You would think after visiting upwards of a dozen different Florida beach towns in a year; they would all start to look the same. We’re used to east coast beaches, though, so taking a vacation to Pensacola on Florida’s Emerald Coast was like stepping into another world.

Naturally, the beaches are different from Atlantic beaches, with their sugary bleached-white sand and calm Gulf of Mexico water, but the entire look and feel of the town were unique. With a history as old and rich as St. Augustine, pristine natural settings and the influence of the Naval Air Station, this sunny Florida city is a must-visit for families who want a relaxing beach vacation sprinkled with education and outdoor fun.

I’m a big fan of St. Augustine, with all of its history and billing as the Oldest City in America. That’s why I was surprised to learn that Pensacola was actually settled before St. Augustine, although it was not continuously occupied in those early years.

Regardless of which city wins the oldest city claim to fame, Pensacola is rich in colonial history ready for families to discover. We purchased our tickets for the Pensacola Children’s Museum and learned they were good for seven days and would also get us into the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and the Historic Pensacola Village. That’s a great deal for families that want to take their time exploring the area or come back on a rainy day.

The Children’s Museum focused on teaching kids about colonial life and local military history through imaginative play. Afterwards, we wandered around Historic Downtown Pensacola and popped into the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum to learn about the history of this city’s five flags (Spanish, French, British, Confederate and U.S.A.).

If you’ve got the time or inclination, you can wander over to Historic Pensacola Village to explore historic homes and buildings. Even better, you’re likely to encounter history interpreters dressed in colonial outfits which bring history to life. Finish your day with a delightful dinner of fresh seafood at Nick’s Boathouse on Pensacola Bay. We loved the fish tacos!

Get Out in Nature

If your main objective is to get outside and experience nature. You’re in luck. The area is rife with parks and beaches where families can hike, bike, swim, kayak or canoe.

Start with Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches along Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. It’s 160 miles of protected shoreline including several barrier islands. For $20 you can get a 7-day pass for your whole vehicle to the National Seashore. Search for seashells, go bird watching, swim or go for a walk along the emerald shoreline.

You can also visit Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, which was used to defend Pensacola in the 1800s. Take a self-guided tour of the fort or visit the Discovery Center, the Fort Pickens Bookstore or the Mine Storeroom.

Aside from Gulf Islands National Seashore, there are several state parks that are perfect for short hikes and nature walks with kids. Big Lagoon State Park boasts a lagoon and saltwater marshes, and Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park has a boardwalk where you can view the bayou and the plants and animals that live in and around it.

My kids, like many young children, are obsessed with all things transportation-related. They are especially in awe of aeroplanes and talk about them incessantly. If that sounds familiar to you, your kids will love this place, as it is home to Naval Air Station Pensacola, the cradle of Naval Aviation.

Set aside at least a few hours for the National Naval Aviation Museum in the Pensacola Bay Area. Admission is free, and kids can spend as long as they want to admire the aircraft, playing on the playground and climbing into designated plane cockpits. The museum has a café so you can take a lunch break or grab a coffee, and you can pay for special experiences like the 3D flight simulators on the second floor.