Located in northern Florida’s Marion County, the city of Ocala was incorporated in 1869 and currently ranks as the state’s 54th most populous city, with a population of just more than 63,000 residents.
I adore the scenery in this part of the state, known as ‘horse country’ and full of grand live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
The city lies south of Gainesville along Interstate 75 and is almost equidistant to 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 covered with undeveloped forests and natural beauty so is a hotspot for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts like me.
So check out my 15 favorite things to do in and around Ocala, Florida.
1. Appleton Museum of Art
Set 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.
What I love about the museum is its sense of place. As well as collections from Europe to Asia there’s a lot of art from right here in Central Florida, and I got an idea of how culture has progressed in this part of the world.
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.
Something special to me is the 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.
I was thrilled to see the evolution of Garlits’ innovative Swap Rat dragster over the years, beginning with Swamp Rat I, built in his home garage in 1957.
Located on SW 16th Avenue in Ocala, most guests end up spending two hours or more to take it all in. Pets are welcome on a leash, so I visited with my pup.
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.
This property includes portions dedicated to wildlife and environmental preservation, timber production, and outdoor recreation.
There are nearly 50 miles of trails, and many of the forest’s paths are paved, making them convenient ways to explore the natural world, even for those traveling with little ones.
If you don’t mind making the trip, I recommend exploring the caves in the southwestern corner of the park. I spent a whole day looking around Danger Cave. Dames Cave, and Sick Bat Cave.
Due to its size, my advice is to familiarize yourself 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.
I have to admit, I did lose it when I saw the prehistoric displays, especially the intact mastodon skeleton, which is a real showpiece for the museum.
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.
I took the Big Cliff Canyon tour, which had nine zip lines, the longest of which was an exciting 1,100-foot ride across Lost Spring Lake.
If you’d rather try something different, rappelling, kayaking 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 munching on giant turkey legs. The knife throwers, jugglers, and dancers are big hits too, especially with the little ones.
For me, the heart of the event is the lively marketplace, with artisans selling quality jewelry, hand-blown glassware, stone and wood carving, leather crafts, and much more.
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 importing 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 pricey 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.
I was pressed for time, so went on the less detailed Walking Tour, admiring those mares, foals and stallions while strolling in the shade of the live oaks.
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.
I caught a performance of Outside Mullingar during my time in Ocala, and was surprised by how moving I found it.
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. Ocala Downtown Market
I have a real soft spot for farmers’ markets, and there’s a great one in Ocala on Saturdays 9am to 2pm. Located a few blocks from Ocala Downtown Square, the Downtown Market is a cocktail of commerce, culture, and cuisine, not to mention community.
Under a great big pavilion you’ve got a wealth of Florida-grown fresh produce, accompanied by craftspeople, artisans, and a whole selection of food trucks to tempt you.
The pavilion has giant overhead fans to keep the heat down in summer, as well as restrooms, a playground, and a permanent on-site beverage vendor, Buzz & Grind, for coffee, wine and craft beer.
11. Sholom Park
I can’t get enough of this privately owned botanical garden on Ocala’s southwest side. Founded in 2004, Sholom Park is home to more than 100 species of plants and trees, and 100+ species of fauna.
With an appropriate name that means ‘peace’ in Hebrew, the 44-acre park is fully accessible, and has a rose garden, an olive tree promenade, a prairie area, two miles of trails, and a labyrinth.
My ideal spot to take a break with a book is the pond, with a fountain and a lot of life, from koi to turtles.
12. Farm Tours of Ocala
If you want a deeper insight into Ocala’s rich horse-breeding culture then there’s a number of other working farms around the town that are happy to welcome visitors.
For my money, the best way to see a few in one afternoon is on the Horse Capital of the World Tour, via Farm Tours of Ocala.
Your time will be divided between a scenic drive through the local wooded scenery, picking up interesting details along the way, and compelling visits to farms that have bred champion horses.
The experience changes by the season, but there’s always something special in store, whether you’re treating a thoroughbred to a carrot, meeting foals, or watching competition horses at full speed.
13. The Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention
Located on South Main Street in nearby Gainesville, The Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention is all about inspiring and shaping the next generation of inventors, entrepreneurs, and visionaries.
Although it’s only been open a few years, the museum has earned a reputation for its unique and stimulating exhibits and programs.
One that caught my eye is the Junior Inventor Night, rolling together science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM), by following in the footsteps of history’s great innovators.
For parents with budding business moguls and inventors at home, there’s no better place to foster relevant learning than the Cade Museum.
14. 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 sink is a treasure trove of fossils, helping researchers document Florida’s natural history. And, in a land of sandy pine forest, it was an amazing experience to suddenly find myself in the rainforest microhabitat that fills this landform.
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.
15. 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 enslaved people. To get an interesting and poignant insight into the lives of the owners and enslaved people 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.