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 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).
Its Up and Coming Palafox Street
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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!
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