Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola is often called the cradle of naval aviation, as close to 60,000 students – most of them members of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard – begin their careers in flight training at the Pensacola-area base each year.
Its history dates back to the early 19th Century, when the Pensacola Navy Yard was established. Today NAS Pensacola counts more than 1 million visitors annually, and for good reason – you’ll find several points of interest are located on base, and many of them are free or available to visit at a modest admission charge.
National Naval Aviation Museum
One of the Pensacola Bay Area’s most popular destinations for visitors, the National Naval Aviation Museum, has consistently ranked one of the Top 25 museums in the nation by the travel website TripAdvisor.
When entering the museum, guests step foot onto a replica of aircraft carrier Nimitz. The 8,000-sq.-ft. Nimitz Flight Deck Exhibit opened late last year, and is filled with everything you might see on the real thing, from arresting wires and catapult tracks to deck edge aircraft elevators. This glimpse into modern day naval defense leads you into the heart of the museum, where you can explore over a century of military history. More than 150 restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation are displayed, including many rare and one-of-a-kind flying machines.
After you peruse the many aircraft and artifacts, take to the skies in one of the museum’s 3D flight simulators or watch a film at the Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theater, both of which require a purchased ticket for admission. Weekly Breakfast & A Movie events are scheduled Tuesday mornings in February, offering guests a chance to enjoy a Chick-fil-A biscuit or other items sold at the museum’s refreshment counter, a talk led by museum historians and a movie in the theater.
The museum is open daily and general admission is free. All visitors age 16 and over should be prepared to show photo ID and be subject to a bag search just inside the front doors.
U.S. Navy Blue Angels
If you visit the museum between March and November, you might see the world-famous Blue Angels in action. The annual Homecoming Air Show takes place here every November, but the flight demonstration squadron practices over the museum at NAS Pensacola most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings throughout the season. Practices typically begin at 11:30 a.m., and last about 55 minutes, but it is recommended to arrive early as parking fills up quickly. Admission to practice is free and open to the public.
National Flight Academy
Youngsters who visit the museum or watch a Blue Angels air show may be inspired to try their hand at being a naval aviator. Although not open for tours, the National Flight Academy is located on the naval base next to the Naval Aviation Museum, offering a variety of immersive learning programs for 7th-12th graders. Participants live in a multi-story simulated aircraft carrier for the duration of their camp or session. Flight simulators and virtual reality games add to the high-tech thrills that have made the National Flight Academy nationally renowned in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
The Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum is another stop to make on your tour of NAS Pensacola. If you are so inclined (and wearing closed-toe shoes), climb the 177 steps to the top of the 160-year-old lighthouse for views of Pensacola Pass, where Pensacola Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, as well as three historic forts, Downtown Pensacola and the Navy Yard. Stroll through the Richard C. Callaway Museum, located on the ground floor, to learn about local history, Civil War and U.S. Coast Guard history and more. You may even hear a thing or two about ghosts, which many believe haunt the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse and museum are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $7 for adults or $4 for ages 65+, military and children age 12 and under.
To experience military history first hand, take a walk through the storied arches and stand where cannons were fired at Fort Barrancas. Built in 1844 on a bluff overlooking Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas saw combat action during the Civil War. Confederate troops occupied the fort during a fight against Union forces camped at Fort Pickens in 1861. With brick walls standing 20 feet high and four feet thick, the diamond-shaped fort, which included a water battery and drawbridge, continues to impress visitors today as a monument of early military engineering and national defense. The fort is open Thursday-Monday, 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. A Fort Barrancas self-guided tour map is available to download to any mobile device.
Barrancas Cemetery, open daily sunrise to sunset, covers close to 100 acres. Many Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate, are buried in the cemetery, which became a national cemetery in 1868. Expanded numerous times over the years, the cemetery is still used for military interments today. Flowers are allowed year-round and numerous decoration events occur throughout the year.
Please note, for security purposes, you must present a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration and current proof of car insurance to enter Barrancas Cemetery. Guests should be prepared to complete forms requiring a Social Security Number and other personal information, as well.
Wherever you want to visit aboard NAS Pensacola, it is important to plan ahead and follow procedures for entering the base. Please remember – all visitors must enter NAS at the West Gate civilian entrance on Blue Angel Parkway (unless you are military).