Photo: EE Nickel Tours/Shutterstock

Where to Play, Eat, and Stay in Ocala, the Heart of Florida’s Horse Country

Insider Guides
by Rebecca L. Rhoades Dec 14, 2023

For many travelers, a Florida vacation means one of two things: white-sand beaches or Mickey Mouse. But if you drive north of many of Florida’s most famous coastal resorts, and continue on past Disney World, you’ll find Ocala, where streets are lined with majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and rolling farmlands are edged with gleaming white ranch rail fencing. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of the area’s biggest business: horses.

Located in central Florida, midway between Orlando and Gainesville and about 90 minutes west of Daytona Beach, Ocala has been dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World” for its many horse farms. The city is home to the country’s largest equestrian complex, which attracts upward of 100,000 competitive riders, trainers, owners, and guests from around the world each year.

But Ocala is also filled with crystal clear freshwater pools, stunning natural springs, acres of lush forests, and a burgeoning culinary scene — so even if you don’t know your Arabians from your Clydesdales or your mustangs from your Missouri fox trotters, you’ll find plenty of activities and adventures in Ocala that are among the best Florida has to offer.

Things to do in Ocala, Florida

Silver Springs State Park


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

The crystal clear waters of Silver Springs have wowed visitors since the late 1800s. The best way to experience them and their underwater life is to take a glass-bottom boat tour. The 30-minute tour in an iconic green-and-white boat will take you throughout the springs where you’ll see a variety of fish and learn about the many Hollywood projects that were filmed in the park, including the classic 1950s monster movie, “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Along the way, you’ll see birds, turtles and other wildlife.

Afterward, take a leisurely hike around Ross Allen Island. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the wild rhesus macaques that live in the park. The monkey colony was introduced to the area in the late 1930s by a boat operator and has thrived for almost 100 years.

Silver Springs State Park: 5656 E Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, FL 34488

KP Hole Park


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

If just looking at water isn’t enough, you can have an aquatic adventure on the Rainbow River at this park located about 30 minutes southwest of Ocala. Choose a traditional or clear kayak or a stand-up paddleboard and make your way up the river, exploring crystalline tributaries and stopping for a swim in the turquoise waters of the Rainbow River canal. You’ll see lots of fish, birds, turtles, and even the occasional otter. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and tubing also are available, and you can bring your own watercraft or rent one.

KP Hole Park: 9435 SW 190th Avenue Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432

The Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

This adventure outfitter offers plenty of thrills, from horseback riding to kayaking tours, but it’s the zip-line course that keeps people screaming with excitement. Choose from a three-, five-, or nine-zip course that will send you soaring above the canopy. The Canyons is home to Florida’s longest, highest, and fastest zips, including one that’s 1,150 feet long and 155 feet off the ground. You’ll be awed by nature’s beauty as you fly above the azure blue waters of Lost Spring Lake. A training session is provided before you start leaping.

The Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park: 8045 NW Gainesville Rd, Ocala, FL 34475

Brick City Food Tour


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

Sample the diversity of downtown Ocala’s culinary scene with an afternoon walking and tasting tour, led by longtime local resident Kaitlyn Butler. The three-hour tour includes stops at four restaurants, and each tour is different as featured eateries rotate depending on weather and availability. Guests are treated to a selection of small bites from each location, highlighting menu favorites and new dishes. One constant, however, is Ocala’s Chocolate and Confections, which offers some of the area’s best chocolate treats. The tour also takes guests through downtown Ocala where Butler points out historic attractions, murals, and one-of-a-kind businesses.

Downtown Ocala


Photo: H.J. Herrera/Shutterstock

There’s a lot to see in the few square blocks that surround the town square, a tree-lined park complete with a central gazebo that regularly hosts live entertainment. Stroll down Magnolia Avenue, which is paved with bricks, and learn how the city got its nickname, Brick City. Stop by the historic Art Deco Marion Theatre for some spooky ghost stories. Admire the public art, including the many colorful murals that decorate the buildings, and shop for locally made arts and crafts at the Marion Cultural Alliance’s Shop at The Brick.

Marion Theatre: 50 S Magnolia Ave, Ocala, FL 34471
Marion Cultural Alliance Shop at The Brick: 23 SW Broadway St, Ocala, FL 34471

Where to eat in Ocala, Florida

Blue Gator Tiki Bar & Restaurant


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

Refuel after your excursion on the Rainbow River at this laid-back waterfront eatery on the shores of the Withlacoochee River. Indoor dining is available, but the best seats are on the expansive dog-friendly patio, where a giant alligator, chainsaw-carved from a tree trunk, watches over rustic, handmade wood tables and an open-air bar with a corrugated metal roof.

The food here isn’t fancy — most of it’s fried — but it’s tasty and affordable, making it perfect for family outings. The menu includes more than a dozen sandwiches, including the popular Cuban; oysters on the half-shell; blackened grouper; and an entire column of fried seafood. Don’t miss the gator bites, tender fried morsels of alligator, or for something completely unexpected, the fried frog legs. Wash it all down with a nonalcoholic fruit smoothie.

Blue Gator Tiki Bar & Restaurant: 12189 S. Williams St., Dunnellon, FL 34432

Sayulita Taquieria


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

Known locally as “Say Taco,” this modern Mexican restaurant is more than a place to eat — it’s a social destination that serves specialty tacos and a lot of fun. Sure, Sayulita has the classic al pastor and carnitas, but you also can get crispy avocado with sweet chili, seared hot dog, and sweet and spicy Korean steak. There’s even a walking taco on the menu. Start your meal with some salsa or queso and housemade chips, and don’t forget to add a cup of street corn to your order.

Dine indoors among the industrial interior, with brick walls and metal chairs, or place your order and head to the large backyard patio where a vintage Airstream is set up to serve drinks, and papel picado banners add Mexican flair. Outdoor games keep kids entertained, while Fido can enjoy a “mutt meal.”

Sayulita Taquieria: 10 NE First St., Ocala, FL 34470



Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

When it comes to places to dine, airports usually aren’t high on people’s lists. But quality meals take flight at Elevation89, a full-service restaurant that offers lunch and dinner. Located inside Ocala International Airport, Elevation89 — the name refers to the airport’s height above sea level — is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike.

Massive glass windows open the modern dining room to the tarmac, so patrons can watch flights take off and land while enjoying a multicourse meal. As one would expect, the theme here is aviation, with airplane art and flight memorabilia dominating the decor. Even the menu is aviation-themed, with appetizers listed under “Check In” and mains as “Elevate.”

Dishes range from classic burgers and salads, ideal for a mid-afternoon break, to beef short rib, lamb porterhouse, chicken carbonara, and tikka masala for a more filling evening meal. There’s also a full bar in case you just want to hang out and watch the planes — or wait for your own private transport to arrive.

Elevation89: 1770 SW 60th Ave., Suite 800, Ocala, FL 34474

Ivy on the Square


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

Housed in a late 1800s brick building across the street from the historic Marion Theatre, this modern iteration of long-time Williston dining institution Ivy House offers a fresh take on traditional Southern cuisine. The casual eatery showcases a Victorian-industrial vibe. Brick and concrete are accented by crystal chandeliers, plush tufted seating, and whitewashed furnishings.

The menu features down-home comfort favorites, such as fried green tomatoes, which make appearances as appetizers, on burgers, and on BLTs; chicken hot brown; po’boys; and shrimp and grits — all complemented by creamy macaroni and cheese and sweet, crispy cornbread. Try the Baked Krispy Chicken with some sweet ice tea, and you’ll feel like you’re back on the bayou.

Ivy on the Square: 53 S. Magnolia Ave., Ocala, FL 34471

Stella’s Modern Pantry


Photo: Rebecca L. Rhoades

Part cafe, part pastry shop, and part kitchenware store, this quaint bistro in the heart of downtown Ocala is an unexpected surprise. Head past the carefully curated collection of home decor items and kitchen goods, and order at the coffee bar in the back. The menu, inspired by pastry chef and owner Albert Barrett’s world travels, is limited, but the gourmet dishes feature the freshest ingredients. Choose from a selection of salads, sandwiches, or flatbreads, or grab a bottle of wine from the store’s selection and nosh on one of seven cheese boards. Thanks to Barrett’s culinary experience, a glass case displays mouthwatering pastries that beg to be savored with a fresh-brewed French press or espresso.

Stella’s Modern Pantry: 20 SW Broadway St., Ocala, FL 34471

Where to stay in Ocala, Florida

We hope you love these accommodations in Ocala, Florida! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

If you’re just looking for a place to drop your bags and bed in which to sleep, then Ocala has plenty of options. All of the major chains are here, including Hilton, Holiday Inn and Marriott. But for a one-of-a-kind experience, check out The Equestrian at the World Equestrian Center. You don’t have to be part of the horse crowd in order to appreciate the world-class accommodations, amenities, and activities that this resort offers. From the jaw-dropping decor of the expansive lobby to the plush comfort of the guest rooms, you’re guaranteed an unforgettable stay.

The Equestrian is a destination on its own. It features seven restaurants — from fine dining to pub food to standalone Mexican, Italian, and diner-inspired eateries — as well as a candy shop and patisserie, so you never have to wonder where to eat. Or shop, for that matter, as the hotel offers on-site luxury stores, including a jeweler, a leather goods shop, and a high-end toy boutique. Thirty additional retailers, mostly offering equestrian-related gear, are scattered throughout the 378-acre property, but you can also relax with a refreshing spa treatment or a dip in the heated pool.

The Equestrian: 8510 NW 17th Ln, Ocala, FL 34482

How to get to Ocala

Ocala International Airport currently services only private and recreational aircraft. The nearest commercial airport is Gainesville Regional Airport, which is slightly more than 35 miles away. This small airport services three airlines: American, Delta, and Silver Airways. As such, flights are limited. For the most options, Orlando International Airport is about 73 miles away.

No matter what airport you choose to fly into — or if you’re taking the Brightline train from points south to Orlando — you’ll need to rent a car to get to Ocala and see all the sights. The fastest route is to take the Florida Turnpike, which bills itself as “The Less Stressway.” Or you can branch off on US Route 301, which will take you around The Villages and through Belleview.

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