Florida is one of those states that a lot of people have a connection to, even if they don’t live there. Maybe you went to Disney World as a kid or have relatives who moved down south. But if you think you know the Sunshine State, think again -- especially about Florida’s smaller cities. They may not get the buzz of Miami or Orlando, but they still hold plenty of surprises. Did you know that Tampa Bay was once the cigar-making capital of the world? Or that Tallahassee is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the US? For more surprises about Florida’s smaller cities, read on.
It’s a thrill to see the Blue Angels streak across the sky at 700 miles per hour. This US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron practices twice a week at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. See the squadron’s sleek fleet of blue and yellow jets perform aerial stunts in the clear Florida sky every Tuesday and Wednesday morning from March to November. On Wednesdays, ask the pilots questions (and get their autographs) during a meet-and-greet session after the show.
Jacksonville is the largest city in area in the contiguous United States; this spells plenty of geographical diversity. The city has the largest urban parks system in the United States, with more than 111,000 acres of preserved land to hike, bike, kayak and camp in (favorite parks include Kathryn Hanna Abbey Park and Huguenot Memorial Park. On the history (and shopping!) front, view historic bungalows and Spanish-Mediterranean style homes in Riverside and Avondale, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Along their oak-shrouded streets, you’ll find cafes such as Biscottis and such upscale shops as Bark Boutique, which sells designer collars and hair bows for your dog.
Did you know that Tally, as locals call this town, sits in one of the most biologically diverse regions in the entire United States? With its winding rivers and rolling hills, the Red Hills bioregion stands out in famously flat Florida. In and around Tallahassee, discover more than 372 different species of birds such as spoonbills and whooping cranes. The West Indian Manatee is a year-round resident in local rivers such as the Wakulla, just south of Tallahassee, and an exciting sight if you’ve never seen one of these gentle mammals in their natural habitat.
Who needs Havana! Back in 1900, Ybor City, an historic district of bars and restaurants in downtown Tampa Bay, was the cigar capital of the world. Ybor City’s cigar star status began in the late 19th century when Cuban exile Don Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his business here. Over the next 10 years, Ybor City produced an estimated 700 million cigars a year, thanks to nearly 12,000 cigar makers who worked in 200 factories in town. You can still pick up a made-in-Tampa cigar; try a Dominican-style smoke at Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Company.
This small east coast community brims with diverse cultural festivals year-round. The Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival, held every fall, shows films made by Florida students and international filmmakers. The annual Indiafest hosts cultural dances and exhibits at Wickham Park Pavilion, where you can learn the Indian art of henna tattooing and shop for Bollywood fashions such as colorful saris and glittering bangle bracelets. Every April, the Melbourne Art Festival attracts nearly 50,000 people to browse and shop for artwork in the historic downtown.
Next time you’re in Florida, work up an itinerary that mixes big city highlights with small town fun. After all, it’s that contrast of experiences that turns a vacation in the sun into a real voyage of discovery.
Based in Cocoa Beach, FL, travel writer Terry Ward has written about Florida’s small towns for online and print publications such as the Orlando Sentinel and Endless Vacation magazine.