The dining and nightlife scene in this part of Florida—like everything else—runs the complete spectrum. It’s not Miami, but visitors will find upscale dining all the way to ultra-casual, laid-back spots the whole family will enjoy. There’s plenty of family fun throughout North Central Florida, with “real” experiences rather than theme parks. If seeing some of the natural side of the state is what you are after, this is the area for you.
In the region’s two major cities, student hangouts account for a large slice of nightlife. Abundant choices are found in affordable and supercharged restaurants, sports bars, coffee houses, jazz joints, dance clubs and pubs.Because some counties still prohibit the sale of alcohol, nightlife is spotty outside Tallahassee and Gainesville, where nightspots offer all types of music, quaffing and dining. Very local but trendy spots for wining, dining and song are also found in Micanopy, Madison, Alachua and High Springs
Newly rejuvenated in 2016, Bo Diddley Plaza is a community cultural center in Gainesville’s Historic District. By day it’s busy with lunchtime concerts and a weekly farmers market. Free concerts happen every Friday.The recently opened Celebration Pointe is a 225-acre shopping, dining and entertainment center anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, a 137-room hotel and a multi-plex movie theater.
Satchel’s Pizza in Gainesville is by far one of the coolest pizza joints in the state. Put together folk art displays, a quirky salvage yard and a restaurant, and you have Satchel’s. Order up a homemade Lola Cola, a Satch Salad and one of their famous pizzas (bonus points for the vegan-friendly pesto) for an out-of-this-world lunch and experience.
Head to the old Opera House in downtown High Springs for the Great Outdoors Restaurant, a beautifully themed landmark with an all-wood interior, vintage cedar and canvas canoes and other outdoorsy trappings. The patio is pet-friendly, so bring along the four-legged family members. There’s a regular live music schedule; both lunch and dinner menus are well-rounded and affordable.
Krewe de Gras has a Cajun theme and live music in the capital. Also known for drinks, late nights, high energy and live music are Bullwinkle’s and The Moon. Level 8 Lounge in the elegant Hotel Duval is popular for both after-work and after-dinner drinks, tapas and live music.When the sun goes down, head off the main roads and back into the Tallahassee woods toward the Bradfordville Blues Club, a real-deal juke joint. Like most authentic clubs, it’s not much to look at, but there’s real magic here. This isn’t a place to wear your Sunday best; come ready to listen to live, legitimate blues acts and to dance and drink. Outside, there’s always a bonfire. The “BBC” truly is what other blues joints aspire to be. It’s so good that it earned a spot on the historic Mississippi Blues Trail, a rare honor bestowed to only a select number of places beyond Mississippi’s borders.
There’s more going on at the Tallahassee Museum than its name implies. It’s part wildlife center, part history museum and part adventure park. Stroll around the property and you’ll see plenty of live Florida wildlife displays, the historic Big Bend Farm that looks straight out of the 1880s and a wide range of fascinating plant and animal collections. Above, the Tree to Tree Adventures zip line provides visitors with a completely different perspective on the place. It’s totally kid-friendly and will bring out the kid in any adult as well.
Looking for a special lunch spot in Tallahassee? The Paisley Cafe is a favorite with both locals and out-of-towners. It’s right in Midtown, making it easy to reach from Cascades Park or the Florida Historic Capitol Museum. It’s full of southern charm—do yourself a favor and order the shrimp and grits, but be prepared to take a nap afterward.
“Coastal casual” is the theme at The Front Porch in Tallahassee, another Midtown hotspot. This 1920s-restored home is the setting for casual upscale gatherings, with unique takes on traditional seafood dishes. The oysters here are as good as they get anywhere, and you can have them prepared just about any way imaginable. There isn’t a bad seat in the house; choose from several options—enclosed porches, a lower deck outdoor space underneath massive live oaks or event rooms suitable for business meetings and events.
Tallahassee has posh hotels and upscale restaurants befitting a state capital. Among them are the Governors Inn (thegovinn.com) and the Hotel Duval (hotelduval.com) with reputations as “in” spots for dining and nightlife. Being a college town, Tallahassee also has an abundance of pubs, clubs and sports bars and West Tennessee Street is where most of the “happening” ones are found. The primary performing arts venue is the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center (tlccc.org), which features Broadway shows and musical performances (visittallahassee.com).
Gaines Street in Tallahassee (known as G Street or Railroad Square to locals) is a lively hangout known for its trendy restaurants, boutiques and studios.
College Town at Madison Street, just two blocks from Tallahassee’s FSU campus, is another dining and entertainment complex with trendy bars, lounges and restaurants. Tallahassee also offers a good choice of ultra-fine dining restaurants. Georgio’s excels in gourmet Greek cuisine. Sage features a varied menu with entrees ranging from Scottish salmon to fresh-caught striped bass. Andrew’s Capitol Bar and Grill does superb salads and sandwiches while Andrew’s 228 bistro specializes in American and Italian fusion.
Small towns best known for simple restaurants serving fresh-from-the-fleet seafood include Cedar Key, Steinhatchee, St. Marks, Sopchoppy, Panacea/Ochlocknee Bay and Wakulla/Crawfordville. Savor the full range of Gulf of Mexico seafood as well as smoked mullet, a regional specialty usually made into a dip.
As a retirement home for horses, Mill Creek Farm is a special place indeed. It opens its doors to the public every Saturday from 11 AM to 3 PM and admission is two carrots.
Proceed farther north and you’ll find Ichetucknee Springs State Park, a wonderland for outdoor lovers and a classic Old Florida experience. The headsprings are incredible, although the park is most famous as a tubing destination. During the busy season (the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day), a tram shuttles tube-trippers back to the start, making the logistics easy to plan. It’s also extremely popular for kayaking and is considered one of the most beautiful spring-fed rivers in the entire state.
Visitors travel into Florida’s past at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the state’s original attractions. Many early movies were filmed at Wakulla Springs, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The whole park is simply incredible, from the 1930s Wakulla Springs Lodge (book a room here, it’s fabulous) to the Wakulla River tour. The headspring is considered one of the largest and deepest first-magnitude springs in the world, and you can splash down in it from a two-level diving platform. For those interested in wildlife, the river tour is out of this world. Expect to see alligators, a variety of wading birds, outstanding scenery and manatees. If you are interested in Florida history and nature, this is a terrific stop.
If you’re craving an exciting vacation, look no further than the array of entertainment in North Central Florida.
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