Tallahassee has preserved an Old South atmosphere as well as a bounty of gardens and parks.

When you arrive in Tallahassee, there are clear signs of its two most notable pursuits, state government and university education. But a closer look at this vibrant capital city and surrounding Leon County reveals another distinguishing feature - its unparalleled natural beauty.

Lush rolling hills with towering pines, majestic cypress and fragrant magnolias abound. During the blooming season from December into summer, dogwoods, camellias and azaleas dazzle the eye.

Maclay Gardens State Park in northeast Tallahassee is where, in the 1920s, financier Alfred Maclay designed an enchanting masterpiece of floral architecture. A walled garden, with an arched gateway, provides a vista down a long reflecting pool and on to the sparkling waters of Lake Hall.

A garden tour, which can be completed in less than an hour, is one of the delights within the 1,200-acre park. Nature trails are available for hiking and biking, plus there's excellent bass fishing in the lake, a swimming area and nearby boat rentals for canoeing and kayaking.

Many original plantations remain in and around Tallahassee. A fine antebellum home, Goodwood, is one of the city's hidden gems. Founded in the 1830s when cotton was king, Goodwood Museum and Gardens today serves as a reminder of Florida's rich heritage.

The main house and outbuildings are being faithfully restored. The manor house features original furnishings and art collections. Heirloom plants and old garden roses grace the grounds.

Further back in time is Mission San Luis, one of more than 100 missions established in Spanish Florida between the 1560s and the 1690s. On a hill across from the Florida State University campus, this 60-acre park was once the home of Spanish settlers and Apalachee Indians.

Today, the mission has been meticulously restored to its 17th century appearance. Visitors can tour the continuing restoration, including a fort complex, a Spanish church, a Spanish home and the Indian chief's house. .

In downtown Tallahassee, historic Park Avenue offers a chain of seven parks that provides a lovely green space with colorful plantings and moss-laden live oak trees. Many of the city's earliest residences, churches and public buildings overlook the avenue.

A self-guided tour booklet provides descriptions of many notable homes. The Knott House, built in 1843, is open to the public as is the Meginniss-Munroe House, built in 1854, among others.

At the west end of Park Avenue sits Old City Cemetery, established in 1829. A map of the burial grounds guides visitors to graves from the 19th century - slaves and planters, governors and store clerks and veterans of the Civil War (including Confederate and Union graves).

After visiting the historic treasures of Tallahassee, it's time to get wild at the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science. An elevated boardwalk winds through a wilderness area with native Florida wildlife. Endangered Florida panthers and red wolves, slumbering black bears, docile deer, wary alligators, hawks, vultures and American eagles all live in natural-style habitats.

Nearby sits a modest, wood-frame house that holds a wealth of history. Bellevue, the former home of Catherine Daingerfield Willis (great grandniece of George Washington), and widow of Achille Murat (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) is filled with historical artifacts from the 1830s.

The walk on the wild side continues 16 miles south of the city, at Wakulla Springs State Park. The best view of this 6,000-acre wildlife sanctuary is from one of the park's tour boats that glide along the Wakulla River. The river, a pristine waterway, is fed by one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs.

Visitors can hear the chirping of birds and the bellowing of alligators along the river. The park, where some of the early Tarzan movies were filmed, offers biking, hiking, equestrian trails and a swimming area.

Fifteen miles south of Wakulla Springs is St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. St. Marks was established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds.

The refuge draws thousands of visitors annually who enjoy such diverse interests as biking, fishing, bird-watching, a Monarch butterfly festival, and photography. (One of the most photographed sites is the 1831 St. Marks Lighthouse on the Gulf of Mexico.)

As Tallahassee has grown, it has managed to retain two of its finest attributes: the charm and atmosphere of the Old South and a virtual wonderland of parks, gardens and recreation sites.

places to remember