Best-Ever Places to Visit While in Gainesville FL

By Dom Nozzi

I lived most of my adult life in Gainesville FL (1986 till 2007), and sampled as much as I could of the delights of that region. Gainesville is located in north central Florida, is small in city size (but enormous in geographic area), and is the home of the University of Florida. The area boasts a rather impressive canopy of giant live oak trees.

The following is my personal list of the very best places to visit and experience when in Gainesville FL.

  • Ichetucknee River. Shuttle for tubers runs Memorial Day thru Labor Day. Midpoint float takes 1.5 hrs. Full length takes 3.5 hrs. Can also kayak or canoe or snorkel the river. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
  • University of Florida Campus. Lake Alice bat house, Natural History Museum.
  • Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. A 62-acre woodland and meadow park is the home of butterflies, herbs, humming birds, and sunken gardens. The state’s largest herb garden and collection of bamboo is also here, as is a pretty water lily pond. Very attractive, romantic walk. The Gardens are best seen in the spring or summer. The gardens border the 250-acre Lake Kanapaha. The word “Kanapaha” comes from tow Timuqua Indian words that mean “palmetto leaves” and “house.” Collectively they refer to thatched dwellings that were the homes of the original human inhabitants of the forests bordering the lake.
  • Bed & Breakfasts. Tour of (or lodging in) Gainesville Bed & Breakfast establishments on SE 7th Street. Several historic homes have been magnificently restored into charming, romantic lodging.
  • Devil’s Millhopper. A huge sinkhole containing a dozen small waterfalls that can be enjoyed as you descend 232 steps to the bottom of a 120-foot deep, 500-foot wide sinkhole. It was formed when an underground cavern roof collapsed, creating a bowl-shaped cavity. The Millhopper is a National Natural Landmark that has been visited since the 1880s. It contains plant species rarely found in Florida.
  • Suwannee River. You can canoe, kayak, hike, and mountain bike this river and its banks. A historic river. Quite impressive, large river with coffee-colored water. This fabled river, made famous in the song by Stephen Foster (The Swanee River–Old Folks at Home), flows more than 200 miles across Florida from its origin in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to its destination in the Gulf of Mexico. About 1 hr from Gainesville.
  • Hippodrome Theatre. Alternative movies. High quality plays. It is the only professional theatre in North Central Florida-housed in an extremely impressive, classical building. Originally the downtown post office for Gainesville.
  • Matheson Museum. Center for cultural and natural history of the area. Features over 18,000 Florida postcards, 1,200 stereo-view cards, and a variety of prints, maps, and items of historical significance. The restored Matheson House (built in 1857) is next door, as is a native plant botanical garden.
  • Morningside Nature Center. Large, 278-acre city-owned nature park. Old, historic “cracker” home and working “Living History” farm displays the lifestyle of a farmer in North Central Florida 100 years ago. There are barnyard animals, an 1840 cabin, a turn-of-the-century kitchen, an heirloom garden, and a barn. The park contains boardwalk and trails through a sandhill, cypress, and longleaf pine forests. More than 225 wildflower species and 130 bird species, mammals, and reptiles are found at the park.
  • Cumberland Island. Just off the Jacksonville coastline. Pleasant for boating, fishing, hiking, camping, beach-combing. Feral horses. About 2 hours from Gainesville. 45-minute ferry ride to the island.
  • Cedar Key. Pleasant historic town. Nice for canoeing, kayaking, sea fishing. You can charter a fishing boat for shallow ocean fishing there, and catch an ice chest full of delicious sea bass in a day of fishing. Also available is a small area for beach walking. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
  • Crystal River manatee snorkeling. Allows you to swim with and pet these large “sea cows.” Very pleasant. Very easy—done by young kids all the time. Requires rental of snorkel gear and wetsuit. Very close to Cedar Key on west coast.
  • Micanopy. Very pleasant, small, walkable historic town filled with antique shops. Micanopy is Florida’s second oldest town. About 15 minutes south of Gainesville.
  • Newnan’s Lake. Large, 6,000-acre lake on eastern border of Gainesville. Has nearly dried up due to the 4-year drought here as of 1/02. When at normal levels, a great lake to canoe or kayak or bike alongside. Lots of gators, wading birds, osprey, eagles.)
  • Prairie Creek. Nice creek at the SE corner of Gainesville. Nice, short canoe or kayak trip through a creek forest. The creek connects Newnans Lake, Paynes Prairie, and Orange Lake. This two- to three-hour trip twists and turns through a floodplain forest. Along the way is an area of open pines on the eastern edge of Paynes Prairie. A dike constructed in the 1940s by the Camp family to block the creek from flooding into the Prairie now re-routes the creek through an area of cypress trees.
  • Ginnie Springs and Paradise Springs. Ginnie contains crystal clear water. Jacques Cousteau has said that it is the clearest water he has ever seen. I have dove and snorkeled these springs several times. It is 72 degrees year round. Year round snorkeling, scuba diving. Can be reached by car, kayak, or canoe. Ginnie is about 40 minutes north of Gainesville. Paradise Springs is about 2.5 hours south of Gainesville, and features a 110-foot “chimney” that I have descended into as a scuba diver.
  • Poe Springs. A 197-acre county-owned spring near Ginnie Springs along the banks of the Santa Fe River. Good for swimming.
  • Biven’s Arm Nature Park. A 57-acre city-owned park with 1,200 feet of boardwalks, and a mile of nice hiking trail through a forest.
  • Payne’s Prairie. You can hike, watch birds, and picnic on this 21,000 acre wildlife sanctuary- home to 800 species of plants and 350 species of animals. I have hiked La Chua Trail to the Sink, the Wacahoota Trail, bicycled Cone’s Dike Trail and Chacala Trail (which includes Chacala Pond and miles of wooded trails). Features a nice visitor’s center. With ponds and three lakes, Paynes Prairie is a wintering area for many migratory birds such as the sandhill crane, and home to hundreds of Florida alligators, as well as wild horses, hawks, otters, deer, gopher tortoises, bald eagles, and a herd of American Bison. This nationally prominent preserve is covered by marsh and wet prairie vegetation, with many acres of open water. There are numerous hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding trails in the preserve, which I have used a number of times. During the 1600s, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida operated here. Contains the most dense concentration of eagles south of Alaska. Huge gator population that you can easily see up close when walking La Chua trail, which leads you to a popular destination for alligators hanging out in the sun—Alachua Sink. Along the La Chua trail, gorgeous views emerge as you descend into the Prairie basin. Once on the basin floor, I have nearly always found that one has a up-close and personal view of hundreds of Florida alligators along a trail lined with marsh vegetation and numerous birds.
  • Hawthorne Rail-Trail. A 16-mile paved bicycle trail running from Gainesville to small town of Hawthorne. Can be rollerbladed. Trailhead is at the historic Boulware Springs. The Boulware Springs park features a restored water works building that was Gainesville’s first source of water several decades ago. The trail weaves its way through the north rim of Paynes Prairie through a canopy of huge oak trees, xeric scrub, horse pasture, and prairie. Along this portion of the trail, I have enjoyed overlooks and spur hiking trails into the Prairie basin. At the mid-point, a wooden bridge crosses Prairie Creek just south of the 6,000-acre Newnans Lake. From here, the trail passes through the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area, pine forests, and pasture. Initially, this stretch of railroad was planned to be part of a network connecting New Orleans and New York. During the 1850s, the railroad was constructed from Fernandina to Cedar Key, providing a land route between the Atlantic and the Gulf, thereby eliminating the tricky passage through the Florida Keys. The railroad was to play a major park in the founding and history of Gainesville.
  • Gainesville Town Center. Starting in the 1990s, downtown Gainesville has seen a resurgence. A very walkable place. Nice restaurants. Impressive cultural events. Pleasant collection of bars. Remarkable 5-story Union Street Station building built in the late 1990s and containing offices, residences, and retail. 10-minute walk from our home.
  • Thomas Center. Very pleasing, historic building. It is a beautifully restored Mediterranean/Italian Renaissance structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It contains 1920’s period rooms, local history exhibits, banquet rooms, performance space, art galleries, and meeting rooms. Now contains city offices—including Dom’s former planning office. Formerly a hotel. The Thomas Center is surrounded by the lovely Thomas Center Gardens. I have seen a large number of wonderful cultural events at the Center.
  • St. Augustine. Dom’s favorite town in Florida. Extremely walkable, historic town on east coast of Florida—first city established in the nation. Very nice pedestrian mall. Impressive, historic fort surrounded by moat. Gypsie Cab Company restaurant on Anastasia Boulevard just east of bridge is excellent. Cayman Island Seafood is also good. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
  • Manatee Springs. Nice place to swim and dive. About 45 minutes west of Gainesville.
  • Haile Village Center. Brand new village center built mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Andres Duany calls it the best example of a new “new urbanist” village in North America. Extremely walkable. Especially important to visit if you are interested in urban design.
  • Town of Tioga. Nationally recognized new urbanist town at west edge of Gainesville. A worthwhile place to visit if you are interested in urban design.
  • Wards Supermarket. Excellent selection of healthy foods including coffee beans, breads, fruits, bulk foods, beer and wine.
  • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home and Cross Creek. Rawlings is author of The Yearling. Her home is a museum of Marjorie’s home and her farm/yard. Her cracker style home and farm, where she wrote The Yearling, is a preserved historic site. Nearby Cross Creek is a comfortable paddle.
  • O’Leno State Park. Attractive, state-owned forest with hiking and biking trails. Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River. The park contains a number of sandhills, river swamps, sinkholes, and hardwood hammocks. O’Leno encompasses a part of the Santa Fe River. Within the park, this portion of the river disappears and flows underground for over three miles before re-emerging at the surface. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A suspension bridge built by the Corps still reaches across the river. Can be canoed or kayaked up to “River Rise,” where the river goes underground. About 45 minutes north of Gainesville.
  • Juniper Springs. Gorgeous, intimately-sized, spring-fed, crystal clear river great for kayaking. 4-6 hour paddle. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
  • Santa Fe River. Pretty river great for kayaking or canoeing. 2-6 hour paddle. About 30 minutes from Gainesville.
  • High Springs. Quaint, walkable, historic town with lots of antique shops. About 40 minutes from Gainesville. Staging area for many springs and creeks in North Central Florida.
  • Silver River & Springs. Clear water paddle on swift river. Where Tarzan movies were filmed. Lots of monkeys & birds in forest along river. Very large spring has glass-bottom boat rides, jungle cruise. Silver Springs contains large water slide theme park for summer use. About 1 hour from Gainesville.
  • Santos Mountain Bike Trails. Extensive system of the best mountain bike trails in Florida. All skill levels. Through forests and sand pits. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
  • Fernandina Beach. Near Jacksonville. Walkable, historic downtown. About 1.75 hours from Gainesville.
  • Rainbow River & Devil’s Den. Very clear, colorful water full of alligator gar and wading birds. Pretty river. Nice for kayak and canoe paddles, and easy drift scuba diving. Devil’s Den is the most unusual geological formation I have ever seen. A collapsed sinkhole [a chimney provides sunlight down to the sinkhole lake], where you can snorkel and scuba dive. Breathtaking. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
  • San Felasco Mountain Bike Trails. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. All skill levels. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. The preserve features 10 miles of marked nature trails through 6,900 acres of forest. The preserve contains one of the finest examples of the climax mesic hammocks remaining in Florida. About 10 minutes by car from downtown Gville.
  • Horsefarms of North Central Florida. (by car—difficult by bicycle) Marion County, just south of Gainesville, is horsefarm country. The County is graced with approximately 50 miles of extremely picturesque horsefarms along the famous “Horsefarm 100” bicycle route in Marion County.

Restaurants:

  • Satchel’s. Best pizza in Gainesville, if not Florida.
  • Emiliano’s.
  • Tim’s Thai
  • Daniella’s
  • Bahn Thai
  • Paramount
  • Leonardo’s 706
  • Wine & Cheese Gallery (lunch only)
  • Dragonfly Sushi
  • Ivey’s
  • The Gelato Shop

___________________________________________

I urge you to email me (dom@walkablestreets.com) or leave a comment if you have a suggested addition or subtraction from this list. Or if you have any other thoughts about this list.

About

Each list in this blog contains my own personal opinions based on my personal experiences. I acknowledge that there may be a need to add or subtract from these lists (or to create a new subject list), and I welcome such suggestions. The lists are not ordered from higher to lower quality. Each list is a work in progress.

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About Dom Nozzi

Urban designer, Complete Streets instructor, smart growth specialist, town planner, walkable & bikeable streets & trails specialist, writer, editor, speaker, world adventurer, skier, kayaker, SCUBA diver, bicyclist, hiker, dancer, book reader, urbanist. Make my own beer, wine, pasta, bread. Live by the motto that it is the things we do NOT do that we later regret. Life is too short to not live it to the fullest.
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