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Tallahassee displays charms of the Old South

Tallahassee is a genteel Southern belle with good manners, rolling hills, oak-canopied roads, old plantation homes, and y’all-come hospitality. It also happens to be home to Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Florida’s state capital. How the latter came about is told in a popular folk tale. When East and West Florida territories combined into one state, travelers were sent from the former capitals of St. Augustine and Pensacola. The backwoods spot where they met became the new political center.

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The New Capitol building rises at the center of Tallahassee’s downtown as a sleek modern structure, juxtaposed next to the Old Capitol, built in the more classic domed style. A gallery atop the 22-story New Capitol provides a sweeping view of the hilly city and its tree-lined streets. From it, you can see all the way to Georgia, 20 miles away.

Around the capitol complex, a 10-block historic district spreads, preserving the town’s gracious old homes along a linear park and holding a historic inn, bars and restaurants patronized by Senators and sophomores alike. With no shortage of culture, downtown also offers museums, theater and art galleries. Artists have turned the old warehouses of Downtown Industrial Park into the studios and cafes of Railroad Square. The Museum of Florida History, nearby, is highly acclaimed for its scan of the state’s past, and The Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science, along with changing art exhibits, brings learning to a kid’s level with hands-on exhibits.

Tallahassee Museum of History & Natural Science, another great place for kids, combines a natural-habitat zoo for native animals with a collection of historic structures including a 19th-century farm, one-room schoolhouse, and plantation mansion. Cotton plantations dictated much of Tallahassee’s history, and lovely neo-classic gems preserve the era. At one, Goodwood Museum & Gardens, you can tour the restored buildings.

State parks preserve other aspects of historic and natural heritage. One commemorates the winter camp of explorer Hernando deSoto with a living history program, another the site of an important Civil War battle with an annual reenactment. Maclay State Gardens showcases Tallahassee’s floral splendor, most spectacular when the azaleas and camellias bloom in spring.

Tallahassee, as former site of Spanish missions, also claims a rich archaeological heritage, which you can explore at Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park and Mission San Luis. Its five historic "canopy roads" carry you from capital-city bustle to the tranquility of the Old South. Explore Tallahassee’s countryside and you may discover its famous blues club, an old-fashioned country store where homemade sausage is the claim to fame, and a popular old farmhouse restaurant.

Gathered around this gently thriving city, small towns attract tourists with their antique districts, historic backdrops and natural gifts. To the south, Wakulla Springs is home to one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. Wakulla Springs State Park preserves this natural phenomenon and the man-made one that perches at its side, the circa-1937 Wakulla Lodge with its marble floors and handpainted cypress beams. Glass bottom boats ferry visitors through the springs’ jungle setting, often used in Tarzan films, to spot fish, alligators and turtles in the incredibly clear, cool waters. Kids jump off a tower into the swimming area and divers fathom the depths of limestone caves and sinks for mysteries undiscovered.

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Some of the area’s earliest colonizers created nearby St. Marks, an important harbor for Spanish conquerors and missionaries. San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park preserves a fort site from the era. A state railroad trail connects the quiet fishing town of today to Tallahassee. The lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge punctuates the port’s import. Birds and butterflies – specifically monarchs during their fall migration – make the refuge a favorite with nature-lovers.

To the west, Madison provides small-town respite from the city with its historic district and a delightful herb farm. Visit the Forest Capital Museum State Park in Perry, then shop and have tea downtown.

The northern town of Havana once made a living off of, as you may guess, tobacco. Today its collection of antiques shops, art galleries and appealing restaurants has moved into the old buildings. The Florida Arts Trail links them to others found in Quincy , home of Gadsden Arts Center and The Quincy Music Theatre at the Leaf Theatre.

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