ABC's of Gainesville

Every town, no matter how big or small, has a story to tell. It can be heard in hole-in-the-wall bars or luxury shops, echoing off the sides of shimmering skyscrapers or through nature's open expanses. Even locals might not know where to look — everyone could use a nudge in the right direction. 

To view this piece as it was originally published by The Gainesville Sun, please click here.

Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun

Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun

The ABC’s: Your list of what to do in Gainesville

There’s no denying that Gainesville is a small city — other than the 130,000 people that call it home, many don’t know much about it beyond the confines of the University of Florida. However, this college town’s size belies its wonderment. From city thrills to backwoods adventures, this guide is your handbook to some of the best Gainesville has to offer.

A. Athletics: Emmitt Smith, Bradley Beal, Tim Tebow — these are a few of the household names that UF’s athletic program has churned out over the years. Sing “We Are The Boys,” before the start of the fourth quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, or yell along with 10,000 fans at the O’Connell Center’s Exactech Arena. Steeped in tradition, the Florida Gators are a safe bet to put on a show.

B. Baughman Center: Nestled along a wooded portion of Museum Road, this 1,500-square-foot pavilion differs from the rest of UF’s brick architecture. Its arched wooden structure invokes images of Medieval cathedrals, while floor-to-ceiling windows offer expansive views of Lake Alice. Use it for quiet mediation or an Instagram photo-op.

C. Coffee: College towns play home to college kids; and college kids run on coffee. While Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts both have a sizeable presence around campus, be sure to check out some of Gainesville’s local offerings. Coffee Culture brews some unique seasonal drinks, while Volta specializes in light-roasted coffee sourced from providers around the country.

D. Diving: Gainesville might be 90 minutes from the nearest beach, but avid SCUBA divers don’t have to drive long to get their fix. Nearby Williston houses the Devil’s Den and Blue Grotto, two popular cave diving spots. An 80-minute drive can get you to Live Oak’s Peacock Springs and its 33,000 feet of underwater passages.

E. Excursions: Fortune favors the bold; and it rewards them, too. The University of Florida has a number of nature trails scattered across campus, cutting paths through the woods and offering a true glimpse of the swamp. Intrepid souls may even venture off the beaten path for a walk on the wild side.

F. Farmers Market: Give the grocery store a pass and explore the Union Street Farmers Market. From 4 to 7 p.m. each Wednesday, Bo Diddley Plaza transforms into an open-air market as 60-plus vendors display their wares, offering everything from produce to pendants.

G. Greenery: Those looking for some new scenery needn’t look far. Two state parks lie in Gainesville’s vicinity, providing a change of pace from the red brick that typifies its architecture. To the north is the Devil’s Millhopper, a centuries-old sinkhole sunk 120 feet into the ground. Payne’s Prairie, the state’s first nature preserve, lies to the south, and is home to horses, alligators and bison.

H. Hippodrome Theatre: What started as a post office over 100 years ago now houses the only professional theater in the region. Built in 1911, this Grecian building owns a spot in the National Register of Historic Places and anchors Gainesville’s downtown district. Famous plays and offbeat productions run year-round — sit in on a preview showing to cash in a sizeable discount.

I: Ice cream: Everyone screams for the frozen treat — luckily, there are plenty of shops that keep the din to a minimum. Founded in 2004, Sweet Dreams makes its own ice cream in-house every Monday. To try a bite of the rolled ice cream trend, order a cup at Mr. Cool on University Avenue. SweetBerries offers a sweet alternative, serving up a variety of frozen custards.

J: John Raymond Henry: While you may not know the name, you probably recognize his work. The sculptor behind “Alachua” and “Big Max” — the former affectionately referred to by students as “the French Fries” — permanently transformed UF’s campus, bringing public art to the Marston Science Library and Cultural Plaza.

K. Krishna lunch: Walk through Plaza of the Americas on a weekday and join the crowds indulging in a longstanding tradition. Since 1971, volunteers with the local Hare Krishnas have served vegetarian meals to the local community. A $5 donation gets you all-you-can-eat Indian cuisine — including the halava.

L. Liquor and beer: True to form, this college town boasts an array of local watering holes. Looking for something quirky? Head to The Atlantic on indie night, then walk down a connecting alley to the three-story Arcade Bar. More of a craft beer person? Check out the 40-tap House Of Beer, or hang out at local breweries Swamp Head, First Magnitude among others. From rooftop bars to hole-in-the-wall dives, Gainesville has it all.

M. Music: Each year, as students make the trek to Jacksonville for the Florida-Georgia football game, punk fans from across the nation pour in for The Fest, a massive three-day rock show that showcases hundreds of bands at over a dozen venues. Don your favorite denim jacket, grab a sandwich at the Pop-A-Top and be sure to catch Insignificant Other and Dikembe rep the local scene.

N. Newnans Lake: Hitch a ride 20 minutes east on University Avenue and you’ll hit a fork in the road. Head right, and you’ll hit water. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, this 1.12-mile-wide lake showcases the intersection between man and the wild. Drive to Palm Point Nature Park and lounge on a bench while local rowers navigate between sunning alligators. If you’re lucky, you might even see a bald eagle in its roost.

O. Observatories: Incredible views of the universe can be seen from our Pale Blue Dot; you just need to know where to look. Every Friday night, UF’s Campus Teaching Observatory hosts a free open house, handing its telescopes over to the public. Thirty miles away in Bronson, the Rosemary Hill Observatory — one of the nation’s best collegiate lookouts — occasionally opens to classes and local organizations. Stargazers can head to Lake Alto Park in Waldo for a starlit sky that’s visible to the naked eye, unadulterated by light pollution.

P: Pizza: Although Gainesville is known for its food, its pizza is a slice above the rest. There’s something for everyone: Five Star and Italian Gator offer bargain prices, while Leonardo’s and Satchel’s are two well-regarded thin-crust pizzerias. Even Chicago-style deep dish gets its due at Leonardo’s Pizza of Millhopper.

Q: Quiz yourself: Trivia nights put a fun spin on a traditional outing, and Gainesville is stocked with them. National chains and local one-offs offer them throughout the week — The Brass Tap, The Midnight and Gator’s Dockside are just a few examples. Call your friends and work up an appetite while trying to recall the chemical symbol for Antimony.

R. Reitz Union: Fresh off a recent renovation, this glass-sided building sits in the heart of UF’s campus. For students, it’s practical — the Union houses a food court, the campus bookstore and ample study space. For visitors, it’s gorgeous — white flooring and hardwood accents give the space a modern feel, and a “floating” staircase recalls scenes from Harry Potter.

S. Springs: With average daily temperatures hovering in the 90s, Gainesville summers are stiflingly hot and humid. But you can beat the heat with a trip to Ichetucknee or Ginnie springs — water temperatures are a constant 72 degrees year round, which makes for a refreshing float or swim.

T. The “Towns”: Gainesville presents a tale of two cities; or, rather, “towns.” Directly across from campus, midtown’s bars and quick-serve restaurants make it a favorite of students looking to unwind after a week of study. Downtown, on the other hand, offers a wider selection of clubs as well as some high-end eateries. Operating in both locales, Flaco’s Cuban Bakery crafts a solid medianoche, a smaller version of a Cuban sandwich served on sweet bread.

U. UF Cultural Plaza: This collection of buildings near the Southwest Recreation Center is the cultural hub of the university. The Harn Museum of Art features works from Andy Warhol, Diego Rivera, Robert Rauschenberg and others, while the adjacent Florida Museum of Natural History houses the Butterfly Rainforest among other exhibits. Sitting to the south, the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has played host to countless international acts over the years.

V. Views: Contrary to what engineering students might believe, there’s a world beyond those auditorium walls. At night, head south on 13th Street to see the Helyx Bridge, a DNA-shaped structure that lights up red and blue. An elevator ride to the top of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium’s indoor portion offers a panoramic vista of UF. Off campus, kick back on the stairs of the Hippodrome and enjoy a sunset over cobbled streets.

W. Walls: And not just the noble, gothic kind. Famous for its graffiti, the 34th street wall serves as a canvas for street art and student club announcements. In a similar vein, the 352walls/Gainesville Urban Art Initiative has brought numerous murals to the downtown area, ranging from portraits to abstract designs. Try and spot them all.

X. X-rays: While UF Health’s Shands Hospital blends in with the rest of the school’s architecture, its sheer size sets it apart. Nationally ranked in six adult and pediatric specialties, the complex sprawls across the southeast corner of campus. Drive past the Harrell Medical Education Building at night to see its façade lit up in blue, then snake along Newell Drive to reach the rainbow-paneled Children’s Hospital and hulking new cardiovascular and neuromedicine towers.

Y. Yearling restaurant: Tucked away in Cross Creek, this restaurant draws inspiration from the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings book of the same name. Serving “cracker cuisine,” the eatery specializes in unique local fare — frog legs and quail share the menu with alligator and venison, all served up in a cozy atmosphere akin to your grandmother’s house.

Z. Zzz’s: Even the most zealous students need a nap every now and then. Instead of heading back to your place, find some friends, grab some hammocks and string them between two trees. Lake Alice and the Plaza of the Americas are prime spots for an afternoon doze and people-watching.