Roots run deep in North Central Florida, just as they do throughout the state. Time-honored traditions are celebrated at annual festivals and examples of the area’s colorful heritage are apparent throughout the region.
North Central Florida’s arts and culture scene can also be found in several smaller area towns, and in some cases, the whole town is considered a cultural destination. Florida’s benign climate and abundance of natural foods sustained Native Americans as early as 14,000 years ago. Sites pertaining to their history are still being excavated. Today, tribes such as the Seminole and the Miccosukee make important contributions to the state’s cultural tapestry.
Where Do You Want To Explore?
At the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, see one of the world’s iconic Hammering Man statues by Jonathan Borofsky, plus more than 9,000 pieces of African, Asian and contemporary art. Also on display are comprehensive collections of Ancient American, oceanic and natural history art. Five outdoor spaces include the Asian Water Garden and an Asian Rock Garden.
Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre, known locally as “The Hipp,” is where it’s at for independent live performances and cinema. In 1979, the Hippodrome moved into Gainesville’s historic Federal Building, an outstanding example of Palladian Classical Revival architecture, with ornate limestone trim and massive Corinthian columns. Originally the first floor served as the post office, while the second floor was a courtroom. These days, more than 200,000 annual visitors pass through the doors of the Hippodrome to check out first-run artistic films, film festivals and art exhibitions from Florida artists.
The Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville showcases 65 million years of the earth’s biological and cultural diversity through educational exhibits of fossils, full-size megalodon jaws and woolly mammoths, interactive Native American displays and galleries, and much more. The venue is the largest natural history museum south of the Smithsonian and the largest university-based museum of its kind in the country. It is also home to the Butterfly Rainforest, which features hundreds of free-flying butterfly and bird species from around the world. It’s a great attraction for the whole family, with daily butterfly releases, feeding stations and a lush tropical landscape.
Anchored by an early (1857) Gainesville homestead, Matheson History Museum showcases local history and native plants in its botanical garden. The complex also includes the original tool barn and a quaint 1935 tabernacle that serves as the museum library.
Don’t pass up Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville and Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee. Both places are perfect for an early morning stroll in a beautiful setting, plus both offer regularly scheduled guided tours. Spring visits are always a treat, with blooming azaleas being one of the main highlights.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs has campsites, cabins, ranger-led events and hiking trails, the same as other state parks, but resident artists make this stop a vibrant center for Florida folk art every day. Programs feature performers, songwriters and expert crafters.
Heading west to Tallahassee via I-10, stop briefly in Greenville. Tour the restored home of jazz legend Ray Charles (1930–2004) by appointment or just grab a quick photo of the impressive bronze statue of the blind musician. Continuing west to Monticello, see the historic Monticello Opera House. In the vaudeville era, touring troupes played the area’s many opera houses. This one still hosts live performances.
Tallahassee’s performing arts scene includes fully staged Florida State Opera productions at Florida State University. A large outdoor venue for seasonal festivals, concerts and events is the Capital City Amphitheater at Cascades Park downtown. Civic venues offer occasional touring shows such as a Broadway series.
The Tallahassee Museum is a 52-acre collection of buildings representing 19th-century commercial, farm and social life in North Florida. One of the most intriguing is Bellevue, a modest but caringly restored plantation home of a real princess. Catherine Daingerfield Willis, great-grandniece of George Washington, became a royal when she married Prince Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon was exiled, the couple fled from France to the United States. The prince served as Tallahassee postmaster and Catherine bought a 520-acre cotton plantation. Their burial plot is in the St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in downtown Tallahassee.
A stop at Mission San Luis is a must. This living-history museum is set in 1703, when Apalachee Indians and Spanish settlers (military and religious occupants) lived side-by-side, combining Native American and European cultures. It’s one of the most fascinating attractions in the region, with archaeological and historical exhibits, a thatched Franciscan church, Apalachee council house and other buildings of the era.
Long before the Spanish era, Native Americans in this region fished, hunted and tilled fields for corn and squash. With European settlement came vast plantations. Surviving from that time is Goodwood Plantation, now an oasis of lawns and live oaks surrounded by high-rise buildings in Tallahassee. Take a guided tour of the mansion to learn about families who lived here until the 1970s. Don’t miss the grounds, outbuildings and gardens.
From the Civil War era, the Battle of Olustee is remembered each year near Lake City in February. See more than a hundred authentically dressed “Yanks” and “Rebs” reenact the fight that kept Union forces from capturing Tallahassee. It was the only Confederate capital that did not surrender. Other special events take place at Olustee’s battlefield, which is worth a pensive visit any time.
The island community of Cedar Key (about 75 minutes southwest of Gainesville on the Gulf coast) feels like a place time forgot. This small fishing village–meets–arts town was actually one of the busier places during Florida’s frontier days, serving as a major shipping port. Now, visitors come for day and weekend trips to stay in several locally owned hotels, take ecotours, eat seafood (don’t miss Tony’s world-famous clam chowder) and spend a few dollars in the town’s gift shops and art galleries.
The South’s cultural history lives in its music at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park north of Live Oak. Situated on the banks of the Suwannee River, it hosts a variety of festivals featuring big-name stars of country, bluegrass, folk and western music. Covering more than 500 acres, the park has campsites, cabins, fishing, equestrian trails, birdwatching, canoeing, kayaking and an arts and crafts village. Folk music is preserved at Stephen Foster State Cultural Park, especially during the annual Jeanie and Stephen vocal auditions held here. Young people compete for music scholarships while dressed in fashions from the 1800s.
Clearly, lovers of art and culture will adore North Central Florida.
Now it’s your turn! Which places have you been? Where do you want to go? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us all!
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