15 Best Things to Do in Sanford (FL)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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At the southern terminus of Amtrak’s 855-mile Auto Train, Sanford is one of the oldest incorporated cities in Florida, in a beautiful setting on the south shore of Lake Monroe. 

This sweeping body of water is at the head of navigation on the picturesque St. John’s River, and Sanford’s waterfront harmonizes perfectly with the lake. 

During my stay in the city, I was never far from the lake, idling along the RiverWalk or setting off on cruises and sailing trips.

Downtown Sanford is simply gorgeous, with tall oaks and brick-lined streets, complemented by tons of dining options and electric entertainment and nightlife. 

Below are my 15 things to do in and around Sanford, Florida.

1. Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical GardensSource: KLiK Photography / shutterstock
Central Florida Zoo And Botanical Gardens

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens are the Sanford area’s most popular destinations for those interested in enjoying the natural world in all its splendor.

Conveniently located just off Interstate 4 near Orlando, the zoo and botanical gardens can trace their histories back to the early ’20s and have been at their current locations since the mid-’70s.

With nearly 400 animals and a network of cultivated gardens, this spot kept me and my loved ones entertained for the better part of a day.

Parking is included in the cost of admission, and same-day reentry is allowed with ticket receipt.

2. St. Johns Rivership Company

Source: anoldent / Flickr
St. Johns Rivership Company

Measuring more than 100 feet and powered by safe and powerful diesels instead of dangerous steam engines, the St. Johns River Company’s flagship Barbara-Lee is the only vessel of its kind on the St. Johns River.

The boat was originally built in the ’80s but received an extensive overhaul in the last decade. In many ways, stepping aboard is like taking a step back in time.

With its traditional appointments, massive paddlewheel, and five decks, the ship can hold nearly 200 guests at a time. For my money, you can’t beat a rivership tour for amazing views and intriguing local history.

The live entertainment has no right to be this good either.

3. Buster’s Bistro

Buster’s BistroSource: Buster's Bistro / Facebook
Buster’s Bistro

I don’t know about you, but Belgium isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Sanford. But maybe that should change, thanks to Buster’s Bistro, which has become a true local institution.

What you get is a menu that balances heartiness with finesse, in true Belgian style. Think, fish ‘n’ chips with Stella Artois-battered cod, or Belgian-style meatloaf draped with a Bordeaux and cherry reduction.

Beer is paramount at any Belgian bistro, and there’s a wide choice of Dubbels, Tripels, Lambic beers and more.

There’s a bustle at Busters every night of the week, with live international sports on big-screen TVs, live music on Friday, DJ sets on Saturdays, trivia on Tuesdays, and a multitude of community events.

4. Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center

Wayne Densch Performing Arts CenterSource: Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center / Facebook
Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center

Located on South Magnolia Avenue in Sanford, the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center offers the community an array of performing art options, including plays, musicals, films, and concerts.

The historic theater was built in 1923, and though it features modern lighting and acoustics, its modest size gives visitors an intimate experience unavailable at larger contemporary venues in more urban areas.

As a fan of B movies and classics, the theatre is one of my haunts in Sanford, and I recently swallowed my pride and joined in at a Sound of Music sing-along.

The best way to keep abreast of their offerings and what’s on their calendar of events is to check out their Facebook page periodically, or for those technically challenged, give them a call.

5. U-SAIL of Central Florida

U-SAIL Of Central FloridaSource: U-SAIL of Central Florida / Facebook
U-SAIL Of Central Florida

With some of the state’s most scenic waters, the Lake Monroe is a big asset for Sanford.

A variety of tour options are available to explore the lake and the St. John’s River. But if, like me, you’ve always wanted to try your hand at sailing, U-SAIL of Central Florida is just the place to start.

Employing trained captains and teachers with decades of experience and a fleet of boats of varying sizes, it’s a one-of-a-kind facility, consistently ranked among the best sailing instruction businesses in the country.

Find them at 531 North Palmetto Avenue in Sanford.

6. Sanford Museum

Sanford MuseumSource: Reg Garner / Facebook
Sanford Museum

There’s nothing I love more than stumbling upon a free attraction, especially when it’s an educational one as well.

Since 1957, Sanford Museum has been the city’s most complete repository of all things related to local history, culture, and the economy. It’s open every day except Sunday and Monday.

Items on display include historic photos, documents, and first-hand accounts of life in years past, as well as a variety of items related to the nearby Naval Air Station.

7. Limo Cycle Tours

Limo Cycle ToursSource: Limo Cycle Tours / Facebook
Limo Cycle Tours

For fun, fit, and adventurous groups of up to 15, there’s no better way to see historic Sanford than on a professionally guided bicycle tour.

OK, so you might not expect to be riding the same bicycle with 14 other people. Limo Cycle Tour’s bikes are multi-seated, so it’s a fun, cooperative experience and a great way to see the town and Lake Monroe as the sun goes down.

All packages include a guide, and you can choose from pub tours, bachelor, bachelorette, and birthday parties – and even cool scavenger hunts. I took part in a group tour of ten, and made new friends on a two-hour cruise, pausing at a couple of pubs to refuel.

Guests are encouraged to bring their own food and drinks. Tours run every day of the week.

8. Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

Hollerbach’s Willow Tree CafeSource: Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe / Facebook
Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

Located on East 1st Street in Sanford, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café has been a local favorite for more than a decade and specializes in traditional German cuisine.

They offer a selection of non-German items as well, but personally speaking, it’s the sausages, deli meats, schnitzels, and fresh desserts that keep me coming back time and time again.

It’s a family owned business that prides itself on its friendly staff, high-quality food, reasonable prices, and comfy family-friendly atmosphere.

Conveniently located in town, it is the perfect place to spend a relaxing evening replenishing all those calories expended during the day.

9. Palate Coffee Brewery

Palate Coffee BrewerySource: Palate Coffee Brewery / Facebook
Palate Coffee Brewery

In Sanford coffee is more than a delicious way to kickstart your day; it’s also a tool for change.

Located on West 2nd Street in Sanford, Palate Coffee Brewery is a unique local business staffed by volunteers. Profits go to the fight against the global human trafficking industry.

In addition to their dedication to such a worthwhile cause, the brewery is known for its freshly roasted beans and talented baristas. I can tell you, it’s all made me think differently about coffee.

It won’t be the cheapest cup of java you’ve ever had, but those few extra cents might just change a life or two.

10. Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park

Lower Wekiva River Preserve State ParkSource: Christopher J. Smith, MD / Wikimedia
Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park

Spanning nearby Lake and Seminole Counties, Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park includes portions along the St. Johns and Wekiva Rivers and is a critical wildlife habitat that also offers guests a variety of recreation options.

Comprised of nearly 20,000 acres, the park’s most popular activities include horseback riding, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing. There’s a variety of camping sites as well, most of which are relatively secluded and primitive.

The park’s entrance is just off State Route 44. For real outdoor aficionados and nature lovers, it’s the kind of place you could enjoy for days.

11. Mayfair Country Club

Mayfair Country ClubSource: RickMaz / shutterstock
Mayfair Country Club

With more than 1,000 courses to choose from, Florida is a magnet for golfers from all over the country and is an especially popular destination during the winter months, when most of the northeastern and Midwestern states are firmly planted in winter’s icy grip.

Laid out in 1922, Mayfair Country Club is well-known as being one of the first in the state and has hosted a few golf legends in the past, like Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer.

The club is conveniently close to Interstate 4 in historic Sanford. Its amenities include a driving range, chipping and putting practice areas, and showers and lockers. When I played here I had the memorable experience of sharing a green with a family of sandhill cranes.

12. Hontoon Island State Park

Hontoon Island State ParkSource: Peter Titmuss / shutterstock
Hontoon Island State Park

Located on the St. Johns River in central Florida’s Volusia County, Hontoon Island State Park is the perfect escape destination for travelers who’ve had their fill of crowded tourist sites and just long for some quiet time with Mother Nature.

The park is located on an island that’s only accessible by private boat or the park’s ferry service. For first time visitors, it’s a good idea to stop at the park’s museum and visitor center before heading out on your own.

I learned about the island’s Native inhabitants over thousands of years, and there’s evidence of this history on the trails where you’ll see a shell midden.

Open daily and free to visit; if you plan on camping, you’ll need to pay a modest charge for each night you stay.

13. Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World, FloridaSource: Photographing Travis / Flickr
Walt Disney World, Florida

Probably the best-known resort in the Sunshine State, Walt Disney World really needs no formal introduction; for those traveling in central Florida with kids, it’s a must-visit destination.

Featuring Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, and the Animal Kingdom Theme Park, there are enough activities to fill multiple days. In addition to their kid-centered activities, they also host a variety of food and wine and arts and crafts festivals that are popular with adults.

It’s often possible to find coupons and special offers online, in travel magazines, and brochures, so my tip is to spend a little time looking around if you’d like to save a few bucks.

14. LEGOLAND Florida Resort

LEGOLAND Florida ResortSource: Rob Hainer / shutterstock
LEGOLAND Florida Resort

For generations of children, LEGOS were toys that stimulated the imagination like few others. Central Florida is home to a unique attraction dedicated to this iconic brand in all its forms.

In addition to its creativity inducing activities, the resort’s exhibits touch on the natural world, history, culture, and art – and not surprisingly, visitors are encouraged to get active.

The resort includes a variety of activity options, not all of which involve LEGOS. Not all venues are included in the cost of general admission; to enjoy the water park or take in a live show, you’ll need to pay extra.

15. Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards

Lakeridge Winery And VineyardsSource: Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards / Facebook
Lakeridge Winery And Vineyards

Located in Clermont, Florida, about a half hour from Orlando, Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards has been open since 1989. Since then, it has gained a reputation for its fabulous wines and beautiful facilities.

Boasting more than 100,000 visitors annually, it’s considered the state’s premier vineyard and winery, and offers a variety of festivals, tastings, and tour options.

Daily complimentary tours and tastings are offered to the public on their countryside estate that includes more than 120 acres. Guests will have the opportunity to sample their award-winning wines, and buy some to take home with them at the onsite store.

For a true Florida wine, I recommend the Southern White or the Chablis, made with native Muscadine grapes, which do well in Florida’s soils and climate.

Bus and RV parking is available.

15 Best Things to Do in Sanford (FL):

  • Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens
  • St. Johns Rivership Company
  • Buster’s Bistro
  • Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center
  • U-SAIL of Central Florida
  • Sanford Museum
  • Limo Cycle Tours
  • Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe
  • Palate Coffee Brewery
  • Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park
  • Mayfair Country Club
  • Hontoon Island State Park
  • Walt Disney World
  • LEGOLAND Florida Resort
  • Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards