If you are planing a trip to Florida, but want an awesome locale with unique natural attractions and plenty of culture, without having to fight big city crowds, Gainesville, Florida might just be the vacation destination of your dreams!
Why You Should Visit Gainesville, Florida
Gainesville doesn’t quite fit the mold of a stereotypical Florida vacation. Sure, there’s plenty of sunshine, but you won’t find world-famous amusement parks or beautiful beaches to explore here. Instead, Gainesville boasts a vibrant college town atmosphere mixed with a plethora of fantastic natural attractions.
As the home of the University of Florida’s main campus, Gainesville has plenty of the things you’d expect from a college town: trendy restaurants, a hot nightlife, sporting events, and world-class museums. Oh yeah, and there are plenty of fun festivals going on in Gainesville throughout the year, so be sure to check their official events calendar before visiting.
People who are interested in a budget Florida vacation will undoubtedly love a trip to Gainesville. Here you won’t find jacked-up admission fees, restaurant menus, or hotel bills that are common in more touristy cities like Miami or Key West. Indeed, many of the best cultural and natural attractions in Gainesville are totally free.
As an added bonus, Gainesville isn’t terribly far from many fantastic destinations in Northeastern and Central Florida. For instance, it only takes about 1.5-hours to drive from Gainesville to Saint Augustine, Jacksonville, or Orlando. This makes day-tripping to or from Gainesville very convenient.
13 Awesome Things To Do In Gainesville, Florida
While many of Gainesville’s popular attractions are on the UF campus, there are natural areas well worth exploring in the surrounding area. For convenience’s sake, we’ve organized our list into two categories. First, we’ll go over the best attractions on UF’s campus. Once we finish our college tour, we’ll explore the best things to do around Gainesville.
Gainesville Attractions On the University of Florida Campus
1. Florida Museum of Natural History
One of UF’s crowning glories is the Florida Museum of Natural History, which has served as the Sunshine State’s official natural history museum since 1917. Full of fossils, Native American artifacts, and wildlife exhibitions, the Florida Museum does a great job teaching visitors about the ecological and cultural diversity of the 27th state.
Without a doubt, the exotic Butterfly Rainforest is the most popular permanent exhibit in the Florida Museum. Inside this 6,400-square-foot exhibit, you’ll get up close and personal with roughly 1,000 colorful butterflies from dozens of different species. Since the plants and butterfly populations are always changing, no two visits to the Butterfly Rainforest are ever identical.
The Florida Museum is usually open between 10 AM – 5 PM Mondays through Saturdays and 1 PM – 5 PM on Sundays. General admission to the museum’s permanent exhibits is free except for the Butterfly Rainforest. To find out more about ticket prices and special events, be sure to visit the Florida Museum’s official webpage.
2. Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
For those more interested in cultural history, consider a visit to UF’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art. Measuring over 112,000 square feet, the Harn Museum has a permanent collection of over 11,000 artworks in categories ranging from Ancient American and Oceanic to Modern and Contemporary. The Harn Museum also has five lovely garden areas on its premises highlighting Florida’s beautiful fauna.
Admission to the Harn Museum is free of charge and standard hours are as follows: 11 AM – 5 PM Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 AM – 5 PM on Saturdays, and 1 PM – 5 PM on Sundays. To find out more about the Harn’s latest exhibitions, be sure to visit the museum’s official website.
3. Lake Alice & UF Bat Houses
UF’s Lake Alice might as well have been named Lake Alligator. Yes, there are real alligators in this wildlife-protected zone, so use common sense as you walk, hike, or bike around the lake.
As the sun sets, many people congregate at Lake Alice to watch bats from the nearby barns catch a few insects. According to local biologists, bats are most likely to emerge on mild evenings between spring and summer. For optimal viewing, be sure to stand facing west to take advantage of the streetlights.
4. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Home of the Florida Gators, UF’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is one of the largest and loudest in college football. Affectionately known as “The Swamp,” this stadium can now hold roughly 88,000 rowdy fans on game days.
If you’re not in town during a Gators game, then you might be able to catch another sporting event at The Swamp. In addition to football, this stadium hosts many baseball, gymnastics, basketball, and volleyball tournaments. Check out the stadium’s official website for a calendar of events.
5. Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
If you’re looking for world-class entertainment while in Gainesville, look no further than the Curtis M. Phillips Center. Although only founded in 1992, this performing arts center has an impressive list of former performers. Just a few legendary artists that have graced this center’s stage include violinist Sarah Chang, vocalist Catherine Russell, and crooner Tony Bennett.
Definitely check out the Curtis M. Phillips Center’s website to find out what’s going on during your Gainesville vacation.
Gainesville Attractions Outside Of The University of Florida Campus
6. Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
Established in the 1970's, Gainesville’s Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo is one of America’s premier educational centers for people interested in the animal sciences. Officially a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the 10-acre Santa Fe Teaching Zoo welcomes tourists interested in viewing its many animals, which includes bald eagles, otters, and (of course) alligators.
Visiting hours are usually between 9 AM – 2 PM and cost $8 for adults and $5 for children. Although you could go on a self-guided tour, it’s highly recommended you send Santa Fe College a tour request ahead of time. To find out more info on visiting the Santa Fe College Zoo, be sure to look into their website.
7. Depot Park
Thanks to smart community planning, the City of Gainesville was able to transform a formerly toxic site into a gorgeous park. Named after a railroad station that was once in the area, Depot Park is now home to incredible family-friendly attractions including a playground, a pond-side promenade, picnic tables, a splash pad, and the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention.
Most areas of Depot Park are open from dawn to dusk, but the park could be open later for special events. Be sure to check out Depot Park’s official website for a full calendar of upcoming events.
8. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Gainesville’s Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is a roughly 60-acre facility best known for its wide array of bamboos and herbs. As you stroll along Kanapaha’s 1.5-mile paved path, you’ll instantly see why this is such a favorite destination with romantic couples.
Although you could visit anytime, peak season in the Kanapaha runs from June through September. Noteworthy special events include the Spring Garden Festival and the Moonlight Walk in May.
Typically, Kanapaha is open from 9 AM – 5 PM on weekdays (excluding Thursday) and 9 AM – 7 PM on weekends. Standard ticket prices are $10 for adults and $5 for children. For more info on special events, please visit Kanapaha Botanical Gardens’ website.
9. Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
Located in northwestern Gainesville, Devil’s Millhopper is a relatively small park with one heck of a sinkhole. Measuring 120 feet deep, this park’s namesake sinkhole has been a boon for curious scientists. After you’ve walked down this massive sinkhole, be sure to visit the park’s Visitor Center to learn more about the history of Devil’s Millhopper and see a few fossils excavated from the site.
Motorists will have to pay $4 to park their car here, but bicyclists and pedestrians only have to pay a $2 entrance fee. Typical hours at Devil’s Millhopper are from 9 AM – 5 PM Wednesdays through Sundays. Overnight camping in Devil’s Millhopper is allowed if you reserve your spot before visiting. Check out Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park’s website for more detailed information.
10. Sweetwater Wetlands Park
A fantastic way to explore Central Florida’s ecology is to take a walking tour of the Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Measuring 125-acres, Sweetwater has a 3.5-mile pathway where you could enjoy superb views of alligators, various bird species, and even a few horses.
Before visiting, please keep in mind that bicycling, camping, and fishing aren’t allowed on Sweetwater’s property. Also, Sweetwater has a strict ban on all pets.
The cost to enter Sweetwater Wetlands Park is $5 per vehicle or $2 per pedestrians. Typically, this park is open from 7AM till sunset every day of the week. For more details, don’t hesitate to visit Sweetwater Wetlands Park’s webpage.
11. San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park
The San Felasco Hammock Preserve largely appeals to two groups of people: bicyclists and bird-watchers. Located on a former battle site during the Second Seminole War, San Felasco is best known today for its 20 miles of cross-country biking trails and its diverse array of birds.
For hikers, San Felasco has three major trails ranging from 0.9 miles to 5.6 miles. In case you were wondering, you can bring your doggies along with you—provided they are on a 6-foot leash!
San Felasco is open every day from 8 AM till sunset. Drivers have to pay $4 per vehicle while pedestrians and cyclists can enter for $2 per person. Check out more info on San Felasco Hammock Preserve’s official website.
12. Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Situated about a 45-minute drive from the center of Gainesville, Fort White’s Ichetucknee Springs is a fun destination if you’re interested in tubing, kayaking, or canoeing on crystal clear waters. During the summertime, you’ll find three major tube trails ranging in total float time from 45-minutes to over 2 hours.
In addition to enjoying Ichetucknee Springs’ many water-related activities, there are also three hiking trails where guests could enjoy the park’s diverse flora and fauna. A few common animals that show up here include otters, ducks, and turkeys.
Ichetucknee Springs is usually open from 8AM till sundown and entrance fees are set at $6 per vehicle. For more information on all Ichetucknee Springs has to offer, be sure to check out their official website.
13. Hippodrome Theatre
You’d be forgiven if you mistook Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre for a courthouse the first time you saw it…because that’s what it was originally designed for. Created in the early 20th century, the Hippodrome Theatre was built as both a District Court and a US Post Office. Ever since the 1970's, however, this historic building has become the hottest spot on Gainesville’s Downtown performing arts scene.
From live theatre and films to the visual arts and music, there’s always something exciting going on at the Hipp. For more info on current events, don’t hesitate to visit the Hippodrome Theatre’s website.
Best Places To Stay In Gainesville, Florida
Since most people who visit Gainesville travel to the University of Florida, it makes sense that most of the hotels are clustered around UF’s campus. Here are a few of the highest-reviewed hotels for you to consider if you’re ever headed to this city.
AC Hotel by Marriott Gainesville Downtown
If you don’t mind splurging a bit on your Gainesville vacation, then consider booking a room at the AC Hotel by Marriott. The major draw to this 4-star hotel is its prime location near UF’s campus. Other luxurious amenities at AC Hotel include a rooftop pool, Smart HDTVs in every room, and chic European room designs.
Comfort Inn University Gainesville
People searching for a more budget-friendly option in the center of Gainesville should consider booking a room in the Comfort Inn University Gainesville. Located less than a 10-minute drive from UF’s campus, this 3-star hotel offers guests free access to a pool, fitness center, and continental breakfast. Every room at Comfort Inn University is pet-friendly and includes a microwave, refrigerator, AC, and a flat screen TV.