Cultural Activities Abound in this Historic and Artful City
By Laura A. Lee | Photographs courtesy of Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitor Bureau
Pensacola is known for its beautiful beaches and legendary Blue Angels, but many do not realize that Pensacola is a cultural mecca with an active arts community, notable restaurants and lively festivals as rich as the city’s 450-year history. Tucked away in the historic city are some more than eighty thriving arts organizations, including all of the “Big Five” disciplines: theatre, opera, music, dance and visual arts. Visitors willing to go beyond the beaches will find musicians, dancers, actors, artists and chefs that are as inspiring as the picturesque setting.
Also inspiring are the many architectural treasures housing the arts. The crowned jewel of Palafox Place, the Saenger Theatre reopens in March following a multimillion-dollar, 18-month renovation designed to recapture its original grandeur. Originally opened in 1925, the Spanish Baroque theatre is one of only four Saenger theatres still operating in the South.
“The venue’s stunning architecture creates the perfect ambiance in which to see a show,” said Catherine Guin, executive director of the Arts Council of Northwest Florida. “Its location – close to restaurants, museums and art galleries – makes for a special evening out in Downtown Pensacola.”
The Saenger Theatre is home to Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and the Pensacola Children’s Chorus. Pensacola Opera performs Aida on May 1 and 3; the performance is entirely in Italian with English supertitles. Celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, the opera house produces three shows per year. Ballet Pensacola presents four major productions each season, including the Nutcracker “Sweet,” which has become a holiday tradition. The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra has an 80-year history of superb music in Pensacola. More than seventy musicians play for audiences of more than 30,000 people annually.
“We have traveled to many cities and heard many orchestras, but we never expected to find the high quality of Pensacola Symphony Orchestra in a city this size,” said Robert Reddy, who retired to Pensacola from Colorado with his wife, Gerry, after four years of seeing the country in their RV. “We have been patrons of the symphony for years and continue to enjoy the variety of programs. If you enjoy the arts, Pensacola is a great place to retire.”
The Saenger Theatre is also attracting several Broadway shows this spring, including I Love a Piano, Jesus Christ Superstar, Stomp and Movin’ Out.
Formerly the city jail, the Pensacola Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century works and famous traveling exhibits displayed throughout the building and inside old jail cells. On the first and second Saturdays of each month, the Pensacola Museum of Art provides workshops for children ages 6-14. While parents explore Downtown Pensacola, their children can create art from 1-2:30 p.m. for just $10. May 1, 2009 is the opening of Spanish artist Miguel Zapata’s exhibit, which will commemorate the city’s 450th anniversary.
The Pensacola Cultural Center, once the county jail, is now home to the Pensacola Little Theatre and Portobello Market. The Pensacola Little Theatre is one of the oldest community theatres in the country, established more than 85 years ago. Today, the theatre hosts numerous performances throughout the year.
Representing the “Big Five,” as well as dozens of other arts organizations, is the Arts Council of Northwest Florida. The Arts Council hosts several gallery nights throughout the year to showcase local talent. On select Fridays, residents and visitors can browse the works of artists inside shops and galleries while sampling wine and enjoying free entertainment.
Pensacola Celebrity Chefs Take Food to a Level of Art
Five Pensacola Celebrity Chefs bring Pensacola’s dining scene to a level of artistry. Irv Miller of Jackson’s, Jim Shirley of The Fish House, Gus Silivos of Skopelos on the Bay, Frank Taylor of Global Grill and Dan Dunn of H2O create culinary treats at their locally owned restaurants. While each chef is known for a distinct style, all blend Southern traditions and Pensacola’s international influences with fresh seafood and produce to create true culinary masterpieces.
“Our visitors can have an amazing culinary experience right on the Gulf Coast of Florida, without having to travel to New Orleans or Las Vegas,” said Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our area boasts bountiful fresh produce and seafood, the influence of five flags, deep-rooted traditions, and food and wine festivals that no other region in the country can mirror.”
As competitors on a day-to-day basis, the five Pensacola Celebrity Chefs have united to promote culinary tourism in Pensacola. Their first collaborative project was a “Five Chefs, Five Flags” dinner in September that sold out in one day. The first weekend in April, they’re hosting a reserve wine tasting with Spanish wine importer Jorge Ordoñez and are participating in the Pensacola Wine Festival with a paella cook-off hosted by food critic John T. Edge. You can find details on these events and download recipes at www.PensacolaCelebrityChefs.com.
Cultural and Historical Attractions
With Pensacola celebrating its 450th anniversary this year, there is no better time to explore the city’s many cultural and historically significant sites.
Guests step back in time at Historic Pensacola Village with archaeological sites, museums, reenactors, one of Florida’s oldest churches and furnished period houses spanning from the earliest Spanish explorers to the Victorian era. The Museum of Commerce paints the picture of a turn-of-the-century streetscape of Palafox Place, which remains the heart of downtown. The T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum holds major pieces of history, including the anchor believed to have belonged to Don Tristan de Luna, the Spanish explorer who founded Pensacola in 1559. Just behind the museum is the Pensacola Historical Society’s museum and resource center, featuring exhibits of the area’s Native American, Colonial and American pasts.
Housed in the Kate Coulson House in Historic Pensacola Village, the African-American Heritage Society includes a small art gallery/museum, gift shop and resource center. The organization promotes, preserves and integrates African-American heritage and culture in Northwest Florida. The society sponsors the African-American Heritage Trail, which includes sites representing the impact African-Americans have had on the city and country.
An open-air museum, St. Michael’s Cemetery tells the story of more than 3,000 lives spanning the centuries. Said to have been a burial site as early as the mid-18th century, the cemetery is considered the oldest in Florida. This archaeological site is the final resting place of the famous and the common – the Spanish, French, English, Irish, African and Greek – the unique blend of early America. Elaborate mausoleums and plain cement slabs reflect a disparate society, and decorations on monuments portray attitudes and beliefs about life and death.
The Pensacola Bay Area has had a strong military presence for centuries. It was home to important forts used during the Civil War, and today all Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators start their training in Pensacola, giving it the nickname “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” Naval Air Station Pensacola is home to several attractions that celebrate both the city’s and the nation’s histories.
An impressive display of more than 150 vintage aircraft can be found at the National Naval Aviation Museum, as well as Top Gun F-14 flight simulators, motion-based simulators and an IMAX® theatre. Most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November, guests can experience the world-famous Blue Angels as they practice awe-inspiring aerial maneuvers in the skies above. Museum admission is free.
Visitors can also explore two pre-Civil War fortresses. The Advanced Redoubt tour each Saturday takes visitors to the only fort in the region built specifically for land defense of the Navy yard. The Fort Barrancas tour is offered daily, featuring the military history of the 1839 fortress and the Spanish Water Battery. Visitors can explore the brick tunnels of the fort or enjoy the spectacular water views from the top.
Built in 1859, the Pensacola Lighthouse peers over the pass to the Gulf of Mexico. The lighthouse has survived hurricanes, lightning strikes, fire and the Civil War. At 160 feet, it is the fourth-tallest brick lighthouse in the nation. It is said that the first lighthouse keeper, Jeremiah Ingram, still wanders through his former quarters. On Saturdays from May to October, visitors can climb the 177 steps up the spiral staircase for panoramic views and possible paranormal sightings.
Pensacola’s Cultural Scene Surprises and Inspires
The small town of Pensacola delivers a big arts and cultural scene, whether through a memorable painting with a colorful palette or an unforgettable meal that tantalizes the palate. Cultural opportunities are seemingly endless with art shows, gallery nights, operas, concerts, ballets, national Broadway tours, special exhibits and eclectic festivals. As the city celebrates its 450th anniversary, there is no better time to celebrate Pensacola’s rich and surprising culture.
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