Central Florida, with cities including Lakeland, Winter Haven, Lake Alfred, and Lake Wales, to name a few, is one of my favorite places to visit and recommend in Florida. The small towns feature spectacular beauty, delicious restaurants, and quite a few one-of-a-kind attractions. From world-class theme parks to legendary architectural gems, you’ll find it all here. Here are my suggestions for things to do in Central Florida—from Lakeland and Winter Haven to Lake Wales.
The Central Florida city I love best is Lakeland, which has a city and country feel, yet metropolitan. Lakeland has excellent points of interest. One of the most cherished is spring baseball training, but Lakeland is also home to the world’s largest campus of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the Queen’s swan offspring, and exotic animals from around the world.
Pretty impressive, huh? Remember the name of this one—you’re going to see it climb up the travel ladder quickly.
Fun Fact: One of Central Florida’s newest and coolest offerings is Camp Margaritaville, about 20 minutes away in Auburndale. Camp Margaritaville has RV sites, cabana cabins (park-model RVs), and motorhome suites, which is on my list to check out when we motor down to Florida.
Joker Marchant Stadium: Spring Baseball Training
The Detroit Tigers play spring training games at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. The Tigers have practiced there at TigerTown for 84 seasons, quite an impressive record.
This beautiful park is continually voted “Best of the Ballparks” by the fans (Grapefruit League) in Baseball Digest. Having visited most of Florida’s spring training stadiums, I think the seating and ease of parking are best here.
To shade yourself during the game, choose tickets in the Pepsi Pavilion. The Margaritaville-themed area is an excellent pick for great views of the bullpens and clubhouse entrance. Get up close and personal with the players at the Dugout Club.
Kids will love the 27-foot inflatable Southpaw (the Detroit Tiger mascot) bounce house.
Pro Tip: Save room for a strawberry shortcake. You are in prime strawberry country in Lakeland, and they are delicious!
Frank Lloyd Wright Campus
Child of the Sun is the name given to the incredible one-site concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright structures completed at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. It is the largest in the world and a National Historic Landmark.
The crown jewel of the FLW pieces is the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, with the essential Wright elements all on display. It’s tower is called “the bicycle rack” in the sky.
The Polk County Science Building was his last contribution to the campus complex and has a planetarium that Wright designed. Twelve of the 18 Wright structures were built during his lifetime, the rest finished afterward.
Be sure to see the Water Dome, completed in 1948, which makes a dome effect 45 feet in the air when the high-pressure nozzles are turned on. It is Wright’s largest water feature. Across the street is the picturesque FLW water fountain.
The Lakeland Swans
I didn’t realize I could see nesting swans by the beautiful Lake Morton in Lakeland, but each spring, the nests are marked off just as the sea turtle nests on the coast. Queen Elizabeth II gifted the original swans in 1957 after a resident wrote to the Queen to ask for a gift from her Royal flock.
Today, they are symbols of the community. You’ll see other majestic wading and shore birds along the cypress-tree-lined lake and have an arsenal of photo ops.
Circle B Bar Reserve offers excellent hiking trails on the shore of Lake Hancock, a former cattle ranch area. Observe flora and fauna in this peaceful setting; still a hidden gem for many. Be on high alert for gators. No pets, balloons, or music is allowed at the nature reserve.
Lakeland is all dolled up with photogenic and clever murals around town. The Greetings from Lakeland Postcard wall makes for a great souvenir from your visit, while the Create & Cultivate walls (Catapult) are catchy and lifelike. And who can pass up the Oranges at the Yard (Massachusetts Ave.) mural to pay tribute to Florida’s epic citrus industry?
In Lakeland, you’ll find Florida’s premier animal adventure park, Safari Wilderness. Take a guided tour via canopy-covered safari vehicle over 260 acres to get up close and personal with zebra, lemurs, camels, deer, and eland.
The water buffalos were my favorite thing to see–so docile and friendly. An ostrich tried to climb aboard our vehicle to collect its treats— it did make for great photos.
Safari Wilderness is an exceptional animal attraction and one you will have the time of your life at.
In the Lake Mirror Park area, you’ll find a free attraction in Lakeland. Hollis Garden sits on a 1.2-acre site with stunning ornamental shrubbery, beautiful trees and flowers, exotic blooms, fountains, and a fruit and vegetable garden. The art installments throughout the 16 themed garden sections (Trees of Americana, The White Room, The Vegetable Room, Sustenance Orchard, etc.) were the cherry on top.
Polk Museum of Art
It was a surprise to find an art gallery of this magnitude, a Smithsonian Affiliate, in Lakeland. The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College is a treasure trove. The touring exhibits last around 3-4 months and are so interesting. They’ve had some excellent art installments, from Rodin and Lauren Austin: Life in Quilts to Art of the Highwaymen.
I loved the museum’s Hungry Planet: What the World Eats and Material World: A Global Family Portrait are real eye-openers and great for all ages. Admission is free to the Polk Museum of Art, which is closed on Mondays.
Where to Stay in Lakeland
My husband and I enjoyed accommodations at downtown Lakeland’s all-suite Springhill Suites Hotel. The hotel has everything you need—complimentary breakfast, a fitness center, an outdoor swimming pool, a fire pit, and stylish rooms with tons of space. A full-service bar is also in the lobby for sipping cocktails or local beer.
Where to Eat in Lakeland
I’d had Frescoes Southern Kitchen & Bar on my bucket list for quite some time and finally got to go for drinks of the evening and breakfast of the morning. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Hand-crafted cocktails range from FSKB Porch Tea and Key Lime Ginger Gimlets to Mango Habanero Margaritas and Kentucky Side Cars.
Frescoes has an appealing menu, and if the breakfast foods were an indication of the rest of the menu, it is 10/10 amazing. Our Eggs Benedict was done perfectly. The Knuckle Bowl (eggs, chicken, andouille, shrimp, onions, and peppers with Frank’s hot sauce) was a unique breakfast item.
Our top pick is Tapatio’s for a tasty Mexican lunch or dinner with two locations. The chicken fajitas are full of flavor and enough to share, and the Queso Fundido with chorizo is a must.
Black and Brews Coffee House is another appetizing hotspot. Enjoy your favorite locally-roasted coffee drinks (or wine, espresso, and frappes) and menu options, including flatbreads, pastries, soups, sandwiches, and fabulous salad creations.
The fire-roasted vegetable soup is insanely delicious, and the flatbreads are worth the price; a statement I rarely make about this menu item. My cheese, pickle, rosemary, and bacon combination was excellent. My husband raved about his Curry chicken salad, served on Tandoori Naan bread. Black and Brews is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Winter Haven, Florida
Winter Haven is about halfway between Lakeland and Lake Wales and 50 minutes from Orlando. It is home to world-famous attractions, namely the LEGOLAND theme park, the biggest in the world, and themed hotels.
The LEGOLAND accommodations are as fun, bright, and attractive as the park. You’ll find a pretty impressive food scene in Winter Haven, too.
LEGOLAND is a creative theme park filled with incredible LEGO sculptures and displays, thrill and kiddie rides, entertaining shows, and attractions for the whole family.
Plan to spend about four to five hours enjoying the carousel, water rides, water ski shows, and fabulous mini-cities created by LEGO pieces in this little slice of Florida paradise.
The Peppa Pig Theme Park is the newest attraction, only steps away from LEGOLAND.
Fun Fact: Historic Cypress Gardens, circa 1939, is preserved inside the LEGOLAND park property.
Where to Stay in Winter Haven
Suppose you want to make an overnight of your Central Florida visit. In that case, the LEGOLAND Pirate Island Hotel is a fun and colorful space with loads to do, great rooms, and excellent food. There is fun for the whole family at these festive accommodations.
A second option is the whimsical LEGOLAND Beach Retreat, with Dr. Seuss-ish cottages and loads of cool things to do.
Where to Eat in Winter Haven
Andy’s Igloo Drive-In Restaurant is the perfect place to relive old-school memories and have a delicious meal in Winter Haven. They’ve been a local staple since 1951.
Choose from finger-licking burgers and fries, onion rings, and thick, rich shakes, or step it up a notch and have a flavorful steak dinner. Andy’s kitschy decor is fun and festive, and your meal won’t break the bank.
One of Andy’s signature items is a Chocolate Big Daddy Fruit Salad shake. Try it, or skip directly to a Banana Split for under $5. Please note—this is a cash-only business.
Harry’s Old Place, on the shores of Lake Ned, is one of my favorite Central Florida restaurants, with multiple dining rooms, an enormous fresh seafood offering, and a perfectly prepared Onion Loaf. Harry’s serves lunch and dinner; the daily catch blackboard typically includes a dozen or more choices, such as flounder, salmon, cod, Chilean sea bass, and tilapia.
The fresh seafood is from both the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean.
Grouper is a specialty, available fried, baked (with crushed pecans and Ritz crackers), or broiled. Steaks and chicken dishes are also popular. Cheese grits and coleslaw are side items you may want to consider. Regardless of your order, save room for the luscious peanut butter pie.
FYI: Harry’s is closed on Mondays.
Lake Wales, Florida
Lakeland is one of the gems in the Central Florida tiara, with some beautiful natural scenery, the fascinating Bok Tower Gardens and carillon tower, and some cool Old Florida fish camps.
The lodging choices run from RV campgrounds and a fishing lodge at Camp Mack (a Guy Harvey lodge & resort) to glamping, luxe teepees, and more at Westgate River Ranch.
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens is one of Florida’s most unique attractions. America’s Taj Mahal is centered around a 205-ft singing art-deco 60-bell carillon tower, often with a live musician (though sometimes prerecorded). Bok Tower, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the few remaining places globally with a live carillon player.
Designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Bok Tower’s 50 acres feature a museum, bountiful gardens, and zenful places to explore and relax.
Bok Tower is open 365 days a year, from 8 AM to 6 PM. Adult tickets are $16 each, and you can bring your dog for a $5 ticket admission. There is a fabulous onsite restaurant to enjoy salads, wraps, and drinks. The fresh and tasty salads from Blue Palmetto are worth the visit.
Fun Fact: Active-duty military gets in free at any time with a valid ID.
Pinewood Estate or “El Retiro”
In addition to the gardens and singing Bok Tower is Pinewood Estate & Gardens, a gorgeous Mediterranean home and historic landmark you can tour with antiques, ornate tiles, and custom-carved wooden doors. Admission is $7, and they are closed on Mondays.
My favorite time to visit is at Christmas, when it is all dolled up in its holiday attire. You are in for a great time when you visit Bok Tower and Pinewood Estate, one of Florida’s best-kept secrets.
Where to Stay in Lake Wales
Westgate River Ranch is one of Florida’s lesser-known resorts and a dazzling jewel in Central Florida’s crown. With dozens of accommodations, including luxe teepees, glamping tents, lodge guest rooms, and one or two-bedroom cabins, you are in for a fantastic time at this secluded property.
The plentiful Westgate activities include mini-golf, swamp buggy rides, horseback riding, airboats, fishing, a zip line, archery, a swimming pool, and hayrides. Children and animal lovers will go ga-ga over the petting zoo and gorgeous Watusi cattle you can admire from the fields.
Pro Tip: I recommend splurging on a golf cart rental so you can enjoy the entire property easily.
There are onsite restaurants on the property, too, so you don’t have to leave to enjoy a relaxing vacation or weekend getaway. On Saturday nights, enjoy a live rodeo, one of Florida’s best and the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi.
Where to Eat in Lake Wales
Westgate River Ranch’s Westgate Smokehouse Grill restaurant serves three meals a day. You don’t have to stay at Westgate (though I highly recommend it) to enjoy them. The service is friendly and fast, and the food is good and priced just right.
For lunch, splurge on a bounty of apps, like Fried Mozzarella, Sidewinder Fries, and Buffalo Wings. The smoked Baby Back Ribs are delicious at dinner, paired with coleslaw and hearty kettle-baked beans. The iced tea was on point, as were the tasty margaritas.
Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood
Drive over to Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak in Lake Wales. Enjoy an indoor/outdoor restaurant with freshly prepared seafood dishes and a great selection of ice-cold beer and cocktails. Oysters, crab, alligator, and shrimp are all the rage at this relaxing spot that affords excellent canal photo-ops.
Start your dining experience with the Gator Nuggets; we prefer them blackened. The Seafood Nachos are a perfect main dish, layered with shrimp and crab and drenched in a Parmesan cream sauce. It is incredibly rich and decadent; it pairs well with a cold beer.
Enjoy live music Thursday through Sunday and happy hour specials from 11 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Friday. Cherry Pocket Corner is also an RV park and cabin rental site. Bring your overnight bag and stay longer.