviation Museum. It’s incredibly well done with interactive touchscreens and vehicles you can climb inside. If you’re in town when the Blue Angels are performing, don’t miss their show.
Walk the Pensacola Boardwalk and the pier. The boardwalk is Pensacola Beach’s go-to spot for shopping, swimming, snacks, and just strolling around. The 1,471-foot pier, where serious and amateur anglers catch Gulf fish like pompano and mahi-mahi, is right off the boardwalk, making this a good twofer destination when you want some sand, sun, and maybe ice cream too.
Explore downtown and the historic village. Part of the appeal of Pensacola is that it has a proper downtown as well as beaches. I’m talking breweries and bookshops, a food hall and fine dining, and murals galore. Visit the Palafox Pier, history museum, and art museum. The Historic Pensacola Village, featuring several homes and a church from Pensacola’s past, brought to life with the help of living history interpreters, is a must for families.
Relax at the beach. It bears repeating. Even if you’re not staying on Pensacola Beach, you need to save at least a half day to go over and see what all the fuss is about. This is the whitest, softest quartz sand, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains.
There’s also a cool children’s museum, a lighthouse, yet another historic fort, live theater, annual events like November’s Foo Foo Festival and April’s crawfish festival, and nighttime paddling in LED-lit clear kayaks — all worth enjoying if you have the time.
I’d plan around a week to see the sights and do a few day trips.
Where To Eat in Pensacola
When it comes to dining in Pensacola, you’ve got to try the fresh seafood.
We enjoyed the dreamy shrimp tacos and yum bowl at Red Fish Blue Fish, right across from our hotel on Pensacola Beach. Did the waterfront views and the chillax atmosphere with lawn games and super friendly service make the food taste a little bit better? Yeah, probably.
My pick for dining downtown is The Garden on Palafox + Main. There are over 10 places to eat and drink in this open-air yet covered food hall that stays surprisingly cool even when the sun is blazing. With everything from tacos to fried chicken, everyone in the family can get what they want.
I tried some authentic Peruvian food from Jumping Lomo, including the lomo saltado, a zesty dish with marinated beef, and a lucuma smoothie, made from a South American fruit that almost tastes like butterscotch — highly recommended! I can also vouch for the fresh and healthy bowls Bluefin Poké, which has grilled chicken, shrimp, and more if you’re not into raw fish.
Now that you’ve sampled a little of what Pensacola has to offer, it’s time for more Gulf Coast road trip fun.
DeFuniak Springs: Historic Charm, Local Flavor
Take a day away from the waterfront to visit one of Florida’s classic small towns, DeFuniak Springs. Their historic downtown is filled with boutiques, eateries, and antiques next to a 260-acre park with a perfectly round lake, one of only two in the world. They regularly host special events — we happened to be in town for a boisterous Oktoberfest — but the Christmas light show on the lake is the annual favorite.
Elsewhere, the historic district flaunts Victorian homes amid moss-draped oaks, the oldest continuously operated library in the state, a depot converted into a free history museum, and the majestic Hotel Defuniak.
The hotel has been beautifully restored with mosaic floors and a gleaming brass ceiling in the lobby. Old-timey touches abound, like the key rack behind the front desk and vintage furniture, but those aren’t the only throwbacks — a few ghosts who’ve lived and died in this century-old building are hanging around too. Paranormal investigators regularly report preternatural activity, and several strange sounds and sightings have been witnessed by hotel visitors.
If you’re curious, extend your day trip to an overnight and see what it’s all about. Nothing spooky occurred during our stay, but the memory of those moist, sweet better-than-New-Orleans beignets, offered in the morning to hotel guests, still haunts my dreams, so there’s that.
In fact, Café Nola was the highlight of our stay. This Creole restaurant serving up Nawlins classics like shrimp and grits, po-boys, and jambalaya ranks among 10 best places I’ve ever had dinner — and that’s after 15 years of professional food and travel writing, mind you.
It wasn’t just that it was good Creole cuisine. It was the unique spin Chef Ernie put on everything. There was a special “rougarou” pasta that night (named for the legendary bayou creature) made with fresh gnocchi that was so silky, so delicately decadent that it’s hard to describe it as anything besides perfect. We also tried the crawfish étouffée and gumbo with fresh bakery bread on the side. But the star of the meal was at the bottom of the menu, a dish called Redfish NOLA, stuffed with crabmeat and topped with creamy shrimp and lobster sauce. Best fish I’ve ever eaten, hands down.
The portions were generous — we had leftovers — and the ambiance is upscale but still welcoming to families.
If you do stay in DeFuniak Springs a little longer, nearby Morrison Springs, popular with divers, is a good stop for possible manatee and sea turtle sightings. And wine aficionados should stop by Chautauqua Winery for sweet muscadine wines with tropical and floral notes reflecting their surroundings.
Seaside: Florida’s Picture-Perfect Beach Town
There are two ways to get to the oh-so-charming town of Seaside from Pensacola. Take the interstate to get there fast and avoid stoplights or opt for Highway 98 along the gulf. Depending on traffic, they’ll take almost the same amount of time — just under two hours — but the waterfront route is fewer miles and more fun if you’re not in a rush.
However you get there, you need to visit Seaside.
It’s hard to describe the magic of this planned community, but maybe the intentional design explains some of it. Roads end in beachfront pavilions, the town center is right on the water, and there’s a small town America vibe that blends “Norman Rockwell” with “island beach paradise.”
Seaside isn’t an island, but it has that world unto itself kind of feel. The town is walkable and bikeable, people are friendly, and the photo ops are nearly endless. Snap a picture of the massive, purple-hued Vincent Scully mural, the not-too-crowded beach, the seasonally decorated and adorably petite post office, or the quiet park at Ruskin Place where the kids can hunt for the hidden fairy forest on the north side of the plaza.
You can easily while away a few hours just exploring, hopping into art galleries or visiting boutiques to find local souvenirs like jewelry, decor, and summery clothes. Kids will especially like the whimsical toys at Duckies.
When you’re hungry, head to the Great Southern Café for fabulous Southern cuisine infused with global flavors. They do lots of fresh seafood from the gulf — you can’t go wrong with the catch of the day — as well as burgers, raw oysters, and something wonderful called “Grits a Ya Ya.” This is their take on shrimp and grits: blackened shrimp, smoked bacon, portobello mushrooms, and smoked Gouda grits. I’m used to shrimp and grits that are a bit oily, but as you can see from the pic, that’s not the case here.
Enjoy lunch on the porch in paradise as you sip something refreshing (they do mocktails too!) and just soak up the scene.
Perdido Key: Pristine Natural Beauty
Only 30 minutes from downtown Pensacola, Perdido Key isn’t a high-commitment day trip if you only have an afternoon to spare, but you can definitely make a day of it.
It’s quieter than its sister city to the east, but nature lovers will enjoy exploring the many parks, including:
- Big Lagoon State Park, best for water-based fun like boating, paddling, and fishing as well as the three-story observation tower for unparalleled views and birdwatching
- Tarkiln Bayou State Park, 4,000 acres of nature trails and a boardwalk for hiking through rare and endangered plants
- Perdido Key State Park, right across from the visitors center and boasting flawless, crowd-free beaches made for sandcastles, swimming, and sunset photography
We actually visited Perdido Key before Pensacola, and it was a great way to slide into our vacation. Perdido Key is laid-back and scenic, a thoroughly pleasant place to unwind as you kick off your Gulf Coast family road trip.
While you’re on Perdido Key, grab dinner at the popular Flora-Bama Yacht Club, which, contrary to the name, isn’t all polo shirts and who’s-who fanciness. They’re more good food, good drinks, no fuss. There are TVs playing sports, dollar bills papered to the wooden posts, and locals in flip-flops who come here because they know the food is good. I appreciated that they had healthy options, like my seared tuna on a raspberry pecan salad that had just the right balance of sweet, salty, and umami.
We took a chance on the Greek shrimp nachos, a flavorful mound of wonton chips big enough to share, strewn with Gulf shrimp, feta, onions, peppadews, olives, and more. But they have so many great options: lots of NOLA cuisine, crab cakes, raw oysters, pasta, sandwiches, seafood platters, and, if you really want to splurge, their signature dessert, beignet fries served with white chocolate ganache. It’s the perfect ending to an active day spent hiking and swimming.
Pro tip: Afterward, you can walk across the street to croon along to live music at the world-famous Flora-Bama Lounge crossing the Florida and Alabama state line.
Mobile: Party Vibes and Museums Galore
Pensacola is less than an hour from Mobile, famous as the birthplace of Mardi Gras. The port city is filled with attractions. While you can’t actually fit it all into one day, you can certainly try. We did!
I recommend starting at the parks on the western end of the city in the morning when the weather’s cool and the nearby Mobile Museum of Art, which has the coolest children’s exhibit (giant interactive Lite-Brite, anyone?).
Strolling the galleries, botanical garden, and free Japanese garden will help work up your appetite for an early lunch. We ate at Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea Co., a great spot for families. Their food menu is kid-friendly, with all-day breakfast and sandwiches like chicken salad — delicious! — and PB&J.
But the drinks are what they’re famous for. You can get a tea, smoothie, pour over, espresso, or one of their frappés. I loved their velvety cappuccino and the blended frozen drinks, rich with Ghirardelli chocolate. They have creative flavors such as peanut butter, banana, and dreamsicle and can even do custom flavors. Pair it with dessert, like their fresh red velvet cake, tiramisu, or pecan pie, and you’ll have enough energy for the rest of the afternoon.
After lunch, head to the historic city center. Here are a few sights to check off your bucket list. You can’t do them all, so choose your own adventure.
- Mobile Carnival Museum: OK, this one isn’t really optional. We wondered what the fuss was about, but it’s thoroughly fascinating. Go and you’ll understand.
- GulfQuest: This maritime museum was recommended to us while we were at the carnival museum, so we stopped in. It’s interactive and great for kids.
- Condé-Charlotte Museum: One of the first jails in Alabama, this two-story home has period rooms, a walled garden, and docents who are Mobile history experts.
- History Museum of Mobile: This is right next to the visitors center, making it a great first stop on your itinerary.
- Mardi Gras Park: Across from the history museum, this greenspace is filled with colorful statues with plaques explaining who they are and their carnival connection.
- USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park: Climb aboard and explore a World War II battleship and a submarine. There are tanks and airplanes too!
- Exploreum Science Center: This museum has over 150 interactive exhibits plus temporary exhibitions. When we were there, they had one all about the science, legends, and psychology relating to fear.
There are plenty more family-friendly attractions around Mobile. If you’re driving east, hit up Alligator Alley to see gators galore.
But there’s one more place every family should visit.
Bonus: Bellingrath Gardens & Home
Bellingrath is a Mobile area attraction, but it really could be a day trip of its own.
This gorgeous 65-acre garden blooms year-round — daffodils, camellias, tulips, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, and, most spectacularly, azaleas in the spring. I fell in love with the romantic rose garden, and there’s also an Asian-themed garden and a conservatory.
The 10,500-square-foot home is worth touring, so get the combo ticket. Without a guided visit inside, you won’t learn the fascinating history of this riverside estate. Walter and Bessie Bellingrath built the 15-room villa in 1935, designing it to blend gracefully with its surroundings. The handmade brick, ironwork, and flagstone terraces add an old-world aesthetic while the central courtyard and many windows let in the Gulf Coast scenery. Nearby, fountains, statuary, and even a grotto feel almost like an extension of the building.
A wealthy Coca-Cola franchisee, Walter bought the property on the advice of his doctor (as I learned on a tour by that very doctor’s grandson), and the Bellingraths generously opened their garden to the public to enjoy.
And we can enjoy it still today, whether it’s a casual walk through the grounds or one of the many special events like the Easter egg hunt, Kids Gulf Discovery Day, and spectacular Magic Christmas in Lights.
There’s so much to see and explore on your Gulf Coast road trip. Believe it or not, I only skimmed the surface here! These wide-open beaches and culture-rich cities have lots to offer families seeking adventure mixed with a healthy dose of relaxation. Take a Pensacola road trip up through the Florida Panhandle some time, and you’ll understand what makes this place so special.