Ray Charles grew up here. Such are the cultural credentials of North Florida, the place where jazz flourished and Elvis took the stage (hint: both happened in the same city).
But first, Ray. The small wood frame house where he spent his early childhood is in Greenville, Madison County, and Ray lived there with his mother until she sent him to a school for the blind in St. Augustine. Tours of the Greenville home are available by appointment, while photo-ops with Ray’s statue await in nearby Haffye Hays Park.
Music of a different style, but still all-Florida style, is celebrated at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, about an hour west of Jacksonville. Set on the banks of the Suwannee River—immortalized in Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”—the center’s 97-bell carillon chimes Foster tunes all day as visitors enjoy the great Florida outdoors while hiking, bicycling, canoeing and wildlife viewing.
Musical foundations live on in Jacksonville, which emerged as a premier stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit—a series of black-owned nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints and theaters—during the formative years of vaudeville, ragtime, jazz and blues (other venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit include the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem).
Jacksonville still leads the way in music at the annual Jazz Festival, which has been filling the streets of downtown Jacksonville for more than 40 years. If you can’t make that, be sure to stop by the city’s Florida Theatre, which opened its doors in 1927, welcomed six shows by Elvis Presley in 1956, and remains at the forefront of a cultural scene that includes a symphony, street fairs and craft markets, and world-class museums.
The Florida Theatre is but one North Florida vintage venue restored to former glory and repurposed for today’s audiences. In downtown Gainesville, the Hippodrome—housed in the National Registry-listed old Federal Building—has produced more than a hundred world, American and Southeastern premieres in its history, as well as first-run foreign, limited-release and avant-garde films.
Heading west along North Florida’s “Big Bend” region, the Dixie Theatre in Apalachicola was a resplendent movie house in 1915 and operated as a motion picture theater before closing in 1967. There it languished until 1992, when it was purchased by a private buyer who restored and reopened it for live theatrical productions. The same thing happened in Quincy when the old Leaf Theatre—whose grand opening in 1949 was hosted by Roy Rogers—was restored and is now home to the Quincy Music Theatre.
Ushering in a new era of opulence in 1925, Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre surrounded vaudeville, road shows and silent movies with ornate Spanish Baroque architecture. Today it’s home to performances by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and touring performers. Nearby in the city’s historic downtown core are the Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola and the Pensacola Museum of Art.
Along the Gulf in the beach neighborhoods of South Walton, beach-hopping is matched only by culture-hopping through a creative landscape of art galleries, digital projection festivals, live concerts and performances by local theater companies like the Emerald Coast Theatre Company and the Seaside Repertory Theatre.
Keep going east along the Gulf shore to Gulf County, where Plein Air exhibits are held at The Joe Center for the Arts, and local artists paint turtle sculptures along the sandy Turtle Trail.
Here’s an idea for multitaskers: combine art and Gulf Coast diving and you get the Grayton Beach Underwater Museum of Art, the first underwater sculpture garden in the nation.
People have been welcoming sunrise over the Atlantic beaches of North Florida for millennia, but in 1513, the tide brought in a new wave of visitors—the Europeans. Sent by the Spanish crown in search of treasure in the New World, soldier and explorer Juan Ponce de Leon—already roaming the Caribbean and searching for something called “the Fountain of Youth”—came upon a colorful coastline he dubbed la Florida, or “flowery one.”
Ponce de Leon found his treasure—the verdant Florida peninsula—not to mention the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that guided future Spanish galleons to and from the New World. And the famous Fountain? Though he never found an actual spring that restored youth, Ponce de Leon’s search fueled a practice that persists to this day—traveling to the restorative waters of North Florida’s crystal-clear natural springs (more on them later).
Meanwhile, in honor of Ponce de Leon’s quest, you can visit the 15-acre Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, where Spanish explorers and missionaries established a small settlement in 1565. It’s just one of many historic landmarks in what’s known as America’s Oldest Continuously Occupied Settlement, home to the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse (ca. 1716), the nation’s oldest masonry fort Castillo de San Marcos (1695), and literally dozens of 18th- and 19th-century homes and buildings lining authentic cobblestone streets.
Beyond the Oldest Settlement, “oldest” is a common refrain in North Florida, as many history hunters discover when they visit.
North of St. Augustine, Amelia Island is home to Florida’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1838 and the only one from the state’s territorial period (before statehood) to survive without major rebuilding. Explore it on public tours or view it from other vantage points, including Civil War-era Fort Clinch (now a state park). Afterward, hoist a brew at the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest bar, located in the National Historic District of downtown Fernandina Beach on the northern end of Amelia Island.
Fernandina Beach is but one of countless and quaint towns in North Florida, where vintage architecture and picture-perfect town squares recall colonial, frontier and antebellum Florida. Discover these periods of Florida history in Milton, Quincy, Micanopy and scores of others, including Cedar Key, an island community recalling the fishing villages of Old Florida. Local visitor bureaus will point you toward the past, as will historical societies and museums in practically every North Florida Community. Alachua County’s Matheson History Museum, for one, is composed of multiple venues, including the main exhibition gallery, the Matheson Library & Archives and the 1867 Matheson House.
Pre-statehood, Florida’s colonial Spanish government gave sanctuary to black slaves fleeing the South, allowing them to live freely if they converted to Catholicism and pledged fealty to the Spanish crown. This brief flowering of peaceful coexistence ended when Florida became a state in 1845, but there are vestiges of this short-lived window throughout North Florida, most notably at the Kingsley Plantation set on the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in Jacksonville, once home to Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, a former slave who fled to Haiti before Florida officially joined the union.
Near Gainesville, the historic Sea Island Cotton Plantation was established in 1854 by the Haile family—with a home named Kanapaha, which means “small thatched houses” in the native tongue. Today the site is open to visitors as the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation and includes exhibits on the slaves who accompanied the Haile family from South Carolina to Florida.
Of course, like the rest of the Americas, Florida was first explored and settled by indigenous tribes. You’ll glimpse this ancient world at locations like Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park in Tallahassee, encompassing six of seven known earthen temple mounds. In Fort Walton Beach, the Indian Temple Mound Museum illustrates 12,000 years of Native American life via interpretive exhibits. The Mound Museum is part of the Heritage Park & Cultural Center, which also includes the Fort Walton Temple Mound and, much farther along the historical timeline, the Civil War Exhibit Building.
Unlike the Native Americans who were adept at getting around Florida’s interior via canoe, the first European settlers were limited to an ocean entrance along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines; hence the wealth of Spanish history in St. Augustine and on the Gulf end of North Florida, Pensacola, where conquistador Don Tristan De Luna washed ashore in 1559, paving the way for five flags to claim the bayside city over the centuries. Visit the Pensacola Museum of History or jump on the America’s First Settlement Trail, a 3-mile walk past sites dating back to the mid-1700s.
Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key are home to the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the U.S.—Gulf Islands National Seashore—where it’s easy to disappear into a sweeping natural retreat of relaxation…or not. Hiking, biking, kayaking amid unobstructed Gulf views are also on the agenda here. Or venture forth for adventure above or below the water’s surface, enjoying outdoor activities like Pensacola’s excellent scuba diving or a fishing expedition to reel in a tide-to-table meal.
In Northwest Florida, fishing is not simply a matter of dropping a line into water. You interact with nature, as local captains take you to spots you won’t find on any map. Explore the artificial reefs offshore from Mexico Beach, teeming with game fish; or let the experts in Panama City help you find the sweet spot in St. Andrews Bay, spanning more than 20 miles of saltwater flats and seagrass beds where redfish, speckled trout, black drum and cobia dwell.
Meanwhile in Washington County, home of hundreds of lakes and clear streams, it’s all about freshwater fishing. Take your pick of fishing sites in Blackwater River State Forest near Milton, where Bear Lake, Bone Creek, Clear Creek and Hurricane Lake make peaceful fishing spots, surrounded by forests of longleaf pine and wiregrass.
But when it comes to amazing bodies of water in North Florida, it’s always springtime—that is, the beyond-beautiful, brilliantly clear and cool freshwater springs that have been drawing waders, swimmers and paddlers (and more recently, divers) for centuries. Florida’s waters were even thought to have healing powers. Welaka in Putnam County, for one, had become a resort town by the mid-1880s, attracting visitors seeking medicinal cures from the many springs containing mineral water.
Concentrated mostly in North Central Florida but also scattered across the Panhandle, Florida’s springs bubble up from an underground aquifer and stay at a comfy 72 degrees. So, you can swim any time of year, tube down spring-fed rivers and paddle over fish and an underwater panorama through water so clear, you’ll see all the way down to the bottom.
Contained in state parks, places like Ponce de Leon Springs State Park in Holmes County, Ichetucknee Springs State Park near Fort White and Wakulla Springs State Park south of Tallahassee offer outdoor activities galore in addition to their spring-based experiences. Wakulla, for one, has the distinction of being the largest and deepest freshwater spring in the world while also featuring guided boat tours, ranger-led bike tours, a picnic area, and hiking trails through Southern hardwood forests and maple-cypress habitats.
Landlubbers, get ready to “lubb” a host of recreational activities in North Florida. Starting at “A” for agritourism, Jackson County showcases the bounty of the land along an AgriTourism Trail of u-picks, farmers’ markets, produce stands, creameries and more. Some farms are seasonal and hours vary, so call ahead.
You’ll be channeling your inner explorer at Belmore State Forest in southern Clay County, 15 miles west of Green Cove Springs. Sandhills, flatwoods and floodplain forests are just some of the unique biological communities here, each with unique plants and animals, including wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and songbirds. The forest is open during daylight hours for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
See native animals in their natural settings at the Tallahassee Museum, which is anything but an enclosed space, rather offering 52 acres of natural wonders. Elevated boardwalks take you to rare Florida panthers, river otters, black bears and other native residents, while thrilling ziplines welcome you to explore from above.
View more wildlife at Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens, one of only seven zoos in the country with an animal wellness team. Habitats include an African Forest, a River Valley Aviary and a Giraffe Overlook.
Then cycle or hike your way into the wilds of Calhoun County along the 3.9-mile Blountstown Greenway Bike Path, which connects Sam Atkins Park—home of the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement—with Neal Landing along the Apalachicola River.
Heading toward the ocean, Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches offer more than 125 miles of hiking/biking trails across varying terrain—including the Graham Swamp Preserve and the Mala Compra Trail—with local bike shops on hand for sales, rentals and repairs.
The Putnam House in Cross City is a boutique hotel and fine dining steakhouse nestled along Florida’s Nature Coast. Set on Rosemary Beach in South Walton, The Pearl Hotel is an intimate 55-room boutique hotel celebrating the town’s Southern charm.