To travelers outside the state, it looks like Florida’s theme parks and coastal cities get all the love. Were you to look around the airport, you’d see most travelers decked out in cheesy tropical shirts on their way to beach bars in Tampa or sporting their Mickey Mouse ears on their way to Walt Disney World.
Of course, the theme parks in Orlando and southern Florida’s soft, flour-soft beaches are plenty of reason to visit the state. But there are many things to do in Gainesville and its surrounding towns, in the northern part of the state, that are arguably more adventurous, more fun, and less busy than Florida’s central and southern destinations. And because they’re not as popular, they’re often more affordable, too.
In the northern part of Florida, you can dive into a prehistoric spring, zipline over canyon waters, and kayak through water so clear you’ll see wildlife and plants 20 feet below the boat as if you’re looking through glass. So on your next trip, consider skipping Orlando and the coastal towns in favor of finding new things to do in Gainesville and around Ocala, two cool towns easy to visit in a single trip.
Gainesville is home to the University of Florida and is quite a large city, but it’s beautiful surroundings and easy access to nature make it feel more like a suburban town than a metropolis. Hotel Eleo is a centrally located hotel with a great on-site restaurant (Covey Kitchen + Cocktail) on the University of Florida campus. However, most hotels in the city will be at a similar three-star, mid-$100s price point on an average day. Ultimately, the location of your hotel probably won’t matter that much since it’s easy to get around the city.
Things to do in Downtown Gainesville
The best things to do in Gainesville are outdoor-related and you’ll find plenty of places to hike. But if looking for a spot to view wildlife while getting a little exercise, head to Gainesville’s La Chua Trail, the perfect place to see alligators. It’s about three miles long with no elevation gain and has a series of boardwalks over swampy areas and through the woods. Expect to see lots of alligators and other species of birds and amphibians.
If you prefer flora to fauna, head to the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, known for it’s record-breaking Victoria water lilies that reach up to six feet in diameter. The gardens are dog-friendly and cover 68 acres of botanical displays like herb gardens and rare bamboo collections.
Finding a few flying bugs isn’t a hard thing to do in northern Florida, but if you specifically want to see the prettiest of bugs, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History Butterfly Rainforest. It has about 50 species of butterflies to observe in a secured area. And if there’s any time left in the day, head to Depot Park. Adults can grab a drink and check out public art while those traveling with young kids will want to visit the park’s Cade Museum for Creativity & Invention and “Blue Grotto” splash park.
Dining in Downtown Gainesville
Gainesville is a big city, so you’ll find just about any cuisine you’re after, but there are a few extra-unique options you’ll probably want to try.
Head downtown to Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company for bao buns, sushi rolls and its signature “Uni Shooters” with quail egg yolk, caviar, and wasabi aïoli served in a lemon. The nearby Hyppo Gainesville has a wide variety of ice pop flavors that almost seem healthy, made with fresh-pressed juices. And if everyone in your crew wants something different, head to the 4th Ave Food Park for a lemonade-cold brew coffee from Opus Coffee Airstream Van and pizza from Satch Squared.
Gainesville outskirts and day trips
There’s no shortage of beautiful scenery in Florida, but Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring is genuinely unique. The natural spring looks like a Mexican cenote, though it’s actually a dry cave filled with warm water (around 72 degrees Fahrenheit) from an underground spring. The cave has fossil beds and ancient rock formations, and the sun beaming in from the opening above the spring ensures swimmers can see the rocks and formations while in the water. Visiting is one of the most popular things to do in Gainesville (it’s about 35 minutes away from downtown) as travelers come to snorkel and dive in the warm water.
When you arrive, you’ll check in and pay your fee, and pick up your snorkeling or diving gear. You’ll then walk down a series of steps into the spring. Devil’s Den is just for snorkeling and diving (not swimming), but there are plenty of other nearby springs for swimming, tubing, and more. Make reservations online as the capacity is limited.
Ocala is about an hour south of Gainesville and an hour north of Orlando, so it’s a great add-on to a trip to either city. It’s full of places to play outside and gorgeous scenery. If you’re spending the night, The Equestrian Hotel near the World Equestrian Facility is a truly unique place to stay. It’s an entire community focused on dressage and equestrian pursuits, and guests can watch professional riders practice and compete. The hotel also has upscale offerings like a pool, spa, and restaurants.
In Ocala, kayaking down the Rainbow River in Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the area’s most popular activities. The warm water is crystal-clear, making it easy to spot fish, otters, and even the occasional manatee or alligator — and the trees are full of bird species. You can also go tubing, though the tubing area isn’t within the main part of the park.
Kayaking isn’t the only nearby activity, though. Some of the nearby natural springs like Silver Springs offer glass-bottom boat tours, during which riders can expect to see wildlife, sunken boats, underwater statues, and even the famous “Silver Springs Monkeys” swinging through the trees. The rumor is that the monkeys escaped from the set of a “Tarzan” movie in 1939, though that’s only partially true — the monkeys were released onto the island by a local boat captain around the same time; some say it was to tie the area to the hopefully-successful movie. But regardless, the monkeys’ numbers have soared. They’re cute, but give them a wide berth as they’re wild and can carry diseases.
For tamer, family-friendly fun, head to the Canyon Zip Line and Adventure Park. The tour takes zipliners through a gorge, matching the speed to the comfort level of the group. Plan on a couple of hours if you choose the canyon zipline. There are shorter tours available, but the canyon option lets guests zipline over water and cross a few Indiana Jones-style rope bridges before ending the experience with a rappel.