The phrase “real Florida” is tossed around a lot, especially amongst those of us in the blogosphere. But what I’ve come to find is that everyone seems to have a different definition as to what is the “real Florida.” To some, “real Florida” means any historic or cultural site predating the state’s tourism boom in the middle of the last century. For others, it’s a simpler, less-crowded time before Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter when cheesy roadside attractions were the norm. No matter how you define it, there are plenty of places from the Panhandle to Key West where you can experience the “real Florida.” Here’s our list of favorites.
Apalachicola – There’s something irresistibly charming about this waterfront town in the “Big Bend” region of Florida’s Panhandle. The one redlight town has a rich maritime history with plenty of shops and galleries along the waterfront to keep you busy over a long weekend. Most of the restaurants feature Apalachicola’s biggest claim to fame – it’s fine oysters, which are still harvested by boat daily. Big Tip: Just before dusk, head over to Battery Park under the Highway 98 bridge. You’re almost guaranteed to see dolphins frolicking in the water.
Cedar Key – On Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa, this quaint town of just over 700 residents takes a while to get to, but it’s so worth it. Do some shopping or take a boat tour to a remote island where you can go shelling. Also take time to learn more about the town’s unique past at the Cedar Key Museum State Park through its artifacts and interpretive exhibits. With maybe the exception of Key West, this is the best place in Florida to view spectacular sunsets. Big Tip: Stay at the Low Key Hideaway and take in the sunsets from the inn’s tiki bar or on its private pier. It doesn’t get any better.
Weeki Wachee – Mermaids really do exist and they all call Weeki Wachee Springs home. The world-famous mermaid shows are a throwback to a different era, but still manage to inspire awe and wonder in kids and adults alike. In addition to the mermaid shows, spend a few hours canoeing or kayaking, diving to the bottom of the springs or visiting Buccaneer Bay, Florida’s only spring-fed waterpark.
Micanopy & McIntosh – These two small towns are within a few minutes of one another between Gainesville and Ocala. With their narrow streets graced by soaring live oak trees covered in Spanish moss, Micanopy and McIntosh are the epitome of the “real Florida” illustrated on post cards during the early 1900s. At every turn, they ooze “Old South.” While there’s nothing in the way of attractions in either community, there are plenty of antique shops, home design boutiques, country stores, and small cafes that will make you fall in love with this part of the state. Big Tip: While you’re in the area, look up Evinston on a map and head over to the Wood & Swink Community Store and Post Office. It’s the oldest continually operating post office in Florida.
Fort Christmas Historical Park – This full-scale replica of the original Fort Christmas built during the Second Seminole War houses a plethora of military, Native American and pioneer artifacts from the early 1800s. The park features an ever-expanding collection of restored “Florida Cracker” houses and farm buildings furnished with period antiques representing life from the 1870s through the 1930s. The old structures are a photographer’s dream, so be sure to bring your camera! Big Tip: Travel down the road to Jungle Adventures where you’ll find “Swampy the Alligator,” purported to be the largest in the world.
High Springs – Voted Florida’s “friendliest small town,” High Springs is an excellent place to spend a weekend. In addition to boasting a downtown that’s thriving with plenty of shops, restaurants and B&Bs, there’s plenty of recreational opportunities for the nature lover and sportsman. The area’s pristine springs with their constant 72-degree temperature are ideal for diving, snorkeling and swimming while a trip down the nearby Santa Fe River by canoe or kayak will literally transport you back in time.
Fernandina Beach – North of Jacksonville near the Georgia border, Fernandina Beach is a town that’s becoming more popular with time. And for good reason. The lovingly-preserved Victorian homes and buildings near downtown will make architecture buffs salivate and will make even the most deeply-rooted person want to live here permanently. Big Tip: Plan to spend some time at Fort Clinch State Park. Not only is the fort itself full educational opportunities, the views of the Amelia River from the top are second-to-none.
Tarpon Springs – If you love Greek culture, Tarpon Springs is a place you must visit. Along Dodecanese Boulevard, you’ll find eateries that cater to Greek tastebuds such as Hellas Restaurant and Bakery, Mama’s Greek Cuisine, Taste of Greece, Dimitri’s on the Water, and Mykonos. Once your finished indulging, head over to the Spongeorama Museum to learn about the history of sponge diving and to get your picture taken inside the giant underwater suit helmet.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm – Open since 1893, St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is one of the oldest attractions in the state. While it didn’t start off back then as a place to see our favorite reptile friends, the gators and crocodiles are definitely the main draw today. Feeding times at different points during the day allow visitors to see how the dangerous and captivating creatures interact with their caretakers. There’s also a bird rookery, a Komodo dragon, snakes, a variety of mammals, and a zip line on property.
Matlacha– Funky to its core, the fishing village of Matlacha is just a few miles west of Fort Myers and home to many traditional Floridian cottages. Painted with bright, bold colors, most contain small shops, art galleries and seafood restaurants. Big Tip: Do a little research if you’re planning to spend the night. Accommodations in Matlacha aren’t plentiful in the first place and can be difficult to find on busier weekends.
Havana – Minutes south of the Georgia border and just north of Tallahassee, Havana was known in the 1900s for its booming tobacco and cigar industry. When that dried up, the town changed direction and became a mecca for antique and art lovers. Many of the downtown buildings once used as warehouses for the cigar industry now house interior design firms. Big Tip: Make arrangements to spend the night at the White Dog Plantation. A number of old buildings on the property have been transformed into showplaces with tons of “real Florida” character.