With more than a dozen theme parks -- including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld -- Orlando has plenty to keep anyone busy for a weekend down south. But if you’re looking for a post-Disney, amusement-park cleanse, Gainesville -- two hours north by bus or car -- is the perfect budget-friendly day trip to add to your itinerary.
Though it’s best known as the home of the Florida Gators, there’s more to Gainesville than college sports. From lush hiking trails to trendy restaurants, here is how to make the most of a day in Gainesville.
From prairies and hills to swamps and springs, Gainesville’s varied landscape is a paradise for nature lovers. Spend the first half of your day hiking or cycling along the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, a paved-over rail bed that cuts through the woodlands, passing scenic lakes on the way to the town of Hawthorne. As one of the longer trails in town, this route can take up to eight hours; those who want to cruise past the city’s natural sites in less time can take the La Chua Trail. At just three miles round-trip, La Chua is quick but it offers a viewing platform in the Alachua Sink, surrounded by prairie and wetlands, where you’re guaranteed to spot gators and maybe even a bison.
Just a few miles from the town center, Lake Wauburg is a great alternative for those who want to lie by the water but don’t want to drive all the way to the coast, and you can go boating or kayaking for hours. If you have more time, it’s worth heading about 30 minutes out to the Santa Fe River near High Springs, where you can spend the day paddling down the scenic freshwater spring and stop for a picnic on the bank along the way.
Walk a few minutes from the University of Florida campus, and you’ll come across Leonardo’s Pizza by the Slice, a Gainesville institution. The pizza joint has had a local cult following since it opened in the '70s; the servers have gone from hippies to hipsters, and the menu caters to both vegetarians (with toppings like tempeh and tofu) and meat lovers, with pepperoni, chicken, sausage, ground beef, ham, and bacon -- all on one pie.
Grab a slice to go, and head down University Avenue toward Bo Diddley Community Plaza. Named after the legendary blues artist, who lived there for the latter part of his life, the plaza is the cultural hub of the city. In addition to the vibrant strip of shops, restaurants, and cafes, the plaza frequently hosts outdoor concerts and performances and is home to the Hippodrome -- a theater housed in the historic Federal Building -- which features plays by Tennessee Williams and Paula Vogel, as well as foreign and independent films.
For dinner, head to Paramount Grill downtown, which boasts fine dining in a casual atmosphere and serves a mix of Southern and Southwestern cuisine. Think grilled salmon over sweet potato, black bean, and Cotija cheese enchiladas; and green banana- and macadamia-breaded shrimp and lobster cakes over caramelized pineapple.
Gainesville is also home to an alternative culture, evident in its host of vegan, organic, and raw-food eateries. Satchel’s Pizza, in particular, feels like you’ve just stepped out of Florida and into Bonnaroo. At this cash-only dive, the menu and decor are just as all-over-the-place as the goods sold at the Lightnin’ Salvage junk museum and gift shop onsite. The wait is always more than an hour to eat, but the pizza is worth it. If you can, snag a seat in the 1965 Ford Falcon van out front that’s outfitted with a table, and order one of the $3 homemade sodas while you wait for your pie.
On the second Thursday of the month, UF’s onsite Harn Museum of Art opens up for an after-hours soirée bringing guest lecturers and performances. If your visit doesn’t fall on this day, it’s still worth a trip to the museum to see Claude Monet’s famous “Champ d’avoine,” which is permanently held here. Other exhibits range from African and Asian works to contemporary art and photography, with pieces by Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe.