Dreaming about a beautiful beach holiday on the Gulf Coast? Experience all the pleasures of Northwest Florida with the best day trips from Pensacola. Surrounded by stunning natural landscapes overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, this historic destination is one of the region’s largest cities. A trip to Pensacola offers treats for every type of traveler.
Surf, shop, and view popular attractions like The National Naval Aviation Museum, or just kick up the white sugar sand at Pensacola Beach. You’ll find plenty to pack your itinerary. And Pensacola is the perfect launching pad to explore a part of Florida that most visitors miss out on.
Ready to experience Florida’s Emerald Coast to its fullest? Prep yourself with this guide to Pensacola day trips—and follow the sun!
Top-rated Pensacola side trips
Set on a coastline that’s rich in natural beauty, Pensacola Beach might just be the jewel in the Florida Panhandle’s crown. It’s part of the beautiful Gulf Islands National Seashore, the nation’s longest stretch of protected coastline. Only ten miles south of the city center, it’s a perfect Pensacola day trip.
Dig your toes into the white-sand beaches along Pensacola Bay, take a dip in the clear turquoise waters, and bask in endless sunshine. Bike or hike along the “Emerald Coast.” Go snorkeling to view the colorful aquatic life, or grab a paddle and head out in a kayak.
Venture out onto the Pensacola Beach Pier, and cast a fishing line if you’re inclined. Stretching 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, this iconic spot offers breathtaking views of the coastline.
End a day at Pensacola Beach with a stroll along the lively Portofino Boardwalk. Explore the seafront shops. Take in a free beach concert. Savor fresh seafood at an open-air restaurant. Then sit back, relax, and drink in a brilliant Gulf Coast sunset.
Perdido Key State Park
Tucked away in Florida’s far northwest, Perdido Key State Park is a tiny strip of land that makes a perfect Pensacola side trip. This island is one of the most breathtaking of the many dotting the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
With two miles of rolling white dunes and clear warm waters, this little piece of Gulf Coast paradise is a feast for the senses. Sit back and take in Perdido Key’s stunning vistas. Swim, surf, shell, or snorkel to your heart’s content. Try your hand at crabbing, or cast a fishing line to see what’s biting.
Take to the trails to explore. The island is a wildlife haven, much of it protected as a national preserve. Perdido Key State Park is home to a number of endangered species, including a diverse bird population and four types of sea turtles that come ashore to dig their nests during the summer. Keep your eyes peeled for a visual thrill: The sight of dolphins pods hanging out in their favorite local spots.
You’ll happily lose track of time on this little “Lost Island.” If one day isn’t enough, just cross the bridge to Lagoon State Park, and camp under the stars.
If you’re a military history buff, you’ll feel like you’ve hit a bullseye at Fort Pickens. Yes, the scenery is stunning, but it’s the historical backstory that makes this one of the most intriguing Pensacola day trips.
This historic site was part of a massive fortification effort undertaken following the War of 1812. Five years in the making, it was finally completed in 1834. It was a Union stronghold during the American Civil War, one of only four forts in the American South that didn’t fall to the Confederacy.
Fort Pickens is still a commanding presence, with its concrete parapets and carefully preserved cannons overlooking the Gulf. You don’t have to be a history nerd to be enthralled. Wear good walking shoes to explore the fort’s ruins. Climb to the parapets to take in the view.
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Take a ranger-guided walking tour to hear more about the past. Check out the Discovery Center and its museum to delve even deeper. Experience “hands-on” exhibits, and enjoy a selection of videos to learn more about the area’s history and wildlife. Browse the bookstore and gift shop for historical keepsakes—and take a little bit of the past home with you.
Affectionately nicknamed the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” Destin is a much-loved Pensacola day trip destination with a long maritime history. The fishing here is second to none, hence its nickname. But this quaint seashore community is about more than reeling in a big one.
Catch your breath as you take in the view of the emerald-green water that laps the Gulf Shores. Check out Destin’s beautiful white-sand beaches, and swim or snorkel in the turquoise-hued waters of the Gulf.
Play a round at one of the nearby world-class golf courses. Or give in to the urge to grab a rod, and charter a deep-sea fishing boat. Anglers will definitely want to check out the Destin History and Fishing Museum, which houses a rod and reel once owned by Ernest Hemingway himself.
Visit nearby attractions like Henderson Beach State Park. This serene spot features 6,000 feet of natural shoreline, crystalline waters, and an array of nature trails ready to be explored.
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Stroll the lively boardwalk that winds around Destin Harbor. Head for Harborwalk Village, the epicenter of dining, shopping, and entertainment. Pick out a restaurant, enjoy some of the best seafood on the coast, and enjoy the spectacular view.
Fort Walton Beach
Set on North Florida’s beautiful Santa Rosa Island and overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Walton Beach is an ideal family-friendly day trip from Pensacola. Of course, you’ll want to check out the award-winning beachfront, but there’s so much more to explore.
Step back in time at the Heritage Park and Cultural Center, home to a variety of museums. Delve into the area’s ancient history at the Indian Temple Mound Museum, and view Indigenous artifacts at the Fort Walton Beach Indian Museum.
You can also get a close-up view of the more recent past at Heritage Park and Cultural Center, featuring Civil War exhibits and artifacts. Or get a feel for life at the turn of the century at the Camp Walton Schoolhouse and Garnier Post Office museums.
Indulge your love for science at the Emerald Coast Science Center. Or head over to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, where you can view dolphins, alligators, and penguins in their natural habitat. All guaranteed family-pleasers!
Stroll along the popular Okaloosa Island Boardwalk, or cast a line into fish-rick Choctawhatchee Bay. Take a dolphin-watching cruise and catch an amazing sunset. Head back to downtown Fort Walton and sample from a tasty menu of shops, restaurants, and craft breweries. You’ll leave feeling full!
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach may be a magnet for spring breakers, but there’s so much more that makes it a perfect Pensacola side trip. This Bay County destination attracts divers, surfers, and nature lovers who crave adventure on, under, or around the beautiful emerald waters here.
Spend the day diving in amazing shipwreck sites. Hop on a boat to capture glimpses of nearby dolphin pods, or kick back on a romantic sunset cruise.
Be captivated by the wild residents of Gulf World Marine Park and Zoo World. Zip over to St. Andrews State Park for a day packed with surfing, snorkeling, and fishing.
After a day in the sun, head back to Panama City Beach to do some shopping around Pier Park. End your evening with a seafood dinner and a magical spin on the SkyWheel Panama City Beach.
Nicknamed “Florida’s Playground,” Navarre Beach is a charming coastal town just 20 miles from Pensacola. If you prefer your beaches unspoiled, this hidden gem is an ideal Pensacola day trip.
This picturesque destination is lined with miles of pristine, sandy beaches that have been preserved and protected for public use. Spend the day soaking in the serene beauty of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This is a truly family-friendly destination that’s all about relaxing and keeping the vibe low-key and relaxed. Take a paddle in the beautiful emerald waters, hike or bike the scenic pathways, pack a picnic, and soak up some sun on the brilliant white sands.
If you’re up for a little more activity, check out the lions and rhinos at Gulf Breeze Zoo. Cast a line at the Navarre Beach Pier, paddle a kayak, snorkel above the colorful coral reefs.
Or head across the Sound to Santa Rosa Island to check out the Navarre Beach Marine Park. Have a hands-on learning experience at the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, a research and rehabilitation center dedicated to preserving this endangered species.
Want to stretch out your visit? Several resorts offer cozy accommodations. Or stay on the sand: pick a spot on Navarre Beach to camp out under the stars.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Looking for a Pensacola side trip that gives you plenty of room to roam? Head to Gulf Islands National Seashore, a treasure trove of riches just waiting to be explored. Its 12 sites are dotted along 160 miles of the northern Gulf Coast, stretching from Cat Island, Mississippi, to Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
This nationally protected park has a wide variety of beautiful attractions, so there’s plenty to choose from. Whether it’s the trademark turquoise waters, pristine beaches, fascinating historical sites, or outdoor activities, you’ll find it at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Check out Gulf Breeze, a community right across the bay from Pensacola, and a favorite with nature lovers. Gulf Breeze is a great destination for snorkeling, hiking, or birdwatching.
View the majestic trees of the Naval Live Oaks Area, once the source of timber for the U.S. Navy’s warships. Hike the 7.5 miles of scenic trails, and take in sweeping views of the Gulf from the observation deck.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo is a must-see for anyone. It’s home to a fantastically diverse population, including giraffes, rhinos, zebras, gorillas, giant tortoises, and hippos. Step up to the raised boardwalk for amazing views of herds of deer, wildebeest, ostriches—and islands where chimps and gorillas roam free. Exhilarating!
DeFuniak Springs is a charming town with a quirky name and a colorful backstory. It makes a perfect day trip if you’re looking for something just a little off the beaten path. Featuring a perfectly round spring-fed lake, DeFuniak Springs is known for its lovingly preserved historic structures.
Set in the heart of Northwest Florida, the town began life as a humble way station on the Pensacola & Atlantic Railroad, then grew up and out.
Step back in time and visit the star attraction: the beautifully maintained grounds and buildings of a Victorian-era resort that was once marketed as “The Education Resort of the South.”
More than just a pretty face, the site was also home to the Florida Chautauqua Assembly from 1885 to 1927. That earned it a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Stroll the grounds, do some birdwatching, plunk down for a picnic. Shop the town’s welcoming antique and home décor stores. Stay the night at Hotel DeFuniak, a former Masonic Lodge dating back to 1920.
Oh, and the name? According to local lore, Col. Frederick DeFuniak, a former railroad executive and officer in the Confederate Army, won the naming rights in a card game. Believe it!
Grayton Beach State Park
Want a little boho mixed in with your beachgoing? Make a date to visit Grayton Beach State Park, a unique Pensacola side trip.
Soak up the sun or take a stroll over the 400 acres of sugar-sand beaches, consistently ranked among the most beautiful in the United States. Swim, fish, or surf in the Gulf’s brilliant blue waters.
Towel off and stroll the boardwalk crossings into the cool shade of the oak-canopied park. Breathe in the scent of magnolias. Hit the water again to canoe or kayak through the park’s mesmerizing marsh environment. Hike or bike the nature trails that wind through the coastal woods. Want to linger? No worries: the park has a full-facility campground.
All beached out? Time to go boho. Head to Grayton Beach, a quirky little beach town that’s nestled inside the park. The vibe here is definitely laid-back. (The town’s unofficial slogan: “Nice dogs, strange people”.)
Stroll down narrow roads that are canopied by magnolias, tall pines, and moss-draped oaks. Be charmed by quaint beach cottages and colorful boutiques, and check out some funky art studios. Reward yourself at the end of a busy day with some great open-air dining—and inhale that delicious salt air.
Looking for some variety while venturing further afield? Add Gulf Shores, Alabama, to your list of great day trips from Pensacola.
Set in the heart of South Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Gulf Shores, and neighboring Orange Beach are favorites with vacationers from all across the United States. No wonder: It exudes Southern hospitality, and it features a wealth of attractions.
Savor the Alabama Gulf Coast’s rich blend of sunshine, history, and unspoiled landscapes. Soak up the Gulf Shores sun as you stroll the brilliant white beaches. Swim or snorkel the brilliant blue water. Take a dolphin cruise to get a glimpse of the playful locals. Or cast your line from topside on a deep-sea fishing charter.
Charge up your brain cells at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, voted one of the top 15 science centers in the country. Experience more than 150 hands-on science adventures in three permanent galleries. They’re all about making science fun.
Craving a taste of times past? Take a stroll through the lovely Bellingrath Gardens and the stately 1930s home presiding over it. Get a shot of history at the Fort Morgan Historical Site, a cannon-armed fortress built in 1834. Climb the parapets and be rewarded with panoramic views of the Gulf Shores and the entire Gulf of Mexico. It’s worth the trip!