Pensacola Beach is an independent community from its neighbor, Pensacola. It is unincorporated and administered by Escambia County. The eight and one-quarter square miles of land that comprise Pensacola Beach was originally owned by the United States Department of the Interior, but was deeded to Escambia County in 1947, on the condition that the land would never be sold. As a result, there are no property owners in the community, only long-term leaseholders. There is some antipathy between mainland residents and Pensacola Beach leaseholders over tax issues related to the unique situation.
During the city of Pensacola's early history, Indian attacks forced the fledgling settlement to relocate from the mainland to Pensacola Beach, near modern day Fort Pickens, in 1722. Although this protected the settlers from attack, it left them highly exposed to hurricanes, which eventually forced them back to the mainland in 1752.
Most of Pensacola Beach and Santa Rosa Island's modern history began with Fort Pickens, completed in 1834 and used continually until after World War II. In 1971, the coastal land east and west of the community, still owned by the United States government, was designated part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
From Pensacola, take the Pensacola Bay Bridge to Gulf Breeze, and turn right at the giant Pensacola Beach swordfish sign, seen in the photo above. There's a small toll of $1 to enter the community.
From Navarre Beach and points east, follow Hwy 98 to Gulf Breeze, then take the onramp to Pensacola Beach Rd. There is no longer a toll on this route. This route takes you down the National Seashore which is beautiful but slow speeds (down to 20 mph during the bird nesting season).
ECAT, 1515 W Fairfield Dr, ☎ +1 850 595-3228, . M-Sa 7:55AM-5:15PM, Su closed, exact times depend on route. Based in Pensacola, ECAT sends one bus to Pensacola Beach, twice a day. From Pensacola, you can board the bus either at the main transfer center, on Fairfield Dr, or from the Park -n- Trolley parking lot downtown, underneath the I-110 overpass, across from the Pensacola Civic Center. The bus to Pensacola Beach leaves the transfer center at 7:55 AM, and leaves the Park -n- Trolley at 8AM; it arrives at the Pensacola Beach visitor center at 8:20AM. The bus back to Pensacola leaves the Visitor Center at 4:30PM, and arrives at 5:10PM.$2.35 one-way.. edit
ECAT Route 61, Pensacola Beach*
ECAT Transfer Center
Park -n- Trolley Lot
Palm Beach Club
Avenida 11 & Via de Luna
Gregory & 9th Ave
Park -n- Trolley Lot
ECAT Transfer Center
*Pink stops are City of Pensacola, white stops are Pensacola Beach.
Some hotels on the island offer bicycle rentals for their guests, but if you're not staying on the island, you'll have to bring your own bike. If you're taking the ECAT bus to the island, you can bring your bike on one of their bicycle racks. A bicycle is a great way to get around the island quickly while still taking time to see the sights and enjoy the sun. And if you get tired of cycling around, the free beach trolleys on the island are equipped with bike racks, so you can give your legs a rest. For visitors to Fort Pickens, a bicycle is the next-best option to renting a boat; you can ride most of the seven miles to the fort along the broken road, although there is a half-mile of sand you'll have to walk across.
Pensacola Beach is easy to explore by boat. Boat rentals are available on the island, or from Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, and you have a wide variety of craft to choose from. Kayaks, parasails, motorboats, sailboats, yachts, pontoon boats and waverunners are all available for rent. If you own your own boat, there are plenty of marinas and docks around the island, which offer short-term, overnight, and long-term mooring. Your hotel, if you're staying at the island, might even pick up the tab. From Pensacola Beach, it's just a short boat ride to the cities of Pensacola, Gulf Breeze, or Navarre. Just remember, the Escambia County Sheriff's Office does have police boats patrolling the water, and they won't hesitate to pull you over for unsafe boating. Drinking while boating is a big no-no here, and there is a zero tolerance policy for violators.
If you don't have the skill or the will to captain your own boat, you can charter a boat. This can be expensive, running up to $200 an hour, but it's a great way to deep sea fish or scuba dive. Due to the closing of Fort Pickens Road, many boat captains are offering reduced rates for visitors to Fort Pickens; these usually start around $25 a person. Some of the more expensive resorts on the island offer complimentary boat taxis, which will take you to the popular beaches, the boardwalk, or across Santa Rosa Sound to golf resorts in Gulf Breeze.
Santa Rosa Island is a narrow, elongated island. The two main roads, which run along the island's length, are Fort Pickens Road and Via de Luna Drive.
Parking lots are available all over the island, and parking is free and plentiful. However, on exceptionally busy weekends, the main parking lot for the Portofino Boardwalk and Casino Beach may fill up. There's usually alternate parking available at the hotels or restaurants. Resist the urge to park along the side of the road; the fine sand on the beaches can easily ensnare cars. Currently, there is no vehicle access to Fort Pickens or Opal Beach. There's a parking lot just outside the entrance gates, but if you want to any further, you'll have to hoof it, or find another way.
Most of the attractions of Pensacola Beach can be visited by foot, and Casino Beach is conveniently close to all the major restaurants, shopping, hotels, and the Portofino Boardwalk. Sidewalks are available on most (but because of storm damage, not all) of the island.
Although bus service to and from Pensacola Beach requires a $2.35 ticket, trolley service on Pensacola Beach is free! The service travels from the Portofino Boardwalk to all major hotels and resorts on the island. Just look for the brightly colored trolleys, which run from May 16 to Labor Day. F 5PM-midnight, Sa noon-midnight, Su 5PM-10PM, closed M-Th.
Fort Pickens is located just west of Pensacola Beach on the far western end of the island. This site is maintained by the National Park Service. The park has recently reopened and has full access to vehicles: until 2009, the park was closed to cars due to hurricane damage from 2004. The Fort itself is the most popular destination. It was originally built to defend Pensacola Harbor from invaders, but during the Civil War, it was manned by Union troops, who used it to attack the nearby Confederate-manned Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee. The fort also has some notoriety for being a prison for the captured Native American Geronimo. In addition to the fort, there are relatively uncrowded beaches here, camping, and a few nature trails. However, keep a wary eye out for bird nesting sites, which are illegal to disturb. They are well-signed by the park rangers, and the birds that dive-bomb you when you get too close are also an effective warning signal.
The Island Cross, located on the south side of Fort Pickens Road, is probably the strangest site to see here. Built in 1959 by the Knights of Columbus to honor the quadricentennial of the discovery of Pensacola, the 10-foot concrete cross and the sand dune on which it stands have been batted repeatedly by hurricanes, all without even the slightest scratch! Perhaps it's the will of God?
Casino Beach is busy, especially when the Blue Angels are scheduled for an air show.
For decades, every stretch of sand on the island was simply called Pensacola Beach. Now, there's a colorful variety of names for the beaches, some old, some new, and some really weird.
Opal Beach was created after Hurricane Opal wiped out the sand dunes there in 1995, so it makes sense that the beach was named for the storm.
Casino Beach is named for the Casino Resort, the first tourist destination on the island, which opened on the same day as the first Pensacola Beach Bridge in 1931. With a bar, tennis courts, bath houses, and a restaurant, it was a popular resort until it eventually closed in the 1960s.
Quietwater Beach's name is self-explanatory; the water of Santa Rosa Sound is much less wavy than at the Gulfside beaches.
Langdon Beach is named for Lieutenant Loomis S. Langdon, a soldier stationed at Fort Pickens during the Civil War who eventually became commander of the fort. He was commander of the fort in the 1880s, during Geronimo's famous imprisonment there.
Littering teenagers led to the joking name of Chicken Bone Beach. Late night parties often migrate here after dark, and island residents who disapprove of the resulting noise and litter came up with the name.
In the community of Pensacola Beach, there are quite a few stretches of shoreline to choose from, depending on your tastes. Just a short drive takes you from a rowdy party beach, to a calm kid-friendly one, to sand-dune protected solitude. The most popular beaches are on the south side of the island, facing the Gulf of Mexico, usually called Gulfside; these beaches have powdery white sand, clean water, and moderate waves, but there is a danger of rip tides and marine life. The north side faces Santa Rosa Sound, and is called Soundside; there are few waves here, and no rip current, but the sand isn't as nice, and the water is more polluted due to boats and runoff.
Casino Beach, Via de Luna Dr (south of intersection of Via de Luna and Fort Pickens Rd). Daily 24-hours. This is the most popular beach in all of Pensacola, and has the most amenities. Restrooms and changing rooms are available, there's a large lifeguard presence, police, vendors, umbrellas, a large fishing pier, and surfer-free areas. Portofino Boardwalk, with food and shopping, is within walking distance. During the summer and on weekends, the local radio station is often here, broadcasting music for the beachgoers. Volleyball courts are available here. The further you travel from the pier, the fewer crowds there are. You can even drive down Ft. Pickens Road and use one of the entry points on the left-hand side of the road to find less popular areas, although these areas may not have changing rooms.Free. edit
Fort Pickens Gate Park, Soundside, Fort Pickens Rd (north of Fort Pickens Rd, at Fort Pickens Area gate entrance). Daily 24-hours. isn't terribly popular; with no waves, and no people, it's pretty lonely out here. The funky smell doesn't help its popularity either. It lies on the north side of the island, facing Santa Rosa Sound. It is mostly a parking area for the gulf side public beach. Although there are tons of interesting shells, shell-collecting here is a bad idea, since almost all the best finds are already inhabited by hermit crabs. There are rarely lifeguards at this beach, but you may run into students from Pensacola Christian College, who are only allowed to swim here, away from the temptations of Casino Beach. Free. edit
Fort Pickens Gate Park, Fort Pickens Rd (south of Fort Pickens Rd, at Fort Pickens Area gate entrance). Daily 24-hours. This out of the way beach is located just before the Fort Pickens gate, and is one of the best beaches on the island. It has restrooms, lifeguard protection, ample parking, good waves, lots of white sand and shells, and has far fewer people than the busy Casino Beach. Make sure not to cross into the Fort Pickens park boundary; the shoreline there is off limits due to nesting shorebirds. Walking the shoreline further to the west will lead you into Gulf Islands National Seashore property. Beware of nesting bird areas and stay out of those areas. However, the shoreline is not otherwise closed to visitors.Free. edit
Park East, Via de Luna Dr (follow main road east). Daily 24-hours. Park East is 1.25 miles eastof the Portofino Resort and Spa, this is the last beach on the island before you enter Gulf Islands National Seashore property and reach the Opal Beach area further to the east. There's a restroom and changing room here, as well as picnic pavilions and a lifeguard station. This beach tends to be less crowded than other beaches.Free.. edit
Langdon Beach, Fort Pickens Rd (inside Fort Pickens Area). 8AM-sunset. Langdon Beach is one of the beaches open to the public in the Fort Pickens Area; most other beaches in the park are closed for shorebird nesting. There is a picnic area with bathrooms, as well as a lifeguard tower.Free - (price included in park admission). edit
Opal Beach, Via de Luna Dr (past East Park barricade). 8AM-sunset. Further east than East Park is the hurricane-damaged Opal Beach, part of the National Park Service. The road from Pensacola Beach to Opal Beach and Navarre Beach is now open (April 2009). Opal Beach is currently under construction and some features might be out-of-service, but you can still walk or bicycle down the beach road or enjoy the sun. There are no amenities here, and no lifeguards until summer of 2009. Free (until repairs are complete.). edit
Quietwater Beach, Quietwater Beach Rd (from Portofino Boardwalk to Pensacola Beach bridge toll booth). Daily 24-hours. Located on the sound side of the island, behind the Portofino Boardwalk. The beach here is narrow, and since the island blocks the waves from the Gulf of Mexico here, the water is quiet, with no waves. With no waves, no rip currents, and lifeguard protection, it's a great beach to take kids to.Free. edit
Bushwacker & Music Festival, Quietwater Boardwalk. First weekend in August. Locals like to keep this event a secret, and it's hard to find any information about the festival online, but the festival has been celebrated every year in August for more than twenty years. Sponsored by the bars on the island, it honors the famous Bushwacker cocktail with live bands on two stages, a dance club, and cheap drinks; the fun lingers into the early hours of the morning.Free. edit
Pensacola Beach Air Show. July. Sometime around Independence Day, the famous Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, puts on a free show for spectators at Pensacola Beach. This popular event swamps the small island, so expect hard-to-find parking, incredibly slow traffic, and long waits at the local restaurants. If you don't mind spending a lot of time on the beach instead of fighting traffic, and love air shows, it's a great way to spend a weekend celebrating the United States.Free. edit
If you're a professional swimmer, and plan to be in or near Pensacola Beach for the summer, why not try being a lifeguard? The large numbers of families that visit, and a desire for the beach to have a safe reputation, mean that large numbers of lifeguards are needed to patrol the sand and surf. The lifeguards begin work in April and work through October; they're especially needed from mid-August onwards, when many lifeguards quit to return to school. Contact the Public Safety Department of the Santa Rosa Island Authority for more information, +1 850 554-4296.
Otherwise, there are numerous restaurants, bars, small shops, and hotels that need workers, especially during the busy tourist season. Not many young people live on the island, so they're often looking for help, which usually means college students from the mainland. The best time to find work is at August, when students go back to school.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, run by the National Park Service, is always looking for park volunteers. Volunteers can lead tours, watch birds, paint cannons, and guard sea turtle nests, or can have less glamorous jobs, like litter patrol and answering phones. Because of recent budget cuts from the government, the Park Service is relying more and more on volunteers, so if you have the will to help, try it!
Pensacola Beach has avoided the glut of fast food restaurants that most of northwest Florida is known for. Food on the island is more expensive than on the mainland, and since they cater to tourists, the food generally isn't authentic, but there are still some good eating options.
Bagelheads, 5 Via de Luna Dr, ☎ +1 850 916-3287. M-Sa 8AM-5PM, Closed Su. A small Pensacola-based chain of shops featuring fresh-baked, from scratch bagels, Bagelheads has a popular location on Pensacola Beach. Try their veggie cream cheese, made with freshly cut, crisp vegetables for an awesome (but still not healthy) breakfast. Skip the coffee though, unless you like rubber-tasting Community Cup brews; instead, try their cinnamon-y House Latte, or their excellent cappuccinos.$1-5. edit
Surf Burger, 500 Quietwater Beach Rd, ☎ +1 850 932-1417. Their burgers are often called 'Cheeseburgers in Paradise,' but then, what beachside burger joint isn't compared to that? This joint, built above an innertube shop, serves made-to-order hamburgers and cheeseburgers from fresh ground beef, along with fries and shakes.edit
Tiffany's, 3 Casino Beach Boardwalk, ☎ +1 850 932-3663. Despite numerous attempts by the county to evict it and resell the land, this scrappy hamburger shack on the Casino Beach Boardwalk has managed to stay in business. You can walk up from the beach, order a burger and a milkshake, or a cold beer, and head back to the sand to enjoy. And yes, they have heard the 'Cheeseburger in Paradise' line a million times.edit
DJs Beach Cafe, 63 Via de Luna Dr, ☎ +1 850 916-0716. W-Su 8AM-2PM, Closed M-Tu. This is about the closest you can get to fast food on the beach. Breakfast and Lunch.$1-10. edit
Pegleg Pete's Oyster Bar, 1010 Fort Pickens Rd, ☎ +1 850 932-4139, . email@example.com. This popular little eatery offers live music, boat slips for diners, and a range of food, from burgers to seafood. As the owners of Maria's Seafood in Pensacola, they can offer incredible seafood at good prices; try their local, Gulf-caught shrimp.$12-25. edit
The Grand Marlin and North Drop Bar, 400 Pensacola Beach Blvd. (On Pensacola Beach at the foot of the Bob Sykes Bridge), ☎ 850-677-9153, . 11 a.m.. The beautiful restaurant with a dining room dominated by a 1,200-pound Blue Marlin, offers fresh seafood, much of it locally sourced. With a menu ranging from hamburgers ($10) to ribs to fresh fish dishes beginning with fish filleted in the restaurant's climate controlled fish house, The Grand Marlin offers something for every taste in a comfortable setting with gorgeous views. Outside the open-air North Drop Bar serves a full menu, offers Island Cocktails and serves up live music on the weekends. Daily "at the bar" specials, like fresh shucked oysters on the half shell for $4 a dozen Tuesday afternoons from 3-to-6.$10-$25. edit
Riptides Sports Grill & Riptides Gulf Front Palapa Bar, 14 Via De Luna Drive, Pensacola Beach, FL 32561 . (Gulf front in the Holiday Inn Resort just east of Casino Beach), ☎ 850-932-5331, . 6am-10pm. Beautifully interior designed, family friendly surf-themed sports bar. Walls decorated with custom Waterboyz surf boards. Twenty high definition flat screen TVs and continuous satellite feeds means the game is always on. Local celebrity chef Dan Dunn understands the importance of chowing down while cheering for your team and isn't afraid to pile it on. Quality American comfort food, great sports and good friends - it doesn't get better then this unless you have box seats. Let the games begin.$10-$25. edit
Crabs We Got Em, 6 Casino Beach Blvd, ☎ +1 850 932-0700 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . The Gulf of Mexico isn't home to many crabs, other than the blue crab, and oddly enough, that's one of the few varieties this restaurant doesn't serve. But that hasn't stopped Crabs from becoming a trendy and popular restaurant, serving crabs from all over the country. If you want to try locally fished food, eat somewhere else. If you want a great view from their deck, overlooking the Gulf, with some massive king crab legs, give them a try.$20-30. edit
Hemingway's, 400 Quietwater Beach Rd, ☎ +1 850 934-4747 (fax: +1 850 934-4720), . Hemingway's, a Cuban-themed steakhouse, is the most upscale restaurant on the island, with excellent food and good service. Take a seat on their roof patio, order a slice of their perfect key lime pie and a cup of coffee, and enjoy the best view of the sunset on the entire island.$13-35, $9 for pie and coffee. edit
H20 Cajun Asian Restaurant & Bonsai Sushi Bar, 12 Via de luna Drive, Pensacola Beach, FL 32561 (Hilton Gulf Front Hotel just east of Casino Beach), ☎ 850-916-2999, . 6am-10pm. The chef, Dan Dunn, is a local celebrity and creates unique locally infused menus suited to diverse tastes. The menu ranges from fillet mignon steak with seared shellfish to fresh local seafood, sushi, pasta, salad and gourmet burgers. They also have a nice wine cellar. It's located in the beautiful Gulf Front lobby of the Hilton Hotel. H20 is open daily for breakfast, lunch & dinner. Sunday brunch buffet is served weekly from 11am-2pm. There is usually live jazz on Sunday's. Try H2O's special Seafood Mary!$13-35. edit
The Islander, 43 Via de Luna Dr, ☎ +1 850 932-3741, . M-F noon-until, Sa-Su 11am-until. Opened in 1958, this is the oldest bar on the island still operating. It's not terribly popular with tourists, so island residents flock here to hang out and enjoy live music. Try Rum Night on Sundays from 3PM-7PM, when all rum drinks are just $1.50.edit
Paradise Bar & Grill, 21 Via de Luna, ☎ +1 850 916-5087, . Su-Th 11am-10pm, Fr-Sa 11am-11pm, grill stops one hour before close. The Paradise Bar and Grill has a dock at the back of their restaurant for hungry and thirsty boaters. You can call-ahead with your order, and they'll have it ready when you pull ahead. Needless to say, this makes them popular with boaters, as well as island residents.edit
Sabine Sandbar, ☎ +1 850 934-3141 (email@example.com), . Sabine Sandbar is another bar catering to locals, and generally has an older crowd. It still gets pretty rowdy here though, especially in their party area, Dave's Big Deck. Features Monday Night Football, Karaoke on Tuesday and Thursday, and live music the remaining nights of the week.edit
Sandshaker Lounge, 731 Pensacola Beach Blvd, ☎ +1 850 932-2211 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . Daily 10AM-3AM. For a while, this lounge was actually run by the U.S. Marshals, following the owner's arrest in a high-profile cocaine bust on the island. Now under new ownership, the Sandshaker Lounge remains the number one bar on the island. It tends to have the best parties, the most crowds, and it's biggest claim to fame is their invention of the Pensacola Bushwacker.edit
Vacationing in a condominium is like renting a luxury apartment for a short period of time. The prices can be breathtakingly high, but if you have the money, there's no more luxurious way to visit Pensacola Beach. Condominiums can be rented for stays as short as three days, and with the realty market crashing in the United States, most condominium complexes have available rooms.
Beach Club Resort Residence & Spa, 18 Via De Luna Drive, ☎ +1 888 335-5011 (email@example.com), . Three and four-bedroom condominiums, luxuriously equipped, on-site spa and fitness center, free-form outdoor pool, indoor lap pool, beach umbrella and chairs and concierge service for advice and help on restaurants and activities.$250+. edit
Portofino Island Resort & Spa, 2200 Via DeLuna, ☎ +1 877 484-3405 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . This is the newest condominium complex on the island, and the largest, and far and away the most expensive. It offers extensive amenities, including reserved spots on the beach, complimentary boat taxis, free golf at four local courses, and access to their luxury spa.$300. edit
The beaches at Pensacola are a popular draw for visitors, but tragically, many swimmers get killed in drowning accidents. In the early 2000s, Pensacola Beach was notorious for being incredibly unsafe. Now that dozens more lifeguards have been hired, and new safety measures put in place, it's one of the safest beaches in the state. Still, following a few safety tips can keep you safe in case something goes wrong.
Lifeguards are the best way to stay safe on the island. Four beaches on the island are staffed with lifeguards: Casino Beach, Quietwater Beach, Park East, and Chickenbone Beach. Lifeguards are on duty seven days a week from 9:30AM to 6PM from June through August, and are on part-time duty from mid-April to mid-October. During part-time duty, Park East and Chickenbone Beach may not be guarded. If an emergency happens on the beach where there are no lifeguards, call 911 for help.
Rip tides are powerful currents that occur when water trapped near the shoreline escapes back into the ocean through a break in an underwater sandbar. They can drag even powerful swimmers out to sea for a very long distance. To escape a rip tide, do not panic! If you are near a lifeguard station, you can wave your arms and shout for help. Wait until the rip tide is no longer carrying you out further from land, then swim parallel to the shoreline to escape the current. Then, you can swim back towards shore. To avoid rip tides, don't swim between the shoreline and underwater sand bars, don't swim during low tide, and pay attention to the color-coded flags.
At all lifeguard stations, color coded flags are flown that tell how safe the water is for swimming. If no flags are flying, then there are no lifeguards on that section of the beach.
Low hazard, calm water, swim with caution.
Medium hazard, moderate surf and/or currents. Rip tides may be present. Weak swimmers shouldn't go deeper than waist-height.
High hazard, high surf and/or strong currents. Rip tides are highly likely. No one should be swimming, but occasionally, surfers take advantage of the high waves during red flag conditions. Expect to be warned about dangerous conditions by lifeguards and police.
Water closed to public. Usually flown during hurricanes. You can be arrested for swimming during double red flag conditions.
Dangerous marine life, typically jellyfish, or occasionally red tide. Usually flown along with another color flag.
No flag means there is no lifeguard at this beach, and no surf report is available. Be very careful if you choose to swim at a beach with no lifeguard.
Sunburn and dehydration are the most common ailments at the beach. Although it's tempting to skip the sunscreen, even if you have tanned skin, it's a bad idea in Florida summer. The white sand that draws visitors here also reflects the UV rays from the sun, and unprotected skin will burn quickly. Bring plenty of fresh water or hydrating beverages to the beach (no, Bushwhackers don't count) and wear a high-SPF, waterproof sunscreen. If you really need a tan, try using a low-SPF sunscreen that you reapply regularly; tanning low and slow is better than a quick pan-fry that leaves you looking like a lobster. Sunglasses and hats are a good item to bring along, when the bright sun gets to be too much.
Gulf Breeze is an upscale community located on the Fairpoint Peninsula, north of Pensacola Beach, home to the Naval Live Oaks Reservation. While driving through, beware the speed limit; the police here are notorious for targeting tourists, and will ticket you for driving even a single mile per hour over the speed limit.
Navarre is another beach city east of Pensacola Beach, on Santa Rosa Island.
Pensacola is a historic city, just across the bay from Pensacola Beach, with shopping, museums, restaurants, and traditional Southern hospitality.