About halfway between Jacksonville and Gainesville, Starke is the historic seat of Bradford County. This city dates back to the middle of the 19th century and is couched in bucolic rural landscapes, known for strawberry production.
In fact, there’s an annual festival every spring to celebrate this fruit, and it’s my favorite time to be in Starke.
The downtown area is an historic district with two dozen preserved buildings. More than an outdoor museum, this place is full of life, and boasts that rare thing—a first-run movie theater, still going strong.
Starke has strong military ties, and is right next door to Camp Blanding, the HQ for the Florida National Guard.
1. Call Street Historic District
Starke’s historic downtown is centered on four blocks of Call Street, between Temple Street and Cherry Street.
The layout goes back to the mid-19th century, and Call Street takes its name from Territorial Governor of Florida, Richard K. Call (1792-1862).
There wasn’t a single empty storefront when I came through Starke. I’ll talk about the wonderful Florida Twin Theatre below, while there’s also an assortment of local shops and eateries, from Italian to Thai.
Look out for the office of The Bradford County Telegraph. Dating back to 1879 and still in circulation, this is officially Florida’s oldest weekly newspaper.
2. Strawberry Festival
Yielded by hundreds of acres of fields around the city, the annual strawberry crop has been crucial to Starke for decades. In 1998, city and county residents came together to inaugurate a festival in honor of this fruit at the fairgrounds.
The Strawberry Festival takes place over a weekend in late March or early April, and mixes culinary delights with family fun.
I saw mounds of fresh berries, jams, strawberry shortcake, delectable pies, and strawberry ice cream. There’s also live entertainment, arts and crafts, a car show, and tons of child-friendly fun at the Kidz Zone.
3. Florida Twin Theatre
Something rare and to be cherished about downtown Starke is its functioning first-run movie theater. With an exquisite Streamline Moderne facade, the Florida Twin Theatre dates back to 1941 and continues to be a source of pride for the community.
The interior was reworked in the 70s and again, just over a decade later when it became a twin.
One of the advantages of a place like this is the reasonable ticket prices—just $7 when I came. I love the cute box office on the corner, and the choice of concessions, including hot dogs, pretzels and a wide selection of candy.
4. Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park
The main reservation and training facility for the Florida National Guard is a few short miles east of Starke. Camp Blanding was founded in 1939, after the main base was relocated from Camp Foster in Jacksonville.
As I’m sure you can imagine, a facility with 80+ years of history has a lot of stories to tell, and there’s a museum in a restored WWII building.
Here you can learn about the history of the Florida National Guard and Camp Blanding. You can peruse uniforms, photographs, newspaper clippings, paintings, moving reminders of Japanese internment, medals, flags and much more.
I was also impressed with the exterior hardware exhibits and the Memorial Park. The latter pays tribute to the nine Army infantry divisions and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment that trained at Camp Blanding.
5. Andrews Center at Santa Fe College
An imposing historic building along Call Street is the Old Bradford County Courthouse (1902). When it was due to be demolished in the 1980s, this Romanesque Revival building was renovated and became the Andrews Center, a campus of Santa Fe College.
The center maintains the Eugene L. Matthews Historical Museum, at 201 E Call St. In a beautiful old commercial building, this museum charts the 170-year history of Bradford County.
This attraction is open in the afternoons, Tuesday through Thursday. There’s also a performance venue at the center, with a schedule of live music to look out for.
6. Bradford County Fair
The other big event on the calendar at the Bradford Fairgrounds is the historic Bradford County Fair, across five days in March.
The fair had been going for just over 70 years when I went to press. In a part of Florida that maintains a rural character, it’s a great chance to acquaint yourself with the local culture.
In that vein there are livestock auctions and a lot of 4-H and FFA exhibits and contests. These include everything from poultry & rabbits to steers, goats, kids, and swine.
You’ve also got all the fun of the midway, as well as delectable fair food like fried dough. Traditionally the Sunday is Family Fun Day, with reduced admission and discounts on unlimited ride armbands.
7. Starke Bikefest
For three days in August the volume rises in Starke as the city is taken over by motorcycle enthusiasts. The Starke Bike Festival first took place in 2006, and caters to a large community of bike fans.
For a small town this is a big event, organized with the cooperation of the City of Starke and Bradford County. On the schedule each year there’s a lot of live music, contests, and multiple vendor booths.
A lot of the fun is taking the opportunity to explore the peaceful back roads around the city, all of which are many miles from the nearest interstate.
8. Starke Golf & Country Club
East of the city, the Starke Golf & Country Club is a 9-hole course that plays just shy of 3,300 yards. This makes it the perfect option for those looking to squeeze in a round without dedicating the better part of a day to it.
Dating back to 1959, the par-36 course is famous for its rolling, tree-lined fairways, and manicured greens.
What struck me most of all about this facility was the profusion of water, which comes into play on seven out of the nine holes. Starke Golf & Country Club is semi-private and has affordable green fees (just $14 on weekdays when I was here).
9. Starke – Lake Butler Loop
In the last few years Starke has broken out as a minor destination for bicyclists. This has a lot to do with the amount of marked bike lanes, grade-separated paths and dirt trails to explore in the area.
One way to appreciate the great stands of longleaf surrounding the city is on a 61-mile loop. This takes you out to the nearby town and historical rival Lake Butler along SR 100, which has bike lanes.
After leading you through this charming old community, you’ll head back towards Starke along peaceful backcountry roads with almost no traffic. My favorite stretch is through the remote farmland between the tiny communities of Brooker and Graham.
10. Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park
On the former WWII-era Keystone Army Airfield there’s a motorsports facility with a road course and seven miles of off-road trails.
Rally driving, which involves high-speed time trials on paved and off-road courses, is a niche sport in the United States, but has a big international following. The Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park (FIRM) is one of the few places you can try it out.
FIRM has a rally school where you can get European-style instruction, ranging from one to four days. The skills you pick up here can be applied to all scenarios, including how to safely deal with standing water on roads.
I’d also check the calendar for track days, when you can pay a fee and bring your own vehicle to the facility.
11. Edwards Road Sports Complex & Splash Park
On the map as simply “Starke City Recreation”, this is Starke’s premier active recreation facility. The complex hosts a variety of local sports tournaments, and has a concession stand that is open during these events.
In terms of features there are six softball fields, a tennis court, a skatepark, racquetball court, and children’s playground. When I was in town the city had just installed a splash park, perfect for families needing activities for kids on the hottest days.
There’s covered seating throughout, both at the splash park and in the bleachers. I was surprised at the size of the menu at the concession stand, which even has treats like funnel cake fries.
12. Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation
Fifteen minutes out of Starke on the way to Gainesville, there’s a sanctuary keeping 100+ animals from around 30 rare and endangered species.
Rescue and rehabilitation are the foundation’s main focuses. But the facility opens to the public for tours on Saturdays.
You’ll see some iconic exotic animals, including cheetahs, a Siberian lynx, and an Amur leopard, while learning about the importance of habitat preservation worldwide. Feeding demonstrations are part of the package, and were the most memorable part of my visit.
For a more personal experience, you can also book a two-hour private tour, taking you as close as possible to the sanctuary’s residents. Look out for one of the twice-annual open houses, allowing visitors to roam the grounds on a self-guided visit.
13. Kingsley Lake
Next to Camp Blanding there’s a lake so perfectly round that pilots dubbed it ‘Silver Dollar Lake.’
To me, Kingsley Lake looks for all the world like it was man-made. This body of water is in fact natural, as a sinkhole that formed centuries ago and descends 90 feet.
Unfortunately, visiting Kingsley Lake is kind of tricky as there’s no public land on the 5.5 miles of shoreline. One thing you could do is sneak a peek while visiting the museum at Camp Blanding. The base maintains campgrounds and recreation facilities on the shore.
To the north of the lake, Kingsley Lake Park is a small public park, set slightly in from the shore. This space has a playground, picnic area and tennis court.
14. Ellianos Coffee
On US 301, a few blocks south of downtown, Ellianos Coffee is part of a regional chain of coffee shops. This was founded by a local couple who caught the bug while visiting the Pacific Northwest, the home of Starbucks and other famous coffee brands.
Their first shop was opened in nearby Lake City in 2002, and when I compiled this list there were close to 70 locations.
Something to note about Ellianos Coffee in Starke is that it’s drive-thru only, kind of a novel concept for me. I’m a fan of their frozen coffees and smoothies (go for strawberry, since you’re in Starke), as well their decadent chocolate muffin, which comes warm.
15. Cedar River Seafood
A little more local than Ellianos, Cedar River Seafood is a chain with six locations around North Florida.
Although the menu is wide ranging, the specialty here is Southern-style seafood. So that might be shrimp & grits, fried catfish, crab-stuffed flounder, fried oysters, clam strips… the list goes on.
You can choose from all the classic sides, from hushpuppies to mac ‘n cheese, and fried okra. The chain is particularly loved for its iced tea, which is the natural partner to seafood feast. Check the schedule for all-you-can-eat crab legs or shrimp.