A delightful piece of Old Florida, the seat of Polk County was founded way back in 1851. Bartow has a downtown with a new event pretty much every week, and is home to some of the state’s most beautiful residential neighborhoods.
The city’s historic districts are filled with exquisite residences built in the late 19th and early 20th century. These streets are sprinkled with magnificent live oaks, and festooned with azaleas.
Bartow is just the place to get in touch with Polk County’s history. There’s a museum at the magnificent old courthouse, while a few residences are open for tours.
Here I learned about a formerly enslaved African American who became a community leader, and an eccentric stone dealer who built the house of his dreams in Bartow in the 1920s.
So, below are my 15 things to do in and around Bartow, Florida.
1. Downtown Bartow
Florida’s second-oldest Main Street is the backbone for Bartow’s animated central commercial district.
The first thing I have to mention about downtown Bartow is just how much there is going on here all year.
I’ll talk about the bigger annual events later in my list. But I won’t even have space to mention Friday Fest, when there’s a big party on the third Friday of the month.
Downtown is anchored by the historic Old Polk County Courthouse (1908), and continues to be a place to come for dining and shopping.
Food-wise, you can choose from BBQ to pizza to Mexican, while antiques stores are prominent along Main Street.
2. Polk County History Center
At the Old Polk County Courthouse (1908) downtown, the Polk County History Center is a perfect first stop for those who want to dive into the area’s interesting history.
The historic Classical Revival courthouse itself is a key part of the museum, serving the county until 1987. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, and became a museum and genealogical library in 1998.
I really enjoyed looking around the old courtrooms from 1908 and 1926. These are complete with a jury box and judge’s bench. The museum’s exhibits are spread across more than a dozen galleries, charting local history from pre-Columbian times to the present.
You’ll see Miocene fossils, Paleo Indian dugout canoe, pioneer tools, militaria, citrus farming implements, and historic mining equipment.
3. L.B. Brown House Museum
Lawrence Bernard Brown was an African American man who was born in slavery in 1856. Through remarkable dedication, perseverance, he became one of the city’s community leaders.
Brown was a master carpenter, property owner, and builder. His private house (c. 1892) is the oldest residence of its kind in Bartow, and is now a historic site that’s open to the public.
Touring this nine-room Victorian residence, I was humbled to know that I was standing in what may be the last surviving house built by a former enslaved person in Florida.
Brown is remembered with such fondness by Bartow that there’s a festival in his name every February.
4. Historic Residential Districts
For my money, one of the most rewarding ways to spend time in Bartow is on foot, investigating the city’s old residential districts.
The good news is that Bartow is relatively compact. So, both the Northeast Bartow Residential District and the South Bartow Residential District can be seen in an hour or two.
There’s much to admire, from the dignified old live oaks with moss streaming from their branches, to the grand Revivalist and vernacular architecture.
No surprise that Bartow is a go-to for filmmakers looking for genteel Southern-style streetscapes. In that vein, your self-guided walking tour should take in Thomas Lee Wilson House at 555 East Stanford Street and “Windsweep” at 935 South Oak Avenue.
The former was the “Sultenfuss Funeral Parlor” in My Girl (1991), and the latter appeared in China Moon (1994).
5. Wonder House
Viewers of the Netflix show Amazing Interiors will have seen this unique Bartow residence in Episode 9. Open for guided tours, The Wonder House has attracted curious visitors since the Great Depression.
It was built in the 1920s by one Conrad Schuck who moved to Bartow from Pittsburgh, PA, for his health. When Schuck started excavating the plot he struck bedrock right away.
So what he did was quarry some of this stone for building material, combined with concrete reinforced with railroad rails.
The Wonder House is embellished with a lot of hand-carved details and mosaics, and abounds with oddities. One is an 8 x 10 foot fishpond, built into a third-floor balcony.
Come for a guided tour to find out more about Schuck, learn about the ongoing restoration work, and see some of the Wonder House’s innovations for yourself.
6. Bloomin’ Arts Festival
Spring in central Florida is mild, sunny, and relatively humidity-free. To me it’s the perfect time of year for fairs and festivals.
Dating back more than half a century, Bartow’s Bloomin’ Arts Festival is held annually in the first week in March. Set downtown, this celebration draws artists, craftsmen, and art aficionados from all over the country.
Though it started small, it has evolved into one of the state’s top art-related attractions, with hundreds of booths along East Main Street.
There’s a juried art competition, lots of great food and drink, kids’ activities, and even shows for quilts, cars, and RVs.
7. Front Page Brewing Company
This craft brewery opened in downtown Bartow in 2020, and has a great little plot, just off Main Street. There are patios in front and out back, as well as a set of cornhole boards.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, the taproom has something going on every night. There’s trivia on Wednesday, bingo on Thursday, and live music across the weekend.
There were 18 beers on tap when I dropped by. I’m a fan of maltier brews, so I opted for the Extra Special Bartow (Bitter). But there are beers of all styles available, from the refreshing County Seat Light Lager to the hop-forward 9am IPA.
You can snack on pretzels and beer-infused jerky, and there’s almost always a food truck outside.
8. Mary Holland Park
Mingling with the public library and civic center in the south of Bartow is a beautiful public park with a lakeside setting.
Encompassing almost 120 acres, Mary Holland Park is named for the wife of Bartow-born 28th Florida Governor, Spessard Holland (1892-1971).
There are three interconnected lakes at Mary Holland Park, and on the shores are grassy spaces with picnic tables and handsome old trees for shade. With several little bridges on the water, this place is an idyllic spot for a gentle stroll or bike ride.
For amenities you’ll find pavilions, two playgrounds, a dog park, a campground, and a skatepark.
9. Bartow Airbase History Museum
Bartow’s Executive Airport has an interesting story to tell at this small but worthwhile museum.
The Bartow Air Base Museum displays an impressive collection of memorabilia from the WWII era, when the airport was in the service of the Army Air Corps.
Then, up until closing in 1961, the facility was a USAF primary flight training facility for the Air Training Command (ATC).
I was completely absorbed by the exhibits, which include fragments of a P-51 Mustang that crashed into Lake Hancock in 1943.
There are also yearbooks from the training classes in the 1950s, as well as uniforms, and copies of the base’s monthly newspaper, the Eaglet.
10. Bartow Golf Course
There are dozens of golf courses to choose from in the area, but this municipal track is the most convenient and cost effective.
The course’s history stretches back a century to when it was a lonely 9-hole facility. In the mid-1920s, it was expanded to include 18-holes, designed in the links style by the renowned course architect Donald Ross.
On my round, something that really appealed to me about Bartow Golf Course was the parkland setting. There’s a total absence of residential development, and a lot of wildlife all around.
The landscape is mature, and I adore the many old oak trees, draped with spanish moss, and the contoured greens.
11. SyFy Bartow
For close to a decade, Bartow has put on a free, family-friendly festival celebrating popular science fiction.
Fans of IPs like Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek flock downtown for this free one-day event in February.
Each year brings a different theme, and the city is awash with reenactments, dozens of vendors selling sci-fi memorabilia, and awesome exhibits of movie props.
There’s live music, costume contests, a lot of art, a car show, food and all kinds of endearing silliness, like superhero karaoke. The year I attended, there was a giant contingent of Mandalorians from the famous Disney+ show.
12. Fort Fraser Trail
Almost eight miles long, this paved multi-use trail runs from the north of Bartow into the neighboring city of Lakeland.
The Fort Fraser Trail is named for a former military installation, erected in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. The path is on the corridor of the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which was laid down in the 1880s.
There are interpretive signs along the route, delving into topics like citrus growing, pioneer life and the hydrology of the Peace River.
The best part for me was the stretch near the western shore of Lake Hancock. Branching off the trail here are spurs leading down to the lakeshore.
13. Mosaic Peace River Park
Phosphate mining has been an important part of the local economy since the 1880s. In fact, many of the lakes around Bartow are remnants of open-pit mines.
A few minutes south of downtown you can visit a mine that closed in the 1980s and has since been reclaimed by nature. Managed by Polk County, the Mosaic Peace River Park has almost eight miles of trails on the west bank of the Peace River.
The most memorable part for me was the mile-long boardwalk, crossing a beautiful swath of cypress floodplain forest on the way to the riverbank.
14. Monthly Antique Market
In Bartow’s litany of wonderful public events is an antique fair, setting up along the 300 block of East Main Street every second Saturday in the month.
Open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm, the Monthly Antique Market is another gathering that infuses extra life into downtown Bartow.
Every edition there’s a long line of booths to browse on the sidewalk. On my last look there was a large assortment of furniture, collectibles, charming vintage-style home decor, and a lot of Mid-Century pieces.
15. Homeland Heritage Park
Over in Homeland, this historical attraction is little more than ten minutes from Bartow. The Homeland Heritage Park preserves a settler-era community, with structures going back deep into the 19th century.
There’s a schoolhouse (1878), the Homeland Methodist Church (1887), and a log cabin and barn (1888).
The Raulerson House (1890) is the park’s main attraction and gives you an idea of the lifestyle of wealthier settlers in the late 19th century.
Unfortunately, I came on a day when the buildings were closed. Still, I got to spend some time wandering the site, and studying the informative signs in the kiosks.
The church is a romantic venue for weddings, while the park holds a variety of events and programs year round.