Ocala Is the Gorgeous, Adventure-Filled Florida Town You've Never Heard Of
When Southerners close their eyes and imagine paradise, it often looks a little (OK, a lot) like a Florida beach. Sugar-white sand, sparkling turquoise waters, sea oats swaying in the wind, and there you have it: picture-perfect Florida. One of the downsides to our obsession with Florida's coastline is that it can blind us to interior destinations that are just as worthy of a visit as their seaside counterparts.
Case in point: Ocala, Florida. This central Florida town located between Gainesville and Orlando is blessed with gorgeous vistas at every turn. Dubbed the Horse Capital of the World because of its many active horse farms and significant participation in the horse industry, Ocala is a place of rolling green pastureland and scenic views. And just because it's not on the coast doesn't mean water is in short supply. Ocala is home to several impressive natural springs that first put the town on the map as a tourist destination decades ago.
Here are the best things to do in Ocala, Florida, on your next visit to this hidden gem of a town.
Swim in a Natural Spring
For some, a Florida vacation isn't a Florida vacation without water. Ocala trades salty surf for crystal-clear freshwater pools thanks to the area's many natural springs. Take the whole family for a dip at the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, a massive complex of natural swimming pools and springs of all sizes—from the tiny and bubbling to the large and gushing. Relax in the 72-degree water under a dense canopy of palm and oak trees. SCUBA certified divers can find a different kind of adventure at Paradise Springs, a privately owned cavern, where divers can explore prehistoric fossils on ancient limestone walls under the water. Other springs to check out include nearby Rainbow Springs, Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs, and Silver Springs (no swimming allowed in this one, but still worth a visit).
Hike in the Ocala National Forest
On the edge of town you'll find the 387,000-acre Ocala National Forest, which is the second largest national forest in Florida. Visitors can explore the vast coniferous and sand pine scrub forestland via trails that connect more than 600 swamps, lakes, rivers, and streams. Other activities inside the forest range from canoeing, boating, and fishing to snorkeling, diving, and swimming.
Tour the Appleton Museum of Art
If Ocala's natural beauty inspires the art lover in you, head to the Appleton Museum of Art, an 81,000-square-foot classic and contemporary art museum that's part of the College of Central Florida's Appleton Cultural Center complex. The museum is home to a collection of 24,000 objects displayed in galleries highlighting everything from Florida artists and equine art to Pre-Columbian artifacts and maritime collections. Be sure to check out the museum's outdoor sculpture walk and garden before leaving.
Visit the World Equestrian Center
You can't visit the Horse Capital of the World without spending some time with the majestic mares and stallions. The best places to do so is the largest equestrian complex in the country, the World Equestrian Center. The massive complex features world-class indoor and outdoor arenas, as well as a luxury hotel, state-of-the-art amenities, stores, restaurants, and more. Most equine events at the center are free, so all you have to do is check the online calendar for an event you're interested in and show up.
Go Horseback Riding
When you're ready to get in on the action, book a horseback riding tour with Cactus Jack's Trail Rides or Canyons Zip Line & Adventure Park. A 1-2-hour guided tour with Cactus Jack's takes you through the Cross Florida Greenway State Park on the back of a gorgeous well-cared-for horse. Along thew way, you'll see oak hammocks, pine forests, and green fields. The outfitter has Arabians and Thoroughbreds, as well as Tennessee Walkers and Argentina Polo horses.
Explore the Historic Downtown
After you've had your fill of outdoor adventure, head to Downtown Ocala for farm-to-table dining, craft beer, and boutique shopping in one walkable, easy-to-explore historic neighborhood. Local businesses, eateries, and stores emanate for a few square blocks around Town Square, a paved octagon surrounded by trees and grass that also features a historic gazebo. Find classic pub bites at The Lodge Brick City Craft Pub & Eatery and Southern specialty dishes at Ivy on the Square. Wash it down with a pint at microbrewery Infinite Ale Works, then take your credit card for a spin at Tumbleweed of Ocala antique store or Marley Mae Market & Paperie.
Kayak or Hop Aboard a Glass Bottomed Boat in Silver Springs
Head to Silver Springs State Park to see Ocala's first toursit attraction, Silver Springs. There was once a waterpark around the stunning natural springs, but today the best way to enjoy the springs is by taking a kayak or glass-bottom boat tour. You can rent either—plus standup paddle boards and canoes—through Silver Springs State Park. Prices start at just $12.
Go Zip Lining
See Ocala from a different vantage point on a zip line tour with Canyons Zip Line & Adventure Park. Choose from five different zip line adventures that allow you to soar high over two dramatic limestone canyons and four glittering lakes. Did we mention that this is the highest, fastest, and longest zipline over water in the U.S? Yup, you're in for a real treat.