Pensacola vs Jacksonville is a battle of Florida’s northern beaches. The Florida Panhandle on the Gulf coast, versus the so-called “First Coast” on the Atlantic side. Is Pensacola, with its white sandy beaches and emerald-green waters the best beach town in Florida? Or do Jacksonville’s blue Atlantic waters, fishing and surfing spots, and great golf courses make it the better choice for a vacation? Here are the factors you should take into account when trying to decide between Pensacola vs Jacksonville for your next vacation.
The first thing to note about Jacksonville is the sheer size of the city. Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States, covering 875 square miles. The section of Jacksonville where the beaches are located is called Jacksonville Beaches, or “The Beaches,” and features 22 miles of beaches on an unnamed barrier island that encompasses numerous beach communities. Jacksonville Beaches is a separate region of the city, away from the urban core and most of the city’s suburbs.
If you plan on visiting Jacksonville for a beach vacation, you definitely want to stay in the Jacksonville Beaches area, otherwise you could be in for a long drive when you want to enjoy the beach. The main communities that make up Jacksonville Beaches are Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach. All of these communities feature excellent beachfront hotels and rental houses, and beautiful beaches.
Pensacola is a much smaller city than Jacksonville, only about 40 square miles in size. The westernmost city on the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola is just a couple minutes drive from the Alabama border.
Like Jacksonville, the beachfront region of Pensacola is separate from the rest of the city. Known as Pensacola Beach, the beach community is located on a barrier island called Santa Rosa Island, just south of the city proper. Pensacola Beach can be reached from the main city via a series of bridges that take about 15 minutes to cross via car.
If you are planning a beach vacation to Pensacola, you should look for hotels or rental houses in Pensacola Beach. There are plenty of great places to stay right along Pensacola Beach’s eight miles of shoreline.
One of the biggest factors to take into consideration when deciding between Pensacola vs Jacksonville for your next vacation is the beach in each city.
Jacksonville Beach is an expansive, lively beach with plenty of room to accommodate all travelers—although finding parking can be a different story if you are not within walking distance of the beach. Jacksonville Beach is beautiful, clean, and uncrowded, with refreshing blue waters that stay warm throughout the summer and into late autumn. Visitors to Jacksonville Beach often see pods of dolphins or even whales swim by, close to shore.
Popular activities on the water in Jacksonville Beach include swimming, surfing, skimboarding, fishing, boating, and kayaking. On the beach, you will often find people relaxing in the sun, jogging along the shoreline, or playing volleyball, soccer, paddleball, or other beach games.
Jacksonville Beach has a calm, laid-back atmosphere, with tree-lined residential streets leading up to the beach entrances. Piers extending into the ocean make for great fishing spots, and the plethora of hotels and vacation rentals right off the beach make Jacksonville a convenient vacation destination.
Pensacola’s beaches are widely considered some of the nicest in the world. With white sands, emerald green waters, and sunny skies an average of 230 days per year, Pensacola Beach is the perfect place for vacationers. The water is calm with light waves and it stays warm into autumn, so Pensacola is a great place to visit even late into the season.
Popular activities on Pensacola Beach include swimming, fishing, boating, watersports, jogging along the shoreline, and relaxing in the sun. The relative lack of large waves or rough surf makes Pensacola a great place for children and families, but less than ideal for surfers or boogie boarders.
Both Pensacola Beach and Jacksonville have an abundance of excellent hotels, rental houses, condos, and apartments for vacationers to stay in. Some of the best hotels in Jacksonville include:
Jacksonville Beaches Hotels
One Ocean Resort and Spa – A beautiful, four-star beachfront resort located on Jacksonville Beaches’ Atlantic Beach. One Ocean Resort and Spa features luxury rooms with ocean views and terraces, a spa, fitness center, outdoor pool, and kayak, bike, and surfboard rentals.
Ponte Vedra Inn & Club – A luxury five-star hotel located right on the beach, with a golf course, tennis courts, four pools, a spa, and over a dozen fine dining establishments. Oceanfront suites with balconies and terraces make for an incredible stay.
Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa – An excellent, four-star golf resort with three pools, a spa, excellent dining, and access to TPC Sawgrass golf course–one of the best golf courses in Florida. The beach is about a 10-minute shuttle ride away.
Pensacola Beach Hotels
Portofino Island Resort – A stunning beachfront four-star hotel with seven pools, three dining establishments, and a spa, Portofino Island Resort has everything you need to enjoy an incredible stay in Pensacola.
Margaritaville Beach Hotel – A gorgeous hotel with a relaxed vibe, Margaritaville Beach Hotel has luxury suites, an outdoor pool, a tiki bar, and a cafe. The hotel’s motto is “barefoot elegance.”
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Pensacola Beach – A nice, three-star hotel located right on the beach, that features suites with kitchenettes, a fitness center, a bar, and three pools.
Attractions and Activities
Aside from the beaches and resorts, what is there to do in each city, and does one have more activities and attractions than the other? When considering Pensacola vs Jacksonville, here are the activities you may want to consider:
Adventure Landing – An amusement park and waterpark that features rides, mini golf, laser tag, an arcade, go karts, and more, Adventure Landing is a great place for families to spend a day.
Beaches Museum and History Park – Learn about the history of the Jacksonville Beaches area at the Beaches Museum and History Park. The museum’s exhibits feature artifacts and art from all of the beach towns. It also features a historic chapel and an old steam train.
Cradle Creek Preserve – A 36-acre nature preserve in Jacksonville Beach, Cradle Creek Preserve has hiking trails, raised boardwalks, and creeks and marshes for kayaking and canoeing. The preserve is also home to a wide variety of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
South Beach Park and Sunshine Playground – A great playground for kids, and also a popular spot with walkers, joggers, and skateboarders.
Fort Pickens – A historic fort that was built in the Pensacola area in 1834 and saw combat during the Civil War. The fort remained in use until 1947, and is today a historic site where visitors can take self-guided tours.
National Naval Aviation Museum – The world’s aviation museum, the National Naval Aviation Museum features an extensive collection of fighter jets, bombers, military transport aircraft, trainer aircraft, and more.
Gulf Breeze Zoo – A 50-acre zoo with over over 800 animals from all over the world, including gorillas, orangutan, giraffe, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and more.