Gainesville is home to the University of Florida, a well-respected school with fantastic athletic programs, impressive higher learning, and nearly 60,000 students. It typically ranks #1 in the state on college and university polls. 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. Located between Orlando and Tallahassee in Alachua County, this is a Central Florida town you’re going to love! I’ve visited several times, and am more impressed each time. Here is a list of great things to do in Gainesville, Florida, for a perfect getaway.
Best Attractions To Visit
World-class museums, talented local artists, fantastic murals, and a solid theater scene are the top draw in Gainesville. Here is a look at each of them.
Museum of Natural History
The Florida Museum of Natural History has five permanent collection 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, their importance to the ecosystem and hear frog calls. Children will love all of the unique features geared towards their ages.
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 butterfly attractions around the country, but the Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville is my favorite and easily one of the best things to do in town.
Harn Museum of Art
The Samuel P. Hard Museum of Art is an intimate museum that packs a powerful punch—and admission is free. It is one of only three museums in the country with Frida Kahlo exhibits. 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.
Gainesville is filled with artsy, creative murals. They are referred to as the 352 Walls. Download a map to see the addresses of them and drive around town enjoying the views. A few of my faves are High Dive, Tom Petty, and Interesni Kazki.
Artists from around the world have shared their eye-catching talents with the city of Gainesville for this expansive public art project.
The Hippodrome Theatre
A college town wouldn’t be the same without a thriving cultural center, which in Gainesville is referred to as “The Hipp“. Gainesville’s historic Beaux-Arts state theatre, the Hippodrome, is a lovely regional professional place to take in a cultural performance or live music acts. The 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 (alcoholic, too) 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 also saw The Royale, inspired by a true story about the first African American World Heavyweight Champion, on another visit. Both were incredibly good performances.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens are unique in every way—a real fun place to learn more about nature. The gardens are organized in a simple, yet effective pattern, that was not one bit overwhelming. Best of all, the plants, flowers, and trees were labeled, making identification easy.
I was so intrigued by Kanapaha’s herb gardens and walking through the Chinese royal bamboo forest. The almost musical bamboo clanged together in the wind; the sound was enchanting. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is huge, so pace yourself, but easily one of the best things to see and do in town. Don’t miss the charming hummingbird and butterfly garden.
Downtown Gainesville’s Depot Park is one of the coolest addresses in town. You’ll find a multitude of kid’s fun things to do, including an over-the-top playground and awesome splash pad, plus there is a big pond and promenade for scenic walking. Parkside Subs & Shop is an onsite eatery with sandwiches, craft sodas, and sweets, plus Goldie’s Burgers next door, with Po’Boys and many vegan food items.
FYI: There are several great picnic areas around the park.
University of Florida Campus
The University of Florida’s 160-year-old campus is enormous, with 900 buildings over 2,000 acres. Many students drive mopeds to get around campus, so you will see them parked everywhere. The University of Florida generates a considerable amount for Florida’s economy through its research programs.
My daughter and I did a self-guided tour of the University of Florida campus based on website suggestions. We walked through the student union and enjoyed seeing groups of students busying themselves in various 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.
Cade Museum for Creativity
A unique attraction in Gainesville is the Cade Museum, a world-class venue for doing, not seeing. This beautiful and stately venue hands-on learning experience is unlike anywhere else, dedicated to future visionaries, inventors, and entrepreneurs through a gift from Dr. Robert Cade, inventor of Gatorade. It is a space to explore technology in new ways and have fun along the way.
I had an insider’s tour of the Cade Museum months before its grand opening and was blown away by the unique attraction. Just the Fab Lab portion of the Cade Museum alone has computers, 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering stations, and much more. This breath-taking steel and concrete building looks perfect in its Depot Park setting. Watch the calendar for special events.
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, exotic wildlife and a wide array of birds. You’ll also find several walking trails to enjoy a good dose of nature and picturesque scenery.
If you are lucky like me, bison and alligators (dozens of them) might be rearing their heads for your photo ops.
Another great place for hitting the trails and absorbing the Florida climate is Sweetwater Wetlands Park, a man-made area with well-done observation decks. The 125-acre conservation area has native plants, animals, birds, and Florida cracker horses. Sweetwater opens at 7 AM
Note: I’ve always wanted to explore Devil’s Millhopper (a deep, cover-collapse sinkhole, rainforest, and geological state park), but it is always been closed when I’m in town.
Sample Great Beer
As with most college towns, beer goes hand-in-hand with the “great things to do”. At Swamp Head Brewery, sample a flight or savor a single beer at this tasty craft brewery. My favorites are Midnight Oil (a coffee stout) and Wild Night (honey cream ale). Please note that tours are no longer being offered due to COVID, but a positive is that they offer a drive-thru for canned beer pick-ups. My favorites are Midnight Oil (a coffee stout) and Wild Night (honey cream ale).
Where to Eat in Gainesville
Satchel’s Pizza is a must when visiting Gainesville, not only for the delicious eats, but for the fun and funky furnishings, vintage bus, and artsy vibe. Foodies will highly approve of Satchel’s creative pizza combinations, crisp and healthy house salad, and craft soda sampling. They also have fun desserts, and whether you are hungry enough for them or not, be sure to browse the menu.
If Asian-inspired dishes are on your radar, Dragonfly Sushi & Sake is the place to go. The Short Rib Miso Ramen dish, with a perfectly-poached egg on top, is excellent and full of exotic flavors. A second tasty Asian restaurant is Liquid Ginger, with the best Chicken Pad Thai I’ve ever had. Go for lunch to enjoy discounted prices.
For casual eats, say chargrilled burgers and fries, Loosey’s Downtown will please your palate. They also offer sandwiches, sliders, salads, and Mac & Cheese.
Get your barbecue fix at Mojo Hogtown B-B-Que with exceptional smoked turkey breast and pulled pork, plus a long list of tasty Southern sides like collard greens, garlic cheddar grits, and sweet potato mash.
Blue Gill is probably my favorite Gainesville restaurant, with over-the-top deliciousness for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The pimento cheese is perfect any time of day, and Blue Gill’s Shrimp and Grits are the best in town. A close runner-up would be The Top Hub, a heart of downtown Gainesville hotspot with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, too. The appetizers and desserts are the best parts of the meal at The Top Hub, and the drink options are impressive. Try the Fried Kimchi Cauliflower.
Where to Stay in Gainesville
The Doubletree by Hilton, near the interstate, was a smart choice for our visit to Gainesville. My daughter and I were delighted with the fun and vibrant lobby and its stylish decor, perfect for a college town vibe, yet upscale in every way. Our room was spacious, had comfy beds, a mini-fridge, and a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
A noteworthy feature of this property was the outdoor lobby bar with welcoming seating groups and an enormous TV wall.
Gainesville has a historic bed and breakfast district, the only one I’ve seen in the whole country. I loved staying at Magnolia Plantation, a charming b&b with gorgeous rooms, an amazing breakfast, and loads of amenities. There are nine cottages on the 1.5-acre property adorned with beautiful gardens, waterfalls, a gazebo, and secret places to sit and relax.
My room was the upstairs part of the Carriage House, accessible by a private door and stairs off to the side. Inside is a living room, kitchenette, huge bedroom, dreamy bathroom, and French doors leading to a private veranda. Stately chairs, lamps, and marble top tables accompanied the Victorian-style sofa, which my grandma used to have. Large windows allowed for a lot of light to get into the antique-filled cottage. The best part was the veranda with wooden rockers, a classic porch swing, and a wrought iron bistro table.
A Special Event
One of my favorite festivals in all of Florida is Gainesville’s annual Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, which takes place for three weekends in January. Come explore the world of skilled artisans and craft makers as they command 160 spaces to delight visitors through jewelry, clothing, pottery, leatherworking, blacksmithing, and much more. The medieval faire’s food alone is worth the visit, but the talented musicians and street performers are the real stars of the show.
The Hoggetowne Medieval Faire has been running for over thirty years now. If your travels bring you to Gainesville during this time, it is certainly worth checking out. I truly adore this festival!
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.
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