The baking soda manufacturer, Henry Addison DeLand (1834-1908) founded this beautiful city in 1882. He also established Stetson University here, and his intention was for DeLand to become the Athens of Florida.
That nickname has made it into the 21st century, and I don’t think it’s a bad description. Stetson University has a picture-perfect campus, just a couple of blocks north of one of Florida’s prettiest and most dynamic downtowns.
If the name Stetson sounds familiar it does come from the hats. The hatter, John B. Stetson was friends with DeLand and wintered here. He was a benefactor of the university, and built one of Florida’s finest Victorian mansions in the city.
1. Downtown DeLand
The epitome of a healthy central business district in a small town, DeLand has been held up as an example of how to get it right since the 1980s
All of the ingredients are here, from historic architecture to community events like a farmers’ market on Friday evenings.
There are close to 70 buildings in the Downtown DeLand historic district. I love the dainty painted brick storefronts and elegant overhangs.
Along several blocks of N Woodland Boulevard are specialty boutiques, antiques stores, museums, and restaurants for a world-spanning array of cuisines.
In the mood for bagels, Thai, fro-yo, pho, brick-oven pizza, gyros, or tapas? You’ll find them all here.
2. Stetson Mansion
Known as The House That Hats Built, the Stetson Mansion (1886) was the winter home of John B. Stetson (1830-1906), the inventor of the cowboy hat. You could also call him the first snowbird.
A sublime monument to the gilded age, this is the largest and most opulent residence to have been built in the state before 1900. Over the years, it’s hosted several national and international dignitaries, including European royalty.
I’m amazed by the ingenuity of this place. The Stetson Mansion was Florida’s first home with electricity, and had a call bell system, and steam heat. Among the opulent fixtures are 1,000 panes of antique glass, and 16 different parquet wood patterns.
This is still a private residence, and can only be visited by guided tour, between November through April.
3. Stetson University
Go a few blocks north of downtown DeLand and you’ll be at Stetson University. For me, the campus is best summed up as a New England university transplanted to Central Florida. So instead of maples and beeches there are live oaks and palms.
You have to take a look around, either on a guided tour or at your own speed. What you’ll see is the oldest ensemble of education buildings in the state. The campus is important enough to be designated an historic district.
Among the ten key buildings is DeLand Hall (c. 1884), Florida’s oldest-surviving building still used for higher education.
I’d suggest allowing some time for The Gillespie Museum. Dedicated to natural history, this museum has one of the most important historic mineral collections in the Southeast.
4. De León Springs State Park
DeLand is in a part of Florida with natural springs bubbling from the ground at almost every turn. One of the most beautiful is just 15 minutes from downtown.
I do have to say that this isn’t actually the Fountain of Youth. The park was named after Ponce de León as a tourism gambit in the 1880s.
All the same, De León Springs State Park is extraordinary, with more than 6,000 years of human habitation. The water rises at a rate of over 20 million gallons a day, at a temperature of 72° F all year. In winter manatees make their way inland to hang out in these waters.
On a summer’s day you could cool off at the swimming hole, and hike in mysterious subtropical woods with ancient bald cypresses. You can book a pontoon boat tour, or go independent and rent a kayak or paddle boat.
5. DeLand Fall Festival of the Arts
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, one of the region’s most anticipated arts shows transforms downtown DeLand.
First held in 1992, the DeLand Fall Festival Of The Arts features close to 200 juried artists from across the country. You can browse and purchase art in a range of mediums, from painting to ceramics, printing, glassmaking and woodwork.
Most rewarding for me is getting to talk to these artists and finding out what inspires them. There will be plenty of food, drink, and entertainment on hand to complement the fantastic art, all paired with an award-winning downtown area.
6. Museum of Art – DeLand
This museum is operated by a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing world-class contemporary art to the community.
The museum has been around since 1951 and offers rotating exhibits, educational programming, talks, artists’ workshops, and a wide array of other events.
There are normally two concurrent exhibitions, running for about three months at a time. Some recently featured artists with international profiles are Roberto Matta, Clyde Butcher, John Mellencamp, and Sandro Chia.
One cool event happening when I was in town was a poetry competition. Writers had to produce an original work inspired by one of 40 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection.
7. The Reptile Discovery Center
As long as you don’t get the willies, this is a great place to spend a few hours out of the sun. At the Reptile Discovery Center you’ll have a rare chance to get up-close-and-personal with a diversity of snakes and lizards—in a safe environment.
The center’s residents include some notorious and misunderstood snakes like Burmese pythons and king cobras, which are the world’s largest venomous serpents. A couple of new arrivals when I visited were a taipan and a rare white rattlesnake.
The center features regularly scheduled live venom extraction shows, and an outdoor trail with gators, lizards, and tortoises.
8. DeLand Naval Air Station Museum
An advanced training facility during World War II, DeLand Naval Air Station operated between 1942 and 1946.
After the war, the station reverted to its civilian aviation role, but its military history hasn’t been lost. The museum now on the site preserves this heritage.
There’s a variety of exhibits containing equipment, photographs, uniforms, and other memorabilia. Another highlight for me was the small collection of historic aircraft.
Most of these postdate the air station, but are fascinating all the same. You’ll see a WII-era Avenger torpedo bomber, an F-14 Tomcat (the kind made famous by Top Gun), and a H-13 Sioux MASH helicopter, built during the Korean War.
9. The Volusia County Fair and Youth Show
Source: Volusia County Fair & Youth Show / FacebookVolusia County Fair and Youth Show
The Volusia County Fairgrounds are on the east side of the city and host events all year. The fair itself takes place across ten days at the start of November, and brings in people from all over Florida.
This has been a tradition since 1923, and still has agriculture at its soul. Which means a host of youth-oriented livestock competitions and demonstrations. Volusia County residents can enter a whole spectrum of categories, from horticulture to art.
These are accompanied by midway games, rides, music, and numerous vendors. I definitely won’t say no to fair food, be it funnel cake, turkey legs, or deep-fried Reese’s cups.
10. The Athens Theatre
Looking west along Indiana Avenue, your eye will surely be caught by this palatial building, my favorite in DeLand. In a grand Italian Renaissance style, the Athens Theatre is a rare example of a preserved movie palace in Central Florida.
Designed by prolific Orlando architect Murry S. King (1870-1927), the Athens Theatre opened its doors in 1922. The fine brick and stone facade was covered over in the 1950s. Then, after withering for decades, the building closed in the 1990s.
A long-term restoration brought the glory years back, and the venue reopened as a performing arts stage in 2009.
On the menu now are productions by the Athens Theatre Company, a lot of concerts, live comedy, dance performances, youth workshops, and occasional movies.
11. DeLand Artisan Alley Farmers Market
Whether it’s hot and sunny or blustery and rainy, the DeLand Artisan Alley Farmers Market is open.
Unlike most farmers markets that are only open in the morning and early afternoon, it takes place on Friday evenings from 6 until 9. That makes it the perfect place to unwind and stretch your legs after a long work week.
The setting is a walkable backstreet in the historic downtown area, and the 80+ vendors are carefully selected. There’s local organic produce of course, as well as baked goods, salsas, spices, honey, and pickles.
On a hot summer evening the ice cream sandwich truck really hits the spot. As with all the best markets, you can enjoy some live music as you shop.
12. St. Francis Trail
One of the vast protected areas close to DeLand is the 607-square-mile Ocala National Forest. Within ten minutes of downtown you’ll find a way into this wilderness at the St. Francis River Trailhead.
Without straying too far from the city, you’ll venture into deep woods with grand live oaks and cabbage palms.
Walking here, I was amazed to learn that there was a busy port town on this part of the St. Johns River in the late 19th century. You would never know it today. Most of the trail is only moderately strenuous, so it’s appropriate for most ages and levels of physical ability.
13. The Edmunds Center
Set on the scenic campus of Stetson University, The Edmunds Center is a multi-use venue holding 5,000 spectators. This arena is home court for the university’s men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams.
It’s been open since 1974 and is named after a former university president. Though the center is getting up there in years, it has undergone several recent upgrades.
Everything, from court-side seating to the video boards, had just been improved when I went to press.
Now, as well as Stetson Hatters’ games, the center has hosted a mind-boggling array of stars in its time, from Steve Martin to Don McLean.
14. Bill Dreggors Park
DeLand has an extensive park network, offering locals and visitors a variety of free and convenient activity options. Bill Dreggors Park is named after a local man who advocated for the preservation of Florida’s history.
Amenities include a paved walking trail, four picnic pavilions, and an impressive community-built playground. Something I adore here is the sensory butterfly garden, designed for the visually and physically impaired.
Also noteworthy is a preserved hospital building from 1920. Within are exhibits on common medical procedures in eras past, a veteran’s memorial, and a number of other cultural and historical displays.
15. Volusia County Farmers Market
It’s quite possible that central Florida has more farmers’ markets than it does farmers. I guess it’s no wonder considering the area’s nurturing climate, abundant sun, and fertile soil.
The Volusia County Farmers’ Market is the county’s largest and takes place every Wednesday from 7 AM until 2 PM.
Dating back to 1975, the market is conveniently located at the fairgrounds, and is as much a flea market as a farmers’ market.
You can find everything from fresh seasonal produce and prepared food items to arts and crafts, vintage clothing, and housewares. If you need it or want it, you’ll find it here, so swing by and take a look.