Near, but far from the glaring strips of neon amusement, and the castles and crowds of Disney, lies another magical place in the Sunshine State – one of pow-wows, plantations, politics and great pride. Often described as “The Other Florida” with its deep-rooted history, rolling hills, canopy roads of moss-draped oaks, cool climate and Southern-style hospitality, it is a Florida few have seen.
Best known as Florida’s capital, Tallahassee is an intimate neo-metropolitan city where the power of state government, the academic and the artistic are complemented by subtle, old-fashioned charm. It is the perfect two- or three-day diversion.
Tallahassee touts a menagerie of sights including one of the world’s deepest freshwater springs, site of America’s first Christmas, a wildlife habitat, Capitol buildings, fascinating museums of history, sprawling plantations, highly acclaimed fishing and hunting adventures and nearby beaches.
Spirited area festivals range from celebrations of Tallahassee’s spectacular spring and swamp stomps to genuine rattlesnake roundups and seafood festivals.
With the Gulf of Mexico just 20 miles south and the Georgia border only 14 miles north, Tallahassee rests between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the juncture of Florida’s panhandle and peninsula. Nearer in miles to Atlanta than to Miami, Tallahassee more closely resembles its Southern neighbors than Florida in topography, climate and lifestyle.
Accentuating Tallahassee’s Southern persona and lush rolling hills, likened to the seven hills of Rome, and five “official” canopy roads of patriarch oaks. The fertile, rich soil and four distinct, yet pleasant, seasons breed floral brilliance and natural vitality year-round.
Like the city itself, the story of how Tallahassee was chosen as the state capital is rich in history. In 1823, two explorers set out – one on horseback from St. Augustine and the other by boat from Pensacola – to find a permanent, central location for the Legislature to convene. The two met at a beautiful site that the Creek and Seminole Indians called “tallahassee” – derived from the words “talwa” meaning town and “ahasee” meaning old. The rendezvous point remains Florida’s capital.
The “old town” has undergone many changes, but one thing remains the same – it is still a government town fiercely proud and dedicated to preserving its heritage. The Capitol buildings, both old and new, epitomize Tallahassee’s perseverance.
We thought the best way to get acquainted was to visit the Tallahassee Visitor Center and Gift Shop, downtown on Jefferson Street. We picked up a free map outlining a self-guided walking tour of the Capitol Downtown Cultural District. The tour highlights numerous cultural and historical sites within a roughly 10-square-block area surrounding the Capitol building. We enjoyed visiting the Florida Capitol, particularly the 22nd floor observation deck and gallery. You’ll also encounter some of Tallahassee’s beautiful green spaces and architecture. We covered the entire tour in about 90 minutes, enjoying the exercise and working up an appetite for lunch at a locals’ favorite, Birds Oyster Shack.
On Bronough Street just a block over from Duval, Birds Oyster Shack is a mix of locals, students, and those in the know (I guess that’s us!). The menu is limited, but it does the trick with oysters, burgers, chicken sandwiches and grouper. Not to mention two great down home beers on tap, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Yuengling, the pride of Pennsylvania now also brewed in Florida. Our decision was simple: a dozen oysters, two grilled grouper sandwiches and a pitcher of Yuengling. Wow, that was good!
From here, you’re very close to a fun, quaint shopping district called Railroad Square, where you’ll find all sorts of small artistic shops and specialty stores. It’s well worth visiting for an hour or two.
New Florida Capitol
The 22nd floor of the New Capitol provides a panoramic scope of a sophisticated Southern city awash in a sea of flowering azaleas, snowy dogwoods, towering pines, fragrant magnolias, and hundreds of shimmering lakes, swamps, rivers and sink holes. Special legislative viewing galleries are open during the legislative session.
Below, in the shade of giant live oaks, proudly stands the Old Capitol, originally constructed in 1845 and restored to its 1902 splendor complete with red-and-white candy-striped awnings, a dome adorned with stained glass, antique furnishings and political memorabilia.
Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial
Across from the Old Capitol are the 40-foot twin granite towers of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and the blue stone Union Bank, Florida’s oldest surviving financial institution. The nostalgic Old Town Trolley, a replica turn-of-the-century street car, carries passengers through restored Adams Street Commons to numerous other historical downtown stops for free – unheard of even 100 years ago.
Minutes from downtown lies the Governor’s Mansion, which resembles the home of Florida’s military hero Andrew Jackson; and the 2-acre natural animal habitat and 1880s farm of the Tallassee Museum of History and Natural Science, which provide the rare chance to walk and talk with native Florida animals.
Museum of Florida History
Tallahassee remains firmly linked with the past as evidenced by the unearthed 1539 winter encampment of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the site of the first Christmas celebration in America. Visitors travel back through time as they stand in the shadow of a giant 12,000-year-old American Mastodon at the Museum of Florida History or explore other historical spots including The Knott House that Rhymes, The Columns, San Luis Mission, Lake Jackson Sat Archaeological Site, Natural Bridge Battlefield, First Presbyterian Church, Brokaw-McDougall House, Goodwood Plantation and Adams Street Commons.
Nearby, alligators lazing in the sunshine and anhinga “snake birds” perched on twisted cypress branches are seen at Wakulla Springs, one of the world’s deepest freshwater springs and site of many underwater scenes in “Tarzan” movies with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. Safaris aboard the glass-bottomed and jungle cruise boats whisk visitors within arm’s length of “The Other Florida.”
Other sightseeing favorites include the masterpiece of floral architecture at Maclay State Gardens; Bradley’s Country Store; FAMU Black Archives; and excursions to Pebble Hill Plantation, Marianna Caverns, Havana Antique District and St. George Island.
Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy adventures including boating and fishing on area lakes, rivers, ponds, and on the Gulf – just 30 minutes away. Lake Seminole, Jackson and Talquin are renowned in the bass fishing world for yielding the “big ones,” and dense forests offer an abundance of prize-winning game. Local wildlife areas such as the Florida National Scenic Trail, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Apalachicola National Forest are among many spots for camping, picnicking, swimming biking and exploring.
Appealing to the strokes of different folks, Tallahassee also features 99 holes of golf on six courses and a proliferation of tennis courts. Always a sure bet are the nearby greyhound races.
A sport of sorts, shopping at two regional malls and many specialty centers offer many “playing options” – from popular chains to curiosity and antique shops.
Cultural interests are sparked by widely-acclaimed museums and galleries and elaborate entertainment at the 14,000-seat Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center.
Tallahassee serves a scrumptious selection of tantalizing restaurants ranging from fast food to five-star. Taste tickling specialties range from homemade country sausage and melt-in-your-mouth steaks to seafood fresh from the Gulf.