Glorious seas, skies, sands and woodlands have attracted scores of resident artists to Northwest Florida, many of whom have their own studios or galleries. Several Panhandle communities host gala Art Walk celebrations seasonally or throughout the year. Galleries keep longer hours, wine may be served, restaurants post special menus and music plays throughout the art districts as visitors browse, shop and mingle. Sometimes gallery night is part of a larger celebration in a street scene of food kiosks and performers. Apalachicola holds its Art Walk & Wine Festival annually in March. In Seaside, live music and art demos are offered the first Friday of the month at Ruskin Place and Central Square. Fort Walton Beach holds its Art Walk the third Friday. Artists along the Destin Boardwalk display their creations on third Sunday afternoons. Downtown Pensacola Gallery Nights are on Fridays, but dates vary.
Franklin County, Apalachicola
In Franklin County, easternmost in the Panhandle, Apalachicola is the best-known city. Once the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, reminders of those halcyon days of steamers and schooners, railroads and lumber mills remain. The city’s historic district has nearly a thousand historic buildings and sites from a bygone era. Along the waterfront, structures that once served as commercial fishing factories and warehouses have evolved into seafood houses and galleries, and old shrimp boats now reside for eternity.
Nearby Cape St. George Lighthouse lit the way for mariners from 1852 to 2005, when it collapsed into the water. Now it’s been rebuilt with a new museum. It’s no longer a working lighthouse, but you can’t tell the story of this region without relating the history of this structure.
John Gorrie Museum State Park in Apalachicola is a modest site, but well worth a stop to view a replica of the ice-making machine invented by Dr. Gorrie to cool his patients during a yellow fever epidemic. The larger discussion here, shown in interpretive displays, is the important role yellow fever, malaria and other tropical agues played in the early Americas.
One of the region’s most intriguing cultural enclaves is in the time-warped hamlet of DeFuniak Springs, founded in the 1880s. Leaders of a quaint education movement in the 19th century known as Chautauqua, named after its origins on Lake Chautauqua in New York, established a winter home on the scenic shores of what was then called Lake DeFuniak. The historic residential district—bordered by the original Chautauqua meeting hall and a downtown with a renovated railroad-era hotel—showcases Victorian architecture.The Florida Chautauqua Theatre remains active.
In Apalachicola, you can tour historic homes or you can sleep in them. Founded in 1831, this port city is part of America’s National Trust and easily explored on foot. Free tours of the Raney House offer insights into the plush delights of a cotton merchant’s life, while a stay at the Coombs House Inn lets you luxuriate in the finery of a lumber baron’s legacy.
Panama City has four very interesting neighborhoods in which to roam. Downtown is filled with galleries and arts facilities such as the Martin Theatre, the City Marina, the Visual Arts Center and the CityArts Cooperative. Historic St. Andrews still resembles the quaint fishing village it was in the “old days.” Downtown North serves as the cultural hub of Panama City’s African American community and Millville is named for its once-thriving paper-manufacturing and shipbuilding industries.Panama City Beach boasts the Gulf World Marine Park and the Man in the Sea Museum, both of which offer up close and personal looks at the waters and wildlife off these shores. At WonderWorks, which appears upside down from the outside, science and fun come together in an interactive wonderland with a hundred hands-on exhibits.
Holmes County has a population of only 20,000; however, it boasts two noteworthy historic residences. Built in the 1920s by lumber baron George Orkney Waits, the Waits Mansion is a Mediterranean Revival home, recently restored and open to visitors. At the other end of the housing spectrum is the Keith Cabin, an authentic 19th-century rural homestead on which William Thomas Keith grew cotton and tobacco and expanded his land holdings from 10 acres to 190.
The Beaches of South Walton are home to a vibrant arts community, anchored by the local Cultural Arts Alliance and enhanced by the opening of the Foster Gallery in 2016. Every month, the vibrantly colored community of Seaside holds the First Friday Ruskin Place Art Walk, featuring live music, hors d’oeuvres and wine in the largest collection of art galleries on the Northwest Florida Gulf coast. Artists at Gulf Place is an art cooperative including potters, sculptors, painters, metal artists, candlemakers, photographers, folk artists and furniture crafters, with workshops for kids. South Walton also boasts the Seaside Repertory Theatre, one of Northwest Florida’s premier professional theater companies.
In Okaloosa County’s Indian Temple Mound Museum, you can walk through 12,000 years of Native American life and admire one of the finest collections of prehistoric ceramics in the southeastern U.S. A more recent period of history comes alive at the Air Force Armament Museum, which takes you from the early biplanes of World War I to the SR-71 Blackbird—the fastest aircraft ever built.
The town of Milton is filled with historic homes and storefronts leading to the Blackwater River waterfront, once the epicenter of thriving timber and shipbuilding industries. At the old post office, you can ogle the antiques while eating lunch.
Revisit the early 1900s, when live vaudeville acts were giving way to movies, at the Museum of Local History in Milton. It’s housed in the stately Imogene Little Theatre, built in 1912 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Milton is also home to the West Florida Railroad Museum, which is housed in a typical depot waiting room from the 1880s. Newly restored in 2015, the Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site in Milton preserves remnants of one of the largest antebellum water-powered industrial complexes in Northwest Florida. Operations included a sawmill, lumber mill with planning and lathing machines, gristmill, a bucket factory, shingle mill, cotton textile mill and an experimental silk cultivation operation.
At the western end of the Panhandle, the city of Pensacola boasts two significant distinctions. It was the first settlement founded by emigrants to America. The city of only 52,000 is also one of the few in the U.S. with five professional performing arts companies. Pensacola’s iconic Saenger Theatre first opened its doors in 1925 and is now restored to her original glory, hosting dance and musical companies, theater and a Classic Movie Series.
History buffs know Pensacola was settled earlier in the 16th century than St. Augustine but lost the right to call itself the nation’s oldest city when the original settlement on Pensacola Bay was abandoned for a few years. The city center is now built on the site of an early fort and Spanish culture survives in place names, architecture, cuisine and historic markers.Costumed characters toil daily in Historic Pensacola Village, taking on the roles of candlemakers, quilters, bakers and merchants who lived here centuries ago. The Museum of Commerce is a street scene of typical 18th- and 19th-century shops.
You can’t walk very far in Pensacola without bumping into an historic landmark. Fort Barrancas, for example, is a Royal Navy redoubt built in 1763 on the beautiful Gulf Islands National Seashore. There’s the Historic Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum, built in 1859, where a climb up the 177 winding steps offers a stunning view from the top. Then, of course, there’s the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the training center for just about anyone who ever sat in the cockpit of a U.S. combat plane and home to the world-class National Naval Aviation Museum, where you can strap yourself into the cockpit of a classic fighter.
If you’re visiting Pensacola between April and December, check the schedule for Gallery Night, when the city’s downtown streets come alive on one special Friday each month. Visitors and locals gather at these festive block-party events to enjoy music, art and cuisine provided by dozens of local businesses.
Nearby Pensacola Beach is the site of Fort Pickens, completed in 1834 and housing Native American prisoners from 1886–87, the most famous of which was the Apache chieftain Geronimo.
Representing the grandeur of antebellum plantation life, the focal point of the Eden Gardens State Park is the Wesley Mansion, an elegant 1898 plantation house set alongside a bayou amid ornamental gardens and grand oaks. Today the home features the second-largest-known collection of Louis XVI furnishings in America, thanks to New York heiress Lois Maxon, who purchased the home in 1963 (floridastateparks.org/edengardens).
The Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville provides a showcase for visiting international artists as well as local talent, including the Northwest Florida Symphony and Northwest Florida Ballet.
For Civil War groupies, Northwest Florida offers significant sites. The Battle of Marianna in 1864 saw more than 25 percent of the male population killed, wounded or captured. Battlefield tours can be arranged. Fort Pickens in Santa Rosa Beach was occupied by Union forces through most of the war. A historic marker in Bagdad remembers the Skirmish on the Blackwater.
World War II history is preserved at the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum in Carrabelle. The camp, which once housed half a million troops, opened in 1942 and trained amphibious forces for assaults from Normandy to the Bay of Pigs.
Experience pioneer life in Florida on a visit to the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement in Blountstown, where a collection of 18 historic buildings sets a backdrop for living history on a Florida farm. Watch milk bottled right at the source at the Ocheesee Creamery, a rural dairy.
Northwest Florida is bursting with art and culture. Which events and places will you choose to see?
Now it’s your turn! Which places have you been? Where do you want to go? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us all!