Planning a North Central Florida vacation? Start by digging into all the best things to do in Gainesville. A diamond in the rough hiding in Alachua County, this famed college town boasts a winning combo of natural scenery, buzzing nightlife, and world-class museums and art galleries. Gainesville is the perfect introduction to this often neglected region in Florida.
Rated as one of the top places to live in Florida, Gainesville has a reputation for its outdoor adventures. Visiting the top tourist attractions in Gainesville, you’ll have a chance to experience lush mini-rainforests in places like the Millhopper Geological State Park or meet endangered species at the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation. Arts & culture enthusiasts will also find plenty on the streets of Gainesville, including the famed Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art.
Ready to discover what to do in Gainesville? Start planning the ultimate North Florida getaway with this guide to the best places to visit in Gainesville, FL.
Must-see places to visit in Gainesville, FL
Florida Museum of Natural History
When it comes to interesting ecosystems, North Central Florida was dealt a full house. And the Florida Museum of Natural History is a great way to witness it with your own eyes.
At this popular museum, you’ll get to see permanent exhibits like Florida fossils as well as Indoor Butterfly exhibits. The butterfly exhibits include the famed Butterfly Rainforest, home to hundreds of free-flying butterflies. The experience of watching them flutter over your head is nothing short of magical. You’ll also find permanent exhibits highlighting Florida’s earliest inhabitants.
The Florida Museum of Natural History also hosts a regular rotation of temporary exhibits. Recent exhibitions include “Inner Beauty,” contrasting high-resolution pictures of aquatic life from the inside with actual skeletons from the species.
For a break from the ordinary natural history exhibits, be sure to check out the museum’s interactive rock gardens.
Millhopper Geological State Park
Need proof of North Florida’s natural bounty? Spend some time exploring Millhopper Geological State Park. With about 5 miles of trails, this family- and pet-friendly park is a great place to get closer to nature. Dating back to the late 1800s, it’s one of the must-see Gainesville tourist attractions.
The big draw at Millhopper Geological State Park is the Devil’s Millhopper. This 120-foot-deep water-filled sinkhole charms visitors with tiny streams feeding serenely down through its slopes. The Devil’s Millhopper is also surrounded by a lush, mini rainforest.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
North Central Florida is known for its diverse collection of flora and fauna. See it for yourself by heading over to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Sprawling over 64 acres, the beautiful gardens house 24 collections that are sure to delight and amaze.
Explore the bamboo gardens at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to marvel at Wong Chuk, the Chinese royal bamboo. Or watch as tiny-winged friends feed and frolic in the Hummingbird Garden or flutter around the Butterfly Garden. Depending on which time of year you go, you’ll see different plants in bloom throughout the gardens.
Festivities are also held throughout the year at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. One is the Moonlight Walk, where you can walk through the horticultural collections during the wee hours. The 1.25-mile walk is lit up by 1,500 luminaries and laser lights to keep you firmly on your path.
Not just a beautiful lake, Lake Alice is among the top places to see in Gainesville for nature lovers. The lake, located on the University of Florida campus, teems with wildlife, including alligators and softback turtles.
The best way to experience Lake Alice is to saunter along the boardwalk, dipping into the woods and swampland. Keep on the lookout for bird species like nighthawks, blue herons, and white ibises. (Watch for alligators, too; they like to laze around the lakeshore.)
Historic Haile Homestead
History buffs will love padding their Gainesville itinerary with a visit to the Historic Haile Homestead. This top Gainesville attraction is home to the Haile Plantation House. Built in 1856, the 6,400-square foot home has since been restored and maintained for its historic value.
While restored historic homes aren’t unusual in the Southeast, what you’ll find inside Haile Plantation House certainly is. Known as the “Talking Walls,” over 12,500 words are scrawled on the home’s walls and closets. Take a peek for a first-hand glimpse into a Haile family’s personal history.
Bluefield Estate Winery
From muscadine grapes to blueberries, the Bluefield Estate Winery puts a unique spin on Southeast USA wine. A little off-the-beaten-path, the family-owned winery is a delightful trek that’s sure to spice up your day. For wine lovers, it tops the list of places to go in Gainesville.
Wine aficionados are in for a treat at Bluefield Estate Winery. Join in on a winery tour for a taste of their unique blueberry wines. Besides blueberries, its red muscadine grapes are used to craft several different types of wines, such as Windsor Red. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can also sip one of their tasty Sweet Strawberry Sensation wines.
Visiting Gainesville with kids? Pop into Depot Park. This North Central Florida gem is home to a playground, along with the blissful Blue Grotto. For families, it’s one of the coolest places to see in Gainesville, FL.
The Blue Grotto is modeled after Central Florida caverns. Kids will love cooling down at the splash pad. It’s open whenever the temperature is at least 70ºF.
Besides the splash pad, waterfalls and water cannons will keep the kids busy. There are also hidden fossils to find in the watery playground. When you need a break, there’s a picnic pavilion to refuel with lunch.
While visiting Depot Park, be sure to carve out time to visit the wildlife conservatory. It’s located in the southern portion of the park. Just be sure to stay on the marked path or join in on one of the wildlife tours.
Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention
While you’re at Depot Park, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention is a great option for cooling off and fanning the fires of the family’s creativity. Named after Professor Robert Cade, the creator of Gatorade, the museum encourages children and adults alike to embrace their inner inventor.
The Cade Museum is chock-loaded with special exhibits. Kids may even get a chance to meet actual inventors. All and all, the museum is a great diversion from the usual Gainesville tourist attractions and a great place to spark some inspiration.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Whether you’re looking for nature or adventure, Ichetucknee Springs State Park is one of the top points of interest in Gainesville. This 2,669-acre wildlife haven boasts crystalline streams as well as a wildlife refuge.
Animals like otters, beavers, and softshell turtles are just a few of the curious critters waiting to be spotted at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. You’ll also love the chance to go tubing down the river in the shadow of longleaf pines.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located in Fort White, about 30 miles south of Gainesville.
Morningside Nature Center of Florida
Seven miles of trails situated within 278 acres await nature lovers at the Morningside Nature Center of Florida. At the nature center, visitors will encounter tree species like longleaf pine trees, an endangered tree that’s fire-dependent for its growth cycle. You’ll also find plenty of cypress and sandhills.
For history buffs, there’s an additional treat at Morningside Nature Center: the Living History Farm. At this popular attraction, you can experience a re-creation of a family holding from 1870. The homestead includes heritage-breed farm animals, a one-room schoolhouse, and even an heirloom garden. It’s the perfect place to get a taste of Florida life from over 150 years ago.
Visit on a Wednesday and you and the kids can feed animals with Morningside’s ‘Barnyard Buddies’ program. Veggie donations for the animals, such as carrots and apples are welcome, but not required.
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation
For eco-minded travelers, The Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation is one of the coolest things to see in Gainesville. The conservation park is home to 25 endangered species, such as the Amur leopard, the striped hyena, and the Indian rhino.
Visitors will have a rare chance to see and learn all about these threatened animals in the heart of North Central Florida. At Carson Springs, 100% of your donation will help buy food and provide veterinary care to these magnificent animals.
Kika Silva Pla Planetarium
Located on the northwest side of the Santa Fe College campus, the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium is one of Gainesville’s must-see points of interest. If clusters and constellations tickle your fancy—or you’ve got a young, aspiring astronomer in the family—this science attraction is well worth adding to your travel plan.
At the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium, you’ll experience shows that highlight Florida’s night skies. Some of the popular offerings include “Black Holes – The Other Side of Infinity” and “Extreme Planets.”
NOTE: The Kika Silva Pla Planetarium is temporarily closed to visitors. Operations will resume on October 1st, 2021.
Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
Located in the University of Florida Cultural Plaza, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art is a uniquely Florida-centric experience. The 112,800-square-foot art museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Florida-themed art in the world.
The Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art is not a one-trick pony though. Besides its Florida art, the extensive collections include African and Asian paintings, metalwork, and stonework. You’ll also find tons of photography from the 19th century up to the modern day.
Modern and contemporary, the exhibitions rotate throughout the year. Be sure to check what’s on in advance to see what’s awaiting during your Gainesville visit.
Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
After visiting the planetarium, kids will love squeezing in a visit to the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo. This zoo is home to about 75 animal species, such as bald eagles, white-throated capuchins, and Matschie’s tree kangaroos.
The 10-acre Santa Fe College Zoo features animal encounters to let you get closer to some of its furred, feathered and scaled inhabitants. With the zoo’s blend diverse blend of exotic and local species, everyone will be likely to spot an animal they’ve never seen before.
Matheson History Museum
Pivot from wildlife to a glimpse of human history with a stop at the Matheson History Museum. Located in historic downtown Gainesville, The Matheson History Museum has something for all history and genealogy buffs. The museum is loaded with libraries and archives filled to the brim with data you won’t find elsewhere.
The Matheson History Museum is also home to the Matheson House. Those who love historic architecture can take a stroll inside a genuine Frame Vernacular, peppered with Greek Revival elements that’ll awe and inspire. Built in 1867, the Matheson House is one of the oldest homes in Gainesville. It’s a rare chance to sample some authentic North Central Florida history firsthand.
University of Florida Bat Houses
One of the most fascinating places to visit in Gainesville, the University of Florida Bat Houses is a must-see for nature lovers. Located on Museum Road in the sprawling University of Florida campus, the attraction holds the title of the largest occupied bat houses on the planet.
Over 300,000 bats live at the UF Bat Houses. Species you can spot here include the evening bat, the Southeastern bat, and the exotic Brazilian free-tailed bat.
Around 15 to 20 minutes after the sun sets, thousands of bats emerge and fill the night sky before your eyes. If you’re visiting Gainesville from spring through to the summertime, you’ll see them at their peak. Even if you’re around winter, you might still be in luck; some bats will still come out for a refreshing drink of water when it’s warm outside.
Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail
A delight for railroad buffs, nature lovers, cyclists, and hikers, the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail stretches 16 miles southeast from downtown Gainesville to the town of Hawthorne. On the popular hiking & biking trail, you and your loved ones will have a chance to enjoy nature and learn more about the history of the Florida Southern Railway.
The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail leads through several conservation areas, including the Paynes Prairie Reserve. Your entertainment isn’t limited to hiking, biking, and history either. Horseback riding is a great option to tackle the rail trail. Fishing is also permitted at the Lochloosa and Prairie Creek bridges.
Recommended places to stay in Gainesville for sightseeing
Offering excellent value, this hotel charms with spacious modern suites within a short drive of downtown. Amenities include an outdoor pool and fitness center.
Located steps from the university and downtown, this mid-range hotel offers bright, contemporary rooms. Staying here, you’ll enjoy superb amenities, including a swimming pool and on-site restaurant & bar.
A short drive from the university, this stylish hotel is one of the top picks for mid-range luxury travelers. The cheery and funky decor gives the lodgings a charm unlike any other hotel in Gainesville.