by Emma Davis | December 15, 2020

A Day in the Swamp: How to Do Gainesville Right

From wildlife adventures to the perfect nightcap, here's everything you need to see, do, eat and experience in G-ville.

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Wander the trails of Paynes Prairie, refuel with a coffee from Wyatt’s, catch a show at the vintage Hippodrome Theatre and belly up to the bar at Dragonfly Sushi.

For most, a trip to Gainesville means tailgating, football or maybe moving a new student into a dorm. But outside the university gates, there’s a cultural cadre of small businesses, local eateries, music venues, artists enclaves and natural beauty often overlooked by travelers. Below, we’ve put together the ultimate Gainesville day trip, complete with wildlife experiences, local wineries and the best dang biscuit you’ll ever eat. 

BREAKFAST AT THE FLYING BISCUIT CAFE

In a nondescript shopping center nestled between a liquor store and a fast food joint, you’ll find Gainesville’s best breakfast at the Flying Biscuit Cafe. This small franchise originating in Atlanta and partially funded by Indigo Girls’ member Emily Saliers serves up hearty comfort food with a heaping side of Southern hospitality. If the mimosa flight doesn’t wake you up, then the bright purple and yellow interior covered in sunflowers might do the trick. All the locals will tell you that ordering their namesake dish, the flying biscuit, is a must. The flaky biscuits sprinkled with sugar on top are best enjoyed with a generous slathering of their house-made cranberry apple butter. 

GRAB A COFFEE & HIKE LA CHUA TRAIL

You’re going to want to fuel up for all the adventures we’ve got planned, and luckily Gainesville is loaded with cozy coffee spots thanks to the demand from students’ all-night study sessions. Wyatt’s Coffee in the heart of downtown serves up an exceptionally good cup of joe and frequently features coffee from around the state on tap, including beloved Jacksonville brand Bold Bean and a new brew from the makers of Wyatt themselves, Resident Coffee. After your caffeine boost, walk out the jitters while taking in the region’s wildlife on Paynes Prairie. The 23,000-acre state park offers more than 30 sprawling miles of trails to explore, but we recommend the easily accessible 3-mile La Chua Trail. While traversing this marshy path, spot birds, fish, bison and wild horses. Of course, it isn’t Gainesville without gators, and this trail is home to a lot of them. Note, the number of alligators along the path means, unfortunately, your furry friends are not allowed to tag along.

See hundreds of butterflies and birds up close at the Butterfly Rainforest. Photography courtesy of the Florida Museum.

TOUR THE FLORIDA MUSEUM

After trekking through the Florida wild, you’re probably ready for something a little more lowkey. The Florida Museum of Natural History, perched on the corner of campus, features trips through prehistoric Florida and immersive scenes of South Florida’s Native American history, along with temporary installations including today’s Megalodon and Insect rooms. If you prefer an exhibit with a bit of a buzz, there’s a room for that too. In the museum’s Butterfly Rainforest, stroll an outside covered path where hundreds of free-flying butterflies and birds from around the globe dance overhead. 

TAKEOUT FROM THE TOP & PICNIC AT DEPOT PARK

The Top restaurant in downtown, is a true local treasure. With an emphasis on fresh, made-from-scratch dishes, this local mainstay has entrees to appease carnivores and vegetarians alike. We’d recommend grabbing an order of corn nuggets and one of their burgers to-go and then making the short 15-minute walk to Depot Park. Sit in the shaded overhang while you chow down and let your little ones run free in the playgrounds. If an afternoon shower appears, escape the rain with a visit to the nearby Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, where you can explore the minds of some of the world’s greatest inventors. Get to know the Einstein’s behind electric guitars, and meet James Robert Cade, a professor of renal medicine who created Gatorade—and the Cade Museum!

Dive into the minds of some of the greatest inventors at the Cade Museum. Photography courtesy of the Cade Museum.

AFTERNOON AT BLUEFIELD ESTATE WINERY

Now we know Florida isn’t exactly making headlines for its vino, but this family-owned winery is hoping to change the narrative. Just one sip of Windsor White, a semi-sweet blend made from Carlos muscadine grapes grown onsite, or a taste of their popular blueberry wine, and you’ll know it’s worth the 20-minute ride to this secluded spot on the outskirts of Gainesville. Tour the Bluefield Estate Winery vineyards and enjoy a tasting at the counter of all their local varieties with a fresh, fruity twist. Not one to indulge? The winery also offers seasonal u-pick opportunities to harvest your own farm fresh grapes and blueberries by the pound throughout the year.

WATCH THE BATS AT SUNDOWN

Pack a picnic blanket or folding chair for this spectacular sight. As dusk settles over the city, various bat species awaken and swarm out of the world’s largest occupied bat houses, located across from Lake Alice on the University of Florida campus. This rare glimpse of nocturnal Florida takes place roughly 15 minutes after sunset each night when thousands of bats can be seen flooding from the houses to begin their evening hunt. If you see one of these black-winged creatures swoop down toward the crowd, don’t panic; they’re just snatching up the insects attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled from your breath. It’s a quick but memorable pit stop on your G-ville trip.

GOOD GAINESVILLE GRUB

No matter your craving, Gainesville has a top-notch restaurant to satisfy it, and dinner is the time to splurge. If you’re looking for fall-off-the-bone brisket, Mojo Hogtown Bar-B-Que downtown should be your dinner destination. For an exceptional steak cooked over a wood-fired grill, Embers is the place to go. For true foodies looking for fresh, well-executed fare with an international flare, try Dragonfly Sushi or Amelia’s Italian Restaurant. Located all around Gainesville, each place offers a different price range, ambiance and menu. There’s something for the most adventurous and the pickiest of eaters in your crew.

The Hippodrome Theatre is housed in the historic downtown Federal Building. Photography courtesy of the Hippodrome.

CATCH A PLAY AT THE HIPPODROME

The arts are not lost in Gainesville and can be experienced in the various playhouses and music venues around town. One of the most impressive spots to see a live show is the Hippodrome Theatre, whose towering columns and bronze-clad doors anchor downtown. With constantly changing classics like A Christmas Carol being performed alongside little-known masterpieces like Silent Sky, there’s always something onstage that you’ll want to snag a ticket for ASAP. 

AFTER-DINNER TREAT

End your Gainesville romp with a nightcap at Madrina’s, a swanky cocktail bar off of University Avenue. This cozy lounge offers ever-changing seasonal drinks and is currently completely decked out for the holidays. If you prefer to satisfy your sweet tooth, Sweetberries Eatery and Frozen Custard is also a fine place to end the night.  Let the professionals lead the way and order one of the special flavors of the day like Death by Chocolate or Apple Caramel Bundt.  Like to be in control? Mix up your own choice of frozen custard flavor and toppings for a completely customized cup of happiness.

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