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Step Into the Past

Pensacola is more than a pretty face. She’s a city with a past, one that stretches back more than 450 years. Visitors are often lured by her gorgeous beaches, yet find themselves captivated even more so by her rich and incredibly diverse history and heritage.

Whether you’re a history buff who likes to delve into every battle or you simply enjoy taking in local architecture, museums and cultural influences, Pensacola has centuries of stories and sites to explore.  

One of America’s First Settlements

Pensacola is the site of one of the first European settlements in the New World. Led by Conquistador Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, the expedition landed on our pristine shores in 1559. After a brief few weeks, the fledgling settlement was devastated by a hurricane which killed hundreds, sank half the fleet and destroyed most of their supplies. By 1561, the colony was abandoned and would stay that way for more than 100 years.

In 1698, Spain returned to try again. Recognizing the area’s strategic importance, they built three military settlements. Even in its earliest days, Pensacola was a melting pot of races and cultures, as European settlers, African slaves and Native Americans mingled and intermarried. Visitors relish exploring all the sights, sounds and flavors our diverse heritage has to offer.

Historic Forts

The Pensacola Bay Area is home to numerous historic forts, many of which are still standing. From 1829-1844, U.S. Army Major William H. Chase oversaw construction, done largely by slave labor, of three forts in Pensacola: Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Barrancas on what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station, and Fort McRee on Perdido Key. All three forts remained in use through World War II and are open to the public today. The largest of the three, Fort Pickens is currently part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Named for Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens, the fort took five years and 21.5 million bricks to build. Fort Barrancas was built on the same hilltop as many previous forts and still retains wooden remnants from the original 18th century Spanish fortification. During the War of 1812, it was the site of the Battle of Pensacola. In 1839, Fort Barrancas underwent extensive reconstruction and brick expansion. Constructed in 1834, Fort McRee was a three-tiered fortification designed to protect Pensacola’s harbor. Burned by Confederate forces in 1862, the fort was abandoned and reduced to its foundations by storms and the sea. Accessible only on foot or by boat, its ruins still offer visitors a view unlike any other in the Pensacola Bay Area.  

City of Five Flags

For many, Pensacola is known as the “City of Five Flags” for the five governments that have ruled the city: Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American. Through centuries of war, Pensacola was ravaged, rebuilt and retaken as Spain, France and Britain battled each other for supremacy in the region. The Union Jack flew over Pensacola from the end of the French and Indian War until the American Revolution, when Spanish forces recaptured the city. The third Spanish period and flag lasted until 1819, shortly after which, Pensacola became part of the United States and the capital of Florida, with future President Andrew Jackson installed as its first governor. During the Civil War, Florida joined the Confederate States in seceding from the Union, but Federal forces occupied and held Fort Pickens throughout the war. Today, Pensacola celebrates its founding each June with the 10-day Fiesta of Five Flags, one of Florida’s oldest and largest heritage festivals.

Cradle of Naval Aviation

The more illustrious a city’s past, the more nicknames it acquires, and another of Pensacola’s is the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” Way back in 1825, President John Quincy Adams ordered the Pensacola Navy Yard to be built. The original base was reduced to ruins following the War Between the States, but as the Wright Brothers and naval aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss were ushering in the era of human flight and the U.S. was inching closer to World War I, Pensacola became the home of nation’s first naval air station.

Over its 100+ years, Pensacola Naval Air Station has trained aviators from every branch of the U.S. military, including astronauts Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. The base is also home to the world-famous Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron and the world’s largest Naval Aviation Museum. The museum displays more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft, one of which is the NC-4 seaplane, built by Glenn Curtiss, that was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. 

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