A quaint town near the Florida Panhandle has become a must-see destination. And it’s only getting started.

hen someone mentions Pensacola, Florida, a few images might come to mind. Pristine white sand beaches.

Picturesque blue water. The setting sun casting a warm light over the ocean.  

All of these reactions are understandable —and accurate. But picture this: After spending some time lounging on one of those beaches or gliding through the perfect, wide-open Gulf, you can escape to a revered restaurant for some craft cocktails. Or perhaps you want to try a unique creation at a local brewery. Better yet, you can do both, then top it all off with a stroll down a vibrant, historic downtown main street. 

These are just a few of the seemingly endless opportunities available to you in Pensacola, a wholly unique destination that has enjoyed an admirable glow-up over the last decade and change.

“It’s a city that, since 2012, has really transformed,” says Mayor D.C. Reeves, the local boy turned city leader who, at 39, is the youngest person to hold the office of mayor in Pensacola’s storied history. “To have a beach that looks like this, alongside a historic, vibrant and friendly downtown is really something special. I don’t believe anyone else on the Gulf Coast has those things.”

If you ask Reeves, the transformation kicked into high gear around the time his mentor and former boss, Quint Studer, helped bring a minor league baseball team to town. Studer was a local entrepreneur and philanthropist who helped spearhead much of the development that has turned Pensacola from a quaint beach town into a must-see vacation destination that has retained its personality amidst exciting growth.

“Twenty-five years ago, my grandpa and I would walk downtown to go to the trading card shop, and we would not see a soul,” Reeves recalls. “Now it’s the complete opposite. The city has come alive in a way that’s inspiring.”

It helps that Pensacola is the home of the Foo Foo Festival: 12 perfect fall days filled with music, performances and other creative cultural happenings. Plus, a variety of fan favorite breweries and restaurants line the city streets. For instance, there’s Odd Colony Brewing Company on Palafox Street (Pensacola’s quintessentially American main street drag) as well as Union Public House.

You can sample one of a dozen handmade creations at the brewing co. before enjoying Union’s unique take on upscale rustic cuisine.

Of course, it’s not just the places that make Pensacola a one-of-a-kind experience; it’s the people behind the places.  

“For years, we were exporting our best asset: our people,” Reeves says. “But now our young people want to stay here.” 

That includes Katie Garrett, a fellow Pensacola “lifer” who came up with the idea for her first bar at 23, then opened the establishment just two years later. The whiskey bar is named after a former president with plenty of ties to Pensacola lore, and more importantly, it’s a distillation of Garrett’s love for her hometown’s history.

“My high school graduation gift was traveling up and down the coast visiting battlesites,” she says. “I knew I wanted my first bar to be a whiskey bar, and the name ‘Old Hickory’ came from Andrew Jackson’s nickname.”  

Notably, Jackson was the first person to hoist the U.S. flag over Florida. “I wanted my love of history to be tangible,” she adds.

Photo by Matthew Coughlin
Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Garrett has spent her entire life in Pensacola outside of one year at the University of Florida (she later transferred to a school closer to home, then earned a Master’s in history.) She dreamed up the whiskey bar while working at an HR firm, literally taking her legal pad designs and turning them into a revered Palafox hot spot that now serves over 650 whiskeys and craft cocktails.  
“As you can imagine, it was quite interesting for a bar to open downtown with a 25-year-old at the helm,” she notes.

In 2019, she added to her bar repertoire by opening The Kennedy, an elegant yet accessible cocktail bar modeled after fancy hotel watering holes from the 1960s.

This is a perfect example of the homegrown ingenuity that has made Pensacola an attractive place to visit — or even set up shop. New businesses are sprouting up on a regular basis, and Reeves wants that trend to continue.  “This is the most remote workforce we’ve ever seen; a lot of people can live wherever they want,” the mayor says. “Some of those people have discovered that we’re so much more than a beach town.” Yet he’s not letting his foot off the gas.  “If I’m in competition with Savannah and Charleston and Austin, we’ve gotta compete,” he adds. “I’m a placemaking economic development person: I’m focused on, ‘How do we make this a great place to live?’”

That means enticing more growth to bolster the visitor and resident experience, all while retaining Pensacola’s signature charm. For the latter, he has help from folks like Maria Goldberg, an arts enthusiast who formerly chaired Foo Foo Festival and has been a cultural catalyst practically every day since she moved to the city and, in her words, “met a cute boy.”  

“I moved to Pensacola without knowing anyone, but I had the great fortune of meeting some incredible people who immersed me in the culture of our community,” she says. “They helped me get involved in all sorts of things and make Pensacola an even artsier place.”

Goldberg’s resume includes a longtime stint leading the Pensacola Museum of Art, as well as tenures on various boards that have amplified the city’s natural creativity.She likes to point out that Pensacola has “the big five” — a symphony, aballet, an opera, a theater, and a museum — without the traffic jams and cramped conditions of a larger city.  

“It’s not a huge city; it’s not a small city. It’s a well-curated, medium-sized community.” 

And while Pensacola attracts plenty of outside talent and entertainers, its museums and festivals are also showcases for the stable of local artists that are a staple of any must-see community.  

“The beautiful thing about Pensacola,” Goldberg says, “is that you can make it anything you want it to be. We help people own their passions, whether they’ve been here forever or are experiencing this place for the very first time.”