North Central Florida:
CHOOSE YOUR SOUTHERN-STYLE ADVENTURE

BY KEVIN MIMS

North Central Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

In this region of the Sunshine State, visitors can experience the full spectrum of Florida life. From upscale dining, shopping and accommodation to spectacular natural wonders and outdoor recreation opportunities, North Central Florida has a little bit of everything. 

The two major cities in this region—Gainesville and Tallahassee—offer vibrant experiences for all. Both are college towns, so expect to find a diverse blend of ages, races and nationalities, all of which are reflected in a wide selection of independent businesses aimed at locals and out-of-towners. This is where “Old Florida” meets “New Florida.” What you get here are cities that still celebrate their history while embracing an ever-changing crowd from all walks of life.

Consider this Florida statistic that might surprise some. Overall, wildlife-viewing trips are second only to beach-related activities—excluding fishing—in importance to both residents and visitors. Fishing is right behind in the third position. This means that on the whole, you are more likely to see more folks with binoculars and wildlife-viewing gear than fishing rods, but not beach towels and sand shovels.

These numbers are especially noticeable in North Central Florida, where you never have to travel far to reach a playground in the great outdoors. Countless hiking and biking trails, spectacular state parks, gin-clear freshwater springs and timeless scenic rivers are all within easy reach to nature lovers. If you are interested in outdoor recreation, this is the place to be. 

Outside of Gainesville and Tallahassee, the small towns and communities of North Central Florida are equally as fascinating, with unique shops and local flavor. Revitalized downtown areas, active with antique shops, eateries and other specialty stores, draw in large crowds from all over the state, especially on weekends.

In short, North Central Florida is a “choose your own adventure” kind of place. It’s full of original, authentic experiences that are sure to please everyone.

WHAT’S NEW

In 2014, Gainesville’s third craft brewery opened its doors, with a name that pays homage to some of the area’s natural wonders. First Magnitude Brewing Company, a 15-barrel operation established in part by a former University of Florida professor (and passionate home brewer), is helping to fill an increasing demand for local brews. The name takes its inspiration from North Central Florida’s abundant freshwater springs. The largest ones are referred to as first-magnitude springs and North Central Florida is home to more first-magnitude springs than anywhere else on the planet.

Tallahassee’s newly renovated Cascades Park and world-class amphitheater celebrated its official grand opening in March 2014. Located right in the heart of Florida’s Capital City, Cascades Park is home to 2.3 miles of multi-purpose paved trails, a kid-friendly discovery area, the Imagination Fountain (73 jets of pure entertainment) and a 3,500-seat outdoor venue. Needless to say, this is definitely a don’t-miss spot when visiting the city.

A 700-foot-plus Canopy Walkway was also completed in 2014, connecting two Tallahassee parks and creating a destination in itself. This project has been in the works for 15 years and links more than 1,500 acres of the county’s Greenway Master Plan. The Canopy Walkway serves as a safe passage between Lafayette Heritage Trail Park and J.R. Alford Greenway, both of which feature a variety of shared-use pathways, a paddling trail and a network of mountain bike trails.

ARTS AND CULTURE

Roots run deep in North Central Florida, just as they do throughout the state. Time-honored traditions are celebrated at annual festivals and examples of the area’s colorful heritage are apparent throughout the region. 

To start, the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville showcases 65 million years of the earth’s biological and cultural diversity through educational exhibits of fossils, full-size megaladon jaws and wooly mammoths, interactive Native American displays and galleries, and much more. The museum is the largest natural history museum south of the Smithsonian and the largest university-based museum of its kind in the country. Besides permanent and traveling exhibitions, the museum is also home to the Butterfly Rainforest, a living exhibit that features hundreds of free-flying butterfly and bird species from around the world. It’s a great attraction for the whole family, with daily butterfly releases, feeding stations and a lush tropical landscape.

Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre, known locally as “The Hipp,” is where it’s at for independent live performances and cinema. In 1979, the Hippodrome moved into Gainesville’s historic Federal Building, an outstanding example of Palladian Classical Revival architecture, with ornate limestone trim and massive Corinthian columns. Originally the first floor served as the Post Office, while the second floor was a courtroom. These days, more than 200,000 annual visitors pass through the doors of the Hippodrome to check out first-run artistic films, film festivals and art exhibitions from Florida artists.

Another important cultural venue in Gainesville is the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, which maintains an exemplary array of exhibits on art, technology and the natural world. The museum features more than 6,200 works in its permanent collection and a number of temporary exhibitions.

North Central Florida’s arts and culture scene can also be found in several smaller area towns, and in some cases, the whole town is considered a cultural destination. For example, the island community of Cedar Key (about 75 minutes southwest of Gainesville on the Gulf coast) feels like a place that time forgot. This small fishing village-meets-arts-town was actually one of the busier places during Florida’s frontier days, serving as a major shipping port. Now, visitors come for day and weekend trips to stay in several locally owned hotels, take ecotours, eat seafood (don’t miss Tony’s world-famous clam chowder) and spend a few dollars in the town’s gift shops and art galleries.

Up in Tallahassee, a stop at Mission San Luis is a must. This living-history museum is set in 1703, when Apalachee Indians and Spanish settlers (military and religious occupants) lived side-by-side, combining Native American and European cultures. It’s one of the most fascinating attractions in the region, with archaeological and historical exhibits, a thatched Franciscan church, Apalachee council house and other buildings of the era. 

Don’t pass up Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville and Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee. Both places are perfect for an early-morning stroll in a beautiful setting, plus both offer regularly scheduled guided tours. Spring visits are always a treat, with blooming azaleas one of the main highlights.

BEACHES

Not all of Florida’s 1,200-mile coastline is lined with white, sandy beaches. In some regions—North Central Florida happens to be one of them—the coast is different than the typical Florida postcard.

In the Big Bend and Nature Coast regions along the Gulf of Mexico, the shoreline is wild and beautiful, with palm islands and salt marshes. Fishing and kayaking here are world-class; bring your gear and be ready for the trip of a lifetime.

There are, however, a couple of places that are great for typical beach activities. Cedar Key has a small public beach, and Bald Point State Park near Panacea (one hour from Tallahassee) has a couple of beautiful natural sand beaches as well. 

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The dining and nightlife scene in this part of Florida—like everything else—runs the complete spectrum. It’s not Miami, but visitors will find upscale dining all the way to ultra-casual, laid-back spots the whole family will enjoy. The same goes for the nightlife—remember, Gainesville and Tallahassee are college towns, so they can definitely hold their own.

Satchel’s Pizza in Gainesville is by far one of the coolest pizza joints in the state. Put together folk art displays, a quirky salvage yard and a restaurant, and you have Satchel’s. Order up a homemade Lola Cola, a Satch Salad and one of their famous pizzas (bonus points for the vegan-friendly pesto) for an out-of this world lunch and experience. 

While in Gainesville, stick around for good music (tribute bands, blues acts, reggae and more) at Bo Diddley Community Plaza, where all you need to have a good time is a lawn chair or a blanket to sit on. 

Head to the old Opera House in downtown High Springs for the Great Outdoors Restaurant, a beautifully themed landmark with an all-wood interior, vintage cedar and canvas canoes and other outdoorsy trappings. The patio is pet-friendly, so bring along the four-legged family members. There’s a regular live music schedule; both lunch and dinner menus are well-rounded and affordable. It’s a great place.

Looking for a special lunch spot in Tallahassee? The Paisley Cafe is a favorite with both locals and out-of-towners. It’s right in Midtown, making it easy to reach from Cascades Park or the Florida Historic Capitol Museum. It’s full of southern charm—do yourself a favor and order the shrimp and grits, but be prepared to take a nap afterward.

“Coastal casual” is the theme at The Front Porch in Tallahassee, another Midtown hotspot. This 1920s-restored home is the setting for casual upscale gatherings, with unique takes on traditional seafood dishes. The oysters here are as good as they get anywhere, and you can have them prepared just about any way imaginable. There isn’t a bad seat in the house; choose from several options—enclosed porches, a lower deck outdoor space underneath massive live oaks or event rooms suitable for business meetings and events.

When the sun goes down, head off the main roads and back into the Tallahassee woods toward the Bradfordville Blues Club, a real-deal juke joint. Like most authentic clubs, it’s not much to look at, but there’s real magic here. This isn’t a place to wear your Sunday best; come ready to listen to live, legitimate blues acts and to dance and drink. Outside, there’s always a bonfire. The “BBC” truly is what other blues joints aspire to be. It’s so good that it’s earned a spot on the historic Mississippi Blues Trail, a rare honor bestowed to only a select number of places beyond Mississippi’s borders. 

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

There’s plenty of family fun throughout North Central Florida, with “real” experiences rather than theme parks. If seeing some of the natural side of the state is what you are after, this is the area for you.

In Cedar Key, Tidewater Tours and Boat Rentals offers several trips to get your family out on the water to view dolphins, migratory birds (birding is fantastic here) and other species. For a good understanding of Cedar Key, take a two-hour island tour to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge to see marine life and learn about the ecosystem.

North Central Florida is springs country and a visit to a few of these majestic natural wonders should not be missed. For a good walk-up look at a first-magnitude spring, travel to Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, a popular spot for diving, camping, wildlife observation, hiking, biking and swimming in the headsprings. For kayakers, Manatee Springs flows a short distance to the lower Suwannee River. For a great family-friendly adventure, set up camp, go swimming, then rent kayaks and spend some time paddling. It’s a wonderful location to reconnect with nature.

Dudley Farm Historic State Park in Newberry is only a 30-minute drive north from Chiefland. At Dudley Farm, visitors get the chance to see what Florida farm life was like from the late 1800s to the mid 1940s. It’s a living history experience, with staff presenting daily life chores in authentic period clothing. Dudley Farm is on the National Register of Historic Places and features 18 buildings, including the original Dudley family farmhouse, a post office, general store, barns and more.

Proceed farther north and you’ll find Ichetucknee Springs State Park, a wonderland for outdoor lovers and a classic Old Florida experience. The headsprings are incredible, however the park is most famous for being a tubing destination. During the busy season (the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day), a tram shuttles tube-trippers back to the start, making the logistics easy to plan. It’s also extremely popular for kayaking and is considered one of the most beautiful spring-fed rivers in the entire state.

Visitors travel into Florida’s past at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the state’s original attractions. Many early movies were filmed at Wakulla Springs, including Creature from the Black Lagoon. The whole park is simply incredible, from the 1930s Wakulla Springs Lodge (book a room here, it’s fabulous) to the Wakulla River tour. The headspring is considered one of the largest and deepest first-magnitude springs in the world, and you can splash down in it from a two-level diving platform. For those interested in wildlife, the river tour is out of this world. Expect to see alligators, a variety of wading birds, outstanding scenery, and manatees make an appearance on a regular basis. If you are interested in Florida history and nature, this is a terrific stop.

There’s more going on at the Tallahassee Museum than the name implies. It’s part wildlife center, part history museum and part adventure park. Stroll around the property and you’ll see plenty of live Florida wildlife displays, the historic Big Bend Farm that looks straight out of the 1800s, and a wide range of fascinating plant and animal collections. Above, the Tree to Tree Adventures zip line provides visitors a completely different perspective on the place. It’s totally kid-friendly and will bring out the kid in any adult as well.

ROAD TRIPS

Who doesn’t love a good road trip? In North Central Florida, scenic drives and country roads are the rule, not the exception. 

US Highway 19 is a beautiful choice in this area. Start in the south in the small town of Inglis, which Elvis Presley visited during the filming of the movie, Follow That Dream. This section is big on scenery and low on traffic making it a perfect weekend trip. Cedar Key is a short distance off US 19, and a few great Florida state parks (namely, Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs) are right along the corridor.

Don’t miss a ride from Gainesville to the town of Micanopy, another fantastic stop in North Central Florida. Take US Highway 441 south, stopping at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, one of the most biologically diverse places in the state. Add to the trip by bringing along bikes and pedaling a section of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which begins at Gainesville’s Boulware Springs Park. Back in the car, make sure to take a spin around historic Micanopy, stopping in at the shops and taking in the views before returning to Gainesville.

There are plenty of scenic highways in and around Tallahassee. These are beautiful places, with low-traffic two-lane roads covered with a canopy of ancient live oak trees. These roads have a direct connection to the past and many follow the same route established by Native Americans and early settlers. From downtown Tallahassee, take scenic Centerville Road for 16 miles to Bradley’s Country Store, a family-owned location that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Bradley’s Country Store is famous statewide for its fresh sausage and milled grits, both of which are made right on the premises. 

This area is also home to a stretch of the 220-mile Big Bend Scenic Byway. From Tallahaseee, head south through the Apalachicola National Forest, the largest national forest in the state. It’s incredibly diverse with sprays of colorful wildflowers and scenery straight out of a painting. Heading south on the byway, you’ll reach the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a 70,000-acre paradise originally established for migratory birds. Many different routes can be taken on the Big Bend Scenic Byway, making this road trip one that you can explore over and over again.

SHOPPING

Bringing home a few of the local goods goes hand-in-hand with travel and folks will find plenty of shops with antiques, crafts, art and home decor items in the area. Almost every small downtown area in North Central Florida has something available for those looking to pick up a thing or two.

Micanopy is one of the most well-known antique destinations in the entire state. It’s the oldest inland city in Florida so you can expect to find special treasures in this historic location. Stroll down Cholokka Boulevard and stop in at Delectable Collectibles for a wide range of antiques and vintage items. Don’t miss the Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse for earth-friendly crafts, pastries, jams, jellies, marmalades and bread baked in an outdoor brick oven. Just outside of town, Smiley’s Antique Mall offers 25,000 square feet of space with vendors specializing in different types of collectibles and rarities. 

The Tallahassee Downtown Market celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014 and is the place to go on Saturdays for local produce, live music, arts and crafts and ready-to-eat foods. Things kick off at 9 AM with the sound of bagpipes during the Mercat March, a piper-led parade of merchants announcing they are open. It’s a great place to get a feel for what’s happening in Tallahassee.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

When visiting, pass by the national chains and go with something that’s a little more charming. You’ll find it, too. North Central Florida is a unique area, so it makes sense that there are interesting places for you to call home while here.

Cedar Key’s Faraway Inn encompasses about half a city block, with lovely rooms and individual cottages spread out throughout gardens and underneath shade trees. It has all the amenities you need to make a stay in Cedar Key enjoyable. Guests can rent canoes, kayaks and golf carts to get around town and the Faraway Inn is one of the most pet-friendly lodging choices found anywhere. 

North of Cedar Key, the Steinhatchee Landing Resort is the place to go for upscale outdoorsy accommodation. It feels like an old-time Florida town, with 31 fully equipped rental cottages (several of which are pet-friendly), a wellness spa and top-notch boating, fishing and scalloping nearby. It’s also a popular wedding destination with an Old Florida flavor. 

Stay a few nights at the Herlong Mansion in Micanopy, one of Florida’s most elegant bed and breakfasts. The Herlong exudes true southern charm and hospitality and is on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s nothing quite like a stay at the Herlong, with private Jacuzzis and massage offerings. Both the landscaping and architecture are out of this world, and you’ll surely feel transported back in time.

The Telford Hotel is located in the historic town of White Springs, on the banks of the legendary Suwannee River. After being closed for a few years, the Telford has reopened and is flourishing under new ownership. White Springs is considered Florida’s first tourist destination, where travelers from around the globe would come to bathe in the healing mineral waters of White Sulphur Springs. The Telford is the last remaining original hotel from this era. 

INSDER’S TIPS

North Central Florida is one of the go-to regions in the state for outdoor and history lovers. It’s not the Florida most people think about and offers a side of things a lot of visitors miss. For those who want to get off the beaten path, this is the spot for you.

You can’t visit this section of Florida without visiting a few of the freshwater springs. These places are the true gems of Florida and make perfect day trips. Most are part of the Florida State Parks system and only cost a few dollars to access. 

For paddlers, it’s hard to beat a trip on the famed spring-fed Wakulla River. Head to T-n-T Hide-A-Way Rental for kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals, as well as expert guided tours. This is one of Florida’s premier wildlife viewing areas, so make sure to bring along cameras and viewing optics.

One of the best long-distance paddling adventures in the country can be done on the 170-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. Start your trip in White Springs at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, staying at the trail’s river camps along the way. They feature screened-in camping porches, showers and restrooms, and are located about every 10 miles on the trail. This is one adventure you’ll never forget.

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