Florida : Safety by City
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Pensacola is a city in the Florida panhandle with Pensacola Bay cradling the east and south sides, and it’s the last city you’ll go through heading to the separate area of Pensacola Beach.
Pensacola Beach is an unincorporated area and not part of the city of Pensacola, but we’ll touch on some safety considerations there as well.
The city is also near the state line of Alabama, which is just to the west.
From Pensacola, you can get to Orange Beach, Destin, Pensacola Beach, Orange Beach, and many more beachfront communities on the Gulf.
That said, Pensacola is much more than a “drive-thru” city, bringing its own urban amenities and entertaining vibe.
The downtown area holds nearly three centuries of history and brings it all together in an educational, entertaining, and walkable location.
You also get a great cultural melting pot of activities, as Pensacola is known as the “City of Five Flags,” named for the different governments that have ruled here throughout history.
Military fans and veterans will want to get a look at the National Naval Aviation Museum, and there are strict rules for anyone trying to get on base at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
If you’re wondering whether Pensacola is “Florida” enough for you, I can tell you as someone who visited there several times and also lived in South Florida – Pensacola holds its own in every way possible.
Warnings & Dangers in Pensacola
OVERALL RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk in Pensacola due to high violent crime rates and the transient traffic of tourism that can lead to petty crimes. There's no reason that should stop you from visiting the city, but you're off to a good start by reading articles like this one to help you safely plan a trip.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
Pensacola is in Escambia County, which is where the Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT) name comes from. This is the traditional public transportation you'll find in any city. Taxis and rideshares are available to get around the city or to and from the beach. Pensacola Beach does have a trolley. If you get a rental car, make sure it comes with a SunPass, which is the toll payment method used for vehicles crossing into the barrier islands and other toll roads.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk here with a lot of tourists, especially in winter, and crowded events where pickpockets are looking for a crime of opportunity. Lower your risk by only carrying what you need. Carry wallets in front pockets or inside jacket pockets. Bring a small crossbody purse and leave behind any valuables or priceless items.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : MEDIUM
Pensacola faces a risk of hurricanes from June through November, like any city on the Gulf Coast. If a storm is approaching this region, rethink your travel plans. Pensacola has been hit hard by hurricanes and you don't want to be stuck in the middle of one. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can also happen throughout the year, making it a higher risk since a lot of people spend time outside here. There's a reason Florida is called the Lightning Capital of America.
MUGGING RISK : MEDIUM
The risk of a tourist being a robbery victim is low. Most of the robberies reported here were retaliatory in nature or among people who know each other. To reduce your risk even more, stay out of neighborhoods that aren't meant for tourists and avoid walking around at night.
TERRORISM RISK : MEDIUM
With a Naval Air Station just to the west and Elgin Air Force Base just to the east, Pensacola is going to come with a medium risk but also a high level of security. There are strict rules about who can and can't get onto these bases and local police are vigilant in monitoring crowds and suspicious activity. You can help by reporting anything suspicious to the local police department. When in doubt, err on the side of overcommunicating with police.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
Be wary of rental scams for housing. There's a trend in tourist locations where scammers will take or steal photos of a home and list it for rent. This usually happens on third-party websites. Once a tourist shows interest, the scammer demands money upfront - like a wire transfer - and offers an unusually good deal. When the tourist shows up, the home is owned by someone else and there's nowhere to stay. Avoid this scam by requiring proof of a rental permit, asking to speak to someone on the phone or a virtual meeting, and requesting a virtual tour inside the house. Any excuse to avoid doing those things should be a red flag. Use local travel agencies as reliable sources for rental availability.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : LOW
Women have the same risk as men but should use extra caution when walking around at night. Stay in well-lit areas and the entertainment districts. Try to travel with a group or a friend. Don't drink alcohol to the point you can't make smart decisions.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The 2021 Water Quality Report shows no violations and full compliance. If you're visiting after or during a flood event or tropical weather, make sure you follow the city's social media sites because that's when boil orders are most likely to happen.
Safest Places to Visit in Pensacola
Visitpensacola.com is the official tourism website and there’s an app available so you’ll have all the verified information with you on the road.
Look for seasonal deals for hotels and restaurants, as this website updates them often.
Avoid third-party tourism sites that could be trying to scam your credit card or other personal information.
Downtown Pensacola is the perfect starting point.
This area was founded in 1559, so whether you want to explore history or drink a hurricane, this is the place for you.
Historic Pensacola spans nearly nine acres and has dozens of buildings and museums to explore.
The tourism bureau offers a discount ticket if you want to see all the museums and get access to tours.
That includes the Pensacola History Museum and will get you caught up on your history lesson so you can appreciate the other attractions to explore.
The downtown is also full of shopping and dining throughout the day and night.
The brick-lined sidewalks make it as charming as it is fun.
Visit downtownpesacola.com to find out about events happening during your visit.
This is a common place for festivals and other holiday events.
For those who can access Naval Air Station Pensacola, you have several attractions to see:
- National Naval Aviation Museum
- Historic For Barracus
- Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
Visitors to NAS Pensacola are generally limited to DoD ID cardholders, including active duty members, veterans, and family, veterans with a VHIC, and anyone sponsored through the Trusted Traveler program.
Call (850)452-8450 for more information.
Heading outdoors, you can visit Big Lagoon State Park.
This sits between Pensacola and the Gulf of Mexico.
Due to damage from Hurricane Sally in 2020, repairs are ongoing.
Check the park website before you go to see if there are any restrictions or closures.
Tours of all kinds are available.
You can go on a fishing charter, foodie tour, swim with dolphins adventure, take a surfing lesson, parasail, or ride in a plane above the shore.
Be sure to review any paperwork before you sign it, as in most cases you’re waiving any liability the vendor has should there be an accident.
When you cross over the Pensacola Bay Bridge, you can either stop on Gulf Breeze, to see attractions like the Gulf Breeze Zoo, or keep driving to hit Pensacola Beach.
Once you’ve enjoyed that time, you can go west to see the Civil War battlefield remains at Fort Pickens Discovery Center.
If you go east, you’ll be at Gulf Islands National Seashore, with beautiful beaches untouched by any housing or retail establishments.
I’ve done the Gulf Island National Seashore Drive several times and it’s just beautiful with plenty of places to park and enjoy a less-crowded beach.
Places to Avoid in Pensacola
Pensacola is designed in a way that it’s clear where the entertainment areas are and where the neighborhoods are, and you shouldn’t go outside of the tourist attraction regions.
There’s a high violent crime rate here, but mostly due to crime among people who know each other.
You just don’t want to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Winters get crowded here as snowbirds from the north come for a winter respite, so expect larger crowds and higher prices for hotels.
It doesn’t mean you should avoid it, but it’s just good information to have.
Avoid the whole Gulf region if a hurricane is headed anywhere along the northern Gulf coast.
Those storms can change course day-to-day, and even a storm that looks like it might go east or west could shift toward Pensacola at the last minute.
Look up Pensacola and Pensacola Beach damage from hurricanes since 2015, and you’ll get a good idea of how bad they can be.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Pensacola
- Sign up for emergency notifications through Alert Escambia. This countywide system will let you know about severe weather, tropical storms, civil and military emergencies, or any other safety threat. You can also review current threat levels if you’re worried about terrorism at myescambia.com.
- Check the rip currents and beach conditions before you pack everything up and head to the sandy shore. Even beautiful days can have warnings of jellyfish, strong rip tides, unsafe water quality, and more. Rip currents are one of the most dangerous elements of being in the gulf, but they aren’t easy to see with the plain eye.
- Pensacola Police offer an interactive crime map where you can search for certain crimes in various neighborhoods. You can also review a list of current incidents through the Reports section of the website.
- Pensacola 311 is a customer service connection between people and the city. You can ask questions about parking, road conditions, and report things like potholes or fallen trees. This is not the same as Pensacola’s 211, which is for people in need of basic life supplies.
- Use the ParkPensacola app to see what spots are available before you leave. You can view the private and public lots, which will determine how much you’ll pay to park. Public parking gives you 30-minutes free. For those visiting on a Sunday, parking is free all day long.
- You’ll need a fishing license from the Florida Department of Wildlife. Depending on where you plan to fish, you might need a saltwater or freshwater license. There is also a combo license available. Check with your fishing charter if they provide licenses for guests as part of the fee. That might save you some money.
- Pensacola is in the Central Time Zone, unlike the majority of Florida, which is in the Eastern Time Zone. The boundary is a few counties east of Pensacola. Keep this in mind if you are driving from Jacksonville or Tallahassee.
- Avoid asking people in Pensacola about hurricanes in a macabre way. As someone who has been through a strong hurricane, it’s triggering when someone asks “What was Hurricane Michael like?” Of course, it was rough. You can talk about hurricane questions and if someone brings up a hurricane story, that’s great. Just don’t go prodding about a topic as you might be talking to someone who lost everything they owned in a storm.
- If you’re heading to the beaches, leave early. The traffic to get over the bridge into Pensacola Beach can back up for miles. A drive that should take 15 minutes will easily take an hour. I’d recommend getting to the beach no later than 9:00 am.
- Since there is such a strong military presence in the area, people with PTSD should be aware of the potential for loud airplanes circling, large booms, and other military-related noise. Generally, the bases will announce ahead of time if a training event is happening, but there’s always a good chance the sound of a military jet will fill the sky.
So... How Safe Is Pensacola Really?
The Pensacola Police Department isn’t very transparent with crime data and hasn’t released information for 2021 in the FBI’s required format.
What we do know is that the crime rates reported in 2020 compared to the population are well above average, and in some cases, exponentially higher.
However, with nearly 2.5 million people visiting every year, the crime data doesn’t show the actual risk factor.
The majority of crimes aren’t against tourists, but you can bet if you leave your car unlocked it’s going to be rifled through by a thief.
Just because you are on a waterfront vacation or business trip doesn’t mean you can let your guard down.
Just about anything you need at the beach can be rented and you should carry only the bare minimum with you.
Have someone stay with your stuff if you go in the water.
Wear sunscreen and re-apply it often.
Just because this is North Florida doesn’t mean the sun isn’t intense.
I once had a horrible sunburn on a rather cloudy day taking a boat cruise in this region.
Study basic first aid for things like jellyfish stings or ingesting Gulf water.
Know how to escape a rip tide (there are signs everywhere in case you forget.)
Pensacola is really a gun town.
There’s great nightlife but plenty of history.
If you use common sense and situational awareness, you’ll enjoy the city of five flags too.
How Does Pensacola Compare?
- Visas - Those visiting from outside the United States need a U.S. Visa or an approved Visa Waiver. You won't be able to step foot on American soil without going through Customs, where you'll present your visa and passport while answering some questions. Plan to start the visa process about three months ahead of time.
- Currency - The U.S. cities only take the U.S. Dollar, so you'll either need to exchange currency or use a credit card for all purchases. A credit card is safer to protect against fraud, anyway.
- Weather - The panhandle of Florida doesn't get quite as warm and sunny year-round as South Florida cities, but you'll still likely avoid ever having to wear more than a jacket and jeans. You'll want sunscreen and bug spray throughout the day, and bring shoes you can comfortably walk in for long distances. It's a casual area, so don't feel obligated to dress up.
- Airports - Pensacola International Airport is less than five miles from downtown, and you'll get great views of the bay and the gulf as you land and take off. That is the closest and best option.
- Travel Insurance - We always recommend travel insurance, especially in hurricane-prone areas. Make sure you have coverage for your rental car too, as thunderstorms can bring large hail and flooded streets.
Pensacola Weather Averages (Temperatures)
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