Gainesville was initially known as Hog Town because the local Seminoles kept pigs. These days, this north-central Florida city is mainly considered a bustling university town. Disney World is just under two hours away, and there are no beaches here because its slap bang between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Still, Gainesville's Cracker-style houses, oak-lined and Spanish mossed avenues, small-town roots, and proximity to rural Florida have their appeal. And the thriving arts and culture scene anchored by the University of Florida and the Hippodrome downtown makes for a memorable stay.
Near Lake Alice on the north end of Museum Road, what looks like two giant birdhouses on stilts is an abode for Brazilian free-tailed bats, the world's largest in fact. For more than three decades, these nocturnal creatures have assembled here during the day before leaving their roost en masse to find a meal. Why you might ask, are they so generously accommodated? Well, bat houses make it easier to contain the smell of guano. You can head to the observation area here just before dusk, and you'll likely get goosies when hundreds of thousands of vampire cousins emerge and take flight. It's the best free 20-minute show ever, right on UF's campus.
While you can spot the Sunshine State's famous alligators from the banks of Lake Alice, you're much better off going to Paynes Prairie Preserve in quaint Micanopy for encounters in the wild. The savannah in this National Natural Landmark is home to roaming bison, Spanish cattle, deer, armadillos, sandhill cranes, turtles, and elusive wild horses, not to mention hundreds of bird species. The prairie used to be a cattle ranch in the 17th century and a fish camp in the 19th century before the sink dried up. If you follow the park's guidance and take precautions, you'll be perfectly safe on the La Chua trail, but remember to flee from the UF mascot in a zig-zag if necessary. Gulp.
Just 45 minutes away, you can spend the day floating on the gorgeous spring-fed Ichetucknee River. Solo tubing is great if you need to get away from pressing deadlines or chill out for a few hours but go in a group for maximum fun and get there early before the route hits capacity. You can choose how long you want to laze around by launching from different points, and in the summer, there's a free shuttle service between the north and south entrances. In the winter, you can opt to go picnicking, kayaking, or canoeing rather than swimming.
Another on-campus highlight, this museum has a delightful butterfly rainforest vivarium. It's a 6,400 square feet slice of the tropics and is the world's largest butterfly research facility. Over four stories, 60 species of these beautiful creatures flutter about, drawing wows from visitors. It's a very zen and enjoyable diversion for all ages. Check out the traveling exhibits, the Hall of Florida Fossils, and the Native American art and culture displays too.
High Springs is 20 miles away from Gainesville, so you don't have to drive too far for a fantastic day trip. This laidback small town has antique stores, art galleries, artisanal goods, eateries, and loads to do outdoors. The water temperatures never dip below a comfy 72 degrees, and excellent snorkeling and diving adventures await.
You don't have to be a horticultural expert to find these 62 acres of botanical gardens enchanting. There are seasonal giant lily pads on Lake Kanapaha, some of which may be record-breaking at 8 feet wide. And when you're done taking in the water lilies, there's one of the largest herb gardens in the U.S. to stroll through and subtly sniff. The bamboos sing when it's windy, and you can feed the fish to round off the outing.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her novel "The Yearling" about a boy who adopted a deer. She lived on a citrus farm in Cross Creek, about 20 minutes southeast of Gainesville. An excursion to her former home, where she wrote the story, is worth including in your itinerary for a taste of old Florida. The property is now a National Historic Landmark with walking trails.
This temple, built in 2010, is relatively new. Whether you're religious or not, there's much to appreciate here, including the shaded park, calming meditation pavilions, and tall Buddhist statues from Vietnam that collectively weigh around 85 tons. The space is often used for group classes, and you can check the venue's calendar for special events and ceremonies.
The Cultural Plaza is also home to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, with its impressive range of approximately 7,000 artworks from across the globe. The museum is spacious and flows well from one exhibit to the next. The bottom floor has a lovely café if you're feeling peckish after all the perusing, and you can walk around the Japanese garden on site too. If you're keen on an outdoor gallery, make the short trip to the 352 Walls urban art project. It's vibrantly colorful and has been delighting locals and visitors since 2015.
Depot Park is a fab place to while away leisure time in the city. Formerly the site of an old train station, today you can sunbathe, cycle, walk around the ponds and wetland, or take kids to the splash zone and numerous playgrounds. During the festive season, twinkly lights add Christmas cheer, and there are fireworks on New Year's Eve.