In a marvelous setting next to the lake of the same name, Eustis is a city beloved for its vital downtown.
This district was given a whole new streetscape in the 2010s, and is enhanced by Ferran Park on the lakefront. The park is like a scenic backyard for the city, staging events that bring thousands of people to the city, particularly in the spring months.
I will never get bored of the rich nature surrounding Eustis on all sides. Moments from downtown you can hike beneath venerable live oaks, paddle through cypress swamps, traverse a giant sinkhole, or take a boat tour of the old canals that were once a highway for steamers.
1. Historic Downtown Eustis
With a great assortment of small businesses and a picturesque green, the old center of Eustis merits some exploration.
A National Historic Site, downtown Eustis is bounded to the west by the lakefront, and beautiful Ferran Park. With an historic bandstand, this is a natural place for outdoor events, and there are a lot of them.
Eustis’s dining and shopping is mostly along Magnolia Avenue and Bay Street. All set close together are one-off stores for homewares, gifts, flowers, pet supplies, jewelry, bicycles, and ice cream.
The State Theatre of Eustis dates back to 1922, and for almost 40 years has been the seat of the Bay Street Players, a treasured community theater group.
My tip is head downtown on the first Friday evening of the month, when you’ll find vendors, live music, and food trucks. Then on the fourth Saturday there’s a monthly display of around 150 classic cars on these streets.
2. Ferran Park
Downtown and right on the shore of Lake Eustis, Ferran Park is one of the prettiest urban parks I’ve seen.
Partly reclaimed from the water, the park features a paved walkway that follows the lake’s contours. There are plenty of places to sit along the way, with stunning views that become magical at sunset.
The Alice McClelland Bandshell is a real centerpiece. Dating back to 1926, this Mediterranean Revival structure was moved to the park a decade later.
At the north end of the park is the Eustis Aquatic Center, with a lap pool and an excellent splash pad for kids.
Ferran Park is a delight at Christmas when the lights are on, and is a great vantage point for the boat races that take place on Lake Eustis in summer.
3. The Clifford House
The Eustis Historical Museum is in an 18-room mansion built by one of the area’s first settlers. Guilford Davis Clifford moved to central Florida from New York in the 1870s, and ran a general store and established the local mail service.
In 1910-11 Clifford built this stately Classical Revival house backing onto the lakefront. The plans had been drawn up much earlier, but a freeze in winter 1894-95 hit Eustis’s economy hard.
Inside you’ll discover the lifestyle of a wealthy Lake County resident in the early 20th century. There’s period furniture, decorative arts, clothing, household implements, paintings, photographs, and interesting displays on different aspects of local life.
When I took a look, there was a captivating display about steamboating on Lake Eustis. On the same campus you can check out the Citrus Museum, portraying the fruit growing business around Eustis.
4. Trout Lake Nature Center
Moments from downtown Eustis, Trout Lake Nature Center is dedicated to preserving Central Florida’s unique nature. Encompassing 230 acres of hardwood hammock and floodplain forest, this is a piece of wilderness in the middle of the city.
Out in the preserve I was amazed by the many stately old live oak trees, with names like Celebration Oak, Hidden Oak and Grandfather.
Also a treat is the boardwalk leading you over the wetlands to a dock on the north shore of Lake Trout. From here you can spot a host of wildlife, from turtles to alligators and wading birds.
The nature center is also known for its educational and instructional programs. There’s even a free program for two to five-year-olds called Nature Sprouts. Held once a month, it’s the perfect opportunity to introduce wee ones to the great outdoors.
5. Hidden Waters Preserve
One of the more unusual water bodies around Eustis is Lake Alfred. Just a couple of miles from downtown, this is actually a sinkhole lake, as you may tell from the large depression in the landscape.
Over many years, water seeped from underground sources, carving out the slopes and creating an elevation change of more than 100 feet.
Before it was acquired by the Lake County Water Authority in 1996, this site was threatened by illegal dumping. Now it’s a remarkable place to discover on foot.
The sudden changes in topography give rise to a rare mix of habitat types, from wetlands to longleaf pine uplands. If you’re pressed for time I’d recommend the blue-blazed Lake Alfred Trail, which takes you right down into the sinkhole from the parking lot.
6. Amber Brooke Farms
Fall through spring, this local farm welcomes the public for all kinds of agritourism experiences. Amber Brook Farms’ fields were planted in the 2010s, on the site of an overfarmed citrus grove.
If you’re in town between March and May you can visit for U-Pick blueberries. I had no idea there were so many varieties of this fruit, among them Sweet Crisp, Emerald, Springhigh, and Prima Donna.
There are also strawberries December through May, while if you come in fall you can pick zinnias and sunflowers.
At this time of year there’s a fall festival on weekends, with pumpkins, a vegetable garden, live entertainment, children’s activities and delicious seasonal food and drink.
7. Seminole State Forest
On Eustis’s east flank there’s a sprawling state forest covering more than 25,000 acres on the Lower Wekiva River.
For me, one of the great things about Seminole State Forest is its biking trails. There are more than 20 miles to pedal along, with a lot of shade, easy terrain, hard-pack surfaces, and few motor vehicles.
You can get to the Cassia Trailhead in minutes from downtown Eustis. This is a great spot to start your adventure into an extremely biodiverse area. In fact, Seminole State Forest has close to 20 distinct natural communities.
One of the most delicate is the pine scrub, supporting black bears and the scrub-jay, Florida’s only endemic bird.
8. Rusty Anchor Mount Dora
Before the railroads were built in the 1880s the main way to transport people and goods was on the water. Steamers used to shuttle along Lakes Eustis, Dora, Harris, and Griffin.
To relive those times you can head down to Mount Dora, where there’s a tour company providing a choice of cruises. The owner, a 4th-generation local, has been in the business for more than 30 years.
As a priority, I think first-timers should take the Dora Canal Tour. This narrated voyage takes you along the waterway connecting Lake Dora and Lake Eustis. The canal is a mile long, and for much of its length is unpopulated.
You’ll travel through a landscape that hasn’t changed much since the area was settled. Best of all are the lofty cypress trees, capped with nests for herons, anhingas, and ospreys, while snakes, alligators and turtles are easy to spot from the boat.
9. Lake Norris Conservation Area
In the list of natural sites to be enjoyed near Eustis is a hardwood swamp and the peculiar darkwater environment of Lake Norris.
A St. Johns River Water Management District, Lake Norris Conservation Area is famous for its osprey nests. There are thought to be more than 100 nests, high in the cypresses on the shores of the lake. If you’re in the area, nesting season is usually around January.
If you have a kayak, this spot has some of the best paddling for miles. Starting at the trailhead off Lake Norris Road, you can make your way along Blackwater Creek through an almost primeval environment.
If you don’t have your own vessel, you can rent a kayak from the Lake County Water Authority.
10. Pine Meadows Conservation Area
If you still have an appetite to explore, you can reach these 770 acres of public land in just ten minutes from downtown.
Pine Meadows is made up of a tapestry of habitats, including wetlands, wet meadow, pine flatwoods, and open water on the east side.
This landscape was purchased by Lake County in 2004. Since that time a lot of work has gone into restoring these habitats, and improving the amenities. There are more than six miles of trails, and the main path takes you east to a boat dock on the shore of a lake.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s wildlife everywhere you look. In the space of about an hour I saw alligators, sandhill cranes, herons, and what looked like a bobcat.
11. Eustis Busker Festival
The city puts on a lot of exciting events, especially in the spring months. One that I haven’t seen anywhere else is a festival for busking.
On this day in March there’s a number of “busk stops” at Ferran Park. Throughout the day you can check out a range of street performers here, from musicians to comedians, acrobats, dancers, jugglers, and artists.
Each busker gets to perform two thirty-minute sets. Then, at the end of the day there’s a grand finale at the bandshell when the best performers compete for the grand prize and people’s choice award.
12. Eustis Music Fest
In late April, Ferran Park is the HQ for one of the city’s signature annual events. The Alice McClelland Bandshell here is the perfect stage for two days of live music.
You can also catch a schedule of performances downtown on both days. From my experience, this boisterous event is all about high-octane rock music. To illustrate, one of the headline acts when I attended was Hardwired, a tribute act for Metallica.
Throughout Eustis Music Fest there are craft vendors, food trucks, and tons of activities, from mechanical bulls to axe throwing and rock climbing. Recent editions have been partnered with Leesburg Bikefest, one of Central Florida’s premier bike events.
13. Lake County Fair
Eustis is home to the Lake County Fairgrounds, hosting the ten-day county fair every April. Going back to 1921, this event has more than a hundred years of history. Ever since those early years, education and entertainment have gone hand-in-hand here.
In that spirit, exhibits and competitions are a big part of this event. Every year more than thousands of ribbons are awarded for everything from 4-H categories to horticulture, creative arts, and baking.
If you’re here with wee ones, head to the Hayloft for agricultural-themed interactive activities and exhibits.
On the entertainment side of things, the fair delivers big-time, with carnival rides, stunt shows, racing pigs, magic, and a lot of live music.
Throughout the year the fairgrounds are home to the Lake County Farmers’ & Flea Market. Established in 1979, this market takes place every Thursday morning.
14. Lake County Museum of Art
A stone’s throw away in Tavares, this well-respected art museum stems from the Lake Eustis Museum of Art. It was founded in 1995 and was previously based in Eustis’s Ferran Park, before moving to Tavares and changing its name in 2019.
You can drop by in the afternoons, Thursday through Sunday, to appreciate local and regional contemporary art.
When I came there was a fantastic solo show for Kre8, who started out as a tattoo artist and is now known for his bold Pop Art-influenced canvases.
The museum also organizes a variety of classes, workshops and events all year. If you’re wondering how to keep little ones occupied during the school summer break, there are art activities on Wednesdays.