North Central Florida:
UNEARTH A WORLD OF WONDERS

BY KEVIN MIMS

North Central Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

North Central Florida can be described in one word: diverse. Whether you’re talking about people, culture, outdoor destinations, the combination of cities and small towns, authentic Old Florida attractions or shopping and dining, this stretch of the Sunshine State has something for everyone.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there is no better place to see and explore natural Florida. Divers and recreational swimmers flock here to experience the many glistening blue springs and scenic rivers. A variety of paved and dirt trails can be traversed by foot, bike or horse and scenic state parks abound for day-trippers and campers alike. If you are interested in outdoor recreation, this is the place to be.

Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, and Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city and home to Florida State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, create an interesting mix of culture, business, dining venues and shopping opportunities. This is where “Old Florida” meets “New Florida,” where cities still celebrate their history while embracing an ever-changing crowd from all walks of life. Outside of these cities lie small towns, each with its own appeal, from historic Micanopy to Wakulla Springs. Revitalized downtown areas, active with antique shops, dining venues and specialty stores, draw in crowds from all over the state, especially on weekends.

Whatever your interests may be, North Central Florida is full of authentic experiences to keep you coming back for more. With its unique small towns steeped in history, unbeatable outdoor destinations, and its arts and culture scene, the hardest part will be choosing where to go and what to do first.

WHAT’S NEW

In May 2015, Sweetwater Wetlands Park opened in Gainesville. With more than 125 acres of wetlands and ponds, this property serves to preserve areas vital to Paynes Prairie and the Floridan Aquifer. For visitors, this means ample opportunities for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. Florida Cracker horses and alligators are among the animals that call this park home. There are boardwalks and 3.5 miles of gravel-covered trails along which visitors can walk and explore the area. Ranger-led tours are offered periodically for those who want to become better acquainted with the land, water and inhabitants.

Grasslands Brewing Company, which opened in Tallahassee in February 2015, serves craft beer—both its own creations and those from around Florida and beyond—to patrons. However, the popular brewery’s mission goes beyond brew. Grasslands is actively involved in the conservation of coastal regions of the southeast United States and hosts events to further that mission.

Also in Tallahassee, an historic Florida treasure has recently been opened to the public: Spring House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the state. Built in a hemicycle design in 1954, the house sits on a five-acre parcel of land, which includes a spring that leads to Lake Jackson. The home is being restored and public tours are held every second Sunday of the month from 2 to 4 PM. Tickets are $15. Children 12 and under get in free.

ARTS AND CULTURE

Roots run deep in North Central Florida. 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 megalodon jaws and woolly mammoths, interactive Native American displays and galleries, and much more. The venue is the largest natural history museum south of the Smithsonian and the largest university-based museum of its kind in the country. It is also home to the Butterfly Rainforest, which 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 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 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.

In the heart of downtown Tallahassee, Cascades Park brings together arts, entertainment, education, history and wellness. This venue includes a state-of-the-art amphitheater, an interactive water fountain, a children’s play area and miles of multi-use trails.

Don’t pass up Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville and Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee. Both 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 the 1,200-mile Florida 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 (about an hour from Tallahassee) has a couple of beautiful natural sand beaches as well.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Encompassing two major college towns means North Central Florida is teeming with nightlife and restaurants of all kinds.

First, there’s Gainesville.

At Envy in Gainesville, the party never stops. Located near the University of Florida, this club hosts a multitude of special events. University Club is another hot spot for the nightclub crowd.

For good eats, wine and beer, Salty Dog Saloon has you covered. One of Gainesville’s oldest bars, it’s a great place to play your favorite songs on the jukebox and play a game of pool.

If you crave small-town charm and good food, head to downtown High Springs. There, you’ll find the old Opera House, home of the Great Outdoors, 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, and both lunch and dinner menus are well-rounded and affordable.

Then, there’s Tallahassee.

Want to shake things up? Bradfordville Blues Club brings the zydeco dance scene to Tallahassee. Dripping with southern charm and jumping with lively music, it’s a main stop for R&B musicians from near and far. Party lights and fried catfish complete the cozy and friendly atmosphere.

When you’re ready to hit the night clubs, try Bullwinkle’s Saloon, which never disappoints college crowds with its variety of live DJs, bands and drink specials.

If sophistication is what you seek, the hip, elegant Level 8 rooftop lounge at Hotel Duval has just what you’re looking for. The Wine Loft Wine Bar in midtown Tallahassee is popular with wine enthusiasts and proclaims to have the best wine list in town.

Prime Time serves food, spirits and good times—particularly on nights of major sports events. A combination restaurant-sports bar-late-night lounge, this is where to go for a laid-back night of watching sports or having drinks with friends.

For good food and a coastal casual atmosphere, make your way to the Front Porch in Tallahassee, a midtown hot spot. 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.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

There are plenty of family attractions throughout North Central Florida, centering around “real” experiences rather than theme parks. If you prefer seeing the natural side of the state, this area is 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 outer islands of 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 northeast from Chiefland. At Dudley Farm, visitors have the chance to see what Florida farm life was like from the 1850s to the mid 1940s. It’s a living history experience, where staff presents 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.

As a retirement home for horses, Mill Creek Farm is a special place indeed. It opens its doors to the public every Saturday from 11 AM to 3 PM and admission is two carrots.

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 as 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 The 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 its 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 1880s, 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 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 Tallahassee, 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 you can explore over and over again.

SHOP

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 Haile Village Farmers’ Market is the perfect place to purchase fresh produce, enjoy prepared food and connect with some of the finest artisans in the Gainesville area. Fashionistas will find their flair at the Oaks Mall, Thornebrook Village and Tioga Town Center. And don’t overlook the boutiques in downtown Gainesville where you’ll find anything from vinyl albums and Blu-rays at Hear Again Music and Movies to premier designs at Etc…Boutique. For antiques, in addition to Micanopy, check out Waldo Antique Village and Waldo’s Farmers’ and Flea Market in Waldo as well as Roadside Relics in High Springs.

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 on the national chains and go with something that’s a little more charming. North Central Florida is a unique area, so it makes sense there are interesting places for you to call home away from home.

Cedar Key’s Faraway Inn encompasses about half a city block, with lovely rooms and individual cottages spread 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 historic Bed & Breakfast District in Gainesville features a number of plantation-style inns offering southern tradition and rich history.

Northwest Florida
Flagler Museum
Sebring
Crystal River
Daytona Beach
Franklin County
Florida Southern College
Gainesville
Holiday Inn Club Vacations