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What It’s Like to Visit Buc-ee’s in Daytona Beach, Florida

The Buc-ee’s sign in Daytona Beach. Stars that adorn the building (not shown here) are a nod to the store’s Texas roots.

Buc-ee’s isn’t just a convenience store; it’s practically its own subculture. Originally from Texas, the first Buc-ee’s came to Florida with its St. Augustine location opening in 2021 followed by a Daytona Beach location.

Buc-ee’s is famous for its buck-toothed beaver mascot, brisket, Beaver Nuggets (which taste a lot like Sugar Pops cereal) and so much more. Because of Buc-ee’s massive size, it often attracts visitors who need gas or a drink but who also want the full Buc-ee’s experience. We visited the Daytona Beach location to get the scoop so you know what to do and see when visiting Buc-ee’s in Daytona Beach.

Want a Buc-ee’s stuffed animal?!

What It’s Like to Visit Buc-ee’s in Daytona Beach

Our visit was on a weekday morning but during a holiday, so we knew it would likely be busy. Buc-ee’s in Daytona Beach is an easy turn off of I-95, the famous north-south interstate that can take you all the way from Miami to the Canadian border in Maine. (For the Daytona Beach location, it’s off of exit 265.)

The first order of business was to get gas, and there were 104 (!!) gas pumps from which to choose. After filling up, we found a spot in the ample parking lot (nearly 400 spots), where surely a circle of life is happening on any given day (not unlike a Walmart parking lot). As many people are driving RVs or road tripping, you could see how they use a Buc-ee’s parking lot to regroup, whether that means taking a brief rest or taking their dog out for a walk. In fact, Buc-ee’s is so often used as a rest stop for dogs, there are some clever signs to remind visitors to pick up pet waste.

Pick up after your pet! That’s the Buc-ee’s message here.

Going Inside Buc-ee’s

Going inside Buc-ee’s is like a collision of a convenience store with a Cracker Barrel, Texas charm, and a massive amount of products with that buck-toothed mascot.

Depending on when you visit, you may be overwhelmed by crowds, something we read about in reviews. The day of our visit was busy but not overwhelming, so there’s was no problem ambling around.

Buc-ee’s glazed nuts area, with other popular food choices seen in the background.

Buc-ee’s is famous for a few specialties, most of which are Texas-themed and made fresh on site:


–Kolaches, a type of Czech pastry brought to Texas in the 1800s


–Glazed nuts (our personal fave)

–Beaver Nuggets

–Beef jerky

Customers checking out Buc-ee’s offerings.

The middle of the store has bustling areas where employees are making some of these items (and additional items), so it’s quite the scene to see how they work. You may decide to pick up a biscuit breakfast sandwich, a brisket sandwich, or some fudge (ask for samples!). The area with the freshly prepared foods was definitely the busiest part of the store.

There’s also a part of Buc-ee’s that’s similar to other convenience stores, with drinks, snack chips, candy, and other routine items as well as not-so-routine items (like quail eggs). This part of the store is less hectic than the rest of the store but still may be a necessary part of your trip depending on what you need.

Of course, there are restrooms–large ones–that are clean and ample. We don’t know if they will always be the cleanest restrooms in the world as the company states, but we had a positive experience.

The beaver nuggets.

Then, there’s the merchandise. If you’re looking for a T-shirt, socks, toy, football, PJ pants, or just about anything else with the Buc-ee’s logo, you’re in luck. This is the same area where you can find those Beaver Nuggets for sale. You’ll find all of those items for sale here or online (ironically, Buc-ee’s doesn’t have an online store but sells its merchandise on Amazon and on sites like In a moment of weakness, we almost bought the Buc-ee’s PJ pants.

Or maybe you want a Buc-ee’s cup.

There’s another part of the Buc-ee’s store that’s filled with down-home goods–think “Yellowstone” meets Southern Living. Cowboy hats, wine glasses with sayings on them, honey-based soaps, kitchen towels (like the one with a cow on it that says “Kitchen Closed–This Heifer’s Had It”), and soooooo much more. There’s also a lot of similarly themed Florida merchandise.

If you’re a big shopper for goods like these, you’ll likely enjoy it all and want to take your time. If all of that just makes your eyes glaze over, you probably will just want to go back to your car and recover.

Biscuits, anyone? As seen at the Buc-ee’s in Daytona Beach.

A Few Extra Buc-ee’s Tips

Make time for your visit. If you’re new to the Buc-ee’s world and want to check it out, this isn’t the sort of place you’re going to be able to get in and out in 5 or 10 minutes. Give yourself and your companions a good half hour or hour maybe to visit. Account for crowds as well, which may slow things down. We wish we could tell you a best time to visit Buc-ee’s but as it’s open 24/7, we’re guessing it stays busy pretty consistently. If you’re in a hurry, stick with a regular-sized gas station/convenience store.

Don’t bring your 18-wheeler. The Buc-ee’s parking lot is not designed for semi-trucks–this is apparently a policy at all Buc-ee’s, not just the one in Daytona Beach. There are signs throughout the lot to let people know.

Decide on a souvenir you may want to buy. Want some inspiration in advance? We enjoyed this “Southern Living” magazine article on Southern products to buy at Buc-ee’s, including bacon grease, deer feeders, and BBQ.

After you get gas, move your car to a parking spot if you plan to go inside and shop. With 100+ gas spots, you may assume you’ll have no problem leaving your car there while you go shop. Yet consider how busy a Buc-ee’s can get. You’ll likely leave other customers just waiting so they can get gas. Be considerate and move your car if you plan to do more than just use the restroom.

Check out this video from for other tips on visiting Buc-ee’s–specifically, 10 things to NOT do when visiting the convenience store. Here’s a video from Roadtrip Dave that provides a video tour of the Daytona Beach Buc-ee’s.

You can find a dizzying array of canned goods at Buc-ee’s from jam to quail eggs to honey.

Where Can I Find Buc-ee’s in Florida? What Other States Have Buc-ee’s?

Florida currently has Buc-ee’s locations in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, with a third location slated near Ocala (slated to be its biggest Buc-ee’s ever) and a fourth location planned in St. Lucie County.

In addition to Texas and Florida, you can also find Buc-ee’s in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Cowboy hats are just one down-home country item you can find at Buc-ee’s.

Here’s What to See and Do in Arcadia, Florida

The historical Old Opera House in Arcadia, Florida.

There should be a sign at the border of Arcadia, Florida, that says, “Welcome to Cowboy Country”—but we’d also add, “Welcome to Antiquing Country, Peace River Country, and Rodeo Country” for good measure. After all, the rural town of Arcadia manages to pack in a lot to see and do despite its small size. The town and its residents are also true survivors, having lived through flood waters that reached as high as 23 feet in some points during Hurricane Ian in 2022.

Arcadia, Florida, is about an hour away from Bradenton, Sarasota, and Fort Myers, making it a perfect day trip destination (find some other great day trip ideas here if you live in the Bradenton/Sarasota area). This article shares some of Arcadia’s history and things to do in Arcadia, Florida, including:


–A self-guided walking tour of downtown Arcadia

–The rodeo


–Joshua Citrus

–Activities along the Peace River

–Local parks

Citrus seen here at Joshua Citrus in Arcadia.

Arcadia, Florida: A Few Historical Facts

Here are a few interesting historical facts about Arcadia, Florida, that you’ll want to know before your visit.

  • The town of Arcadia was incorporated in 1886 and became the county seat for DeSoto County in 1888. It incorporated as a town nine months after the first train came there.
  • Arcadia got its start growing citrus and other produce, including watermelon. The DeSoto County Walking Tour website says that during the 19th century cattle wars, “Arcadia was as wild as any frontier town.”
  • By the teens and 20s of the 20th century, Arcadia had three railroads as well an amphitheatre. The town had its first rodeo in 1929, the Arcadia All-Florida Grand Championship Rodeo that continues today.
  • Arcadia was called “Aviation City” after World War I because there were two Army air fields there for training pilots.
  • The town established a Historic District and had nearly 400 homes and businesses placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s. This era also led to the establishment of a Main Street program to revitalize the downtown and have antique stores, according to the Walking Tour website.
  • Arcadia has been hit by its share of hurricanes, including 2004 with Hurricane Charley, 2017 with Hurricane Irma, and 2022 with Hurricane Ian, during which waters reached more than 23 feet. Although Arcadia is miles and miles away from the coast, it’s located on the Peace River, which increases its vulnerability.

Although Florida’s citrus business has dwindled considerably due to citrus greening, Arcadia remains an area of farming (including cattle, citrus, watermelons, and more) and as an antiques haven.

Check out how high the water got in Arcadia near the Peace River after Hurricane Ian in 2022.

7 Things to Do When You Visit Arcadia, Florida

One view of downtown Arcadia with its antique stores and historic buildings.

1. Have a blast from the past when you go antiquing in downtown. Arcadia’s downtown is well-known among antique lovers as a go-to destination. If you’ve lived long enough, antique shopping in Arcadia is a blast from the past. If you’re younger, then antique shopping in Arcadia will help you discover what life entailed before the internet and iPhones. Make sure to visit on the fourth Saturday of each month when there’s a big antiques fair in town attracting 35 to as many as 100 vendors. Stores like Cory’s Antiques and Biggar and Biggar Antique Mall will even have curbside items to peruse. Other vendors set up an outdoors booth for the occasion. If you’re lucky (??), you’ll even get to hear the local street preacher who makes a scene during the monthly event. You can also discover more about Florida’s antiques scene, including in Arcadia, at the website Florida Antique Trail.

Bonus suggestions: They aren’t antiques store but we particularly enjoyed the Blossoms Beauty & Boutique on Oak Street in downtown for its boho/country style. We didn’t make it to Honey Belles Boutique but it looks very cute as well and is also on Oak Street.

This QR code may or may not work via our website, but you can also visit the website listed in the picture to access the downtown walking tour in Arcadia.

2. Take a walking tour of the downtown. If you like to guide yourself to discover new places, you’re a good match for Downtown Arcadia’s Walking Tour. Using the site found here on the South Florida State College website, your tour will take you to about 20 different historical buildings found in and around downtown Arcadia. The self-guided tour includes the Railroad Depot, Rosin Arcade, and the Opera House. In fact, the Opera House is more than 117 years old and was damaged during Hurricane Ian but has been restored and re-opened, thanks to private donations. Discover how the buildings you’ll see have been used over time. Downtown Arcadia has preserved much of its historical look, so the self-guided walking tour is a real treat for history and architecture buffs. You can also grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown’s charming restaurants (see more information below). Find out more here about supporting downtown Arcadia’s Main Street.

A mural off of State Road 70 in Arcadia depicts the town’s rodeo, which has been there almost 100 years.

3. Go to the rodeo. For real cowboy living, visit Arcadia in March when the rodeo is in town at Mosaic Arena. Nicknamed the Granddaddy of ‘Em All due to its longevity (nearly 100 years), the Arcadia rodeo athletes compete with the hope of making it to national finals in Las Vegas. Come watch the rodeo for barrel racing, bull riding, and bareback bronc riding.

4. Grab a bite to eat. Arcadia offers down-home country meals with Southern cooking, hidden Mexican gems, and American staples. You can get a great mix of Southern charm and history in the downtown at places like Mary Margaret’s Tea & Biscuit, Oak Street Deli, and Wheeler’s Café. Slim’s Bar-B-Q gets solid ratings for its barbecue. Some highly reviewed Mexican places include El Charro, Azul Tequila, and Taqueria La Favorita. You can find out more about many of these restaurants at the following TripAdvisor site.  

We recommend the soft-serve orange/vanilla swirl at Joshua Citrus, in addition to its fresh fruit.

5. Head on over to Joshua Citrus for an up-close view of life on a citrus grove. Have you ever tried fresh orange juice or an orange/vanilla soft-serve swirl at a Florida citrus grove? If not, don’t miss a visit to Joshua Citrus in Arcadia, which has had roots in Arcadia since the late 1880s. You can buy fresh citrus like Honeybell oranges and grapefruit, try the delicious fresh juice, order citrus products as a gift, and enjoy that yummy soft-serve swirl that we mentioned. Joshua Citrus also sells some Florida-themed gifts and other food items. Double check its schedule in advance, as places like Joshua Citrus often are open only seasonally to the public.

6. Spend some time on Peace River. We still have to make our way to Peace River to see all it has to offer, but we hear terrific things about paddling, fossil hunting, and airboat riding along the peaceful Peace River.

A late November view at Veterans Park in Arcadia.

7. Take a stroll at one of Arcadia’s many parks. Whether you want to bring a picnic, take a stroll, use the boat ramp, or go fishing, there’s a park for that in Arcadia.

Santa was part of the antiques display around the holidays in Arcadia.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida: What to Do, What to See

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Weeki Wachee, Florida, north of Tampa.

If you’re looking for a swimming and nature adventure with springs, wildlife, and mermaids (oh my!), then look no further than Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located off of U.S. 19 in Weeki Wachee, Florida, about an hour north of Tampa. Our article takes you through some of Weeki Wachee’s 70-plus year history in the Sunshine State and tells you what things to do and see at Weeki Wachee.

First, let’s share some highlights and fun facts from the park’s esteemed history:

–Weeki Wachee began when former U.S. Navy man Newton Perry was searching for a site to start a business and eyed U.S. 19, at that time, a small two-lane road. “More alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans,” according to the park’s website. Perry had a background training Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War 2, and he began to experiment with underwater breathing hoses and a way to breathe underwater with a free-flowing air hose that supplied oxygen from an air compressor. He also began to hire local young women to train to swim with the air hoses. They would perform by doing aquatic ballets and had spectators watch them from a newly built 18-seat theater. The theater allowed visitors to watch the show but also to view the sparking, clear water from the springs. Weeki Wachee was born and offered its first show in 1947. The name Weeki Wachee means “little spring” or “winding river” in the Seminole Indian language.

One of Weeki Wachee’s modern-day mermaids. She’s holding the breathing apparatus used during their performances.

–Word spread about Weeki Wachee, and by the 1950s, it was one of the most popular roadside attractions in the U.S. Park attractions included the mermaid shows, orchid gardens, “jungle cruises,” and a new beach. Movies like “Mr Peabody and the Mermaid” were filmed there.

–Believe it or not, ABC (as in the TV network) purchased Weeki Wachee in 1959 and began to promote the park. It built a 400-seat theater still used today located in the side of the spring and 16 feet below the surface. It also developed themes for underwater shows. Potential mermaids came from around the world to try out and perform in shows like, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan.” They gave eight shows a day to sold-out crowds. Find some cool pics of the mermaids and the park at the link here.

The entrance to the Underwater Mermaid Theatre.

–ABC sold the park in 1984 to Florida Leisure Attractions, and it was then sold to Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp. By 2008, it became part of the Florida State Parks System.

–Although not as heralded as it was in the past, Weeki Wachee and its famous mermaids still make appearances throughout pop culture, including in the Kelly Clarkson video for “Stronger,” in a 2023 Netflix documentary called “MerPeople,” and as the backdrop for a Penn and Teller comedy special. During our visit, an appearance of the mermaids during a Jimmy Buffett concert in Tampa was shown before their performance (Buffett even once swam with them).

Weeki Wachee Springs has the deepest freshwater cave system in the U.S. It’s so deep that the bottom has yet to be found. “Every day, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 74-degree water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns,” according to the park’s website.

People swimming at Buccaneer Beach, with the lazy river part seen off to the left.

Things to Do at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Fast forward to modern times, and just what is there to do at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park? We’re glad you asked. Let’s get some basics out of the way and then we’ll fill you in.

First, the park is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Expect to pay $13 for each adult and $8 for kids ages 6 to 12. Those 5 and under are free.

When the park reaches its capacity, it will not allow new people in–and it does indeed get busy on certain weekends and holidays. When we arrived around 9 a.m. for our visit over Labor Day weekend, we found a snaking line of people ahead of us. Everyone had to wait (im)patiently beside a variety of mermaid statues.

A map of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

Once in the park, you’ve got a few different choices:

Hang out at Buccaneer Beach. The beach area consists of some sand and grassy areas and a decent-sized area in the springs for swimming. Their “lazy river” is a small, roped off area beside the swimming area. There are also water slides that are sure to be a hit for the young’uns. (Note that the water slides are open seasonally, although swimming remains open.) You may wonder if there are alligators at Weeki Wachee when you swim there. The good news is that there are not. They prefer darker waters, not the clear spring water–which is constantly monitored anyways so if something unexpected did come through, park officials would know.

Take a river cruise. Although we didn’t have a chance to do the river cruise, we feel confident it’s a beautiful ride. The Wilderness River Cruise runs between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seating is first-come, first-served.

Watch the mermaid show. Part of the allure of Weeki Wachee is enjoying the clear springs, and the other allure is its majestic mermaid history. If you’re serious about wanting to discover more mermaid history, then you must check out one of the mermaid shows at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m. There’s no additional cost for the show beyond your admission to the park. When the park is busy, seating fills up quickly in the theater for the shows. Get in line early if you can. While waiting, there are some TV monitors that will show you video and images from the park’s history. The mermaid show itself is visually stunning, both in terms of how the mermaids and other actors move around effortlessly underwater but also for how the springs appear underwater (including fish!). Even if the 30 minute or so show itself isn’t calling out to you (it’s more geared toward kids), it may be worth a visit so you can say you’ve seen an underwater show.

Discover more about Weeki Wachee’s wildlife with the Ranger Experience.

Learn more about the park’s wildlife in the Ranger Experience. Park rangers will fill you in on local wildlife, including tortoises, snakes, and alligators. It’s a cool, low-key show for the animal lovers in your group, taking place at 10 a.m., noon and 2:15 p.m. daily.

Go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. Enjoy the springs and Weeki Wachee River (which flows 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico) by renting a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Rentals are available from Weeki Fresh Water Adventures, or the company can help you launch your own equipment if you have it. The kayaking and paddleboarding experiences in the river are said to be easy even for beginners. One tip: Use non-disposable food and water containers for your river adventure; throwaway, single-use items aren’t allowed. Find out more about that rule here.

Grab a bite to eat. You can bring a picnic to Buccaneer Bay or grab something to eat at the Mermaid Galley, Captain’s Quarters, Pirate’s Grubb, Snack Shack, or Tiki Bar.

The park also has a gift shop, restrooms, a shower station (good for getting sand off before driving home), and a playground. Plus, there are a couple of mermaid statues where you can pose and snap a few pics.

Buccaneer Beach and the Lazy River at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

A Few Final Tips for Your Visit to Weeki Wachee

–Arrive early for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. The beach area gets crowded as well, which is another reason to arrive early.

–Use the park map to help you. It’s available in this brochure, but we prefer the map we received onsite. See a picture of it earlier in this story.

–Kids’ floatation devices (including life jackets) are allowed in the park; other floatation devices are not allowed but can be rented at the park. Get the skinny on park rules here.

–Have everyone in your party with you when you purchase admission to the park.

–It’s OK to bring food and drinks to the park, but keep them in outside areas (such as the beach).

–Know that admission fees are non-refundable, including for bad weather.

–If you like the somewhat kitschy, historical feel of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, consider visiting Silver Springs State Park, which was once operated by the same company as Weeki Wachee. Silver Springs, located in Ocala, also has a long history in Florida and even became famous in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Find out more about Silver Springs State Park in our article here.

–Sorry, wanna-be mermaids….costumes aren’t allowed in the park!

8 Things to Do When You Visit Lakeland, Florida

One of Lakeland’s beautiful swans on Lake Morton.

Central Florida’s Lakeland, located off of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, makes for a great day trip or weekend destination. If you’ve visited Lakeland in the past or lived there years ago as we once did, you’ll be surprised to see how much it’s evolved in recent years.

Before we share some of our top picks to visit during your Lakeland visit, let’s share a few interesting facts:

–Lakeland gets its name because (shocker) it has a lot of lakes.…38 of them within city limits as well as some smaller ones. The biggest lake is Lake Parker.

–Lakeland is home to the corporate offices for Publix, the behemoth supermarket associated with Florida as much as our alligators, a mouse called Mickey, and sunshine. Find out more about Publix history here.

–In 1956, Elvis Presley performed at the Polk Theatre in the downtown.

–Munnville, Redbug (named for the harvest mite insects once found there), and Rome City were all names proposed for Lakeland. We think people got it right by sticking with the current name!

–Lakeland High School has a beast of a football team and prior to the 2023-2024 season, it ranked 56 nationally, according to MaxPreps.

–In 2023, Lakeland was ranked #3 as a boomtown in the U.S. by LendingTree, due to its fast growth. It ranked even higher than Jacksonville and North Port, the two other Florida cities in the top 10. Metro Lakeland currently has 364,000 residents. Expansion at Publix and a nearby Amazon hub as well as its proximity to other major Florida cities and counties make it attractive to many. Plus, it’s more affordable than many Florida coastal areas.

8 Things to See and Do Around Lakeland

So, whether you’re checking out Lakeland as a potential place to live or you just need a getaway, here are 8 places you should see.

An alligator that was blocking a walking trail at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland. They have the right of way!

Circle B Bar Reserve

There are places in Florida with alligators, and then there are places with ALLIGATORS. We don’t necessarily mean a difference in gator size but just in quantity and how, well, wild the place feels. Circle B Bar Reserve fits into the ALLIGATOR category. The reserve is is truly the alligators’ home, and we’re just visiting it. Plus, you’ll find tons of birds and other wildlife. Circle B has a mix of trails from which to choose, whether you want an easy stroll with kids or you want to take your time to get nature shots (you’ll find many birders and photographers there). As always, we recommend going early and bringing water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Stay AWAY from any gators, even if they are blocking the trail, which happened to us last time. Show them respect and just turn around to go the other way! Find out more about Circle B in our previous story here.

A building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on the Florida Southern College campus in Lakeland.

Florida Southern College

Florida Southern College has been named one of the prettiest campuses in the U.S., and we can see why. It’s situated right beside scenic Lake Hollingsworth, and it’s home to the biggest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. In fact, the college even offers architectural tours and has a special visitors’ area where you can find out more about Wright’s buildings there. Home to about 3,000 students, if you still want to see more after your campus stroll, there’s a trail around Lake Hollingsworth, and there are some cute historic homes to see in the adjacent Lake Morton neighborhood.

A butterfly sculpture adds some charm to Southeastern University’s grounds in Lakeland.

Southeastern University

If you’re into campus tours (self-guided or with others), then you should also visit Southeastern University, a growing Christian college also located in Lakeland. The campus has expanded a lot in recent years (it now has 8000+ students) and added a football stadium, Victory Field, in 2014. The campus architecture has a more modern feel to it with some peaceful touches like butterfly sculptures. Plus, there’s a Chick-fil-A on campus–need we say more?!

More swans on Lake Morton in Lakeland. Sometimes, the swans also pop up on other nearby lakes.

The Swans at Lake Morton

Swan City, baby! Lakeland is home to about 80 swans that live on Lake Morton in the downtown area. Believe it or not, #SwanLife in Lakeland started in 1926, when the city even established a Swan Department to care for the 20 swans living there. Unfortunately, they were dying out due to alligators, chemicals, and other reasons. Then, Queen Elizabeth II gifted two swans to the city in 1957. Here’s a link to an interesting story about how the swans got to Lakeland. Since then their ranks have increased, and you’ll notice that Lake Morton is also now home to a bevy of other birds, including ibises, ducks, and others. The city continues to monitor the swans’ health and rounds them up once a year to check on them. Visiting the swans to feed them or take pictures (at a respectful distance, please) is just part of Lakeland living. You’ll also find swan statues around Lakeland in honor of their historical role.

Checking out the produce at Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market.

Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market

If you’re into farmers markets, you’re in for a real treat. We’ve watched Lakeland’s Downtown Farmers Curb Market on Saturdays grow into a big, popular happening. You’ll find ready-made food, produce, artisans, and lots of fun music and people watching. The market is located in the ever-changing downtown area (plan to stick around a bit and check out some nearby shops and restaurants), and it’s open 11 months out of the year. The market closes in August. Find a map of the market’s location here.

Hollis Garden in Lakeland.

Hollis Garden

Hollis Garden offers an oasis of calm in a crazy world. Located in downtown right beside Barnett Family Park, the manicured 1.2 acres of Hollis Garden offers a free, public botanical garden with more than 10,000 flowers, native trees, and ornamental shrubs When we visited, the park was piping in some classical music, and we could take our time wandering the garden paths and looking out at Lake Mirror. We saw one family taking pictures there for a daughter’s quinceañera (15th birthday party celebration), so it’s definitely a place to keep in mind if you want special pictures. Just double check some of its photo rules online. You can also hop onto a path to extend your walk around the lake. If you’re visiting nearby Barnett Family Park for the kids, a quick stop at Hollis Garden could help you regain your composure! Check the schedule online as Hollis is closed on Mondays.

Safari Wilderness Ranch

See nature up close….like real close! Safari Wilderness Ranch brings you face-to-face with some of the most famous safari animals you can think of, like zebras, water buffalo, lemurs, gazelles, and more. Choose from a drive-thru safari experience (if you’ve been to Lion Country Safari in the Palm Beach area, it’s similar), an open-air tour with a group, a camel tour, an ATV and even a kayak tour. The animals live on 260 acres and roam freely, often in herds. Plus, we see that they now offer camping. Double check prices before you book as it’s not cheap, but Safari Wilderness definitely an unforgettable experience. Here’s a link to another time that we wrote about Safari Wilderness Ranch.

Common Ground Playground

If you’re on the go with kids, then you’ll definitely want to make time to visit Common Ground Playground, geared toward children of all ages and abilities. We remember visiting Common Ground not long after it opened and were impressed by the wide range of equipment in this “inclusive play experience,” as its website describes it. It’s a pretty big playground, so have a plan in place to keep your eye on wandering kiddos.

A swan statue in Swan City/Lakeland.
Going for an artistic black-and-white look at Circle B Bar Reserve.

What to Know Before You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Boardwalk at La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy, Florida.

Want to see where wild horses and buffalo roam? You don’t need to buy a ticket to go out west. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville boasts a population of more than 50 wild bison as well as wild horses, alligators, and almost 300 species of birds. Here’s the scoop on its history and what to know before you visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

History of Paynes Prairie Preserve — and How Did the Buffalo Get There?

As far back as 1774, naturalist and artist William Bartram wrote about the land that is now Paynes Prairie Preserve, calling it “the great Alachua Savannah.” Yet even before his writing, Native Americans (including members of the Seminole tribe) called the land that is now Paynes Prairie home, dating back 15,000 years. The land also was valued by Spanish explorers. The landscape that makes up Paynes Prairie has always attracted such interest because of its unique mix of marsh land, wet prairie, and open water, according to the park website. It 21,000 acres is also home to 430 vertebrate species. The park has 20 unique biological areas.

In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the state’s first official preserve. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Keep an eye on the sky at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park for great potential pictures.

Although Paynes Prairie is in the Gainesville area, it’s officially in the town of Micanopy (mick-a-no-pee), which has a charming small downtown area and was recently named one of Florida’s most charming small towns by Travel + Leisure. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy. Find out more about Micanopy here.

But what about one of the preserve’s most famous inhabitants, the bison? They were actually introduced to Paynes Prairie in the mid-1970s, after the land became a preserve. The wild horses are said to be descendants of the horses brought to the area by Spanish explorers. And the alligators? As you likely know, they are long-time residents in many, many areas of the Sunshine State, but places like Paynes Prairie give you a closer-up view.

A view from the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

What to Expect When You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

With its massive size, Paynes Prairie has a lot to offer, including:

–Hiking along its 10 trails

–Camping near Lake Wauburg


–Biking along the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail

–Wildlife viewing

–Horseback riding along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail


–Spending time at the nature center

–Birding…and more.

The trick is knowing where to go depending on what you want to do. The park’s many trails do not all branch out from the same location, which is why you may want to decide in advance what you want to do. Here is a link to a map of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to help you plan ahead.

A deer spotted at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

One of the many gators spotted on La Chua Trail (pic taken at a safe distance with a telephoto lens!).

Alligator Spotting at Paynes Prairie

If your focus is wildlife photography, particularly alligators, the best recommendation is La Chua Trail, located beside a smaller residential community. The trail is 3 miles round trip. La Chua takes you briefly through a small stable (no animals in it; it’s a nod to the area’s cattle and horsing heritage), followed by a long boardwalk that goes over a marsh area. Then, the Alachua Sink is home to alligators sunning themselves. On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake. In recent times during our visit, part of the trail has been closed due to flooding or other reasons.

On our first two visits to La Chua Trail, both in late August, we actually didn’t see any alligators. Yet on a recent June visit during alligator mating season (from April to June), we saw literally dozens. They were sunning themselves in the water and occasionally jamming each other out of the way while we humans remained on an elevated boardwalk. A whole gaggle of them (perhaps 10 in one area) hanging out while we humans–either photographers or birdwatchers–stayed mesmerized by them. They were close to us but at the same time distant as we were elevated above water level. Yet watching them naturally interact and seeing so many at a time was truly memorable.

Birdwatchers giving alligators the cold shoulder while they pay attention to birds. We got a picture at Paynes Prairie of a bird eating frog legs, although not clear enough to share here–and we don’t know what type of bird it was.

Observation Tower and Visitor Center

If you want to really learn more about Paynes Prairie and try to see the wild bison, then go to the park’s main entrance. You’ll pay $4 to $6 at the ranger station, and drive a couple miles back to the Visitor Center. The rustic and recently renovated Visitor Center has historical information, exhibits, and “home on the range” type views that look out on to the prairie where the bison are often found. We strongly recommend the Visitor Center because of several cool features, including a gorgeous film that gives background on the park. If you have just arrived at the park, you’ll get your bearings at the center and you can check out the huge map of the park there. If you watch the film after walking around, the film gives you a short respite to cool off. The Visitor Center also has a visitor log (so you can see where people are from) and a nature log (where people can note the type of animals they have seen). From the Visitor Center’s back patio, you can take in the view and make your way down to Cones Dike trail to go toward the prairie.

Less than a five-minute walk away is the observation tower, where you up your chances of getting a great view of the bison if they are on the prairie.

The observation tower near the Visitor Center at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauburg. Although we weren’t camping there, it was interesting to look around the camping area and its fishing pier, barbecue area, amphitheater, and other amenities.

As you get to know the park, feel free to explore some of the park’s additional trails outside of the main park area. In addition to La Chua, these include Bolen Buff Trail, the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (really more of a scenic view than a trail), and the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Of note, the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is paved and goes on for 16 miles. It’s a historical railbed between Gainesville and Hawthorne and is popular with bikers. However, the trail also has a grassy area, making it great for multiuse.

We explored Bolen Buff Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) once to take a chance at seeing wild horses or the bison herd. Alas, no spottings, but we did see recent animal dung from one of these famous inhabitants.

A view inside the Paynes Prairie Visitor Center.

8 Tips for Your Visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

We absolutely recommend a visit to Paynes Prairie to see “wild” Florida or for wildlife photography or birding. Here are a few tips to follow to help you plan your visit.

  1. Have a few dollars on hand. We know, who carries cash? The park entrance areas outside of the main entrance request that visitors pay up to $4 per vehicle, placed in a blue envelope. Once you pay, you can take a tag to hang in your car. It’s an honor system. There may be a way you can handle this transaction online instead, but we didn’t see how. Hence, have some cash on hand. For the main park admission, you can pay online.
  2. Know in advance that the major wildlife sightings are not guaranteed. Our big motivation is getting those primo wildlife shots, such as alligators, horses, and bison. We saw the buffalo from far away during our first visit. They were so far, even our telephoto lens on a nice camera couldn’t capture a clear shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. As mentioned before, there was no luck spotting alligators our first two visits and then we hit the gator jackpot the third time. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
  3. Know that weather may affect what you can do. If you visit in the summer (aka, Florida’s rainy season), water levels may affect certain trails. That’s what happened twice for us on La Chua Trail. On Cones Dike Trail, in the main park area, the walk lasted just a couple minutes before it started to get muddy (again, from rain).
  4. Use the park’s map to help show you where to go. Seasoned hikers likely already know this, but here’s a tip for the less experienced among us. You can have a link to park maps on your phone but also take a screenshot of them. That way, if internet signal is not available, you still know where the heck you are going. As mentioned earlier, use the maps to plan your visit as the options at Paynes are diverse.
  5. Find out which trails allow you to bring your best canine friend and which ones don’t. Understandably, not all trails allow pets because of the wild animals living there. Per the park map we have seen, Cones Dike, Bolen Buff, and La Chua trails do NOT allow animals. The Lake, Chacala, Jackson’s Gap, Ecopassage Boardwalk, and Gatesville-Hawthorne trails allow your favorite Fido or Fluffy.
  6. If you are fortunate enough to spot alligators, bison, or horses, leave them alone. They are not Disney characters. This is real-deal nature!
  7. Bring water, sunscreen, bug spray, and maybe snacks. The first three items should be obvious for anytime you’re out in Florida nature. Snacks are useful if you plan to be at Paynes Prairie for a while. That’s also because your food options are limited unless you drive a few minutes into Gainesville in one direction or into downtown Micanopy in the other direction.
  8. Check out the Observation Boardwalk if you don’t have time for a full park visit. The Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (area 8 if you’re looking at the map) is just minutes from Interstate 75. In fact, you can see I-75 off in the distance when you stop there. The boardwalk, located off of 441, offers panoramic views of Alachua Lake, where you may spot fish, gators, and birds. It’s a great way to take a scenic break, especially if your visit to the area doesn’t include a longer park visit.
This sign at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida says it all.
We enjoyed this sign along La Chua Trail, and we agree!
Greetings from Paynes Prairie in Micanopy, this alligator seems to be saying.

St. Pete Saturday Market: Vendors, Location, and What to See and Do

Sunflowers for sale at the Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Pete.

There are lots of great reasons to visit downtown St. Pete, Florida. If you’re looking for a good excuse to visit on a Saturday morning, there’s the Saturday Morning Market. Packed with more than140 vendors, you’ll have no shortage of food, artisans, and fun.

There are many other farmers/open-air markets in the Tampa Bay area, but we’re pretty sure the Saturday Morning Market is the biggest among them. It draws about 10,000 visitors each week, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. The market website reports that it has more types of ready-to-eat food than any other U.S. market. That includes Belgian, German, Greek, Ethiopian, vegetarian, and many more.

The Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete is open 9 am to 2 pm October through May and 9 am to 1 pm June through September.

Empanada World is just one of many food vendors at the Saturday Morning Market.

The Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Pete combines ready-made foods from around the world along with Florida-based farm vendors and local artisans selling jewelry and other art. Here’s just a sampling of what to expect:

Mr. Fun Guy, featuring mushrooms ready to eat and in powder and extract form

Gulf Coast Sourdough, selling delectable baked goods like bread

Worden Farms, a Punta Gorda-based organic farm famous for its wide selection and colorful sunflowers

Big Crush Slush, with hand-crafted citrus and ginger seltzer drinks

Mitch Armstrong Nursery, which sells a variety of plants including butterfly vines and succulents

We could go on, but you get the idea. Find the full vendor list here, which also serves as a map for the market.

Hanging at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete.

One other cool thing at the Saturday Morning Market–or really, any farmers/open-air market–is the people watching. The St. Pete crowd has a nutty-crunchy, younger feel to it compared with some of the other nearby markets. A visitor buys coffee and an empanada for their breakfast while weaving through the market with their dog (more on the dogs a little further down). Parents with their young kid in a stroller amble while checking out Florida-grown produce. Another visitor enjoys a vegan smoothie as an antidote for the Florida sun while sitting and listening to the market’s live music. (Check the market website for details on weekly entertainment, available most times of the year except the summer.)

Farmers’ markets bring you produce that’s just about as fresh as you can get!

Saturday Morning Market’s Location in Downtown St. Pete

One thing to keep in mind with the Saturday Morning Market is that it changes location seasonally. In the summer, it moves to Williams Park (350 2nd Ave. North), which has more shade. There are usually fewer vendors in the summer, although the market remains big year-round. The rest of the year, the market takes place in the parking lot of the Al Lang Stadium (230 First St. S.). There’s on-street parking and some parking garages near both locations. For on-street parking, you may have to use and pay via the Park Mobile app.

Find strawberries like these in the winter at St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market.

5 Tips for a Great Visit to St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market

For an enjoyable visit to the Saturday Morning Market, here are a few tips:

  1. Arrive early. This piece of advice serves you well in many situations so you can easily find parking, keep crowds to a minimum, and avoid Florida’s midday sun.
  2. Know where you’re going. If you plan to come to the market and just wander, kudos! We support you. If you’re more of a planner or you have a limited amount of time, use the market map online to scope out vendors you know you want to visit.
  3. Bring sun protection, reusable bags and a cooler. A reusable bag is an easy, sustainable way to carry your market goods. The sun protection is, well, obviously needed in the Sunshine State. A small cooler will help if you’re buying perishable items and plan to stay at the market for a while or have a long drive back home. You don’t necessarily need to carry the cooler with you, just have it in the car.
  4. Think in advance about bringing Fido. The Saturday Market is dog-friendly, which is great. Our beef is that we see many dogs that look hot in the Florida sun, with their tongues wagging way too far. Thankfully, many vendors have water bowls for your canine friends. Yet think in advance if you really want to bring Fido or Fluffy. The sun can make the asphalt temperature reach 100 degrees or above, dangerous for your dog’s paws. If your dog is a heat-sensitive breed, older, has joint issues, or is iffy about crowds or other dogs, they’ll probably be happier at home.
  5. Consider making a day of your St. Pete visit. In addition to its nearby famous beaches, there’s a lot to do in downtown St. Pete. We share a few suggestions below.
A partial view of the renovated St. Pete Pier.

More Things to Do in or Near Downtown St. Pete

While you’re in town, consider playing tourist with a few other attractions:

St. Pete Pier: The beautiful redone pier features a splash ground for the kids, a restaurant, a gorgeous view of Tampa Bay, special events, nature spotting and lots more. On the weekend, the pier even has its own small craft market. The St. Pete Pier is about a 10-minute walk from the market’s Al Lang Stadium location, although you’ll walk at least another 10 minutes from the start of the pier to the end of it. Consider using the pier’s free tram if you want to save steps.

Salvador Dali Museum. This world-famous museum features art work from the famous Spanish artist as well as like-minded artists.

James Museum. Consider this museum if you enjoy Western art, featuring the West’s open spaces, cowboys, and Native Americans.

Chihuly Collection at Morean Arts Center, feature Dale Chihuly’s glass art.

Downtown murals. The Central Arts District has a cool collection of murals to check out, but also keep your eyes open for street art all around the city.

If your visit to the Saturday Morning Market merely whets your appetite for more open-air/farmers markets, then you’re in luck. St. Pete Beach has a Sunday market, the weekend Pinellas Flea and Farmers Market in Clearwater features a large number of Asian food vendors, and there’s an active network of Tampa Bay markets. Plus, we’ve got the scoop right here on markets in the nearby Bradenton/Sarasota area, including the popular Sarasota Farmers Market on Saturdays and Farmers’ Market at Lakewood Ranch on Sundays.

Flowers and dogs at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete.

Myakka River State Park: 7 Best Spots for Pictures (Including Where to See Alligators)

Gator spotted at Myakka River State Park’s bridge area. Drive carefully over the bridge as people run back and forth to both sides of the road to watch these famous park residents!

Myakka River State Park in Sarasota is popular for its vast open land and abundant wildlife–including an estimated 4,000 alligators that call it home.

While there’s lots to do at Myakka River State Park, photography is one activity that lures shutterbugs from around the world. In fact, photographer Clyde Butcher began to take his famous black and white photos at Myakka River State Park just a few years ago. His time in Myakka contrasted and complemented the oodles of pics he’s taken down in the Everglades. (Fun fact: He now has a darkroom, gallery, and studio in nearby Venice.)

The beautiful Myakka River in Myakka River State Park.

As Myakka River State Park is so large–58 square miles with more than 39 miles of hiking trails–you may wonder where are some particularly key spots if you want to get great photos, including those of its famous gators (at a safe distance, of course). Here’s where our guide below comes in handy.

Our list is by no means exhaustive. We’ve been to Myakka River State Park many times, but we haven’t explored its more remote trails nor have we camped there. Feel free to comment and add additional areas at the park that you think are perfect for your pics, whether you use a smartphone or a fancy-schmancy camera (we use both).

One of many alligators you may spot from Myakka River State Park’s bridge area.

The Bridge

Using the main entrance at Myakka Park off of SR72, you’ve got about a four-mile drive toward the concession area and Myakka River. About halfway there is a bridge that overlooks a wide swatch of water where you can literally see dozens of gators at once. On some days, you may visit and see a handful of gators resting in the water or gently gliding. On others, you hit the jackpot and will see many gators in all states of activity. We recently caught one large gator bellowing (a loud, scary sound) before getting a smaller gator in front of it to move. We also saw another gator who literally travelled with an island–a somewhat small patch of land that was on top of its body. (Visit our Instagram page, @Florida_Culture, for videos of these encounters.)

Part of the fun at the bridge area is people watching, especially for those visiting from out of town who are seeing alligators for the first time. Just be smart and don’t head down below the bridge! It’s a sure way to tempt fate and you’re not guaranteed solid ground to escape quickly from these apex predators.

Part of the view at Myakka River State Park’s Fisherman’s Loop.

Fisherman’s Loop

There’s a quieter, small turn-off on the left past the bridge area called Fisherman’s Loop that can be terrific for photos, whether it’s looking out onto the open fields, watching the trees, or scouting for gators in the creek. We’d almost say it’s a secret area but we recently have seen more people there–so, not really a secret but best enjoyed early before more people come. As the name implies, Fisherman’s Loop has a small loop-shaped parking lot, a picnic table, some benches, and some walking trails. Every time we’ve gone, we’ve seen gators. We also recently saw a family of wild hogs, including babies, in the woods. Watch the water and you’ll notice a gator hanging out in the water under some large tree branches. You’ll also see them glide by in the water and then stop and rest. You can see all this from a slightly elevated vantage point as you look down at the creek.

Fisherman’s Loop is enjoyable as it’s quiet and more intimate than the bridge area, but again Use your telephoto lens or zoom, and keep a safe distance. Although gators aren’t actively looking to attack–they’re actually quite shy–you don’t want to risk taking extra steps and falling in the water.

Birders and photographers watching Myakka River.

Myakka River and Concession Area

After driving the four miles into the park to where it meets Myakka River, you’ve got several choices on what to do next, all of which offer some great potential pictures. Spend time right on the edge of Myakka River, and you’ll likely get some terrific bird shots. The birdwatching folks we’ve seen there can fill you in on what’s hanging out. If it’s in operation, the Myakka River Boat Tour will give you a few right on the water. (As of April 2023, the water levels were low so the boat tour wasn’t operational.) There are often alligators that hang out in the water, near where the boats dock. You can also take a tram for an interior view of the park; call in advance or look online to find out its hours.

From the area beside Myakka River, you can venture off into the woods onto some trails where you’ll find wildflowers and gators sunning themselves in the water and on land that’s on the other side of where you’re walking. Watch out for dragonflies, honeybees, and more.

And perhaps it’s not photo worthy, but a stop at the gift shop never hurts. The restrooms also are located there as are kayak and bike rentals.

Myakka Park’s Birdwalk area.

The Birdwalk

After getting damaged by Hurricane Ian in September 2022, Myakka River State Park reopened the birdwalk boardwalk in April/May 2023. The birdwalk takes you closer to Myakka River so you can watch the birds and other wildlife.

As you walk along the peaceful boardwalk/birdwalk, you’ll also find a picture from the park of the different types of birds you can find in the park, like ibises, herons, and many more. Here’s more info from the park about the birdwalk.

Plus, there’s a small walking trail adjacent to the boardwalk that will take you toward the river, where you still might get some good pictures. FYI, we’ve found that Friends of Myakka River, either on its website or on social media, has done a great job of updating everyone on the state of the park during its hurricane restoration.

The view from Myakka’s Canopy Walkway (taken before Hurricane Ian).

The Canopy Walkway

Myakka River State Park has a famous canopy walkway that gives you a bird’s eye view of the land around it. It’s a popular attraction and definitely worth the five-minute or so walk from the road once you park. You’ll see some cool angles for pics when you’re there. The Canopy itself also was damaged during Hurricane Ian and hasn’t yet reopened. However, the trails around it are open. We hope the Canopy is fixed and reopens soon.

Wild turkeys in one of Myakka River State Park’s open fields, taken with a telephoto lens.

The Open Fields

There’s a time period in the spring, usually in or around May, when Myakka’s open fields are filled with brightly colored flowers. We’ve seen people do photo shoots in the fields of themselves or with their kids or dogs. Whether you’re looking for a selfie spot or just nature shots, seeing the fields of flowers are definitely worth it. Just check in advance to make sure they are in bloom. Even if they’re not, Myakka’s open fields are still interesting. We spotted a group of wild turkeys in the same spot during our past two visits and got a few shots.

It’s been a few years since we’ve been to Deep Hole so this pic is actually taken near the bridge area of the main part of the park, not at Deep Hole. Yet you’ll see plenty of gators if you venture all the way to Deep Hole.

Deep Hole

Deep Hole is a permit-only area of Myakka River State Park that allows up to 30 visitors a day. Show up at the park first thing in the morning to get a permit. It’s about a two-mile walk to get to Deep Hole, so plan accordingly with your water, sunscreen, bug spray, and camera equipment. The walk there may remind you of views from Africa, with open savana-like areas. Deep Hole itself is an area filled with alligators, which is why it attracts committed visitors. Be ready with good walking shoes and use a good telephoto lens instead of getting too close. Here’s a video from Sarah’s Outdoor Adventures with more info on Deep Hole and getting the permit.

There are lots of majestic trees just waiting to become famous with your photos.

Some Final Tips for a Great Visit to Myakka River State Park

-If you have something specific you want to do, call the park in advance to make sure it’s open. As you may have guessed, many activities in the park are weather-dependent or may still be recovering from Hurricane Ian. You may or may not find the info you seek on the main website for the park, which is why we advise calling.

Remember that you’re not at a theme park and those aren’t animatronic gators. The alligators at Myakka are very real. When you go to Myakka, you’re visiting their home so act accordingly. Keep a safe distance and leave them alone. We’re not trying to nag but there has been an increase in gator attacks in the past year or so as more people move to Florida and may not know how to give them the respect and distance they deserve. As the park brochure says, “Do not approach, tease, frighten, touch or feed”…and that applies to all wildlife there.

Keep pets on a six-foot, handheld leash–or leave them at home. Your favorite Fido is allowed in limited areas of the park, with good reason due to all of the wildlife there.

Have a little bit of money handy (or your card). If you’re traveling there alone by car, it’s a $4 entry fee; $6 if you’re with a car full of people. You can also pay your admission fee in advance online. The tram and the boat rides each cost $22 each for adults and $12 for kids.

-Visit at different times of the year. Due to changing weather, you could get a completely different experience. That can make for some great variations in the photos you take.

Plan to use the main gate off of SR72. There’s a north gate that’s only open 8 am to 5 pm on the weekend and during state holidays.

For more info on the wonders of Myakka River State Parks, here are some links to our previous stories:

Myakka River State Park Boat Rides and Tram Tours: What to Expect

Myakka River Start Park’s Canopy Walkway: What to See, What to Do

Here’s What You Can Do at Myakka River State Park (and Yes, There Are Plenty of Alligators)

Let us know in the comment section if you have other photo-worth places in the park you like to visit.

Wildflower at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota.

7 Cute Small Towns in Florida to Visit

Anna Maria City Pier in Anna Maria, one of the cute small towns in Florida.

Looking for a cute small town to visit in Florida? You’ve got your pick! Even though high-rise development is famous for creeping along the coasts of Florida and residential communities are moving further inland, there are still many areas of the Sunshine State that retain small-town charm. Whether you want to visit these areas for a day trip, a weekend stay, or for move-in potential (#RemoteWork), you’ve got your choices.

Our list of seven cute small towns in Florida is by no means a complete list. These are some of our faves, but we can expand the list in the future. Plus, there are many other charming small towns right here in Florida that we’d still like to visit. Let us know if you know of other cute small towns in Florida you’d like us to feature.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

7 Charming Small Towns in Florida

A trolley tour in St. Augustine going down a scenic street with Spanish moss.

St. Augustine

Location: Northeast Florida, about 45 minutes south of Jacksonville, 2 hours south of Orlando, and 3 hours away from Tampa

America’s oldest city aka St. Augustine, established in 1513, offers a ton of history along with nearby beachy fun. The downtown commercial area features St. George Street, a busy pedestrian-friendly street with stores and restaurants. Nearby is Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort constructed in 1695. Take advantage of Old Town Trolley Tours to get an enjoyable, complete lowdown on St. Augustine’s history. Take pictures at the Bridge of Lions (complete with lion statues) that crosses over the Matanzas River. Matanzas means “massacre” in Spanish, so that gives you some sense of the violent history in St. Augustine (explorers and pirates and ghosts, oh my!). In fact, the city is said to be haunted, and there are both walking and trolley ghost tours at night. When you’ve had enough history, you’re just minutes away from beautiful St. Augustine Beach, the St. Augustine Lighthouse (it’s haunted, too) and Vilano Beach. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is a pretty cool destination as well. Tip: For an early morning treat, get to the St. Augustine Pier to watch the sunrise.

More reading: Here Are Six Things to Do When You Visit St. Augustine

Picturesque hanging flowers in downtown Venice, Florida.


Location: About 30 minutes south of Sarasota and 90 minutes from Tampa

Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast is more well-known than Venice, but Sarasota continues to grow like wildfire. So, if we’re talking about small towns, we’ll focus this time on Venice, which has somewhat of an Italian flair just like the city of the same name in Italy. Venice is a retiree mecca, with its cute downtown, a vibrant weekly farmers market, sunny weather, and popular beaches. In fact, Venice is known as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World” because of the millions of shark teeth that have been found on its beaches through the years, including Venice Beach (great pier) and Caspersen Beach. Within downtown, you’ve got a couple of popular breakfast spots, including Croissant & Co., which had a waiting line outside one recent weekend. You’ll also find several Italian restaurants and Abondanza, an Italian deli/store. Tip: Sea Pleasures & Treasures in the downtown area sells your typical beach souvenirs but also has an interesting display of shark teeth and alligator heads.

More reading: Shark Tooth Hunting in Venice, Florida: Answers to All Your FAQs

7 Ways to Search for Shark Teeth in Venice

Anna Maria Island is famous for its beaches.

Anna Maria Island

Location: A little over an hour south of Tampa, about 2 1/2 hours from Naples

Travel + Leisure has named Anna Maria one of the best small towns in Florida, but we locals have known that for a long time. What was once an Old Florida secret has now become a must-see destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Located near Bradenton Beach and near Sarasota, Anna Maria Island has gorgeous beaches and a family feel. You can enjoy a drink right on the beach at places like The Sandbar or cast a line at the Anna Maria City Pier or the Rod ‘N’ Reel Pier, both of which also have restaurants on site. The piers look onto Tampa Bay and Skyway Bridge, a picturesque large bridge that carries traffic from Manatee County into St. Pete. Visitors to Anna Maria enjoy “the good life” with regular bikes and walks and shopping at areas like Pine Avenue. Tip: As word has gotten out about Anna Maria, traffic has increased. Leave early in the day for less traffic and to make it easier to find parking, especially if you’re going to places like Bean Point at the tip of the island. If you don’t have any luck, make it over to nearby Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach, or Coquina Beach, where parking is more abundant.

More reading: 9 Free Things to Do on Anna Maria Island

The U.S. and Florida flags, spotted outside a shop in Micanopy, Florida.


Location: About 20 minutes from Gainesville and 90 minutes from Jacksonville

Micanopy (pronounced mic-ah-no-pee) is a small town near Gainesville (home to the University of Florida) that’s filled with a few antique shops, some cute restaurants, a historical society, and the Herlong Mansion, a bed and breakfast. It’s truly a small Southern town with a lot of history. Yet if you want to expand your experience, visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, which also has a Micanopy address. The expansive preserve has wild horses and bison, several trails, a visitor center, and a cool observation tower where you just may catch a view of the buffaloes roaming. Travel + Leisure also named Micanopy one of the best Florida small towns. Tip: You may be able to spot gators at Paynes Prairie, but keep in mind that some trails get flooded and may be closed during the rainy season in the summer.

More reading: Things to See and Do in Micanopy, Florida

What to Know Before You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

One of the views when you spend time in Cortez, Florida.


Location: About a half hour from Sarasota and an hour south of Tampa

Florida is known for its fresh seafood and fish, but there aren’t that many authentic fishing villages still around. Cortez is a real fishing village, located just minutes away from Anna Maria Island. Cortez is not your destination if you’re looking for shopping or sunning yourself on the beach, although you can get all of that just minutes away on Anna Maria Island or at Bradenton Beach. Instead, go to Cortez for history and some really good seafood. Star Fish Company and Tide Tables are two standouts in Cortez for your shrimp and grits or grouper sandwich, and you may spot commercial fishing boats as well as fishing charters and recreational boaters while you eat. The commercial fishermen are busy catching mullet, grouper, and stone crab, according to this interesting article about Cortez. Make the Florida Maritime Museum part of your visit for the lowdown on the town’s history. Tip: Celebrate Cortez all you want during its annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, typically held in February and attracting 20,000 people daily.

More reading: Commercial Fishing Still a Way of Life in Cortez

Find boating, good food, and sunny skies in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Tarpon Springs

Location: About 45 minutes north of Tampa and about two hours from Ocala

Opa! Tarpon Springs celebrates its Greek and sponge diving heritage. This seaside town has a long history of sponge divers who dive for–you guessed it–sea sponges, used in cosmetics and for bathing. That, along with the long history of Greek natives who came to call Tarpon Springs home, give Tarpon Springs a special flare. On a sunny day, with Greek music piping out of some stores, you may even convince yourself you’re in Greece. Save room for a Greek meal or a dessert like baklava. Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a gathering place for the local community and is interesting to see.

More reading: Here Are 5 Things to Do in Tarpon Springs

Golf carts outside The Gasparilla Inn and Club in Boca Grande.

Boca Grande

Location: About an hour and 20 minutes south of Sarasota; about two hours north of Naples

Boca Grande, located on Gasparilla Island and north of Fort Myers, is less well known than places like Fort Myers or Sarasota, but we think they like to keep it that way. This exclusive waterside enclave has welcomed well-known residents and visitors, from University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban to the Bushes (as in, the presidential family). Boca Grande is home to a walkable, quaint downtown area with some cute shops and restaurants as well as beach areas and a lighthouse. (Actually, there are two lighthouses in the general vicinity). The Gasparilla Inn is an upscale place to stay and features The Pink Elephant Restaurant and a few other places to eat. Boca Grande incurred some damage during Hurricane Ian in September 2022 but appears to have generally recovered.

More reading: 7 Things to Do in Boca Grande, Florida

Venice Beach, just minutes from downtown Venice, Florida. View from the Venice Pier.

Seven Things to Do and See in Bradenton Beach, Florida

There’s nothing like a sunset view in Bradenton Beach, Florida.

If you’re planning a vacation to Bradenton Beach in Southwest Florida, then you’ll want to find out all there is to see and do in this beautiful beach town right on the Gulf of Mexico.

To give you some context, Bradenton Beach is located just minutes away from Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch, and Bradenton. Of course, those could be some long minutes if you’re caught in snowbird traffic (“snowbird” is the nickname for the retirees, often from the Midwest New York, or Canada, who live in Florida for part of the year).

Bradenton Beach is located on Anna Maria Island, which is home to the town of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, and Bradenton Beach. Anna Maria is well known and often celebrated for its “old Florida” feel and family atmosphere. We agree that it’s terrific, but don’t forget about the rest of “the island,” as locals call it.

Just south of Bradenton Beach, once you cross over Longboat Pass Bridge, is the tony beachside town of Longboat Key.

A peaceful summer day in Bradenton Beach.

When you cross the Cortez Road bridge into Bradenton Beach, you’ll definitely get a small beach town feel, as the Gulf of Mexico view is visible ahead of you and you see pedestrians making their way to lunch or dinner The Beach House, a well-known restaurant right on the Gulf.

Tourists (who wear swimsuits even if winter temperatures are in the 60s–“Yikes!” exclaim Florida natives) stroll along to make their way back to their Bradenton Beach hotel or rental and stop for ice cream along the way. If you make your way down Bridge Street, you can find a treasure trove of shopping (more on Bridge Street in our tips below).

The Bradenton Beach area is so scenic that a few movies have been filmed nearby, including “Out of Time” with Denzel Washington. We’ve seen local restaurants that once had signs that said, “Denzel Washington ate here.”

Here’s our guide for what’s fun to see and do when you visit Bradenton Beach.

Life is “beachy keen” in Bradenton Beach, Florida. Here are some photogenic clouds you’ll find in the area from April to October.

7 To-Do Tips for a Visit to Bradenton Beach, Florida

Hang out at the beach. Well, this is an obvious tip, right? The good news is that there’s some nuance to it. “Bradenton Beach” isn’t just one stretch of beach in town. Although much of the beach area is called “Bradenton Beach,” there’s a smaller stretch called Cortez Beach that we like for fishing, picture taking, and hanging out the beach without too many people (usually). Then there’s Coquina Beach, a popular stretch of beach that includes a ton of parking, a playground, picnic areas, and a restaurant. Coquina Beach also features some shady spots. Arrive early if you want to make Coquina Beach your destination and you plan to use one of the grills or if you want a good parking spot.

On Bradenton Beach piers, you’ll often finds birds that pose while you take their picture. Here’s a great blue heron.

Whatever beach area you pick or can find parking at, you’re likely in for a treat. The Gulf waters are usually clear or turquoise, and you’ll find white or light-colored sand. Although the waters can get fierce during a bad storm or any other turbulence in the Gulf, most of the time it’s smooth sailing and swimming. As you may know, the Gulf is known for its calm waters versus the Atlantic side’s waves.

Watch a sunset. If you’ve come to the west coast of Florida, then you probably know that you’re in for a sunset treat. On your phone, check your weather app to verify what time you can watch the sunset or visit this site. In the summer, it can be as late as 8 or 8:30 pm. In the winter, it’s closer to 5:30 or 5:45. Anywhere on the beach is a good place to be to watch the sun quickly make its way down the horizon. You’ll likely be there with many new friends (aka tourists from Indiana and Michigan) who have the same idea as you, but it’s OK. Everyone seems to be in a good mood.

The clock tower on the Bridge Street Pier.

Visit the Bridge Street Pier and Bridge Street shops. Surprisingly, Bradenton Beach has a bayside pier and some shops that not even known by all locals. The Bridge Street Pier is an ample-sized, long pier that makes a great destination to watch the sun rise, fish, or watch traffic crossing the Cortez Road Bridge. You can find the pier by looking for clock tower at the beginning of it.

Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach has some unique shops. Here’s a sign for Tintos, a Colombian coffee shop.

Then there are the shops, bars, and restaurants on Bridge Street. Although Bridge Street isn’t long, it’s a nice eclectic mix. You’ve got mini golf (The Fish Hole Miniature Golf), a bar that loves the Green Bay Packers (The Bridge Tender Inn and Dockside Bar), a Colombian coffee shop (Tintos), a spa (Sea-renity Beach Spa), and several more finds. Take a walk along Bridge Street and you may surprise yourself with some new favorite shopping.

One view of a few stores along Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach. The Bridge Street shopping district is small but diverse.

-Eat! Like any good beach town, Bradenton Beach has several restaurants you can enjoy. The Beach House is well known and prides itself on sourcing much of its food locally. It’s also typically big and crowded. Daiquiri Deck is a local, well-known chain that has some cool Gulf views, as does Bridge Street Bistro. Anna Maria Oyster Bar is located right on the Bridge Street Pier. There are plenty of other local choices. Of course, don’t forget about ice cream during your beach vacation on Bradenton Beach. Island Scoops is one popular choice.

In case you need to know where the heck you are, here’s a sign in Bradenton Beach.

-Enjoy water sports. Whether you want to fish right off the shore or do a charter trip, you’ve got your choice. There’s also boating, dolphin boat tours (although you’ll sometimes see dolphins right from shore), parasailing, and scuba diving. Bradenton Beach isn’t well known for snorkeling–the waters are clear but not usually filled with colorful things to see as beaches in the Caribbean. However, anyone in your group who enjoys throwing on a snorkel mask may see a few interesting shells or fish. Best to ask the folks at any local dive shops about their snorkeling recommendations.

A pier along the beach in Bradenton Beach. Use the pier for fishing and sunset viewing.

–Visit some other nearby cool places. You could make a whole vacation of just hanging out at Bradenton Beach if you’re a real beach bum. Yet while you’re in the area, you may as well check out some other popular and cool places to see. Here are a few suggestions:

Anna Maria Island

Robinson Preserve, a peaceful oasis of parkland about 15 or 20 minutes away by car.

The Ringling art museum in Sarasota

St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota, a popular shopping and restaurant destination

Cortez, a historical fishing village located just on the other side of the Cortez Street Bridge. There’s a small museum and a few restaurants.

MOTE Marine and Save Our Seabirds, two animal-geared places adjacent to each other

Leffis Key Preserve in Bradenton Beach.

Take a calming stroll at Leffis Key Preserve. One lesser known area of Bradenton Beach is called Leffis Key Preserve, located on the bay side of town. Leffis Key Preserve has a few walking trails and some pretty nifty views of the bay. There’s even a 26-foot “hill”–a big deal in flat Florida!

Some final tips for your visit to Bradenton Beach:

Think early. Over the 10+ years we’ve lived in Bradenton, we’ve watched Bradenton Beach go from feeling distinctly more crowded in the winter and spring because of tourists and snowbirds to staying busy year-round. Your best strategy is to arrive to the beach early. Otherwise, you’re likely going to be stuck in traffic going over the bridge and while driving around Bradenton Beach’s limited number of streets. Which brings us to our next tip….

Walk or use the trolley when you can. If you’re staying in a Bradenton Beach hotel/rental or anywhere on Anna Maria Island, there’s a free trolley that goes from north Anna Maria Island (specifically, the Anna Maria Pier) all the way down to Coquina Beach. Take advantage of it to minimize driving, or walk when you can.

–Grab a map. This may sound old school, but the maps that you’ll find in free newspaper-sized kiosks include large views of the island (bigger than your phone) along with local ads for businesses you might want to use. Those maps are helpful.

Say hello to some of our little friends in Bradenton Beach.

Lion Country Safari: What to Do, What to See for Your Safari Experience

A giraffe at Lion Country Safari in the Palm Beach area.

Lion Country Safari in Florida’s Palm Beach area gives you a safari experience without the price of a plane ticket to Africa. This drive-thru safari park began in 1967 with several free-roaming lions and other animals. Nowadays, there are nearly 1,000 animals on site that roam among the preserve’s 320 acres.

Just what can you expect if you visit Lion Country Safari? Are you really going to get up close with some of the animals there? Here’s the scoop on what to expect, the cost to visit Lion Country Safari, and some tips for your visit.

Rhinos drinking water at Lion Country Safari.

What to Expect When You Visit Lion Country Safari

Lion Country Safari is a bit off the beaten path in Palm Beach County. In other words, rhinos and giraffes are not crossing your path while you’re shopping for Louis Vuitton bags in downtown West Palm Beach. Expect to drive about a half hour along 98 from downtown West Palm to get to Lion Country Safari, which is in the town of Loxachatchee. It’s about an hour from Miami.

Lion Country Safari tickets run about $41 per adult and $31 per child. Prices may fluctuate, and you may be able to find discounts for tickets online. Everyone must get a ticket except those age 3 and under. You can buy tickets online or at the gate.

When you enter the park, you can go to the drive-through safari area or the Safari World Adventure Park, which includes lots of kid-friendly activities. From a water playground (bring a bathing suit and sunscreen) to mini golf and a petting zoo, there’s plenty to entertain the kiddos at the Adventure Park. There are also ways to interact with other animals, including giraffes. The park also has a couple of places to eat. Although we didn’t make it to Safari World during our visit, it looks like a fun place for kids. We’ll focus on the safari portion of the park here.

The park also has premium experiences, such as a VIP guided tour. Advanced registration is required.

Ostriches just hangin’ for the day at Lion Country Safari.

When preparing to enter the park, you’ll be reminded to keep your car doors and windows closed. This is for the animals’ safety and your own. You can also rent a vehicle from Lion Country Safari for $25 for 1 1/2 hours.

For all the reasons you can imagine, your pets also are not allowed on the drive-through safari. Lion Country Safari has kennels available for $5.

When you enter the park, you’ll be given a brochure and directed to a QR code that provides a link to an audio narration of your safari. You can also find a link to the audio tour here, both in English and Spanish. It’s a little over an hour long and follows the different reserves you’ll drive through (we name them below). It’s a lot of facts, but the narration and the map help you better appreciate what you’re seeing. Remember that the audio tour will use your cell phone data.

Here’s a video from Tom’s Road Trippin on YouTube that gives you a better idea of what to expect during a visit to Lion Country Safari and the Adventure Park. Here’s another video from Kayak7seas.

Talk about a traffic jam. Impalas at Lion Country Safari.

In the Safari at Lion Country Safari

The four-mile safari features acres upon acres of flat land where the many animals can roam. You drive through the park going through seven different areas (listed below in the order you encounter them….we also list some of the animals you’ll find in each area):

Las Pampas, modeled after the area of the same name in Argentina. Find alpaca, brown pelicans, and marabou storks

Buaha National Park from Africa, featuring ostriches and impalas

Kalahari Bushveldt from southwest Africa, which includes ostriches, gemsbok (a type of antelope), and bongos (another type of antelope)

Gorongosa Reserve, home to beautiful African lions

Gir Forest, named for a national park in Gujarat, India. Find Asiatic water buffalo, scimitar-horned oryxes (they have very cool, long horns) and another type of antelope called nilgais

Serengeti Plains, featuring wildebeests, watusi, and impalas

Hwange National Park, named for the largest game reserve in western Zimbabwe and including some of better-known, beloved animals, like giraffes, Southern white rhinos, zebras, chimps, and giraffes.

Just how close do you get to the animals? It depends, but you can get pretty darn close. The animals seem pretty oblivious to the cars driving through but some of the more curious ones, like ostriches, will come up near the car. We had dozens and dozens of impalas crossing and walking ahead of our driving path (talk about a traffic jam). Because it’s the animals running the show, it all hinges on how close they feel like getting.

The entrance to Gorongosa Reserve, home to African lions at Lion Country Safari.

There are a couple of exceptions to this, including the chimps. The lions are behind protective, tall metal fences, and we noticed a couple of Lion Country Safari trucks nearby with staff. “They probably have tranquilizer darts,” someone said. “For the lions or the people?” we asked. Because after all, we are in Florida, where the people can be as unpredictable as the animals.

Seriously though, obey the rules and stay in your car. It may be hard to get a good lion shot with the protection there but you can get many other good animal shots.

Another type of “traffic jam” at Lion Country Safari.

You can take your time going through each protected area, even if the safari area is busy. That’s because there are many pull-off areas. So, if you want to stay and watch a certain group of animals and let some traffic go by, you can do so. Feel free to take your time, and remember that you can drive through the safari as much as you’d like on the day you buy your ticket.

If you’re in a bit of a rush, some of the areas, including Gorongosa Preserve (for the lions) have cut-through areas so you can skip them. Even if you’re doing this, just watch the speed limit signs as the animals have the right of way.

Hey, butt out of our business! So said the zebras.

The park was an enjoyable visit on a sunny day. If you’re a photographer, bring your fancy camera or use your good phone camera. Some highlights included the curious and playful ostriches (at another safari park, we had ostriches chasing after our tram and then posing for us), the impalas crossing the road in droves, and the rhinos that were just eating and playing in the mud and grass. The zebras were pretty cool, too.

Going through the safari took about an hour and a half. If you add a visit to the Adventure Park, you definitely have a busy half-day visit or may be a full day if you stretch it out.

Scmitar-horned oryxes at Lion Country Safari.

6 Tips for a Visit to Lion Country Safari

  1. Plan to visit when it’s raining or early on a sunny day. Surprisingly, the park itself recommends visiting on a rainy day as that’s when the animals are at their most active. If that doesn’t work, then early on a sunny day is their next recommendation (and ours). The park opens at 10 am on weekdays and 9:30 am on weekends. It’s open until 5 pm on weekdays and 5:30 pm on weekends.
  2. Consider staying at the adjacent KOA. Lion Country Safari KOA is adjacent to the park, and here’s the cool thing we’ve read: If you’re staying there, you can hear the lions roar. Otherwise, hotels are closer to West Palm.
  3. Watch out for other photo opps. The massive, open nature area that is Lion Country Safari naturally attracts other animals, so you may find other photo opps. For instance, we saw a heron snapping up and eating what we think was an eel or snake. It was a cool shot we could have missed had we not been paying attention.
  4. Use the map and audio narration to help you get to know the animals better.
  5. Drive slow and make use of those pull-off areas. Stay off your phone (unless you’re getting pictures with it) and look around.
  6. Remember that these are wild animals. The animals are part of a conservation effort, and they rule the roost, so to speak. Let them stay wild, and everyone will have fun and get along.