Looking for a last-minute getaway before school starts or already planing your fall break? With multiple beaches to choose from, four Civil War-era forts to explore, a thriving downtown, a world-class aviation museum, the Blue Angels, and plenty of Bushwhackers to go around, Pensacola packs a punch when it comes to family fun. And while it clocks about the same driving distance from Atlanta as the other usual hotspots, it’s nearly all interstate, which makes for smooth sailing (and plenty of rest stops). Read on for our parent’s guide to unlocking Pensacola’s treasures!

Beach

Photo: S. Massey

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola’s thriving downtown is flanked by the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which was selected as the #3 beach in the U.S. by TripAdvisor and ranked in the top 25 worldwide. On one side of Pensacola Beach is the Gulf of Mexico, and on the other is Pensacola Bay, which provides a calmer, quieter alternative from big waves for families with babies in tow.

Boys fishing

Photo: S. Massey

Beyond the Sand

Looking for a little excitement beyond the beach? Check out the boardwalk, an outdoor concert shell, water sports (equipment is delivered to your doorstep!), family-friendly beach concerts, and plenty of beachfront restaurants that keep the kiddos happily building sandcastles while waiting on their grouper nuggets to arrive. Pensacola Beach is walkable and the main road is flanked by sidewalks, so you’ll want to pack your stroller. If you’d rather hitch a ride on the free trolley service instead, be sure to let your driver know your destination.

Pensacola Trolley

Photo: S. Massey

Insider Info: If you need a break from the beach, take your crew to the Holiday Inn Resort for some free pirate swashbuckling and mermaid appearances. While you’re there, they can cruise the somewhat small lazy river while you enjoy some grown-up libations and conversation.

Details: Pensacola Beach Visitors Information Center, 800-635-4803; The Pensacola Beach Boardwalk, 400 Quietwater Beach Rd.; Pensacola Beach Water Sports, (850) 308-1755, 5 Via De Luna Dr.; Bands on the Beach, Gulfside Pavilion, 20 Casino Beach Blvd.; Holiday Inn Resort Pensacola Beach, 14 Via De Luna Dr.

Where to Stay: Margaritaville Beach Hotel, 165 Fort Pickens Rd.; Pensacola Beach Hilton, 12 Via De Luna Dr., Portofino Island Resort, 10 Portofino Dr.

Where to Eat: Landshark Landing Bar and Grill Pensacola, 165 Fort Pickens Rd.; Peg Leg Pete’s, 1010 Fort Pickens Rd.

juan sebastian de elcano

Photo: Andrea Wright via flickr Creative Commons

Downtown Pensacola

While Pensacola predates Jamestown as the oldest settlement in the United States, it still has a thriving downtown with year-round entertainment for all ages. Start your exploration of the town at the corner of Palafox and Main, where vintage Airstream trailers serve up fresh seafood and other food truck fare, then head to Palafox Pier for more shopping and an excellent splash pad at Plaza de Luna Park. Your landlubbers will love walking the planks as they check out the boats in harbor. Be sure to inquire about vessel tours (available at times, depending on the vessel).

Pensacola Wahoos

Photo: thatlostdog– via flickr Creative Commons

If you’re baseball fans, you can catch a Wahoos game at the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium. The view overlooking Pensacola Bay can’t be beat, nor can the new playground and fireworks following each game. Looking to beat the heat or hide from a rainstorm? Head to the Pensacola MESS Hall (Math, Engineering, Science, and Stuff) for a hands-on afternoon with science. And don’t miss a stop at Joe Patti, the local fish market where you’ll be able to watch as the shrimpers come in with their daily catch.

Insider Tip: Perdido Key is a short drive from Pensacola proper, where you can catch a dolphin cruise, attend the family-friendly Pirate Festival in September, or hit the not-so-dive-bar that straddles the Florida-Alabama state line, The FloraBama.

Where to Stay: Lee House & The Cottages of Historic Pensacola, 400 Bayfront Pkwy.; Crowne Plaza, 200 E Gregory St.; Courtyard by Marriot, 700 E Chase St.

Where to Eat: McGuires, 700 E Chase St.; The Fish House, 600 S Barracks St.

Details: Palafox Pier, 890 S. Palafox St.; Pensacola Bayfront Stadium, 351 W Cedar St.; Pensacola MESS Hall, 116 N. Tarragona St.; Joe Patti, 524 S B St., The FloraBama, 29603 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, AL

Fort Pickens

Photo: S. Massey

Daytrip: Fort Pickens

Whether you’re staying on Pensacola Beach or downtown, a trip to Fort Pickens is worth your time. Built before the Civil War and used through WWII, Fort Pickens is the largest of four forts build in the area to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. With tiny tunnels, jail cells (including one that housed Geronimo), giant cannons, and plenty to explore, this is one historical site that will please even your littlest history buff.

Details: Fort Pickens, 1400 Fort Pickens Rd., $15/ car

Blue Angels

Photo: S. Massey

Daytrip: National Naval Aviation Museum

Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the US Navy’s flight demonstration squadron known for its daredevil maneuvers and formation flying. If you’re lucky enough to plan a trip to Pensacola in July or November, you’ll be treated to an incredible air show over the Bay (but brace yourself for the crowds). However, if your visit doesn’t fall on one of the show weekends, you can still get your fill of Naval flight by heading to the National Naval Aviation Museum. The IMAX Theatre and flight simulators (ages 4 and up) will help you psych your beachcombers up to leave the sand for a morning, but you can count on the hundreds of airplanes and interactive educational displays to turn a trip to this museum into a highlight of your vacation.

Details: National Naval Aviation Museum1750 Radford Blvd., Free 

national naval aviation museum

Photo: S. Massey

Bushwhackers

No guide to Pensacola could be complete without a mention of the adult milkshake concoction that traces its origins back to Pensacola Beach in the 1970s. Just be sure to order a virgin concoction for the kiddos, and keep your straws straight. The Sandshaker Lounge on Pensacola Beach claims to be home to the original.

Details: The Sandshaker Lounge, 731 Pensacola Beach Blvd.

What’s your favorite beach getaway from Atlanta? Tell us in your comments section below!

– Shelley Massey