Are you planning a weekend getaway to Gainesville, Florida, and looking for the best things to do there? You're in the right place!
We usually imagine sunny beaches and exciting theme parks when we think about Florida vacations. However, Gainesville, located in Northern Florida, about 110 miles north of Orlando, offers a different but equally great experience. Even though downtown Gainesville might appear quiet initially, when you start looking around, you'll find plenty of exciting things to do. Wondering where to start or what the main attractions are? No worries!
Here are 16 top-rated things to do in Gainesville, FL, to make the most of your weekend escape.
Gainesville: A Brief Introduction
Gainesville has an interesting history extends back to 500 BC when hunter-gatherer Paleo-Indians inhabited the area. Gainesville was officially established in 1854. The city was named in honor of Edmund P. Gaines. He was a hero of the War of 1812 and was well-known for being a military surveyor and road builder. Gainesville was incorporated as a city in 1907, and today, it is the largest city in Alachua County, with a population of more than 140,000.
Gainesville is well-known for being home to the University of Florida, a prestigious public research university. This university, which has about 52,000 students per year, positively influences the community. The influence can be seen in everything from world-class cultural attractions to educational and sports facilities.
Despite being a lively college town, Gainesville has much more to offer. There are museums, nightclubs, breweries, and shopping malls to visit. Even though it's a bustling city, Gainesville offers plenty of opportunities to connect with nature and relax, including state parks, wildlife conservation, natural springs, and camping grounds. The city also has a rich history that is waiting to be explored.
Some of its popular attractions include Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the scenic Santa Fe River, Devil's Millhopper State Park, and more. With so many attractions, Gainesville provides a perfect backdrop for a weekend getaway.
16 Best Things to Do in Gainesville, FL
Whether you're a solo traveler, on a family vacation, or enjoying a romantic getaway, below are some of the best things to do in Gainesville.
1. Visit Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Location: 4700 SW 58th Drive, Gainesville, Florida
Open Hours: Mon-Wed and Fri-Sun: 9 am – 5 pm, Thursday: Closed
Admission Fees: $5 for kids and $10 for adults
If you love being close to nature, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens should be on your list of top things to do in Gainesville, FL. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, opened in 1978, spans 62 acres and houses 24 different garden collections.
When you arrive, you'll find that Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is more than simply one garden. There are rose, rock, bamboo, and butterfly gardens. You can stroll through a beautiful arboretum and see fields of flowers spanning as far as the eye can see. They even have lily pads large enough for a kid to ride in their streams. The garden has a 1.5-mile pathway with gazebos and benches, so you can stroll and relax in the shade.
The gardens look particularly lovely in the spring (March) during the Spring Garden Festival, and the wonderful Moonlight Walk with glittering lights and lanterns takes place in May. Other annual events include the orchid show and fall plant sale.
2. Go to Devil's Millhopper State Park
Location: 4732 Millhopper Rd, Gainesville, FL 32653, United States
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday: 8 am – dusk. (Open all year round)
Have you ever considered exploring a huge hole in the ground? Well, you can! Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park is a unique Florida park because it is located inside a sinkhole. This place is like a massive hole in the ground, surrounded by sandy and arid land. The hole is bowl-shaped. Visitors can descend 120 feet to the bottom of the hole using wooden steps.
Some joke about Florida being at the end of the world, but visiting Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park may make you feel like you're in a different world.
It got its name because many animal bones, marine shells, and rich fossils were discovered at the bottom, giving it a somewhat spooky reputation. Some believe the sinkhole was their final stop before going to hell.
This magnificent sinkhole is a natural wonder, featuring three distinct ecosystems— swamp, forest, and sandhill—each developing independently based on sunlight and rain exposure. You can have an exciting experience by wandering around the hole's edge for about a half mile before descending on a boardwalk.
3. Explore the Florida Museum of Natural History
Location: 3215 Hull Road, Gainesville, Florida
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday: 10 am – 5 pm, Sunday: 1 pm – 5 pm
Visiting the Florida Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular things to do in Gainesville because there is so much to do there. It's on the University of Florida campus, and you shouldn't miss it.
One of the most exciting exhibits is the Butterfly Rainforest, where you can wander among hundreds of butterflies fluttering freely. The Florida Fossils Collection, which exhibits the evolution of land and life in the region through interactive displays and ancient fossils, is another highlight.
The museum also addresses modern issues, such as sustainable energy solutions, through the Our Energy Future exhibit. Families with children will appreciate the children's discovery zone, which offers educational and fun activities.
Most parts of the museum are free. However, donations are welcome. Some temporary exhibits and Butterfly Rainforest may have a small fee. If you want something other than exhibits, visit the museum's interactive rock gardens. It's a wonderful place to learn about the natural world!
4. See Wildlife at Paynes Prairie Preserve Park
Location: 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667
If you're in Gainesville and want to escape from cultural attractions and museums, Paynes Prairie Preserve Park is a perfect natural alternative. The park is a large natural area only 15 minutes south of Gainesville. It is a spectacular 21,000-acre US National Landmark.
Its geological uniqueness is enhanced by diverse wildlife, including wild horses and bison, making it an excellent tourist attraction. The park is home to 300 different bird species, as well as alligators and deer. The visitors center provides an audiovisual guide to help you understand the importance of the park's different habitats. Head to the 50-foot observation tower for a bird's-eye view of the park.
You can explore the natural beauty of the park through eight trails. These trails are designed for hiking, horseback riding, and cycling. The 16-mile concrete Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is a favorite among visitors. Whether you go on a day trip or decide to camp, engage in activities such as strolling, boating, fishing, and riding. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park offers a refreshing outdoor experience for visitors of all ages.
5. Take a Hike at Sweetwater Wetlands Park
Location: 325 SW Williston Rd, Gainesville, FL 32601
Sweetwater Wetlands Park is a distinctive site where visitors can appreciate wetlands and various animal species. While the wetlands are not visually appealing because they are wet and muddy, the main draw is the distinctive animals that live there.
This 125-acre natural park was created to improve water quality in the Floridan Aquifer and Paynes Prairie. The park has evolved into a living habitat, hosting over 200 bird species, bison, butterflies, alligators, and Florida cracker horses.
The park features a 3.5-mile network of gravel pathways and boardwalks. Several viewing platforms provide excellent locations for seeing wildlife and enjoying the natural surroundings. It's an ideal spot for a picnic while enjoying nature's calm sights and sounds. Visitors must follow strict rules to protect this natural sanctuary. No cars are allowed on the paths, and pets are not permitted due to the presence of snakes, alligators, and wild birds. So, leave Fido at home and enjoy nature through your camera lens.
6. Hang Out at Depot Park
Location: 874 SE 4 Street, Gainesville, FL 32601
Are you bringing kids to Gainesville? Don't miss Depot Park, a must-see attraction in North Central Florida. Depot Park, located in downtown Gainesville, is a popular recreational area that was originally a rail yard. The park reopened to the public in 2016 after major renovations, including removing polluted water and soil. This restored city green area now boasts fields of native and wildflowers, making it a favorite destination for families.
Kids can enjoy the children's play area, which features the Blue Grotto splash pad with waterfalls. The splash pad is open when the temperature is at least 70ºF. Besides the splash pad, the park has water cannons and waterfalls to entertain the kids. Don't worry if you feel hungry; the Depot Station has fast food and snack options. There's also a picnic pavilion where you can enjoy lunch.
While at Depot Park, be sure to see the wildlife conservatory in the park's southern area. For a memorable experience, stick to the marked trail or join a wildlife trip. So, if you want to spend a fun and free day in Gainesville, Depot Park is the place to go!
7. Explore Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention
Location: 811 S Main St, Gainesville, FL 32601
If you're in Depot Park, visit the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention. The museum, named for Professor Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade, opened its doors in 2018. The museum aims to inspire future entrepreneurs, inventors, and visionaries by providing a fresh perspective on everyday things. The museum displays inventions that originated at the University of Florida, including information about the development of Gatorade.
The Cade Museum features unique displays and information about the latest innovations, historic printing presses, and the invention process. It provides educational activities, such as the Living Inventor Series and the Early Entrepreneurs Program, to stimulate young brains and develop vital skills. Weekend programs include activities such as producing slime, identifying brain parts, decorating skeletons, and participating in art projects. The museum also has a gift shop named the “Loot Lab,” where you may find a variety of fun souvenirs.
8. Visit Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
Location: 3000 NW 83 St Building Z, Gainesville, Florida
Hours: Daily: 9 am – 3 pm
Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo is a unique educational facility located on Santa Fe College's campus. It covers 10 acres and is the only accredited zoo on a college campus worldwide. The zoo is home to over 75 distinct animal species and is unique in that it is maintained and controlled by students enrolled in the college's zoo animal technology program.
During your visit, you will meet students studying to become zookeepers. They look after around 70 different animal species, including alligators, kangaroos, otters, and bald eagles. You can easily walk a quarter-mile-long shady trail to see amphibians, reptiles, and other species in their enclosures.
You can also participate in some of the exciting zoo experiences available. These experiences allow you to get up close and personal with the animals, and you may even get to feed them. The VIP Experience package is the best since it includes a special behind-the-scenes look and the opportunity to interact with large Galapagos tortoises. They also have fun events like “Zookeeper for a Day.” It is the best spot for a fun and insightful day!
9. Experience Culture at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
Location: 3259 Hull Road, Gainesville, Florida
If you're looking for free things to do in Gainesville, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, popularly known as “the Harn,” must be on your list. It is located on the University of Florida's Cultural Plaza.
The museum features interesting art exhibits, eleven galleries, beautiful garden areas, and a large auditorium with 250 seats for events and shows. They display art from various cultures, such as Africa and Asia, as well as modern and contemporary art. The museum's collection contains around 13,000 works of art. You can spend your time looking at the art.
After enjoying the indoor art, walk across the Asian rock garden or sculpture garden for a different kind of beauty. Wrap up your visit by stopping at the on-site gift shop or cafe. They even offer free guided tours if you want someone to show you around.
10. Tour Lubee Bat Conservancy
Location: 1309 NW 192nd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32609
The Lubee Bat Conservancy is a unique place dedicated to bat conservation in Gainesville. Many people have erroneous fears and myths about bats, and Lubee aims to dispel these misconceptions. The Conservancy works hard to maintain bat habitats and save endangered bat species. They have almost 160 bats in their conservation area. It opened in 1989 and was the first place to breed endangered bat species.
If you're interested in bats and want to learn more, guided instructional tours are available on weekdays. To participate in these tours, make an online reservation. The Conservancy is particularly known for hosting the annual Florida Bat Festival in October, which is entertaining and instructive for visitors. During this festival, visitors can meet some of the giant fruit bats.
11. Go to Downtown Gainesville
Downtown Gainesville is a dynamic and bustling city with many things to do. You can spend an entire weekend visiting its sights and still not see everything. During the day, the streets are busy with the sights and sounds of businesses.
If you like to dine out, try seafood at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company or a burger at the Paramount Grill. For individuals who enjoy cooking at home, Fresh vegetables are available at the Union Street Farmer's Market. If you're in the mood to shop, visit the stores, cafes, bakeries, gift shops, and bookshops in Center Plaza.
Downtown Gainesville becomes even more alive at night. The Hippodrome Theatre hosts live performances every week. You can also visit unusual establishments such as Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar, where musicians compete and take music requests from the crowd.
While there is plenty to see and do throughout the city, starting your trip in downtown Gainesville is an excellent option.
12. Raise your Glass at the Bluefield Estate Winery
Location: 22 NE CR 234, Gainesville, FL 32641
If you're looking for fun things to do in Gainesville, consider visiting a wine trail. After seeing all the cultural attractions, don't forget to stop by Bluefield Estate Winery.
Bluefield Estate Winery, located in Windsor, just outside Gainesville, provides a selection of fruit-inspired wines created by the couple Bradley and Jennifer Ferguson. Their winemaking journey began in their kitchen, where they made blueberry wine. Today, the vineyard owns a few acres of muscadine grapes and blueberries used to craft their famous antioxidant-rich wines.
Visit their tasting room to try and buy some of these delicious wines.
Some notable wines available at this small but enjoyable place include Green Apple Affair, Blackberry Bliss, and Windsor White. During the harvest season, you can pick your grapes and blueberries if you're interested.
13. Visit Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation
Location: 8528 E. County Rd 225, Gainesville, FL 32609
If you're looking for a place to see exotic animals, go to the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation.
Christine and Barry, inspired by their trip to South Africa in 2001, decided to open a place to rescue animals like leopards and cheetahs. The Foundation is home to over 100 animals, many of which are endangered. If you visit, you can book a tour to see rare species such as the bobcat, caracal, tayras, spotted hyena, spotted genet, serval, puma, bat-eared fox, kune kune pig, and many more! During your tour, you'll realize the importance of preserving wildlife. You can interact with these animals and watch the professional zoologists feeding them. Whether you decide to take a private or semi-private tour, the money you pay goes to support the animals.
14. Tour Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Although Gainesville lacks a beach, you can still enjoy sunshine and water at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The park is 2,669 acres and is located about 4 miles north of Fort White. The park preserves the headsprings of the Ichetucknee River. The park's eight crystal-clear springs are great spots for scuba diving, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, paddleboarding, or snorkeling.
It's also an excellent spot for wildlife viewing. This natural area is home to gar, softshell turtles, beavers, otters, wood ducks, limpkins, and wild turkeys. Hiking, swimming, picnicking, and watching wildlife are popular recreational activities here. Tubing in the Ichetucknee River or exploring the river in a kayak or canoe are two of the most popular activities. The Great Florida Birding Trail, hiking trails, and picnic areas make the park ideal for observing nature and wildlife.
15. Explore Historic Haile Homestead
Location: 8500 SW Archer Rd, Gainesville, FL 32608
The Haile Homestead, located on the Kanapaha Cotton Plantation, is a historic colonial home that takes you back to the 1800s. It displays the extraordinary work of enslaved laborers who erected the Haile family's homestead in 1854. The Haile Plantation House is another name for the Haile Homestated.
The house, made of cypress and pine wood, features a unique feature known as the Talking Walls. For unknown reasons, the family covered most of the walls with writings that tell the stories of their life and the lives of their slaves.
You can learn more about this by joining one of the guided tours on Saturday and Sunday.
16. Visit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Location: 157 Gale Lemerand Dr, Gainesville, FL 32611, United States
The Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, commonly known as “the Swamp,” is one of Florida's largest stadiums, accommodating over 90,000 people. It hosts various events, including games, ceremonies, concerts, pep rallies, and championships.
The annual Gator Growl, a large homecoming celebration for the University of Florida during football season, is one of its most popular events. People travel from all around the state to see celebrity guests and enjoy skits and live comedy performances. It's a fun event that gets everyone excited about football.
Besides Gator Growl, the stadium hosts college and high school bowls. However, concerts have been less often due to turf concerns. If you enjoy football, the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a must-see, with events and activities available even during the off-season.
There you have it – a list of top-rated things to do in Gainesville for a weekend visit. I hope this guide has inspired you to plan your next getaway to this beautiful city. Whether you're interested in exploring nature, visiting museums, or enjoying outdoor activities, Gainesville has something for everyone.
From the scenic beauty of Ichetucknee Springs State Park to the educational experiences at the Florida Museum of Natural History, you'll find a variety of attractions to make your weekend memorable. Don't forget to check out the local eateries, historic sites, and cultural spots for a well-rounded experience. Enjoy your time in Gainesville!
I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.