Tallahassee, Florida

An Insider’s Guide to Tallahassee

Get the scoop on family-friendly things to do in Tallahassee

By Doug Alderson

What do zip lining, living history and manatees have in common? They are all reasons families flock to Tallahassee, Florida, for fun. Whether you’re coming from Atlanta, Georgia, or Astoria, Oregon, you’ll absolutely find ways to make the most of your family’s vacation time in Tallahassee.

Perched on the shores of scenic Lake Bradford, the Tallahassee Museum is the perfect place to start your Tallahassee adventure. Panthers, bears, red wolves and other native animals roam spacious natural habitat enclosures while children and adults soar overhead on the museum’s Tree to Tree Adventures, a series of zip lines and high wire challenges that thrill young and old. If you prefer to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, there are life-size dinosaurs made from recycled car and truck parts located throughout the property. Having worked at the museum for several years, I enjoyed seeing families play the spontaneous game of identifying the different dinosaurs and the parts used to create them.

The museum also features a reconstructed 1880s farm, historic schoolhouse and church, and a plantation home once occupied by Princess Murat, a relative of both George Washington and Napoleon. Kids love climbing aboard the red Seaboard Air Line caboose, pretending they’re rolling down the tracks on a Deep South journey.

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History comes alive

Otherwise known as Tallahassee’s Williamsburg, Mission San Luis is a living history gem on the west side of town. A fascinating mixture of early Spanish and Native American history, the reconstructed buildings are brought to life with living history interpreters on weekends.

The immense reconstructed Apalachee council house is one of the mission’s most impressive features. In the late 1600s, the original circular thatched structure—more than 140 feet in diameter and five stories tall—could hold the entire adult San Luis Apalachee Indian population of 1,500-plus guests. Step inside, inhale the sweet aroma of smoke and seasoned thatch, and be transported to a time before big machines could hoist the giant logs that support the structure.

“Step inside, inhale the sweet aroma of smoke and seasoned thatch, and be transported to a time before big machines could hoist the giant logs that support the structure.”

Mission San Luis also has a museum, early Spanish fort and church, gardens and blacksmith shop. There’s a scenic hiking trail along a forested hillside and stream worth exploring, too.

The Winter Solstice Celebration, held in mid-December and featuring Southeastern Native American dancing, storytelling and cultural demonstrations, is an annual highlight. Much to the delight of my family, some of the dances involve audience participation.

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A hub of activity

Cascades Park, a series of trails and play areas situated along a flowing stream and waterfall, sits in the shadow of Florida’s Capitol. Ever popular in the summer, the interactive fountain area provides space for visitors to cool off under colorful geysers of water. The park also features concerts, plays and literary festivals in a state of the art amphitheater.

The Discovery at Cascades, an interactive natural play environment, is a popular feature for families. Each element is inspired by a native Florida environmental feature, from an ancient cypress log that invites climbing to a multi-level water slide where kids can pump water and direct it into a filtration garden.

“In addition to being packed with fun things to do, Cascades Park is good for the environment.”

In addition to being packed with fun things to do, Cascades Park is good for the environment. The park is the site of a famous waterfall that was destroyed when a railroad was built in the mid-1800s. Cascades Park recreates that legacy of moving water through a series of flowing streams, waterfalls and fountains that drain into large pools.

Cascades Park is also the hub for paved, multi-use trails. You can ride a bike all the way to the coast on the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. Or, you can rent one of the city’s bike share bicycles and explore downtown and nearby attractions.

Railroad Square Art Park, Tallahassee’s Arts and Culture District, is a must-see. Accessible by paved trail, Railroad Square has numerous art studios, a playground, kayak outfitter, vintage retail shops, a café situated in an authentic railroad caboose and an indoor rock climbing gym. My daughter and I love Railroad Square’s First Friday Gallery Hop each month when all the studios and businesses welcome guests with live music, drum circles and plays.

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Donald Morgan enjoys fried catfish and cheese grits at Table 23 by Doug Alderson
Riding the St. Marks Trail in Tallahassee by Doug Alderson
Tallahassee Museum caboose by Doug Alderson

Tallahassee tastes

Gaines Street Pies is just three blocks from Railroad Square. The smell of pizza alone is enough to draw me in from the street. Gaines Street Pies is popular with college students and families on a budget since lunch specials include two slices and a drink for only six bucks.

For more elegant dining, I enjoy Table 23 in Tallahassee’s Midtown District. Situated in a handsome two-story building, I recently had lunch there with friends and thoroughly enjoyed their turkey “sammich” with arugula, smoked provolone and wedges of avocado. A friend from Alabama enjoyed the fried catfish with a side of smoked Gouda cheese grits and claimed it was the real Southern deal with a twist.

I have a sweet tooth, so after a Midtown meal, I love to head north to Lofty Pursuits to sample their large variety of ice cream and candy all made by hand right in front of you.

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The wild side

If your family likes the wild life, venture to Wakulla Springs State Park for a jungle boat ride. Alligators and native wading birds abound along this guided tour. Manatees can usually be seen year-round with nearly guaranteed sightings in the winter months.

The tour’s back jungle was the set for two Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller, as well as for the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. After a tour, there is nothing like a plunge into the 70-degree spring water to cool off on a hot day.

Whether it is city fun or wild adventure just outside of town, Tallahassee has much to offer adventurous visitors of all ages.

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Doug Alderson is the author of several award-winning books, including A New Guide to Old Florida Attractions.