Located in northern Florida’s Marion County, the city of Ocala was incorporated in 1869 and currently ranks as the state’s 45th most populous city, with a population of just more than 57,000 residents.
It lies south of Gainesville along Interstate 75 and is relatively equidistant from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, making many of the state’s most popular attractions easily accessible for those who don’t mind spending some time in the car.
The area is particularly well-known for its undeveloped forests and natural beauty so is a hotspot for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Below are 15 things do in and around Ocala, Florida.
1. Appleton Museum of Art
Located on East Silver Springs Boulevard on the College of Central Florida’s Ocala Campus, the Appleton Museum of Art is one of the region’s premier fine art destinations, and one of those slightly off the beaten path community resources that shouldn’t be passed up, especially by artsy travelers.
Featuring a vast collection of traditional and contemporary art from all over the world, the museum is open year-round and offers a variety of instructional and educational classes, workshops, and lectures throughout the year.
College campuses are great places to explore for value-minded travelers, so check the College of Central Florida’s website to see what’ll be going on when you’ll be in the area.
2. Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest is one of the state’s most popular natural destinations and offers visitors a vast array of year-round activity options, including kayaking, camping, fishing, and wildlife photography and viewing.
Though it can get hot in the summer and mildly cold in the winter, the weather is almost always conducive to being outside.
The park features a variety of cool water-fed springs like Alexander, Salt, and Silver Glen Springs, all of which are favorite swimming attractions during the hot and humid summer months.
Keep in mind that some activities like fishing require licenses, so get one before you go if you plan to wet a line.
3. Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and International Drag Racing Hall of Fame
Known as ‘Big Daddy’ to his loyal fans, Don Garlits is often referred to as the ‘Father of Drag Racing,’ and had an unrivaled career that spanned four decades.
During that time, he compiled an enviable collection of titles and championships that totaled nearly 150; as such, he is in a class all by himself.
The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and International Drag Racing Hall of Fame have been open since the mid-’70s. Their collections include hundreds of vehicles, exhibits, and historical items spread over two buildings.
Located on SW 16th Avenue in Ocala, most guests end up spending two hours or more to take it all in.
4. Withlacoochee State Forest
Though it’s not quite as well-known as some of Florida’s other state and national forests, Withlacoochee State Forest happens to be the Sunshine State’s third largest state forest and includes portions dedicated to wildlife and environmental preservation, timber production, and outdoor recreation.
Including nearly 50 miles of trails, many of the forest’s paths are paved, making them convenient ways to explore the natural world, even for those traveling with little ones.
Due to its size, it’s a good idea for guests to familiarize themselves with the land’s layout before heading out; this can be done online or at the visitor’s center.
5. Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center
Featuring admission that’s less expensive than a soda and bag of chips, the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center is one of those rare attractions that engages and entertains visitors while educating them too.
The museum and center’s exhibits touch on animals, the natural world, and the area’s rich Native American cultures, namely the Seminole Indians.
The facility is located on NE 58th Avenue in Ocala, and during the week it’s closed to the public, as this time is reserved for local school children.
Public access is granted on the weekends and costs just a few bucks; children under six get in free.
6. Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours
Zip lining has become a popular activity in recent years, and for those who don’t let towering heights fluster them, there’s really no better way to get a bird’ s-eye-view of the landscape than by dangling from a thin cable hundreds of feet in the air.
Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours feature a variety of lines of varying heights. For those who’ve never tried this exhilarating form of recreation, fear not; every participant gets an orientation and all the safety gear they’ll need before heading out.
If you’d rather try something new, rappelling and horseback excursions are offered too.
7. Hoggetowne Medieval Faire
Featuring a variety of costumed wenches, knights, and royalty, the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire has been going strong for more than three decades and takes place in late January and early February every year.
The Faire is full of old-world activities like jousting, falconry, and consuming undercooked meat. The knife throwers, jugglers, and dancers are big hits too, especially with the little ones.
There are plenty of amusement park-style rides and games that are fun and appropriate for visitors of all ages. The cost of admission is relatively inexpensive, so mark it on your calendar and get ready to take a trip into the past.
8. Gypsy Gold Horse Farm
Located on SW 8th Avenue in Ocala, Gypsy Gold Horse Farm traces its roots back to the mid-’90s, when a trip to England convinced a local couple that their future lay in a Florida horse farm.
They ended up exporting more than a dozen horses from England to the States. Since then, the farm’s scope has expanded; it is now home to an officially recognized breed of horses called Gypsy Vanner.
Though the animals are on the pricy side, the good news is that you don’t need to actually buy one to appreciate them. The farm offers a variety of tour and activity options for horse and farm lovers, so check out their website for details.
9. Ocala Civic Theatre
The Ocala Civic Theatre is one of those community resource gems that’s often overlooked by all but the savviest, most value-minded travelers.
Featuring a variety of year-round productions that include musicals, drama, and live music, the theater generally offers 12 productions per year; they host many visiting productions as well.
Located on East Silver Springs Boulevard in Ocala, in addition to its performing arts, the center offers educational and instructional courses and programs.
Tickets to individual shows are available online, as are season passes, which are the best value for those who’ll be in the area for a while.
10. Union Street Downtown Farmer’s Market
Taking place every Wednesday from 4 until 7 PM, year-round, rain or shine, The Union Street Farmer’s Market has been around for more than two decades. Though its beginnings were humble, it’s grown into an impressive group of farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs, who offer a variety of products you may not find elsewhere.
The market’s venue is the Bo Diddley Community Plaza in downtown Gainesville. In addition to a fantastic selection of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, visitors will also find jewelry, arts and crafts, prepared food items, and tasty baked goods.
Most of the items are locally grown and produced, so supporting the vendors is a great way to support farmers and small business people.
11. The Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention
Located on South Main Street in nearby Gainesville, The Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention is focused on providing a creative spark for visitors with unique ideas. Although it’s only been open for a year, it’s already got quite a reputation as being a unique and stimulating attraction.
One of its most popular offerings is its Early Entrepreneurs Program, which gives children skills that are highly regarded in the business world but often overlooked by most school curriculums.
For parents with budding business moguls and inventors at home, there’s no better place to foster relevant learning than the Cade Museum.
12. Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park is one of northern Florida’s most unique natural attractions. Its most popular element is a giant sinkhole that plunges more than 100 feet into the earth. The resulting protected environment is home to a mini rainforest supporting a variety of plants and animals that have adapted to the partially subterranean world.
The park entrance is located just off Millhopper Road, and the visitor’s center is a great place to stop before heading out on your own.
There’s a boardwalk that spans the hole’s perimeter, and ranger-led tours are available for inquisitive visitors every Saturday.
13. Haile Homestead
Though cotton is still a big agricultural product in Florida, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was one of the state’s most significant economic drivers.
Sadly, most of the labor back then was supplied by slaves. To get an interesting and poignant insight into the lives of the owners and slaves on a real cotton farm, there’s no better place to check out than the Haile Homestead on SW Archer Road in Gainesville.
The homestead was built in the 1850s, and some of its most interesting features are its Talking Walls, which contain writings detailing the lives of those who called the homestead home.
Guided tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays.
14. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
With such an abundance of sun, rain, and warm weather, it’s no wonder Florida is home to so many botanical gardens. For those visiting the Ocala and Gainesville areas, the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens are the most popular.
Featuring dozens of distinct cultivated gardens, the facility includes miles of easily traversed pathways full of shaded seating areas and gazebos that are the perfect places to relax with a refreshing drink and take in the natural splendor.
The gardens are at their most beautiful during the spring and early summer months and are particularly popular for the Spring Garden Festival that’s held every March.
15. Lubee Bat Conservancy
Truth be told, most people find bats pretty eerie and even downright gross, but they’re amazing animals that play a vital role in ecosystems the world over. Learning about them is one way to gain a new perspective on these adorable flying mammals.
The Lubee Bat Conservancy is located on NW 192nd Avenue in Gainesville and has been a pioneer in the effort to protect these amazing creatures and the habitats in which they reside.
In October, they host the Florida Bat Festival, which is full of interesting exhibits and fun activities appropriate for the whole family, regardless of squeamishness.