front of The Top restaurant in Gainesville, Fla.
the highway or the window seat of an airplane, it can be
easy to dismiss Gainesville, Fla., as a small but
sprawling town with a very big college. On your way
through the Alachua County seat, you’re likely to see
more green than gray and not much skyline to speak of in
the downtown area near the massive University of Florida.
much the better. If you think a community is best enjoyed
from a comfortable balcony, look elsewhere. With its
breathtaking parks and a vibrant metropolitan scene, this
North Florida jewel begs to be explored at ground level.
just over 100 miles and less than two hours north of
Orlando, the wider Alachua County area enjoys a prolonged,
balmy springtime that fosters a wide array of deciduous
trees. It’s easy to see why early American settlers
touted the region as a health resort in the mid-1800s.
Panoramic proof can be found just outside the city limits
at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens (kanapaha.org), a 62-acre
Eden on the shores of Lake Kanapaha. Admission ($8 adult
or $4 ages 5-13) opens the gates to two distinct paths
filled with Zen-inducing sights that include a butterfly
garden and a scintillating yet serene walk through several
towering species of bamboo — the largest such garden in
are a common Florida nuisance, but rarely do you find one
as impressive as the main attraction at Devil’s
Millhopper Geological State Park (devilsmillhopper.com) in
northwest Gainesville. A wooden boardwalk winds its way to
the bottom of a limestone sinkhole 120 feet deep, 500 feet
wide and thousands of years old. Through the years,
conditions in this national landmark have made it a
picturesque home for a diverse network of plant life.
Admission is $4 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians, and the
park is open Wednesday-Sunday.
who like to commune with nature more actively are also in
luck. Hikers or bikers can take their pick from one of
many woodland trails, including three short but scenic
lakeside paths at Newnan’s Lake Conservation Area or the
Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which starts a short
drive east of the UF campus and winds 16 miles through
hills and around lakes to nearby Hawthorne.
you’ve had your fill of sweat, Gainesville’s already
hip downtown district has become even cooler in recent
years. It’s impossible to overstate how large the
University of Florida looms over the social scene here,
both literally and figuratively. In the shadow of Ben Hill
Griffin Stadium ("The Swamp," to loyal Gators
football fans), a row of fraternity houses sets the tone
along West University Avenue on the north end of the UF
the sports bars a pass and keep walking east to Main
Street to find a downtown filled with eclectic surprises,
starting with The Top at 30 N. Main St. With ceramic
oddities and old-school wrestling trading cards packed
into every nook, the decor at this eatery is pushing the
saturation point for maximum kitsch. Luckily, the menu of
jazzed-up American favorites and craft cocktails is much
more carefully calibrated.
somewhat more traditional fare in the downtown area,
loosen your belt for a wood-grilled, 20-ounce rib-eye at
Ember’s (embersofflorida.com). And the house-made,
organic pastries make Vine Bread & Pasta (vinegainesville.com)
a scrumptious spot to linger for breakfast or lunch.
are just as many flavors — if not more — in the
downtown Gainesville night life. Lest we forget, this was
the town that gave us bands such as Tom Petty and the
Heartbreakers, ska stalwarts Less Than Jake and most
recently, the ethereal indie foursome Hundred Waters.
Catch the next wave of musical exports at High Dive (highdivegainesville.com,
formerly Common Grounds) or the Atlantic (theatlanticgainesville.com),
which also hosts dance parties in every genre from soul to
goth just across the street from The Top.
also a willing collegiate audience for craft beer. You can
find brews from Swamp Head Brewery (swamphead.com) on tap
at nearly every bar in town, but don’t let that stop you
from visiting the welcoming brewery and taproom in
southwest Gainesville. A bit closer to downtown is First
Magnitude Brewing Co. (fmbrewing.com), a promising
newcomer whose taproom is a frequent stop for several area
The hard stuff goes down smooth at the small but funky
Dime on University Avenue or the dark and velvety 2nd
Street Speakeasy (2ndstreetspeakeasy.com), two notable
cocktail bars. And the name says it all at Whiskey House (whiskeyhouse.com),
a knowledgeable but unpretentious joint that caters to
whiskey snobs and weekend warriors alike.
culture is no less alive during the daylight hours. Art
mavens won’t even need to leave their car to sample one
of the city’s most well-known guerrilla galleries: the
34th Street Wall. This stretch of concrete just south of
Southwest Second Avenue serves as a colorful public diary,
chronicling tributes to fallen students, marriage
proposals and art from the political to the whimsical in a
patchwork of constantly changing graffiti.
a double dose of more official (and air-conditioned)
culture, spend an afternoon at UF’s Cultural Plaza.
There you’ll find works by painter Claude Monet and
photographer Jerry Uelsmann in the permanent collection at
the Harn Museum of Art, or massive megalodon shark fossils
and a walk-through limestone cave at the Florida Museum of
Natural History. Admission is free at both, though special
exhibits are extra at the Florida Museum of Natural
sunset, the Hippodrome Theatre (thehipp.org) has the rest
of the arts agenda covered. From the outside, the former
post office and courthouse is a stately example of
early-20th century architecture. Inside, critically
acclaimed films are on show when the house theater company
isn’t mounting professional productions on the main
stage. Surrounded by several of the aforementioned
eateries and bars, a show at The Hipp (as it is locally
known) is a great way to start the night.
Gainesville may be the undisputed cultural hub in the city
proper, but the larger Alachua County area holds many
rural treasures worth the drive. The pioneer-era Dudley
Farm Historic State Park in nearby Newberry is the perfect
tonic for the rat-race blues just a few miles west of the
city. To the southeast, Cross Creek is the former home of
"The Yearling" author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,
whose longtime estate is preserved at the Marjorie Kinnan
Rawlings Historic State Park.
a weekend to explore Gainesville, but don’t be surprised
if you find yourself lingering. Whether you’re getting
lost among the trees or the townies, this is one college
town with an ample supply of extracurricular activities.
The city of Gainesville in North Florida is bordered by
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to the south, the
communities of Tioga and Newberry to the west, La Crosse
and Brooker to the north and Newnan’s Lake Conservation
Area to the east.
Situated in the center of North Florida, Gainesville is
roughly 70 miles southwest of Jacksonville and 110 miles
north of Orlando.
According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the
population of Gainesville is 128,460.
and activities: Gainesville features a variety of hotels,
from locally owned bed-and-breakfasts (mostly on the
outskirts) to national chain hotels. The area is known for
its robust campus life, music and visual arts scene and
866-778-5002 (Alachua County Visitors & Convention
Canterbury Equestrian Showplace, 23100 W. Newberry Road,
Newberry: This high-end equine training facility boasts a
2,000-seat arena and hosts frequent dressage shows
throughout the year. Hours and admission vary. Visit
Historic Haile Homestead, 8500 S.W. Archer Road, near
Gainesville: Just a short drive southwest of Kanapaha
Botanical Gardens, this stately but strange estate is a
living chronicle of mid-1800s plantation life. For reasons
unknown, the family of Thomas and Serena Haile kept a
diary of sorts by writing on the walls of the house,
leaving more than 12,000 words for modern visitors to
explore. Tour hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, noon-4 p.m.
Sunday. Cost: $5 per person (cash or check only), ages 12
and younger free. Visit hailehomestead.org.
Morningside Nature Center and Living History Farm, 3540 E.
University Ave., Gainesville: Just east of downtown, this
park offers hands-on animal experiences, a wildflower walk
and a taste of pioneer life at the re-created 1870 cabin
of an Irish immigrant family. Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
(November-April) or 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily (May-October);
Living History Farm open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
year-round. Cost: Free. Visit cityofgainesvilleparks.org.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, 100 Savannah Blvd.,
near Micanopy: Just north of the charming town of
Micanopy, this National Natural Landmark is a habitat to
bison, wild horses and more than 250 species of birds.
Take in the view from the visitor center’s 50-foot-high
observation tower or explore the northern part of the park
on the western half of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State
Trail. Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily. Cost: $6 per vehicle
(limit 2-8 people), $4 single-occupant vehicle, $2
pedestrians or cyclists. Visit floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie.