Looking for things to do near Gainesville, FL? North central Florida's arts, history, and nature are highlighted in this driving tour through Gainesville, Micanopy and High Springs.

With its quaint brick-lined downtown streets, Gainesville's Northeast Historic District (locally known as the Duck Pond area) is listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to the preservation of many buildings built between 1880 and 1930. A significant attraction to Gainesville is its renowned cultural center, the Thomas Center, housed in a beautifully restored Mediterranean Revival-style hotel.

Micanopy's downtown is located in a serene, walkable historic district. Antiques and art enthusiasts in particular find an abundance of eclectic curios to occupy their interest in the many specialized and quaint boutique shops.

North central Florida also hosts the historic town of High Springs, known for its vital role in the development of the Southern railroad industry. The streets are lined with century-old live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and historic homes boasting classic cracker and bungalow architecture.

Gainesville: History & Sites

Once a Timucuan Indian village, Gainesville became part of a Spanish land grant in 1817. Named in honor of Seminole Indian War General Edmund P. Gaines, Gainesville, was founded in 1853. The original city plat followed a traditional gridiron design; placed on dry and high land, the city covered approximately eight blocks surrounding a courthouse square. Gainesville history includes a rich African American tradition as well. Freed persons settled primarily in the western half of the Brush Addition to Gainesville (the Pleasant Street area). Many of these early settlers came from South Carolina and were skilled tradesmen, preachers and teachers. The neighborhoods they inhabited still remain important historic and architectural resources.

Gainesville's growth and prosperity continued in 1906 when the University of Florida began operation on land west of the city. From 1909 to 1950, four University of Florida presidents had homes in what is now the Northeast Gainesville Residential Historic District, making the area a center for social and intellectual life in the town.

The Thomas Center, (352) 393-8539, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and contains art galleries, 1920's period rooms, local history exhibits, performance space, banquet rooms, and grand meeting rooms. It is surrounded by the lovely Thomas Center Gardens and the Grace and Sidney Knight Children's Theatre. The Center is the site of a variety of art exhibits and musical programs throughout the year.

From spring to early fall, the beautiful and historic Bo Diddley Plaza, (352) 393-7527, comes alive every Friday night as local talent and other cultural events are showcased under the stars. Starting in 2012, the plaza will be transformed into a skating rink for the winter season (November to January).

North Central Florida's only professional regional theatre, The Hippodrome Theatre, (352) 375-4477, is designated as a Cultural Institution and a State Theatre of Florida. A cornerstone of the artistic life of north Florida, the Hippodrome is also a landmark of downtown Gainesville, occupying a beautifully restored historic building built in 1911.

The Unique Character of Micanopy

Micanopy (pronounced "mick-an-O-pee "), named after a famous Seminole chief, was established in 1821 as a trading post. The oldest inland town in Florida, it uniquely retains the ambiance of its illustrious history and bygone era. The Historical Society Museum, (352) 466-3200, in a weathered 1890 wood freight station warehouse tells the story of the multicultural past of the town, encompassing Spanish explorers, Native Americans, the Civil War and the Seminole War.

Though Micanopy maintains its rural appeal and celebrates an annual Fall Harvest Festival, it has been 'rediscovered' by artists and antiques merchants who continue to revitalize the community with shops and galleries along Cholokka Blvd. Tasty treats at local cafes and bistros add interesting options for those visitors with time to spend. The town's unique character attracts many visitors each year and has been captured in several movies, including Doc Hollywood, Cross Creek and Miracle Child.

Micanopy's charm is enhanced by the scenic countryside that surrounds it, showcasing the north Florida landscape and small peaceful roads that are popular with hikers and bicyclists. It's one of the top things to do near Gainesville, FL. Outside of town, the Old Florida Heritage Highway consists of 48 miles of U.S. 441 and adjacent roads. The Heritage Highway offers access to an unusually well-preserved section of Florida's natural and scenic heritage, including several excellent parks and trails. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, (352) 466-3397, is a 21,000-acre preserve near Micanopy on U.S. Hwy 441 whose habitat offers opportunities to see a plethora of local wildlife species including bison, wild horses, alligators and sandhill cranes. Camping, hiking, bird watching and wildlife viewing are available along with a visitor center and observation tower at this great park.

SIDE TRIP: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, (352) 466-3672, in nearby Cross Creek is definitely worth the drive. The park is the former homestead of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her book The Yearling. Rawling's later book, Cross Creek, is a must-read for visitors to north Florida. The nearly 100-acre site has been restored to its original luster and includes a Florida Cracker house, outbuildings, an old orange grove and ducks, chickens and a seasonal garden.

Friendly High Springs

When looking for things to do near Gainesville, FL, explore the area and talk with the locals to find out why High Springs was voted one of Florida's friendliest small towns. Downtown shops are independently owned and merchants are always hospitable and ready to chat. Dozens of shops display crafts and artwork by local and well-known artisans. Visitors who take the historic walking tour visit the original High Springs train station, which has been restored and now serves as a quaint sandwich and ice cream shop with the flavor of small town Americana.

At the end of the day, relaxing activities and entertainment are offered to all. The Grady House Bed and Breakfast, (386) 454-2206, is downtown and offers an historic experience. The local diner has live entertainment every weekend, and if it's Friday or Saturday night, the eateries are open late and offer a variety of cuisine options. After a delectable dinner, catch a show at the High Springs Community Theater, (386) 454-3525, or take in a movie at the historic Priest Theater, (386) 454-7469, the oldest continuously-running movie theater in North Florida.

High Springs is also well known for its proximity to the largest concentration of natural freshwater springs in the United States, and several parks located along the Santa Fe River offer the perfect venue for visitors to enjoy these magnificent springs. Within 30 minutes from downtown High Springs are O'Leno State Park (386) 454-1853, Ichetucknee Springs State Park, (386) 497-4690, Blue Springs State Park, (386) 775-3663, Poe Springs Park (temporarily closed for renovation), (386) 454-1992, and Ginnie Springs Outdoors, (386) 454-7188. Many travelers flock to High Springs in search of adventure and freshwater sports opportunities such as swimming, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving. For those daring visitors who seek true adventure, underwater cave diving is also available.

Another unique High Springs experience is the Full Moon Canoe Trip offered by local outfitters including the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost, (386) 454-2050 and http://santaferiver.com/trips_moon.html, on the Saturday closest to each full moon. For those adventure seekers who want to stay dry, there are also several nature preserves for bird watching, observing wildlife of various species, hiking, backcountry cycling and horseback riding.