Thanks to the Gainesville CVB for hosting our familiarization visit. As with all of our posts, opinions and reviews are 100% my own and unbiased.
Gainesville is often recognized as the home to one of the state’s most well-known institutions, the University of Florida. However, thanks to the city’s tasty food scene, top-notch trails and outdoor venues, and cultural activities, Gainesville is a travel destination in its own right.
My daughter, Taylor, and I visited Gainesville in the spring and were very impressed! I didn’t expect upscale museums, spectacular meals, or incredible outdoor offerings. Here are nine things to do in Gainesville, Florida, that will enhance your visit.
1. Visit the Harn Museum of Art
This intimate art museum packs a powerful punch and is one of only three museums in the United States with Frida Kahlo exhibits. Admission to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art is free and well worth the visit. The Harn Museum contains African, Asian, modern, and contemporary art and fantastic photography. It is a University of Florida affiliate and has a tasty little cafe with soups, salads, and sandwiches inside.
2. Drive by the 352 Walls
With so many impressive art murals all over town, it should come as no surprise that one of the fun things to do in Gainesville is to see them. Check out 352 Walls mural tour’s webpage to see a map including the popular addresses of Loosey’s, Make.Work, Cowboys Saloon, Market Street Pub, The Top, and North Downtown Parking Garage. Artists from around the world have shared their eye-catching talents with the city of Gainesville for this expansive public art project.
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3. Tour the FL Museum of Natural History
The Florida Museum of Natural History has five permanent exhibits: South Florida People & Environments, Florida fossils, Northwest Florida Waterways & Wildlife, Butterflies, and Exploring Our World. This impressive history museum also features limited-run special attractions, such as Frogs: A Chorus of Colors. We got to see live frogs from around the world and learn about their habitats, importance to the ecosystem, and hear frog calls. Children will love all of the unique features geared towards their ages.
4. Walk Through Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens were original and refreshing, unlike any that I have been to. The gardens are organized in a simple yet effective pattern that was not one bit overwhelming. Best of all, everything was labeled, making plant and tree identification easy. My favorite things at the gardens were the herbs and walk through the Chinese royal bamboo forest. The almost musical bamboo clanged together in the wind; the sound was enchanting. Pace yourself because Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is huge! Make sure to visit the adorable hummingbird garden. This place is one of the best things to do in Gainesville.
5. Explore the University of Florida Campus
The University of Florida’s 160-year-old campus is enormous (2,000 acres). There are 900 buildings around the school, so it is easier to see by car rather than on foot. The University of Florida generates a considerable amount to Florida’s economy through its research programs.
Taylor and I did a self-guided tour from the campus website suggestions and map. We walked through the student union and enjoyed seeing groups of students busying themselves in a variety of activities. Taylor, a huge football fan, was thrilled to see the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. We were shocked by the number of colorful Vespas parked around campus.
6. Pedal a Florida Fun Bike
Gainesville’s party pub on wheels is a blast! Pedal your way around town with a group of no more than 12 others. This is an excellent activity for fun or team building and a super fun thing to do in Gainesville. You can cycle around town and sightsee or pair your cycling with food and drink stops along the way. The owners of Florida Fun Bikes are entertaining and keep the energy level high. Bring your own drinks; coolers are on board to keep them chilled.
7. See a Show at the Hippodrome State Theatre
Referred to as “The Hipp,” Gainesville’s historic Beaux-Arts state theatre is a lovely regional professional place to take in a cultural performance. This elegant town centerpiece runs Broadway and off-Broadway productions, art house films, and seats 268 people per performance. The Hipp serves popcorn, packaged snacks, and drinks in the lobby. My daughter and I saw Becky’s New Car, a light-hearted comedy about middle age and the paths we choose in life. I saw The Royale, inspired by a true story about the first African American World Heavyweight Champion, on another visit and it was was unbelievably good!
8. Hike the La Chua Trail
The La Chua Trail is a fantastic spot to take an easy hike through sinkholes in a beautiful natural setting. The trail is partially on a handicapped accessible elevated boardwalk. This gorgeous hiking spot is at the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, near Micanopy, Florida. Come for abundant wildlife and a wide array of birds; it is a top spot for viewing alligators. I was shocked at how up close and personal we were with the gators.
9. Photograph the Butterfly Rainforest
A separate ticket is required for the Butterfly Rainforest (at the Florida Museum of Natural History), but it is well worth the fee. The Butterfly Rainforest houses thousands of exotic butterflies in the most incredible 6,400 square foot venue I have ever seen. Tropical plants and foliage provided the perfect spot for these beautiful butterflies to land, making it possible to capture incredible pictures of this delicate species. The “Wall of Wings” inside of the museum displayed thousands of butterflies from around the world. As a travel writer, I have visited many places like this, but the Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville was superior to any others.
Where to Stay in Gainesville
The Doubletree by Hilton, near the interstate, was a smart choice for our visit to Gainesville. Taylor and I were delighted with the fun and vibrant lobby and its stylish decor. Our room was spacious, had comfy beds, a mini-fridge, and a balcony that overlooked the courtyard.
A noteworthy feature about this property was the outdoor lobby bar with welcoming seating groups and an enormous TV wall.
So Much to Do in Gainesville
I loved Gainesville! I had no idea that this college town has so much to see and do, and Taylor and I barely scratched the surface.
Bring the whole family for these awesome things to do in Gainesville. Have an educational and cultural weekend getaway, or just a quick day trip to eat some delicious food. Even better— jaunt over to Gainesville before or after your typical Disney vacation. The two are only ninety minutes apart.
I hope to revisit Gainesville soon and watch the town grow to an even greater magnitude.
For where to eat in Gainesville, check out our 9 Places You Must Eat in Gainesville post.