An hour northwest of Tallahassee, Marianna is an historic city founded in 1828. In those days this settlement was at the heart of an enormous expanse of plantations.
The wealth created in those times is hard to ignore in the Marianna Historic District. A self-guided tour leads you to Antebellum mansions on elegant streets with twisting live oaks. I got the brochure for this walk at the Jackson County Visitors Center, which is in another of the city’s grand houses.
When the Civil War came, Marianna was briefly caught up in the violence. A battle took place here in 1864, and Governor John Milton later died suddenly in this city when the Union Army took control of Tallahassee.
Set in a karst landscape, Marianna is the jumping off point for some natural wonders, with the Florida Caverns and the ethereal Blue Springs close by.
1. Florida Caverns State Park
In Marianna’s backyard is the kind of natural attraction rarely seen in Florida—a limestone cave bursting with concretions. What you get at Florida Caverns is the only above-ground cave system in the Sunshine State that’s open to the public.
Flashlight tours explore the cave’s tight passageways and grand chambers, illuminating a peculiar ensemble of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones.
The park’s amenities include a visitor center and museum, covered picnic areas, and a playground. If you visit in the summer, I’d urge you to visit the Blue Hole Spring after for a refreshing dip.
2. Marianna Historic District
When I was in town the old center of Marianna was the focus of revitalization efforts, improving the sidewalks, adding lighting, and restoring historic architecture. The main artery is Lafayette St, which winds through the city, breaking with the grid plan.
One of the best things you can do is take a while to explore the wider historic district. This is enclosed by Davis, Park, Wynn, and Jackon streets and has close to 200 contributing buildings.
The city website has an excellent self-guided tour of all the key sights. On almost 40 stops, you’ll see architecture going back to the first half of the 19th century.
Some Antebellum standouts are the Erwin House (1830s), the Lewis-Wyckoff House (c 1840), the Ely-Criglar House (c. 1840), Great Oaks (1860), the Holden House (1849-1850) and the Dikle-Brunner House (1845).
3. Blue Springs Recreation Area
The only first-magnitude spring on the Chipola River is minutes from downtown Marianna. Nothing short of amazing, Blue Springs has been on the map for centuries, and was visited regularly by Spanish in the 1600s.
Run by Jackson County, the recreation area encompasses the head of the spring and Merritt’s Millpond, the 200-acre that the spring feeds.
I was blown away by the vivid clarity of the water, both at the spring and the encompassing basin. It’s an incredible place, whether you’re cooling down on a hot summer’s day or exploring the spring on a diving expedition.
As well as a swimming and beach area, amenities include picnic tables and basketball and volleyball courts. From the eastern shore, the view along the reservoir is astonishing, with giant bald cypresses rising from the water.
4. Hinson Conservation & Recreation Area
There’s a lot of exciting karst geology at this 225-acre property in the south of Marianna. Bounded by the Chipola River to the east, the Hinson Conservation & Recreation can be explored on a four-mile loop.
On my hike here I passed sinkholes, caves and low bluffs, all couched in wetlands, pine woods, and upland hardwood hammocks.
You can access the Chipola River Paddling Trail here, while the riverfront is gorgeous in springtime when it’s adorned with wildflowers. Among the many birds inhabiting this environment are wild turkeys, barred owls and eastern bluebirds.
5. Chipola River Kayaking
Fed by upwards of 60 springs, and with limestone bluffs and venerable bald cypresses on its banks, the Chipola River is my idea of paddling heaven.
In Marianna you’re near the north end of the treasured Chipola River Paddling Trail, running for more than 50 miles south to the town of Scott’s Ferry.
The river looks like few others in Florida, For one thing, the waters vary in tone from aquamarine to gold, in contrast to the tannin hues seen on most other watercourses in the state.
Add in the varied topography, karst formations, occasional rapids (weather dependent), and you have an utterly unique experience.
For something different you can head to Bear Paw Adventures on Spring Creek in Marianna. From here you can enjoy a relaxing four-hour tubing trip downstream on the creek and the Chipola River.
6. Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail
One of the ten oldest bridges in Florida crosses the Chipola River a short drive north of Marianna. Constructed in 1914, replacing a wooden structure from 1840, the Bellamy Bridge is steeped in folklore.
The bridge is the subject of a ghost story involving a broken promise, causing Elizabeth Jane Bellamy (d. May 11, 1837) to roam the swamplands in search of her beloved husband, Samuel (d. 1852).
He was supposed to have been buried with her at the cemetery along the trail. However, his final wish was denied because his death by suicide precluded a burial on consecrated ground.
Whatever you make of the story, the atmospheric half-mile trail passes through some truly spellbinding scenery on its way to the bridge.
7. Madison Street Park
Wandering around the downtown area you’ll come across this park, perched at the top of a rather steep slope.
With a sizable pavilion, Madison Street Park is a good place to bring lunch or a frozen treat from the nearby Southern Craft Creamery. Another amenity at this park is a splash pad, an ideal place to bring little ones at the height of summer.
In June there’s a weekly concert series here on Thursday nights, accompanied by food trucks and children’s activities. Until recently there was a farmers’ market in Madison Street Park on Saturdays. When I compiled this article there were rumors of this event returning.
8. Jackson County Visitors Center
Surely the most memorable along Lafayette St is this palatial mansion, blending Queen Anne and Classical Revival architecture. The Historic Russ House dates to the 1890s and was given its Classical Revival update in 1910.
The defining feature on the outside is a theatrical two-story wraparound porch. Inside, the Russ House is home to the Jackson County Visitors Center.
There’s a helpful member of staff at the desk, along with armfuls of maps, brochures, and travel magazines that are free for the taking. You can also do what I did and ask for a quick guided tour of the house, which is claimed to be haunted.
9. Marianna Civil War Battle Tour
One of the brochures available at the Jackson County Visitors Center recounts the progress of the Battle of Marianna.
Taking place towards the end of the Civil War on September 27, 1864 this small but significant battle was part of a Union cavalry raid into Northwest Florida.
It ended with a quarter of Marianna’s population being killed, wounded, or captured. The focus of the fighting was along Lafayette St, culminating with a bloody encounter in the cemetery of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
You can also trace the battle with the help of historical markers, while I’ll talk about the actual church building a little later.
10. Sunland Fall Festival
In the north of Marianna, by the municipal airport, the Sunland Center is a community for people with disabilities.
Home to more than 450 residents, this is set in a vast complex of buildings. Many of these structures once belonged to the WWII-era Marianna Army Air Base, which became the municipal airport.
For more than 40 years now there has been a wholesome fall celebration at the Sunland Center. Held on the last Saturday in October, this free event kicks off in the morning with a parade.
There’s live music all day long, as well as a craft fair with 100+ vendors, and activities for all ages. The festival honors the center and its staff, and is a wonderful chance for residents to mingle with the public.
11. Southern Craft Creamery
There are lots of ice cream parlors in Florida, but I haven’t found many serving a genuine, homemade product. Southern Craft Creamery in downtown Marianna is an exception.
An offshoot of Marianna’s second-generation Cindale Farms dairy farm, this company’s formula for success is a simple one. They use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible, forging lasting relationships with suppliers and customers.
You can choose from more than a dozen signature flavors, and twice as many seasonal and specialty options. The Coffee flavor is next-level, made with fresh roasted beans, while the two honey flavors (Tupelo and Wildflower) actually come from two separate farms on the Florida Panhandle.
12. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
On US 90 at the western edge of the historic district, this church has had a long and turbulent history. The original St. Luke’s, the first of four buildings, was founded in 1838 and completed in 1855. Due to structural issues it didn’t last more than a decade.
The second church burned during the Union raid on Marianna in 1864. Before the building was destroyed a Union soldier came in and retrieved the bible from the lectern. Remarkably, this book is still on display at the back of the church.
The third church lasted more than 60 years before succumbing to another fire in 1941. The current St. Luke’s is in Gothic style, with a bell rescued from its predecessor. You can download an informative self-guided tour on the church’s website.
13. Citizen’s Lodge Park
On the north side of the city is a blissful public park that had only been open a few years when I was here. A Jackson County facility, Citizen’s Lodge Park is another idyllic space on the Chipola River, in a landscape of forest and ponds.
You can make your way through the park on six different trails, between ½ mile and two miles. Dotted around are outdoor fitness stations, a gazebo, and a stage for public events.
Zigzagging across the property is a well-regarded disc golf course, laid out in 2022, with 18 holes and two tee pads on each one. In July the weekly concert series moves to this park from Madison Street Park in downtown Marianna.
14. Marianna Playhouse
For a city of only 6,000 people, I was impressed to find that Marianna has a movie theater. Needless to say, this is the only theater for more than 30 miles.
Set back from the road on Lafayette St, Marianna Cinemas had recently grown to four screens when I went to press. This was part of a complete remodeling project, which refreshed the decor and expanded the concessions.
This spot belongs to a small, family-owned chain in Florida, and is a very economical place to watch a new release. That’s especially true on Tuesdays, when shows were just $5 when I took a look.