Located in central Florida’s Polk County, Bartow is about 40 miles east of Tampa and is relatively equidistant between the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Bartow was founded in the 1850s and is named after a Confederate Army officer who was one of the first southerners to die in the Civil War.
The town and surrounding area are full of historic buildings, quaint southern charm, and classic architecture. Though the pace may be a bit slow for some, it’s near enough to many of the state’s most popular attractions to keep things interesting.
Below are 15 things to do in and are Bartow, Florida.
1. Polk County History Center
Located on East Main Street in Bartow’s historic downtown, the Polk County History Center is a perfect first-stop for those who don’t want to waste any time diving headfirst into the area’s interesting history.
The center is part museum and part visitor’s center. The knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff know lots of interesting things about the town’s founding and development, and can help you find fun stuff to do in the area. There’s even an extensive genealogical library onsite.
The center is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but open every other day from 9 AM until 5 PM.
2. L.B. Brown House and Museum
L. B. Brown was a black man who was born as a slave in 1856. Through remarkable dedication, perseverance, and some fascinating twists of fate, he became not only a free man, but one of the town’s most successful craftsmen.
Brown became a master carpenter, property owner, and builder. His private house is the oldest residence of its kind in Bartow and is now a historic site that’s open to the public.
The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a tribute not just to Brown, but the contributions and plight of African Americans in general.
3. Annual SyFy Saturday
For fans of Doctor Who and Star Trek who fear that their trip to central Florida will be void of any science fiction related events, there’s hope; the small and traditional town of Bartow has hosted a SyFy Saturday event for the last six years.
Each year, the event features a different theme and is full of costumes, reenactments, replica television and movie props, and geeked-out revelers that look like they’ve fallen out of the pages of a Jules Verne novel.
Costumes and makeup are optional, and even for those who don’t get the whole sci-fi thing, it’s a family-friendly event with lots of kid-friendly activities that’s worth a look.
4. Bartow’s Bloomin’ Arts Festival
Spring in central Florida is mild, sunny, and relatively humidity-free; it’s the perfect time of year to be frolicking in the great outdoors.
Bartow’s Bloomin’ Arts Festival is held annually in the first week in March and 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 and includes hundreds of vendors and artists.
There’s a juried art competition, lots of great food and drink, kid’s activities, and even quilt, car, and RV shows.
It’s a fun and iconic Bartow event that really shouldn’t be missed.
5. Bartow’s Municipal Airport Museum
Though Barstow’s Municipal Airport won’t ever be confused with LaGuardia or Heathrow, it’s still one of those off-the-beaten-path attractions that’s worth a look for history and aviation minded travelers that have a bit of free time on their hands.
Officially called the Bartow Air Base Museum, the facility is about halfway between Bartow and nearby Eagle Lake. It features a small but impressive collection of memorabilia from the World War II-era when the airport was in the service of the Army Air Corps.
At that time, it was a cadet flight training facility. It’s now a popular destination for ex-military personnel, pilots, and aviation buffs.
6. Bartow Golf Course
There are dozens of golf courses to choose from around Bartow, and the aptly named Bartow Golf Course is one of the most popular, convenient, and economical.
The course’s history stretches back a century to when it was a lonely 9-hole facility, but in the mid-‘20s, it was expanded to include 18-holes that were built like the links-style courses that have always been popular in England.
The par-72 course plays between 5,200 and 6,600 yards – depending on which tees you choose to play from and the location of the holes on the greens – so it’s appropriate for most ages and skill levels.
7. Cookie Jar Bakeshop
Previous guests to the Cookie Jar Bakeshop have stated that once they walked in the door and inhaled the pleasant aromas of baking sweets and gazed at the display cases, they knew they were going to go home a few pounds heavier.
Featuring fresh, made-daily cookies, cakes, pies and pastries, the Cookie Jar Bakeshop has been around for more than a decade and is a popular destination for locals and travelers in dire need of something to satisfy their sweet tooth.
They offer hot and cold drinks and sandwiches as well as their baked goods.
8. Alafia River State Park
Located to the southwest of Bartow in Hillsborough County, Alafia River State Park is comprised of more than 6,000 acres that offer nature and outdoor-minded visitors a variety of recreation options.
The park was once the property of a mining company that donated the land to the state when it was no longer commercially viable. Now, the park’s centerpiece is Hurrah Lake.
Fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, and picnicking are popular park activities. For those who’d like to spend a night or two under the stars, there are dozens of individual campsites, and many of them include water and electricity.
9. Homeland Heritage Park
Located in the nearby town of Homeland, Homeland Heritage Park is another area historical attraction that’s focused on promoting and preserving the area’s past.
Homeland Heritage Park is a historic, settler-era community that’s history stretches back to the mid-19th century. It includes a schoolhouse, church, and log cabin.
The Raulerson House is the park’s main attraction and gives visitors an idea of the lifestyle of those hearty souls who settled in the area back when it was rough, dangerous and unforgiving.
The park holds a variety of special events and programs periodically, so check out their website before making the trip.
10. The Hollis Garden
At just slightly more than an acre, Hollis Garden in Lakeland isn’t one of the state’s largest botanical gardens, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in splendor.
The garden’s areas include a variety of tropical and subtropical flowers, plants, and trees in addition to fountains, koi ponds, grottos, and a promenade that winds its way around the picturesque lake.
The garden features thousands of species of plant life and is named after the family who donated the land to the city.
Hollis Garden is a free attraction and is near enough to other Lakeland and Tampa attractions to make it convenient to see as part of a multiple-stop day trip.
11. Edward Medard Conservation Park
Though it’s officially called Edward Medard Conservation Park, many locals refer to it as Turkey Creek Park. Regardless of what you choose to call it, it’s been a popular recreation destination for central Florida residents for generations.
The park’s 700-acre reservoir is its crown jewel and was created when the phosphate mines that were abandoned in the ‘60s were filled with water.
According to some statistics, the park attracts nearly 500,000 visitors annually, so it often gets crowded during peak times.
Disc golf, beach volleyball, paddle-boarding, and fishing are popular activities, and there’s a towering observation platform that offers spectacular views of the reservoir.
12. Polk Museum of Art
Central Florida’s Polk County is more known for its historical museums than it is for its art and galleries, but the Polk Museum of Art features a world-class collection and is part of the esteemed Smithsonian Institute.
The museum’s collection includes works from titans of the art world like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso and totals more than 2,000 pieces in all.
Far from being just another stuffy repository of aged artwork, the museum’s staff offer a number of community outreach events and programs throughout the year; many of them are geared toward children.
The museum is located on East Palmetto Street in Lakeland.
13. Busch Gardens Tampa
For traveling families who prefer to spend their time at one site that offers a variety of entertainment options, there’s no better choice than Busch Gardens Tampa on North Malcolm McKinley Drive.
It’s one of those destinations that really doesn’t need an introduction, but suffice it to say that for those traveling with children, it’s one of the Sunshine State’s premier attractions.
Part zoo and part amusement park, it has been known to keep families engaged for days on end.
From live entertainment and lodging to dining and shopping – there’s really nothing you can’t do at Busch Gardens Tampa.
14. Explorations V Children’s Museum
Located on North Kentucky Avenue in nearby Lakeland, the Explorations V Children’s Museum has been wowing little ones and their parents since 1991. It’s an especially popular attraction for those visiting in the stifling summer months when the heat and humidity can be oppressive, to say the least.
The museum is full of interactive exhibits that not only entertain but educate. They’re spread over multiple floors with distinct areas for different ages groups.
The museum’s activities include staff-led events that promote teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, and motor skill use. They’re held regularly, so check their schedule online before heading out.
15. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
Though it’s often overlooked as an art form, photography has been a unique form of artistic expression for decades. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is dedicated to preserving and promoting some of its best examples.
The museum was founded in 2001 and is located in Tampa’s trendy Waterfront Arts District. It features both historic and contemporary photographic collections that tell a variety of stories.
Permanent and temporary collections from nationally and internationally known photographers are included. For those considering photography as a hobby, they offer a number of instructional and educational courses that are appropriate for both children and adults.