Learning centers & rural gems
North Central Florida is riddled with natural gifts, including the celebrated Suwannee River, clearwater springs and wilderness, and flora and fauna, which naturalist John Muir walked 1,000 miles to document. Miles of “blue” byways, bracketed by two high-spirited universities, stitch together hometown hamlets where time stands still.
ARTS AND CULTURE
At the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville see one of the world’s iconic Hammering Man statues by Jonathan Borofsky plus more than 10,000 pieces of African, Asian and contemporary art. Also on display are comprehensive collections of Ancient American, oceanic and natural history art. Five outdoor spaces include the Asian Water Garden and an Asian Rock Garden.
Theater-goers can find live professional productions as well as art cinema and art exhibits at Gainesville’s architecturally impressive Hippodrome. It’s housed in the historical Federal Building, richly designed with Corinthian columns and elaborate trim.
Anchored by an early (1857) Gainesville homestead, Matheson History Museum showcases local history and native plants in its botanical garden. The complex also includes the original tool barn and a quaint 1935 tabernacle that serves as the museum library. The Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus is best known for its Butterfly Rainforest. Don’t miss its extensive collections in fields of archaeology, paleontology and ethnology. Outdoors, stroll along nature paths.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs has campsites, cabins, ranger-led events and hiking trails, the same as other state parks, but resident artists make this stop a vibrant center for Florida folk art every day. Programs feature performers, songwriters and expert crafters.
Heading west to Tallahassee via I-10, stop briefly in Greenville. Tour the restored home of jazz legend Ray Charles (1930–2004) by appointment or just grab a quick photo of the impressive bronze statue of the blind musician. Continuing west to Monticello, see the historic Monticello Opera House. In the vaudeville era, touring troupes played the area’s many opera houses. This one still hosts live performances.
The Tallahassee Museum is a 52-acre collection of buildings representing 19thcentury commercial, farm and social life in North Florida. One of the most intriguing is Bellevue, a modest but caringly restored plantation home of a real princess. Catherine Daingerfield Willis, great grandniece of George Washington, became a royal when she married Prince Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon was exiled, the couple fled from France to the United States. The prince served as Tallahassee postmaster and Catherine bought a 520-acre cotton plantation. Their burial plot is in the St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in downtown Tallahassee.
Tallahassee’s performance arts include fully staged Florida State Opera productions at Florida State University. A large outdoor venue for seasonal festivals, concerts and events is the Capital City Amphitheater at Cascades Park downtown. Civic venues offer occasional touring shows such as a Broadway series.
Depot Park, a 32-acre family playground and cultural center on the site of Gainesville’s historic railroad station, is fully accessible to adults and children with physical challenges. On hot days, get wet in the splash pad. On the water’s edge, you may see pop-up art galleries, food trucks and festivals throughout the year. Come here any day to find outdoor grills, picnic pavilions and nature trails. Enjoy indoor fun at Depot Park in the Cade Museum of Creativity and Invention, which opened in 2018. Bring the family to engage with displays highlighting innovation.
In Tallahassee, Goodwood Museum & Gardens began as a 2,400-acre corn and cotton plantation in the 1830s. The stately home was owner-occupied into the 1920s and its furnishings reflect its many layers of history. The gardens have been returned to the original, 19th-century plantings of heirloom roses, bulbs and sago palms. Something is in bloom all year in a setting of towering live oaks.
Despite its modern look, Tallahassee is one of the South’s oldest communities. The Spanish settlement at St. Augustine traded with the Apalachee tribe here 500 years ago. When the British won Florida from the Spanish, the tribe fled west and burned their village. Now it has been reconstructed, a living replica of Spanish and Native American life. The Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee is a busy village peopled by Spanish “soldiers” at the fort, “friars” at the church and native townspeople who raise crops, weave, make horseshoes, feed chickens and meet at the council house. A faithful restoration, based on original Spanish records and placed on actual sites, the Mission re-creates the village when the tribe and their Spanish friends fled approaching English armies in 1704.
Although the Tallahassee Automobile and Collectibles Museum has more than 150 vehicles, it’s about much more than cars. The 100,000-square-foot building holds one of the nation’s largest displays of Steinway pianos plus extensive collections of jukeboxes, knives, vintage sports items, dolls, Native American relics, old toys, railroad memorabilia and rare oddities. Plan to spend all day.
The Challenger Learning Center in downtown Tallahassee is a university-led outreach for students from kindergarten age to 12. Adults are welcome. See eye-popping IMAX documentaries and attend planetarium shows.
BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS
Naturalist John Muir trekked through this region to end his famous Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf at Cedar Key, noting many previously unrecorded species of birds and plants. Look for them in the region’s state and national forests, preserves and parks. Stretches of the Great Florida Birding Trail thread through the region, offering sightings of upland and coastal species. Hiking trails abound.
Beachgoers speed past this area, lured to the snow-white sands of the Emerald Coast or eastward to the Atlantic beaches. That’s good news for locals who know a dozen hidden springs, which feed the rivers, are popular swimming holes where hikers and paddlers pause for a swim. Keaton Beach, a fishing village south of Perry, has a sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tubing the area’s unique springs provides an intimate look at a tangled wilderness. Float through tunnels of vegetation too small for canoes. Entry points include Blue Spring State Park in High Springs and Fort White’s Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
The Suwannee River can be paddled for its entire length, from north of Jacksonville to the Gulf of Mexico. Primitive camps are provided for overnight stays. Overnight lodgings, supplies and restaurants are found in White Springs and Dowling Park.
An exceptional network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails is well maintained and mapped, thanks to the Florida Trail Associ- ation. Gainesville’s Loblolly Woods is a serene hideaway in the heart of the city. The two-mile-long Hogtown Creek Greenway loop trail rewards all with views of woods, waters and wildlife seemingly untouched by urban sprawl.
The Osceola National Forest’s most popular spot is Ocean Pond, a two-mile-wide swimming hole with a sandy beach. The 200,000-acre forest has hiking, birding, ATV, motorcycle and equestrian trails.
The Tallahassee–St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail runs 20.5 miles from the capital to St. Marks. It’s part of Florida’s Greenways and Trails System, a National Recreation Trail and a portion of the developing 120-mile “Capital City to the Sea Loop” corridor on the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Trailahassee.com is an online resource with information and maps of more than 600 miles of trails in the Tallahassee area.
Tallahassee’s Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park is a botanical showplace, renowned for winter blooming camellias.
More of the region’s unique flora and fauna is found at such diverse spots as the sprawling savanna at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a prehistoric sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, the wetlands environment at Cedar Key and wooded upland habitats in state and national forests.
City life throbs too, thanks to major universities in Tallahassee and Gainesville. International students and faculty bring diverse cultures, ethnic cuisines and youthful energy to cities known for Old South heritage, food and hospitality. As the state capital, Tallahassee also hosts national and international political power brokers. In this region, variety is the spice of life.
In the two major cities, student hangouts account for a large slice of nightlife. Abundant choices are found in affordable and supercharged restaurants, sports bars, coffee houses, jazz joints, open-mike nights, dance clubs and pubs.
In Gainesville, the mother of all hangouts for every manner of Gator bait from University of Florida students to elderly alumni is The Swamp Restaurant near the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where the Florida Gators football team draws huge crowds. Since 1994 the eatery has been serving the faithful with food, drinks, reunions and cheering sections indoors and out. The front lawn is paved with commemorative bricks. The place to go pub-crawling is West University Avenue, either near campus or in Historic Downtown, where a dozen hot spots are mere yards apart.
Bo Diddley Plaza is a community cultural center in Gainesville’s Historic District. By day it’s busy with lunchtime concerts and a weekly farmers’ market. Free concerts take place every Friday night from May to October.
As the home of Florida State University, Tallahassee has a youthful buzz and football mania. And, as the state capital, “Tally” hosts travelers from all over the world.
Here, nightlife venues range from earshattering clubs favored by students to more sedate places for political deal making. A mustsee is the Bradfordville Blues Club, the only Florida club on the National Blues Trail. Set your GPS and follow the dirt roads until you come to the bonfire and hear the wail of the blues.
Krewe de Gras has a Cajun theme and live music in the capital. Also known for drinks, late nights, high energy and live music are Bullwinkle’s and The Moon. Level 8 Lounge in the elegant Hotel Duval is popular for both after-work and after-dinner drinks, tapas and live music.
The belly of this region is so sparsely populated that almost any paved road is a good place for a jog, two-wheel journey or a leisurely drive. The way is rimmed with wildflowers and passes by farm fields and pastures of grazing cattle, horses or goats.
The main east-west route I-10 roughly follows ancient paths used since preColombian times. Old roads that parallel the interstate pass through charming communities where the clock stopped once the interstate opened. Starting at Lake City, perhaps with a loop up to White Springs, take US 90 westward, stopping at Live Oak for fried chicken at the Dixie Grill and a visit to the museum in the old railroad depot.
Continue west to Suwannee River State Park on the site of a vanished community called Columbus. The park offers cabins, campsites, a boat launch and picnic sites. Hiking trails take you past Civil War-era fortifications, sawmill remains and an old cemetery. The highway then leads you through Madison with its stately courthouse and antebellum homes. Hotels once patronized by tobacco auctioneers and cotton factories now stand empty but the small downtown grid has antique shops and a few restaurants.
West of Madison off US 90, the Hixtown Swamp Conservation Area is a major wintering spot for wading birds. Public access allows wildlife-viewing, fishing, picnics and hiking. Like Madison and Live Oak, Monticello is the county seat, centered by a grand courthouse. Drive around the small historical district, enjoy a meal and buy a bag of treats at Tupelo’s Bakery. There’s also a museum in the old jail that’s worth checking out.
US 27, the original highway from Miami to the Midwest, provides an interesting north-south road trip through this region. Known by different names including Claude Pepper Memorial Highway throughout the region and the Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee, it links High Springs, with its funky restaurants, B&B inns and old opera house, to Perry, home of Forest Capital Museum State Park. Little towns along the way include Branford, where cave divers find lodgings and outfitters, and Mayo, where you’ll discover authentic country food and captivating antique shops.
The cities have popular shopping malls, anchored by familiar national chain stores, but the area’s most offbeat shopping is in communities where former main-street mercantiles have evolved into boutiques selling antiques, handmade items of all kinds, specialty foods and baked goods. Within a stroll of two or three blocks you can have lunch and shop for one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
Micanopy (Mick-can-OH-pea) is a tiny hideaway on the site of a pre-Colombian settlement that was platted by a New York developer in the early 1800s. Mansions, homes and merchants took root, only to see a fickle public move on to other settlements. Seemingly frozen in the 1950s, the hamlet has restaurants, bookstores and antiques.
Alachua’s old town center, home of quaint galleries and restaurants, is complemented by the new Alachua Gateway Center just outside the historical district. Shop and dine your way through both. At Dowling Park, crafters at Advent Christian Village retirement community create handmade quilts and baby gifts for sale in the Rustic Shop.
The region has six wineries including the Dakotah Vineyards and Winery in Chiefland. It offers tastings, tours and discounts on case lots.
Butler Plaza in Gainesville features two million square feet of retail space that includes 150 stores and numerous restaurants. In Gainesville, Celebration Pointe is a new 225-acre shopping, dining and entertainment center anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, a 137-room hotel and a multiplex movie theater complex.
Ethnic food stores are abundant in the two college towns. On Southwest 34th Street in Gainesville, large stores specialize in Indian, Middle Eastern, Indonesian, Philippino and Asian foods rarely found elsewhere.
Bradley’s Country Store, reached from Tallahassee via one of the region’s oakcloaked “canopy roads,” retains the old-time charm of the 1927 original. Sausages are still made and smoked on-site. Stop to buy souvenirs and stock up on smoked meats, local honey, coarse-ground grits, mayhaw jelly, cracklings and such.
OPPOSITE TOP LEFT: Downtown festival and art show in Gainesville. OPPOSITE TOP RIGHT: The Hippodrome in Gainesville. OPPOSITE BOTTOM LEFT: African Dance Festival, Tallahassee. ABOVE: Family outing at Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee.
OPPOSITE CENTER: Birding in Wakulla County. OPPOSITE BOTTOM: Bird at Paynes Prairie Preserve. TOP: Fountain at Florida’s Historic Capitol. ABOVE: Artist at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee.
TOP LEFT: The Santa Fe Spring Arts Festival in Gainesville. TOP RIGHT: Zip line at Tallahassee Museum. RIGHT BELOW:Cycling along off-road trails in Wakulla County.OPPOSITE TOP: Boutique in midtown Tallahassee.