History comes alive in the Pensacola Bay Area
Jewel-green waters and powder-soft beaches first attracted me to this gorgeous coast. But it didn’t take me long to discover Pensacola’s authentic history along with its beautiful beaches.
Luckily for us, the people of Pensacola have done a remarkable job preserving their cache of historic sites—and Pensacola’s history spans 450 years. Founded by Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna in 1559, the Pensacola Bay Area was the first European settlement in the New World. Over the centuries, the flags of Spain, Britain, France, the Confederacy and the United States have flown over the “City of Five Flags.”
Historic Accommodations at the Pensacola Victorian
When we arrive at the Pensacola Victorian, it’s love at first sight. The meticulously-restored Queen Anne Victorian bed and breakfast inn is recognized for its easygoing elegance and the warm hospitality of innkeepers Barbee and Chuck Major. We jump-start our history quest each day with a hearty Victorian breakfast, and then follow in the footsteps of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain, who visited Pensacola for the city’s 450th birthday bash in 2009.
Exploring Pensacola’s Historic Downtown
It’s a pleasant walk or drive from the inn to Historic Pensacola Village in downtown Seville Square. The complex consists of 27 properties on the National Historic Register, 11 of which are open to the public. Guides dressed in period costumes go about their lives – candle-dipping, cooking, washing laundry by hand, making medicines and training their military – as if it were still Colonial times. I pause at the 1805 Lavalle House, the 1871 Dorr House, the 1890 Lear-Rocheblave House and the 1805 Julee Cottage (an integral part of the Pensacola Bay Area’s rich African-American heritage). At Old Christ Church, we see where Union soldiers stabled their horses during the Civil War.
Next, we spend a couple of hours among thousands of exhibits at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and Pensacola Historical Museum. Later, we stroll The Pensacola Colonial Archaeological Trail and finish up at Plaza Ferdinand VII, where Gen. Andrew Jackson accepted the territory of West Florida from Spain in 1821.
Feeling “spirited” as night falls, we head to Apple Annie’s Courtyard in Seville Quarter (reputed to be one of Pensacola’s “haunted” restaurants). No paranormal encounters on this trip, but we learn that the best times for “ghost spotting” are during the Pensacola Historical Society’s haunted trolley and walking tours, which take place in October.
Pensacola's Historic Forts
On day two of our getaway, my husband, a naval history buff, looks forward to visiting several of the Pensacola Bay Area’s famous forts: Fort Pickens, Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas, all of which protected the harbor. The Advanced Redoubt was constructed to defend the Pensacola Navy Yard and Fort Barrancas from land attack.
One of the most popular places to visit is Fort Pickens, the largest of four historic forts in the Pensacola Bay Area. Built between 1829 and 1834, it was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War and is one of only four Southern forts that didn’t fall into Confederate hands. The Battle of Santa Rosa Island took place within sight of its walls. And, between 1886 and 1888, Apache chief Geronimo and members of his tribe were imprisoned here.
Though the fort has weathered over time, its masonry walls that were built to support heavy cannon on top and allow for cannon below are still impressive. The counterscarp on the eastern side was designed to protect the fort from land attacks, along with a dry moat, which was later filled in, putting invaders directly in the line of fire with bastions above. Fort Pickens’ famed arches are key to its survival—even below ground. Engineers used reverse arches as its foundation, to spread the weight of the fort and minimize settling into the sand. As you tour Fort Pickens, think about the skilled slaves who were used to build it as well as the soldiers who lived there. Scurvy and heat exhaustion were common ailments at the fort for the soldiers in wool uniforms on duty in the Florida heat. Abandoned as a military post following WWII, Fort Pickens was reopened by the National Park Service in 1976.
Across Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas and the Water Battery perch on a high bluff at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Almost 150 years ago, Confederate troops occupying the fort exchanged fire with Union troops occupying Fort Pickens across the bay. Today, park rangers lead tours that are full of legends and lore, including tales of the spirits of Confederate soldiers who died in battle here.
The Pensacola Lighthouse
Closeby, Pensacola Lighthouse is the fourth tallest brick lighthouse in the country. Standing proudly through Civil War skirmishes and natural disasters, it is still an active lighthouse. Its flashing white beacon shines 27 miles out to sea at 20-second intervals. Saturday tours trace lighthouse history; the view is worth climbing 177 steps to the top. In the last few years, the lighthouse has added specialty tours to enhance visits. Romantics can take the Toast of the Top Sunset Tour, which includes ambient music, sparkling non-alcoholic wine in keepsake champagne flutes and light appetizers. The Light of the Moon Tour includes stories of the lighthouse and its ghosts, topped off with a spectacular view of the moonlit Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay. The lighthouse bolsters its reputation as one of the most-haunted places in America—keep an eye out for the ghost of the first lighthouse keeper, Jeremiah Ingram—with a Ghost Tour in which visitors may bring their own ghost-hunting equipment or share some of the lighthouse’s (some equipment is sold in the gift shop).
Sky to Sea: A Fitting Farewell to Pensacola
On our last day in Pensacola, we spend almost a full day tracing naval aviation through the decades at the National Naval Aviation Museum– one of the world’s leading aviation museums – located at Naval Air Station Pensacola. NAS was the nation’s first permanent naval air station and is currently the world’s largest training facility for Naval, Marine and Coast Guard aviators. More than 150 historic military aircraft are on display at the museum. Exhibits tell fascinating stories of combat actions, along with technological advancements through the decades. My favorite: The story of the USS Enterprise – the “Big E.”
Ever want to know what it’s like to be a Blue Angel? A motion-based simulator ride moves in six directions to simulate horizontal rolls, longitudinal pitches and vertical climbs. Best taken before lunch! In Hangar Bay One, visitors can take the Blue Angel dream even farther, with the X4D® Experience, which uses 3D technologies and interactive seats to make it feel like you are in a Blue Angels show. Pensacola also is home to the real Blue Angels. Visitors are welcome to watch the team practice on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the latter of which are usually followed by question-and-answer and autograph sessions at the museum.
We return on our last night to Plaza Ferdinand in Historic Downtown, where Gen. Jackson raised the American flag in Pensacola for the first time in 1821. Some 40 years later, H. Pfeiffer & Company Mercantile opened for business and today, the building is home to the award-winning Jackson’s Steakhouse, which uses Gen. Jackson’s signature as its logo and theme. Two blocks away is the recently renovated Saenger Theatre, which opened in 1925 for vaudeville shows, Broadway plays and silent movies. There, we enjoyed a performance by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.
The next morning was spent at Gulf Islands National Seashore for a walk on one of the world’s best beaches. These white sands and turquoise waters have lured travelers for centuries, from the Spanish to the French to the English, from the Confederacy to the Union, from African slaves to Native Americans. Pensacola still beckons visitors like us who yearn to follow in history’s footsteps.
Learn more about Pensacola’s rich History and Heritage, and request a visitor guide to plan your next historical getaway.