The drive from Jacksonville to Tampa is only a little more than three hours, but if there’s one thing to remember about Florida it’s that adventure is waiting for you around every corner! From artwork and natural beauty to draft horses and sea sponges, the destinations that you’ll encounter on your way from Jacksonville to Tampa make for an unforgettable car ride. Take a look at some of our favorite stops in North and Central Florida!
A little over an hour southwest of Jacksonville, Gainesville makes for a delightful first stop on the way to Tampa. Perhaps best known for housing the University of Florida, Gainesville is a colorful little town with plenty of opportunities for enrichment and exploration. Some of the most popular places to visit in Gainesville include the Florida Museum of Natural History, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, and Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. Another top attraction in Gainesville is the University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, a vibrant learning center that’s among the most prestigious public university art museums.
From wood sculptures and ceramics to paintings and multi-media works, the Harn Museum’s permanent collection includes pieces from a wide range of time periods and cultural origins, showcasing an extensive variety of styles and forms. Rotating exhibitions allow the museum to constantly refresh its contents and introduce new types of art to its displays. An institution that values its community, the Harn Museum offers daily free admission—however, donations are appreciated. (The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm.)
The city of Williston is close to two hours southwest of Jacksonville, and it’s an ideal spot to stop if you want to spend some time outdoors—or underwater! Nearby, you’ll find Devil’s Den Spring, Blue Grotto Dive Resort, and plenty of farms and parks. But, one place that you don’t want to miss when you’re driving through Williston is Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens, a botanical garden that was built in an unconventional setting: an abandoned quarry that’s over 100 years old! Even though the gardens officially opened in 2014, they’ve been in the making since 1991, when the founder, Dr. Raymond Webber, purchased the property and began restoring it. Today, the gardens encompass 20 acres—plus 64 acres of the surrounding woodlands—and are open to the public as a nonprofit.
Open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm (except for Wednesday when it’s closed), Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens features an array of display gardens, walking trails, pools, waterfalls, and more. Swans, ducks, geese, and fish can be found enjoying the water-filled quarries, and picnicking is welcome as visitors admire the artful landscaping and scenic views. Thanks to Florida’s temperate climate, subtropical plants and flowers are consistently in bloom, and the forested area around the garden enhances its enchanting aesthetic. (Admission is $12 for adults ages 13 and over, $7 for children ages 6 to 13, $6 for active military members, and free for children under 6.)
Around two hours southwest of Jacksonville, Ocala is a scenic town that’s perfect for immersing yourself in the Sunshine State’s natural beauty. A few of the leading attractions in and around Ocala include Silver Springs State Park, the Appleton Museum of Art, Fort King National Historic Landmark, and Heritage Nature Conservancy. Ocala is also known as the Horse Capital of the World, and a cool place to learn more about this aspect of the town’s history is the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' & Owners' Association Museum and Gallery. But, if you’re looking to get up-close-and-personal with Ocala’s horsey heritage, then you should check out Gypsy Gold Farm, the farm that first brought Gypsy Vanner horses to America.
In the mid-1990s, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, two Ocala residents, made history when they fell in love with a type of British horse that they later discovered was not a recognized breed. The two founded the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society in 1996, and today, you can visit the society’s foundation farm in Ocala—the Gypsy Gold Farm. Tours are offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 10 am and include an introduction to the Gypsy Vanner and its history, as well as a walking tour of the farm, during which you’ll have a chance to interact with some of the horses.
Spring Hill is about an hour north of Tampa, and situated along the Florida Gulf Coast, it’s a charming town that’s right in the middle of all of the action. Some of the most-visited attractions in the area include Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Linda Pedersen Park, and the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens & Nursery. Another favorite getaway spot near Spring Hill is Alfred McKethan Pine Island Park, a beachfront park where you’ll have no trouble soaking up some of that legendary Florida sun!
A few of the park’s amenities include picnic tables and shelters, barbeque grills, a playground, a volleyball court, a swimming area, and, of course, the beach. The park also has restrooms and a concession stand, plus an observation point to take in some of the sweeping oceanfront views. A peaceful place where you can enjoy the fresh air and avoid tourist crowds, Pine Island Park is a simple but memorable attraction that offers visitors an intimate experience with this part of Florida.
Just over 50 minutes northwest of Tampa, Tarpon Springs is a coastal paradise that’s well worth the slight detour. A historic seaside town that’s known as the “Sponge Capital of the World,” Tarpon Springs is a place where culture, marine life, and local heritage all come together. Among the best places to see in the city are the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, Fred Howard Park, Sunset Beach, and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. But, no visit to Tarpon Springs is complete without a trip to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, the site where the Tarpon Springs’ sponge industry once boomed.
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is an eclectic blend of shopping, food, and history. Natural sea sponges are, unsurprisingly, the most prevalent item sold on the docks, but you can also buy other naturally-sourced products, like handmade soaps and olive oil. Souvenirs, gifts, and collectibles also line the docks, and you can even stop in the Spongeorama Sponge Museum to learn more about the industry that transformed Tarpon Springs. While you’re touring the docks, be sure to sample some of the authentic Greek cuisine that you’ll come across—including saganaki (fried cheese), spanakopita (spinach pie), moussaka (a vegetable-and-meat casserole), and, of course, gyros!
Dunedin is about an hour west of Tampa, and it’s another beachfront city that you don’t want to skip! A few of Dunedin’s headlining attractions include Honeymoon Island State Park, the Dunedin Fine Art Center, Hammock Park, and the seasonal Dunedin Downtown Market. If you’re looking for something more offbeat, then you’ll be excited to learn that Dunedin is home to a Beatles museum—that’s right, the Penny Lane: Beatles Museum is a must-see for anyone who’s a fan of classic rock (and anyone who just appreciates an unexpected but entertaining attraction).
Founded by longtime Beatles fan and Liverpool native Colin Bissett, Dunedin’s Beatles Museum features memorabilia, collectibles, and other vintage artifacts that date as far back as 1961. The museum is open from noon to 4 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and from noon to 2 pm on Saturday—and admission is free!
Around 50 minutes west of Tampa, Clearwater is a can’t-miss final stop on your drive through Central Florida. Known for its gorgeous beaches, Clearwater is a top-rated travel destination that’s about as scenic as they come! Among Clearwater’s biggest attractions are the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Sand Key Park, and Spectrum Field (the ballpark that hosts the Philadelphia Phillies during Spring Training!). Of course, if you’re in Clearwater, you can’t leave without at least one trip to the beach, and while you’re there, don’t miss Pier 60, Clearwater Beach’s fishing pier!
At more than 1,000 feet long, Pier 60 is loaded with shops, restaurants, and vendors—not to mention unbeatable views! And if you’re in the mood to cast a line, you can rent and buy fishing equipment and supplies from the pier’s bait house. (The most common fish caught off the pier are Spanish mackerel, spotted and silver trout, snook, redfish, tarpon, sheepshead, snappers, and flounder.) In addition to the pier itself, Pier 60 also includes a recreational park complete with a beach playground. As dusk approaches, you’ll be rewarded with front row seats to the spectacular Clearwater sunset—a local tradition that’s celebrated every night from the two hours leading up to sundown to the two hours following it. Trust us when we say that there’s no better send-off than the one you’ll find at Clearwater’s Pier 60!
A crown jewel of the Florida Gulf Coast, Tampa is a versatile travel destination with countless attractions. Some of Tampa’s highlights include the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Riverwalk, the Henry B. Plant Museum, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Glazer Children’s Museum. Basically, whether you’re looking for exciting attractions, cultural enrichment, or outdoor recreation, you can find it in Tampa. But, with so much to see and do on the way there, you don’t want to breeze by all of the amazing destinations—big, small, and in-between—that are on the way there! A drive from Jacksonville to Tampa is the perfect opportunity to do some exploring in Florida… Why rush?