When I was a kid, my family occasionally went to Mexico on break. My grandpa had a few timeshares, so my cousins and I were lucky enough to be invited – usually for special occasions like a birthday, holiday or anniversary. We’d spend our days splashing in the pool, running along the shoreline, eating everything in sight, exploring vibrant cities, and doing touristy memory-making stuff.
Pensacola Beach is the closest I’ve felt to those days in a long, long time. I used to wonder what my own family vacation “thing” would be, when I had children. What place would we pick as our celebratory escape? Spoiler alert: it’s not Mexico, as much love as I have for the country.
When I think of the ideal area to claim as our own getaway, Pensacola Beach is exactly what I envision!
Nate and I have been longtime fans of Florida vacations. Our first plane trip as a couple was to Florida, to visit his aunt and uncle in Orlando. After the boys were born, I really embraced the ease of the area. Transportation to Florida is straightforward, with frequent flights from all over the country, easy rental car access, and world-class sights and amenities in countless unique regions around the state.
Not to mention the simplicity of packing: sunscreen, bathing suits, and you’re basically good to go.
The powdery sand, warm waters and vibrant colors of Florida’s beaches lie in stark contrast to the waters of the west coast, where I grew up. When I visit Florida and touch my toes in the Atlantic, I feel the difference. I feel away. Away from stress, and away from any care that might distract me.
The Gulf Coast along Pensacola Beach offers some of the very best shores in the entire world – perfect for hanging up a hammock, grabbing a paddle and board, or just floating the day away. Its calm waters and welcoming vibe make it one of the very best places in Florida to take kids. And if you’re wondering what to do in Pensacola Beach beyond the obvious relaxationvacation, brace yourself for an absolute abundance of family-friendly entertainment options.
Where to Stay in Pensacola Beach
Hilton Pensacola Beach is smack dab in the middle of the action, next to the powder-soft sand that the area’s known for. And the views are jaw-dropping, from any angle. From the balcony of our suite, we could see the sound to the north, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and an 8-or-9-mile stretch of paradise all the way down to the aquatic reserve on the west side of the island. Through our room’s front door? Same situation, stretching miles and miles out to the other point.
I never thought it possible to feel SO enveloped in beauty and comfort.
As for nearby attractions, walk across a little wooden foot bridge, and you’re right there in the sand! If pool parties are more your vibe, you’ll feel at home in the hotel’s own pool, complete with cabanas for lounging and a laidback bar with tasty tropical drinks and delicious food. Watch the kids splash in one of two outdoor pools (one of which is a kiddie area with all sorts of splash fun), a hot tub and an indoor pool.
There are also tons of on-site dining options, so you can hang at the resort as long as you want.
Go to the Beach – All Day!
In Florida, they have this awesome tradition of renting out chairs and umbrellas on the beaches so you don’t have to drag your own around! Rates are usually very reasonable, and to me it’s well worth it to know that a spot’s right there waiting. At the Hilton Pensacola Beach, Lazy Days Beach Chairs is the go-to provider, and they have a sign on the beach to help you easily find them.
I personally like to sit in the sand while the kids splash nearby, but you can also rent tons of gear to play around in the water. Don’t forget your sunscreen, and drink plenty of fluids!
Eat Amazing Food in Pensacola Beach
Right across from the Hilton, you’ll find the most incredible beach-side barbecue spot EVER. Aptly-named Water Pig, they specialize in low-and-slow BBQ and homemade sides. Get the pulled pork. And the wings. And the loaded tots. Oh heck, get it all!
One of my tips for saving money when you travel is to order barbecue or pizza early on in the trip. Get one of those giant family meals or a couple of big pies, and stash the leftovers in your room’s refrigerator for later. You’ll have food ready to go anytime, and won’t need to pack up and head to a restaurant if you’re in full-on lounge mode.
There’s also a souvenir shop right next to Water Pig that has anything and anything you may need for your trip: sarongs, sunscreen, you name it.
Other favorite meal picks in the area include Laguna’s Beach Bar and Grill, Papa’s Pizza and Cafe Bistro.
You also have to try Peg Leg Pete’s, which has fun fishing activities to do in the back while you wait for a table. This place is ultra-touristy, but it’s a really fun spot to try oysters for the first time (always a cherished memory). You can also get kids meals in tote buckets that you can use to play with on the shore! Those buckets came with us to the beach multiple times.
Explore Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore
The history of Pensacola Beach goes back more than 450 years, when Spanish explorer Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano arrived in 1559 and established Pensacola Beach as the first European settlement in North America. Since then, five flags have flown over this region, bringing a wildly impressive diversity of food and design to the area.
Fort Pickens, completed in 1834, takes visitors into the heart of the action. Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and forts were necessary to protect the bay and naval yard from further attacks. The fort was used until WWII, and you can still see some of the cannons pointing out to sea. Meander through the officer’s quarters, see where Geronimo was held captive, and discover why they eventually had to build a “fort within a fort.”
This is one of many National Parks that has educational Junior Ranger programs. Track down a ranger (they’re usually at the visitor center or near the entrance of major monuments) and ask for a free handbook for each child. Kids of all ages can earn badges by completing activities that teach them about nature and history!
Play at Laguna’s Adventure Park
Not only does Laguna’s have one of the best beach restaurants with the most amazing drinks and dinner on the island (see above), they also have a ton of adventurous activities to partake in! This is definitely at the top of the list of what to do in Pensacola Beach. Don’t miss it.
All the fun activities can be booked ad-hoc, but I think the best approach is to book a pass such as the All Day Pass, Power Hour Pass, or Night Pass to get unlimited access to every attraction for your selected time period. That’ll make sure you have tons of time with the splash pad, mini golf, go karts, ropes course, zip rail, and climbing structure.
Bum Around on the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk
Shop till ya drop, or people watch your heart out! There is so much family-friendly entertainment here. You can stock up on surf essentials, find the perfect wine and cheese board for a friend, grab a pizza, hop on a cruise, browse art or sip a daiquiri overlooking the water.
There are also bicycles and fun carts for rent around the corner (about a half-mile walk back over by Water Pig), making this an awesome hub for the start of an epic adventure.
Delight in a Pensacola Beach Dolphin Cruise
Finally, no trip to the coast is complete without some ocean life. Hop on board a private boat with H02 Pensacola Beach for a fully-guided tour of where the dolphins like to frolic! They took us out at sunset and treated us to the most epic views, complete with up-close and personal views of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
I personally love being guided by knowledgeable locals, but they also offer pontoon and tritoon boat rentals as well as fishing charters. Their experiences are even pet-friendly, so you can bring Fido along!
Don’t Miss the Pensacola Beach City Sights
On our trip, we barely even touched the multitude of cultural and adventure options over in Pensacola Beach City. We’ll be back to explore downtown Pensacola Beach and the lighthouse, Fort Barrancas, the Pensacola Beach Museum of Art, ghost tours, their epic street market, National Naval Aviation Museum, Naval Air Station and more. I’m told if you time things right, you can even watch the Blue Angels practice overhead.