When LGBTQ+ travelers make plans for some fun in the surf and sun, the Florida panhandle town of Pensacola is proving a popular vacation destination. Known more in years past for its Naval Air Station and the sugar-white sands of its eight-and-a-half-mile long beach on the Gulf of Mexico perhaps than for its LGBTQ+ bona fides, Pensacola Beach has since become home to one of the largest Pride celebrations in the U.S. over Memorial Day Weekend each year, and just the right mix of culture, arts, dining, entertainment, and outdoor opportunities that make it an inviting spot for just about everyone with signature events like the annual Pensacola Foo Foo Festival.
“It's not your typical beach town,” Sid Williams-Heath, the out and proud vice president of the town’s Stamped Film Festival, tells Out. “We all know and love the southern beach town where you get the good fried food and you fry your skin in the sun and then that's pretty much what you do. But Pensacola also has this totally separate but equally charming downtown that is flourishing with restaurants, bars, a cultural Seine.”
Pensacola is, in fact, proving itself an artistic oasis, with a thriving theatrical presence, a professional symphony, ballet and opera house, the Pensacola Museum of Art, and a world-class venue in the Saenger Theatre, a children’s chorus, and much, much more.
“Honestly it doesn't quite make sense,” Williams-Heath observes of the city’s cultural offerings. “It's very impressive.”
Williams-Heath says it’s a gay venue, though, that has come to represent the first and perhaps the best option in Pensacola’s arts and entertainment scene.
“If you want to have a good time you go to The Cabaret,” says Williams-Heath, adding the show is as popular with straight crowds as it is within the LGBTQ+ community. Not only do they have “fantastic drag performances” that attract a diverse crowd, he says, but they also pour “clearly the strongest drinks in town.”
The Stamped Film Festival is a large portion of Pensacola’s outsized cultural scene. It’s a part of the Pensacola Foo Foo Festival held two weeks every year in November (which also happens to be one of the best times to visit). Both festivals celebrate the arts and the LGBTQ+ community in Pensacola. The Foo Foo Festival takes its name from small bands that would promptly form amongst the crews of 19th-Century sailing vessels, and the annual event has become a popular showcase for the area’s artists of all stripes and disciplines. Stamped takes its name from an effort by the LGBTQ+ community to show the economic impact the community was having on Pensacola when gay merchants stamped their dollars with the words “gay money” or a pink triangle to show the impact the LGBTQ+ community was having on the local economy. An estimated $25 million worth of bills bore a stamp that first year alone. Now, the film festival is named in honor of those stamped dollar bills and the message they delivered about the vital importance of the LGBTQ+ community to both the local economy and culture. This year’s Stamped Film Festival takes place November 10-13.
Foodies will also not be disappointed with Pensacola, says Williams-Heath.
“Whatever your price point is, there's something definitely within a walkable block here in downtown,” he says.
For fine dining, Williams-Heath recommends Restaurant Iron (“the chef is absolutely exquisite,” he raves). The Pearl & Horn is perfect for some quick and casual seafood, and Jackson’s Steakhouse for the meat and potatoes crowd.
For those looking for a less traditional arts and culture activity, Pensacola also has a thriving alternative scene as well, according to Joani Delezen, advertising & marketing liaison for Pensacola Foo Foo Festival.
“Pensacola has a really long history of live music punk music, in particular,” Delezen tells Out. “We have one of the longest operating punk houses in the country. It's called the 309 House. They've turned it into a museum. They have monthly artists who do residencies there. They do poetry events and author events.”
She also notes the town has multiple “DIY” venues hosting musical events all over town.
“The punk scene and the art is cool,” Delezen, who also writes for the local alternative weekly, concludes, “especially for a town this size.”
Of course, no discussion of Pensacola is complete without a discussion of the beaches and outdoor activities. The sands and crowds are an eclectic mix of singles, couples, friends, and families of all ages, ethnicities, and identities.
Williams-Heath is proud of that diversity. Originally a native of a small town, he says he has witnessed a renaissance in his adopted hometown since moving there from the big city.
“Pensacola is definitely showing it’s a place that people want to come live, visit, and thrive,” Williams-Heath says. “And I suggest if you don't want to fall in love with it, don't come because, like me, you may just find yourself living here forever.”