Best Road Trips For Orlando Residents: Gainesville
115 Miles | 1 hour: 45 minutes Drive Time
Looking for a quick getaway where you can mix it up? Maybe a little culture, a lot of nature, and a bit of football? Gainesville is your place and an easy drive up I-75. Home to the University of Florida, the town has all the dynamics of a diverse community with students from around the world, and education is always in the spotlight. But drive a few miles outside the city and you’ll encounter river trails worth hiking and various springs for paddling and tubing. Come on a fall weekend and “The Swamp” (aka Ben Hill Griffin Stadium) is football central with the orange-and-blue Gator Nation in full force.
Immersing yourself in Gainesville’s energy is easy; start with a visit to the growing downtown. Its epicenter of bars, restaurants and coffee shops can be as student-centric as the The Top, a vegan favorite, or as culinary-savvy as Dragonfly Sushi. Noteworthy is The Hippodrome Theatre, a historic 1911 building with Corinthian columns, where plays and comedies are performed year-round. The nearby Bo Diddley Plaza hosts concerts and festivals; The Florida Vintage Market offers pop up events here regularly.
Keep exploring south and you’ll come upon Depot Park. Once an old rail yard and train depot, the site has been transformed into contemporary public green space, with a pond, kiddie splash pad and paths for walking and bicycling. Renovated old boxcars now house cool eateries and bars serving beer and wine. Think of it as Gainesville’s very own Central Park.
On its edge, the stunning geometric architecture of the Cade Museum for Creativity & Invention can’t be ignored. And neither can the story of Dr. Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade, which is told in the permanent exhibit, aptly named “The Sweat Solution.” On a seven-game winning streak in 1966 (the year quarterback Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy), the Gators football team panicked when their shipment of Gatorade mysteriously disappeared. Although Cade and his team created a drink that replenished lost liquids and electrolytes, psychologically players thought there was something special in this concoction that helped them win.
To get out of town, drive U.S. Highway 441 north to Alachua, a tiny speck with a Main Street that’s home to the prettiest tea shop, Teatime, Tranquility & Treasures. Among lace-covered tables and dainty floral cups, guests enjoy high tea. The next stop is High Springs, gateway to the springs. An ice cream shop, brewery, cafes and antiques stores define the quaint downtown.
Continue on to O’Leno State Park to hike the River Trail. It travels alongside towering cypress trees on the banks of the Santa Fe River until the water disappears underground, just to resurface 3 miles downstream and flow into the Suwannee River. Walking across a suspension bridge constructed in the 1930s adds a thrill to the hike. Paddlers can rent canoes at the ranger station and explore the waterway.
For tubing in 72-degree waters, visit Poe Springs Park. Grab a rental tube and follow the boardwalk to steps descending into the springs. It flows 75 feet northwest and empties into the Santa Fe River; you can see a distinct line where the clear spring water mixes with the tannic Santa Fe River.
It would be hard to find a more magical place to spend the night than The Magnolia Plantation Bed & Breakfast in downtown Gainesville. Granddaddy oaks and magnolia trees frame the 1885 Victorian home. Behind the grand dame, footpaths wind past tiny bridges, fishponds and a gazebo en route to cottages hidden by thick foliage. Four-poster beds dressed in floral quilts, vintage pianos and Tiffany lamps add to the décor. Guests enjoy a wine-and-cheese hour and breakfast of local strawberries and homemade quiche.
Part sports museum, part restaurant. Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille is this year’s hotspot. Fortunately, it’s big enough to accommodate both diners and the curious who want to see coach Steve Spurrier’s collection of 14 championship rings sparkle under display lights, along with his No. 11 college jersey, Gators helmet and other memorabilia. But the food and drink measure up. Pair a Head Beer Coach 1966 Lager with a signature burger of short rib, brisket and chuck. Or kick it up with a Maple Bourbon Sour and grilled rib-eye.
Not many state parks can boast families of bison and wild horses. Paynes Prairie Preserve just south of Gainesville can. And with some patience and luck you’ll see them both grazing in the wild. Hikers have successfully encountered horses on the La Chua Trail near the viewing platform. Bison are more elusive, but have been spotted from the observation tower. You’ll never leave without spying some wildlife, including the alligators hanging out in marshes near La Chua Trail’s boardwalk.