From 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. 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.
So much the better. With its breathtaking parks and a vibrant metropolitan scene, this north Florida jewel begs to be explored at ground level.
The wider Alachua County area, less than two hours north of Orlando, enjoys a prolonged, balmy springtime that fosters a wide array of leafy 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 (www.kanapaha.org), a 62-acre Eden on the shores of Lake Kanapaha. The gates open 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 Florida.
Sinkholes are a common Florida nuisance, but rarely do you find one as impressive as the main attraction at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park (www.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.
Those who like to more actively commune with nature 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.
Where to eat, where to unwind
When 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, literally and figuratively. In the shadow of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (“The Swamp”), a row of fraternity houses sets the tone along West University Avenue on the north end of the UF campus.
Give 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.
For somewhat more traditional fare in the downtown area, loosen your belt for a wood-grilled, 20-ounce rib-eye at Ember’s (www.embersofflorida.com). And the house-made, organic pastries make Vine Bread & Pasta (www.vinegainesville.com) a scrumptious spot to linger for breakfast or lunch.
There 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 (www.highdivegainesville.com) – formerly Common Grounds – or the Atlantic (www.theatlanticgainesville.com), which also hosts dance parties in every genre from soul to goth just across the street from The Top.
There’s also a willing collegiate audience for craft beer. You can find brews from Swamp Head Brewery (www.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. (www.fmbrewing.com), a promising newcomer whose taproom is a frequent stop for several area food trucks.
Cocktails? The hard stuff goes down smooth at the small but funky Dime on University Avenue or the dark and velvety 2nd Street Speakeasy (www.2ndstreetspeakeasy.com), two notable cocktail bars. And the name says it all at Whiskey House (www.whiskeyhouse.com), a knowledgeable but unpretentious joint that caters to whiskey snobs and weekend warriors alike.
The arts – inside and outdoors
Gainesville’s 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.
For 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 (www.harn.ufl.edu), or massive megalodon shark fossils and a walk-through limestone cave at the Florida Museum of Natural History (www.flmnh.ufl.edu). Admission is free at both, though special exhibits are extra at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Toward sunset, the Hippodrome Theatre (www.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 is a great way to start the night.
If you’re going
Details on visiting Gainesville: www.visitgainesville.com.
Nearby – and worth the drive
The pioneer-era Dudley Farm Historic State Park in nearby Newberry is the perfect tonic for the rat-race blues. Details: www.floridastateparks.org/park/Dudley-Farm.
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. Details: www.floridastateparks.org/park/Marjorie-Kinnan-Rawlings.
Canterbury Equestrian Showplace, in Newberry, is a high-end equine training facility boasts a 2,000-seat arena and hosts frequent dressage shows throughout the year. Details: www.canterburyshowplace.com.
Historic Haile Homestead, near Gainesville – a short drive southwest of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens – is a stately but strange estate: 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. Details: www.hailehomestead.org.
Morningside Nature Center and Living History Farm, just east of downtown, 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. Details: www.cityofgainesvilleparks.org.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, just north of the charming town of Micanopy, is a National Natural Landmark – a habitat to bison, wild horses and more than 250 species of birds. Details: www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie.