Tallahassee’s diverse array of restaurants, history and outdoor activities make the Florida capital much more than just a college town.
by Taylor Wanbaugh
Friendly chatter and music fill the air as I take a sip of “The Charlie,” Charlie Park’s signature gin cocktail with fragrant notes of coconut, lavender and pineapple. Located on the eighth floor of the newly opened AC Hotel in Tallahassee, Fla., the open-air bar boasts sky-high views of the Cascades Park District, a renovated 24-acre tract filled with landscaped waterfalls, 2.3 miles of biking and walking trails, and an outdoor amphitheater.
It’s the story of Tallahassee as a whole — a place where old meets new. The capital city, which has a population of nearly 198,000, is home to Florida State University, with enrollment topping 43,000, and Florida A&M University, one of the top-ranked public historically Black colleges in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. But, as locals note, the once sleepy Southern town, a 1.5-hour direct flight (or about an eight-hour drive) from Charlotte, is now an up-and-coming metropolis of activity, with a diverse offering of restaurants, shopping, history and outdoor activities.
Food & drink
At the 150-room, four-suite AC Hotel Tallahassee, which opened in May, guests are treated to modern amenities with sleek decor and lots of natural light. A few steps from the front entrance of the hotel and down a brightly lit, wood-paneled hallway lies a separate entrance for Charlie Park, the AC’s rooftop cocktail bar named for local police officers’ codename for the area. It’s a lively and sophisticated meeting hub boasting unique fruity cocktails and small plates to share. It’s also an Instagram influencer’s dream, adorned with a funky live moss wall, velvet lounges and sofas, bright crystal chandeliers and plenty of indoor and balcony seating. The newcomer has already become a hot spot for tourists and locals alike, so be sure to call ahead to reserve a table.
A short stroll from the hotel, Cascades Park offers a green scene tucked into an urban landscape, with ponds, fountains, gardens and plenty of trails. Its 3,500-seat Capital City Amphitheater has hosted a variety of acts, including blues artist JJ Grey & Mofro, with an upcoming show by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson. The Edison Restaurant, which overlooks the stage, still has remnants of its former life as a power plant, with high ceilings, industrial steel beams and exposed brick walls. A nod to its electrifying past, Edison bulbs serve as a theme in its decor. Order a lobster guacamole to share, and get a taste of the Gulf with the classic Panhandle Po Boy.
If you’re looking for something more casual, Proof Brewing is a five-minute walk through the park. Founded in 2012, the craft brewery features a 20-barrel brew house, modern tasting room and outdoor beer garden, where you can usually find live music or catch a game on one of many big-screen TVs. The brewery offers a twist on bar bites — the pimento cheese fritters topped with a local jam glaze are heavenly — plus a long list of beers and a full bar. For a nonalcoholic option, Proof recently launched a line of low-calorie, CBD-infused seltzers called JoyFace Collective, available in flavors such as peach and lemon-lime.
Close to campus, be sure to check out College Town, just steps from FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium, Donald L. Tucker Civic Center and Dick Howser Baseball Stadium. Established in 2013, the entertainment district is home to dozens of restaurants, bars and shops. Stop by family-friendly eatery Madison Social and order the BLT dip and tangy Korean cauliflower to share, and sip on a lavender lemonade while cheering on the Seminoles. Fun fact: College Town is just minutes away from the FSU Flying High Circus, a 60-year-old student-run aerial and stage show with its own Big Top tent.
For an upscale option, make a dinner reservation at downtown’s Il Lusso. Known for steaks and Italian fare, it’s worth a visit. Start with the insalata burrata with arugula, heirloom tomatoes and white balsamic vinaigrette, and you can’t go wrong with any of the homemade pasta dishes — Il Lusso has an excellent seafood mezzaluna, with spiny lobster, crab, grouper, carrot butter, fennel and lobster espuma. Don’t skip out on dessert — the Italian Cream Cake Baked Alaska is to die for.
Tallahassee has a little bit of something for everyone, whether you are a thrill seeker or prefer something more laid-back. The 52-acre outdoor Tallahassee Museum is a great option for kids, boasting more than two dozen native animals such as red wolves, otters, bobcats and bald eagles. Step back in time with the museum’s historic buildings, including the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, the first regularly organized Black church in Florida established in 1851, and The Concord School, a late 1870s schoolhouse that served the children of formerly enslaved people. Authentic 1880s farm buildings house cows, sheep, goats, and a garden filled with corn, sweet potatoes and other crops. If you’re feeling more adventurous, the museum offers Tree-To-Tree Adventures, a high ropes/zipline course that allows you to see the exhibits from new heights.
Tallahassee is also home to more than 700 miles of trails for biking, hiking, horseback riding and running. I rented a bike from The Great Bicycle Shop, which offers one-day rentals starting at $30, and headed to the Munson Hills Trail with Jimmy Card, who is a member of the Tallahassee Mountain Biking Association. It’s a great trail for beginners and families and offers beautiful forest views. If you’re feeling ambitious, the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, the oldest rail trail in Florida, runs 16 miles from Tallahassee to the historic town of St. Marks, which is home to a wildlife refuge on the Gulf of Mexico.
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park offers a quiet retreat from the bustling city, featuring a picturesque brick walkway framed by willows draped with Spanish moss, lush gardens and beautiful water features. Bike, hike or kayak, take a garden tour, or plan ahead for special events such as yoga on the historic Maclay House lawn. If you’re willing to venture about 15 miles south, the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, home to the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring, is a 6,000-acre sanctuary that boasts diverse wildlife such as manatees, alligators and dozens of bird species.
Arts & entertainment
To experience a taste of Tallahassee’s eclectic arts scene, head over to the Railroad Square Art District. Centrally located near downtown, FSU and FAMU, the district is home to more than 70 shops, art galleries and small businesses, including several thrift, antique and vintage boutiques, a specialty kayak shop, a nonprofit theater, a pinball arcade and a cat cafe/bookshop. Chill out with a cool libation and live music at Railroad Square Craft House in the newly renovated Art Garden.
If you want a local, authentic, hole-in-the-wall live music experience, head on over to Bradfordville Blues Club, a 50-year-old jazz joint about 30 minutes outside of downtown. Follow the bumpy dirt road, and you’ll know you’re in the right spot when you hear the instruments strumming and the lively crowd through the night air. The smell of deep-fried catfish made by Miss Ernestine greets visitors almost every night. Strings of Christmas lights illuminate painted portraits of musicians Pinetop Perkins, “Honeyboy” Edwards, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and others lining the walls of the one-room cinderblock club.
Historically, the juke joint served as a safe venue for Black performers during the days of segregation and is part of The Mississippi Blues Trail that runs from the Magnolia state to Florida. Now, much like the rest of Tallahassee, the crowd is a mix of young locals, longtime regulars who greet bartenders and guests alike with bright smiles and jovial hugs, and curious travelers led off the beaten path by the lure of good company, good music and a little bit of good old Southern hospitality. SP
featured image by David Barfield