It was a beautiful, crisp day. Cold, but sunny. Steam gently lifted off the river as the morning sun twinkled in the reflection, and our kayak oars silently glided side to side. The quiet northern Florida swamplands offered tranquillity and asked for nothing in return.
It wasn’t until later that day that we realised we kayaked right through gator territory. Yikes!
Although Tallahassee, Florida is known as a university city, we discovered there are plenty of fun family-friendly things to do. Here’s our favourites:
1. Sugar High At Lofty Pursuits
If I could describe this place in one sentence, it would be: a childlike fantasy world masterfully executed with intelligence and precision. Everything about it is fun. Part candy store, part classic ice cream parlour, part toy store, mixed together with a splash of whimsy and a dash of wonderment. What child wouldn’t love that?
Kids will have a great time playing with toys, table games or just watching fresh candy being hand made. Owner, Greg Cohen, has gone to painstaking lengths to re-create time-tested 100-year-old candy making processes enhanced with a modern twist.
You could spend hours here and no one would complain.
TIP: There are cute, humorous and downright hilarious titbits at every turn. Try the inconspicuous non-pay phone at the rear of the store. It translates over 100 rotary number combinations into clever tunes and audio bites. Dial JAMESBOND for the action star’s theme song or HELP for advice on how to use the phone.
2. Hang Out 60 Feet Above The Ground At Tree-to-Tree Adventure
Part of the deceptively named Tallahassee Museum, this complex is far from a stale, dusty, old museum. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
Set amidst 52 acres of gorgeous Florida cypress swamps is a high ropes and zip line adventure with 3 different courses to choose from. My 5-year-old did the easiest one, while after a thorough safety briefing my 7-year-old joined Josh and I on the Canopy Crossing (middle level). The tougher Soaring Cypress looked awesome, but we just ran out of time.
The elevated obstacles tested my strength, balance and coordination, but I triumphed.
A wooden playground on-site will keep little tots amused if they’re too young for the ropes course.
3. Visit Wildlife At Tallahassee Museum
After you’ve soared through the trees of Tallahassee Museum you’ll want to explore the grounds. The flora and fauna are simply gorgeous. Cypress trees grow out of the swamps giving it an almost otherworldly feel. Take the boardwalk through the nature trails to discover the wildlife (both caged, and wild animals). Our favourite were the brand new panther cubs that playfully chased each other – so cute!
Curiously, you’ll even spot a collection of colourful dinosaurs made from recycled car parts.
4. Kayak Down The Wakulla River
Perhaps not the most January-friendly activity, but it was so tranquil and serene I am certainly glad we did it.
For $45 you can hire a tandem kayak for 4 hours to paddle up the Wakulla River. Here you are likely to spot manatee, otters, turtles, birds and (if you are lucky or perhaps, unlucky) alligators.
It was a cold morning as we started off in our kayaks, but soon we were all warm from the paddling. There was not another human soul to be seen and all we could hear was the splash of the oars and the occasional bird chirping.
Of course the return journey was so much easier as we let the currant carry us back.
Tip: Bring a bottle of water with you, and stay closer to the riverbank as you paddle upstream - it will be much easier (since the current isn’t as strong there).
5. Eat Your Heart Out
There is so much deliciousness in this city. You do not want to leave without trying our favourite dining recommendations.
6. Take A Jungle Cruise At Wakulla Springs
Wakulla Springs is the perfect place to see wild manatees. These gentle creatures swim upstream to play in the warm waters of one of the world’s largest fresh water springs. An astonishing 2000-4000 gallons of water flow out of the spring every second at a constant temperature of 69°F (20°C). A diving tower jutting out into the spring provides a bird’s eye view of the good-natured manatees as they congregate in the deeper waters - even the babies.
Manatees (or sea cows) look like grey, tusk-less walruses, but are much cuter. We stared in wonderment for a while as the youngest member of the herd curiously nuzzled the colourful buoys and cuddled his mummy. As mammals, they rise to the surface every 3 to 5 minutes to breathe, so you can get a better look with a little patience.
And if you want to get even closer to nature you can catch the relaxing jungle cruise. It leaves approximately every hour from 9am to 5pm and travels down the river with a guide pointing out manatees, turtles, black vultures, egresses, and plenty of alligators. It’s an inexpensive activity and you’re sure to get your fill of gators. But it kind of freaked me out since it was the very same river we kayaked on earlier that morning.
Random fact: Wakulla Springs is one of the locations where the sci fi classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” was filmed.
7. Explore Mission San Luis
If you are looking for more culture in your Tallahassee vacation mixed with an element of exploration, then head to Mission San Luis where you will be transported back to the 1600s.
History tells us that the Mission was a community where Apalachee Indians and newcomers from Spain co-existed in harmony and peace. It was home to more than 1400 residents before a British invasion in 1704 left it in ashes.
Now a National Historic Landmark, Mission San Luis has been carefully reconstructed and is the only Spanish mission in Florida. It consists of a number of structures including a circular Apalachee council house, Spanish house, blacksmith, church, chapel, friary kitchen and more. Period-dressed characters share their history, showing first-hand how they lived – literally bringing history to life. Well worth the visit.
Tip: Don’t miss the short introduction video in the visitor centre. It provides a lot of insight into the significance of this fascinating site.
8. Take A Wander Through Goodwood Museum & Gardens
This is another attraction using the apparent dreary “museum” title for something that is in fact so much more fascinating. Goodwood brings a historic 1840s Floridian plantation property to life. Originally this 2400-acre cotton and corn plantation housed up to 240 slaves. But after the American Civil War, it changed hands several times before being converted into a living museum in the 1970s.
We took an engaging guided tour through the house with a period-dressed character (Mrs Hood, the last owner of the property) and explored the beautiful gardens as well. For various reasons the previous generations of Goodwood’s owners left their furniture, furnishings and even clothes behind (over 800 pieces of clothing are still in the house!). So all you see is original and sourced from living relatives or was found on the property. A truly unique historic gem!
9. Tour The Very Impressive Mag Lab
The Mag Lab had my husband completely geeking out. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be my ideal way to spend an afternoon, but science buffs and analytical thinkers will have a field day here. We took a guided tour through the only lab of its kind in the United States and witnessed the world’s most powerful magnets. And what researchers use them for is pretty incredible – with applications ranging from material development to energy to medical. Even as someone who barely passed science class in high school, I have to admit I was impressed.
10. Soar High Above Tallahassee On A Helicopter
Last, but not least… want the best view of Tallahassee? Then get high, in a helicopter, that is. Owner, Thomas, has over 29 years flying experience and the whole voyage from the guest lounge to the sky was effortless and smooth. We took the 15-minute Downtown tour and saw the Mag Lab, FSU football stadium, Don Veller Seminole Golf Course, Capitol building and more.
Mia and Caius loved every minute and were buzzing long after stepping off the helicopter. If you are looking for something fun and different, nothing beats seeing a city from a bird’s eye view.
Where to stay in Tallahassee
We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Tallahassee Downtown in a King Suite which turned out to be a very comfortable base as we explored the city. Our kids had a double sofa bed, while the comfy king bed was located in a separate room. The mini kitchenette proved handy for storing cold food from our road trip, and preparing the occasional breakfast or snack. View over the main street, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows, was gorgeous, especially at sunset. But I always love hotels that know how to please a device-reliant traveller… with plenty of power points near the bed and desk.
While Tallahassee is Florida’s political capital, don’t let that title fool you. It’s a delight for families too. We had a wonderful trip and enjoyed every minute in Tallahassee. These 10 activities are just the start of a memorable vacation. There’s one more thing that tops it all off… food! Tallahassee really impressed our tough-to-please tastebuds. Check out the best places to eat too.