Things to Do in Pensacola & The Gulf Islands National Seashore [2021]

 Things to Do in Pensacola & The Gulf Islands National Seashore [2021]

Visiting the Florida Panhandle? There are some amazing things to do in Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Sometimes, the most amazing museums and attractions are in places you’d never expect.

Like the Florida Panhandle.

This was true for us when we first went to Pensacola, Florida, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Now, it’s one of our favorite stops along our recommended 7 Day Adventure of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Fun Things to Do

image of The Gulf Islands National seashore
The Gulf Islands National Seashore has awesome beaches

Whether you’re the museum type, adrenaline junkie, or relax-on-the-beach type, there’s something for everyone in Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Let’s look at our favorite experiences:

National Naval Aviation Museum

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The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is ranked one of the top 25 museums in the world and in the top 12 in the U.S.

More than 150 beautifully restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Aviation are on display.  The museum has nearly 350,000 square feet of exhibit space and outside on its 27-acre grounds.

Exhibits even include fighter World War II airplanes from Japan and the very first jet fighter ever flown – an amazing machine built by the Nazis and captured by the U.S. so as to be reverse-engineered.

The National Naval Aviation Museum’s exhibits provide a close-up look at the people and events that shaped our history. You can peruse displays from vintage uniforms and historical documents displayed in brilliant mahogany display cases to dioramas that transport visitors to the World War I Western Front.  The exhibits seek to capture the human element of the enduring history of Naval air power.

Museum Details

The museum is on two levels. A separate building called Hangar Bay One has more displays.

The main museum has flight simulators, an interactive display that puts you on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck. It also has a huge IMAX movie theater.

The museum is located on the sprawling grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola. It serves as the launching point for the flight training of every Naval Aviator, Naval Flight Officer (NFO), and enlisted aircrewman. In addition, approximately 23,000 aviation personnel in aeronautical technical phases of naval operations are trained here.

Because this is a secure and very active military installation, you’ll need a photo ID to get on the grounds and also again in the museum. But there is no charge to tour the museum.

There is ample and free parking right next to the museum, with a dedicated area for larger RVs.

See the Blue Angels!

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If you go, try and arrange your visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s because the world-famous Blue Angels are based at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Blue Angels are the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, with aviators from the Navy and Marines.

You can see the Blue Angels practicing over the museum most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from June to November.

Practices typically begin at 11:30 am (Central Time) and last about 55 minutes. Admission to view the practice is free and open to the public. Be sure to check out the Blue Angels practice schedule and time your visit accordingly.

The outside viewing area for the Blue Angels practice is located on the Museum Flight Line north of the museum. Signs direct visitors to viewing and parking locations, including limited parking for disabled visitors.

Open bleacher seating is available for seating 1,000 people. For special viewing of the Blue Angels, see our next recommendation for things to do in Pensacola!

Be sure to use sun protection. Hearing protection is also recommended for those with sensitive hearing. Those awesome jets are LOUD!

Watch our video on the Blue Angels.

The National Naval Aviation Museum and Blue Angels show is one of the most exciting things to do in Pensacola, FL! You don’t want to miss it!

Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum

Located almost directly across the road from the National Naval Aviation Museum is the Pensacola Lighthouse and maritime Museum.

There are several exhibits inside, but the best thing to do is climb the 177 steps to the top of the lighthouse. You get to enjoy the scenic views from 130 feet above the ground!

You can also reserve a spot to watch the Blue Angels practice from the top of the lighthouse! Admission is $7 for adults.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Pickens beach scenePhoto of

After exploring the museums for a few hours, it’s time to take a break and head for the beach.

Going directly south from Pensacola, you can reach one of our favorite tracts of National Park Service property. It is a 160-mile stretch of gorgeous, secluded beaches, undisturbed by development and characterized by sparkling blue-green water called the Gulf Islands National Seashore

There are plenty of relaxing and interesting things to do at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, too!

Location and Pricing

This property is so big that it lies in two states, Florida and Mississippi. And, it’s divided into 12 district areas. The protected regions include mainland areas and parts of seven islands.

The price to enter Gulf Islands National Seashore is $20 for 7 days (separate from camping reservations). There is a toll of $1 to get across the bridge from Pensacola to Gulf Breeze.

Things To Do at Gulf Islands National Seashore

If you’re interested in a little history or staying at the Fort Pickens Campground, head over to Fort Pickens. It is located west of Pensacola Beach and features historic fortifications from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s. It also has miles of beaches.

There’s a lot of hubbub in the areas around Pensacola Beach, but we like to head east in the direction of Santa Rosa Island.

This stretch of the National Seashore is about seven miles long. There is almost no development until you get to the pier at Navarre Beach and the high rise waterfront condos nearby.

The Gulf and the Sound border the two-lane road (which is perfect for cyclists). So, you have water off both sides. There are beautiful white sand dunes as well.

There are numerous pull-offs and plenty of parking. Plus, a large picnic area. Often when we are there, we’re the only people on the beach.

We drive our rig out early, set up shop for a few hours, and day camp until sundown. You can swim, bike, snorkel, fish, and comb the beach for seashells.

We haul our beach chairs to the water and use the RV for picnic preps. And, of course, our own private restrooms. It’s a gorgeous beach and has a solitude that always keeps drawing us back.

Navarre Beach Marine Park

As you head east, you’ll hit the Navarre Beach Marine Park. It’s an innovative little park that focuses on a few facets of marine life.

The Navarre Beach Marine Park houses:

It’s a nice little stop to learn about sea turtle conservation and go snorkeling in the artificially created reefs near the shore.

Campgrounds and RV Parks in Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore

There are a number of campgrounds in the greater Pensacola area. Many of them are private and can get quite expensive, especially as you get closer to the Gulf.

In our 7 Day Adventure Guide of the Gulf Coast, you can find a complete breakdown of different campgrounds and RV resorts in the area. The info includes:

  • Open seasons
  • Rates
  • Website
  • Booking link
  • Address
  • GPS coordinates
  • Phone number
  • Helpful info

Plus, Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore is just 1 day of our 7-day adventure plan!

Get My 7-Day Florida’s Gulf Coast Travel Guide

Things to Do in Pensacola & The Gulf Islands National Seashore [2021]

Mike Wendland

Mike Wendland is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road at RVLifestyle.com. He and Jennifer also host the weekly RV Podcast and do twice-weekly videos on the YouTube RV Lifestyle Channel. They have written 10 books on RV travel.

7 Comments

  • Hi Mike and Jennifer:
    There are also free concerts on Pensacola Beach every Tuesday evening from, I think, April through October. People bring their chairs, food and drinks and enjoy the concerts, get up and dance . It’s a great time!

  • Hi! Just wanted to let you know that Florida and Alabama are the two states that incorporate Gulf Shores, not Mississippi, so that people aren’t confused. Mississippi does have wonderful beaches, over 25 miles long from Biloxi through Gulfport and Long Beach.where people can enjoy the white sand.

  • A few years ago we went to Fort Pickens and almost as soon as we got our of the car, the Blue Angels flew over. We spent the next 50 minutes in the parking lot watching them practice. I got some nice pictures of them with above the fort. It was a happy accident as we didn’t even know they practiced that day. The museum is also very nice.

    Also, if you like aviation museums check out the national museum of the air force in Dayton, OH… Wow!

  • Our number one stop whenever we visit the Pensacola area is the Naval Air Museum. I might be a little biased since I flew a few of the restored birds on display during my 27 year career. Great article, Mike. Thanks for including it in your Panhandle travels.

  • We visited the National Naval Aviation Museum 4 years ago. I highly recommend having lunch at the Cubi Bar Cafe during a visit. The food is good and reasonably priced, but one will spend most of their time looking at all the memorabilia that decorates the place, especially if you are a service member that ever set foot in the NAS Cubi Point Officers Club in the Philippines.

  • Mike, just a head’s up to all – we visited (or tried to!) the Aviation Museum and the Lighthouse museum in Pensacola in early December 2020. Unfortunately, the base is currently not open to most of the public and you can only access the museums if you have a Veterans Administration card or some form of military ID that they will accept. Make sure to call ahead, so you are not disappointed. We used your 7-day adventure guide of the gulf coast and had a nice trip – particularly loved Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas and St. George Island.

  • Just wanted to state that the top two places to visit in this article are closed and have been for two years. The Naval Museum closed after the shooting in December 2018 and has never reopened to my knowledge. The lighthouse is only accessible from the Naval Base and is also closed to the general public. Great article but misleading to those not familiar with this area.

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