Driveable Destinations: Tallahassee

It’s the best and safest way to travel right now, and within a short span of time, it’s easy to reach some of Florida’s most historic and vibrant communities. In this new series, we’ll highlight some great destinations that will make you want to hit the road.

Traveling the streets of Tallahassee today harkens back to a city built on rolling hills in the days when Native Americans farmed the rich soil and hunted and fished in the area’s abundant natural resources. A visit can reveal the dynamics of the community’s deep heritage as well as  its commitment to developing emerging leaders in government, education, commerce, athletics and the arts. 

As one rolls into town on Highway 27—a mere three-hour journey from Ocala—the impressive sight of the elegant Florida Historic Capitol Museum nestled in the shadow of the sleek and modern Florida Capitol skyscraper is sure to stir even the most seasoned traveler. And the massive complex includes memorials to law enforcement personnel, first responders and veterans, notably Marion County’s only Medal of Honor recipient Hammett Bowen Jr.

The nearby campuses of the historic Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (1887) and Florida State University (1851) continue to achieve national acclaim for the depth of their curriculums and the successes of their graduates.

Mixed in with all the stateliness and pomp and circumstance, there is plenty of fun to be had in our state’s capital city.

It would be possible to do a day trip to Tallahassee, but I recommend staying over for a bit to make sure you get a good sampling of the sights, scenes and eateries, especially the eateries, because so many travel memories involve great food.

My recent journey to Tallahassee blended gustatorial history, as in relishing the pecan-crusted okra at Table 23 (housed in a 1920s restored residence) with chowing down at at the very modern and hip Backwoods Crossing on Hog in the Henhouse (their version of chicken cordon bleu), where the motto is “from our farm to your fork.” My visit there included finding a surprising connection to Ocala, in that a truckload of corn from Backwoods Crossing made its way a year ago to Fish Hawk Spirits in Marion County, where it has been made into whiskey.

If you’re looking for a great breakfast option, try the fabulous Shrimp & Grits at the Grove Market Café. This to-die-for dish comes loaded with a base of creamy, cheesy grits, layered with collard greens, green onions, tomatoes, bacon, grilled shrimp and a lemon butter sauce. Pair that with a deep mug of Sweetwater Organic Coffee and your day will be off to a great start.

A perfect spot for lunch is SoDOUGH Baking Company, where the grilled provolone cheese and ham on fresh made sourdough bread feels like a warm hug on a gray afternoon.

At the end of the day, give yourself a real treat by having a nightcap at Bar 1903, which is housed in the historic Walker Library. The extensive menu at this cozy venue spans 160 years of mixology and the knowledgeable staff will be happy to explain each specialty cocktail’s unique complexity, such as the five varieties of gin and tonics that feature house-infused botanical syrups.

Even in a pandemic, it is easy to also whet your cultural appetite in Tallahassee, with ventures such as the self-guided Public Arts Mural Tour, opportunities to see visual arts and live music.

For those who enjoy seeing the sights of a city on foot, it is very easy to navigate the area around the capitol complex, including miles of multi-use trails at Cascades Park, right in the heart of downtown. If you like to pick up the pace, check out Apalachee Regional Park, which offers opportunities for running, hiking and biking on several types of surfaces. This multi-use park includes one of the nation’s few sites designed specifically for cross country running.

For thrill seekers, visit the Tallahassee Museum, where Tree to Tree Adventures combines an aerial obstacle course with soaring ziplining experiences and there is even a more down to earth platform for children. After you come down from the treetops, enjoy the serenity of the museum’s spacious and shaded grounds, the pioneer village, animal habitats and whimsical dinosaur sculptures made from old car parts.

An outdoor activity that combines history with stunning flora is a visit to the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park. The nearly 1,200 acres of “floral architecture” include an easy to navigate brick walkway, a secret garden, a reflection pool and a walled garden. The innumerable camellias and azaleas will take your breath away when in full blossom.

Equine sports enthusiasts may want to check out the annual Red Hills Horse Trials, in which riders from around the world seek berths on Olympic and World Equestrian Games teams. The eventing competitions typically occur the second weekend in March, at Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

With a careful eye to social distancing, even shopping in the time of COVID-19 can be a joy at hallmark venues such as Hearth & Soul, a lovingly curated home and personal goods emporium in The Market District. Owner Susie Busch Transou says she has a passion for things that warm the heart.

“Our store is laid out like a home, which makes our products more relevant,” she offers. “From when you enter the living area, to the women’s and men’s closets, to the kitchen area, everything here feeds the soul.”

The store has a focus on wellness and works with community partners to provide fitness events and cooking demos, showcases local artists and authors, and supports area charities.

In another interesting tie to Ocala, Transou, a member of the Anheuser-Busch family, and her husband Tripp, are the owners of Tri-Eagle Sales, a beverage distribution company with locations in Tallahassee and Marion County, and one of their children is an avid equestrian and participant in the annual Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS) competitions.

A visit to Tallahassee should end with a trip to Bradley’s County Store, built in 1927, where you can enjoy a famous smoked country sausage dog on the front porch or buy links to take home, along with some bacon, smoked pork chops, country milled grits and cornmeal, and homemade jams and jellies. The spirit of Grandma Mary Bradley is still very much alive as her relatives continue the traditions started in her home kitchen.

And, to really round out your southern breakfast or supper, at home in your own kitchen, take the slow route (Highway 27) back to Ocala and stop at the Perry Fish Market. Pick out your choice of fresh fish, which they’ll be glad to clean for you, and count your blessings if they have any swamp cabbage in the cooler. Swamp cabbage also goes by the name heart of palm, as it is the meat of a young cabbage palm tree. I’m a Florida native and, for me, heart of palm is great in a salad or as part of a cheese tray, but a steaming bowl of fresh-cooked swamp cabbage is akin to putting the heart and soul of the south in my mouth. Season the cabbage with some of the Bradley family’s bacon or sausage and serve it with some of their coarse ground grits and the market’s fresh fish, fried up crispy, and you truly will have captured the purest essence of old Florida. 

To Do’s for Tallahassee

How do I get there?

To make haste, take Interstate 75 north to I-10 West, then hop off at any of the five exits for greater Tallahassee. For a more serene and green (as in tree farms and old growth forests) journey, follow Highway 27 west out of Ocala and take in the old Florida towns of Williston, Chiefland, Cross City and Perry along the way. This is definitely the route less traveled, especially through Taylor County and onward, and the path will bring you right to the impressive sight of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum and new Florida Capitol skyscraper.

How do I get around?

Navigation is surprisingly easy in the Capital City, with many streets going long and straight, or very gently curving beneath canopies of ancient, moss-draped oak trees. The downtown area features directional signage that is comprehensive and easy to follow, whether driving or on foot.

Where do I stay?

There are numerous hotels, motels, Airbnb and bed and breakfast options in the city and suburbs. In the downtown area, the boutique DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tallahassee, on South Adams Street, (Hilton.com) is very near the capitol complex and offers a good base from which to access many points of interest. As the floors go higher, the view from each spacious and well-appointed room takes in more and more of the city center and tree-lined suburbs. The 17th floor features the elegant Eve on Adams rooftop dining and leisure area that offers a truly spectacular view day or night. You can begin the day on the terrace with breakfast selections such as the delicious veggie omelet and cheese grits, or a platter of luscious French toast, accompanied by a refreshing mimosa. After sunset, Eve on Adams becomes a hotspot with the glowing lights of the city providing the perfect background for intimate conversation, appetizers and cocktails or a leisurely nightcap.

What else should I do while I’m there?

For history buffs, Mission San Luis and the Museum of Florida History both contain timeless treasures and glimpses into our state’s multi-faceted past. You can take a stroll beneath a live oak tree that dates back to the days of Shakespeare at Lichgate on High Road, built by a Florida State University English professor and named for the gates of medieval England. There are abundant opportunities to get out on the water, which can become adventures of discovery when up close and personal via kayak or canoe, such as a paddle on the crystal clear Wakulla River. For a family-friendly outing, you can’t beat the Challenger Learning Center/IMAX Theatre and Planetarium “edu-tainment” destination in downtown Tallahassee.

To learn more, log on to visittallahassee.com

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