Explore Lakeland on a Budget

To the budget-minded consumer, Lakeland has long been the hidden gem between Florida’s cities and beaches. Mind you, locals have known for years that the city roughly halfway between Orlando and Tampa, is more than just a place to lay your head between the beaches and the theme parks. Lakeland is a city to discover. Home to boutique shops, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning culinary scene, and numerous historic attractions, it’s time for Lakeland to be a secret no longer.

Spring brings a unique twist to Lakeland. Thanks to the usually dry weather and mild temperatures, festivals lay claim to the streets of Swan City. For while elsewhere April showers bring May flowers, in Lakeland, it brings Mayfaire-by-the-Lake, a fine arts festival presented by the Polk Museum of Art and sponsored by Citizens Bank & Trust and The Ruthvens. A Mother’s Day weekend tradition, Mayfaire takes place May 11-12, 2024, along the shores of beautiful Lake Morton in downtown Lakeland. The free, two-day festival, may have started as a small craft fair in 1971, but today it is one of the largest and oldest outdoor art festivals in Central Florida with plenty of food and drink vendors, merchandise, and ready-to-buy artwork. Mayfaire features more than 140 artist booths and has been ranked among Sunshine Artist Magazine’s “200 Best Art Shows” for the last 10 years.

Fun fact, Lake Morton is also home to the iconic swans of Lakeland. An original pair of swans was gifted to the City of Lakeland by England’s Queen Elizabeth back in the 1950s – hence, the city’s nickname, “the Swan City.”

If you aren’t able to make it to Lakeland for Mayfaire, you can still enjoy great art at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, a Smithsonian Affiliate. The museum offers a permanent collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts along with various other collections and rotating exhibits on display in eight galleries and a sculpture garden – and thanks to great sponsors, admission is always free. The museum is closed on Mondays and major holidays.

Currently, the museum is home to a “Rockwell/Wyeth: Icons of Americana.” Curated and organized by the National Museum of American Illustration in Rockport, RI, until May 26, works from the two singular and beloved American art icons – including the complete array of Rockwell’s 321 Saturday Evening Post covers – have taken over the first-floor galleries.
Head two blocks south of the Polk Museum of Art and you’ll find the campus of Florida Southern College, designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior for being the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world.

lloyd wright

The fabled American architect designed more than 1,000 structures over a creative period of 70 years with his two most famous designs being Fallingwater, a private house in Pennsylvania, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But his largest one-site collection is set atop a slight hill overlooking scenic Lake Hollingsworth in Lakeland. Wright’s “Child of the Sun” collection consists of 13 completed structures, including a library, a planetarium, a water dome, two chapels, and the Usonian House, based on a 1939 design for faculty housing. Both paid and self-guided walking tours of the “Child of the Sun” collection are available and advance reservations are recommended.

Across town from one of Lakeland’s oldest attractions is the city’s newest, Bonnet Springs Park. Opened in 2022, this privately owned public park is situated on 168 acres of former railroad yards that underwent extensive remediation site work. Ambitious in scale, Bonnet Springs Park is a world-class park on a beautiful, flourishing property just a short distance from downtown Lakeland. Admission and parking are free, supported by an endowment, memberships, community partners, sponsors, and patrons. The mission of Bonnet Springs Park is to enrich the community through nature, culture, recreation, and education. Start your visit at the welcome center, which includes the history gallery, a gift shop, and a coffee shop. The park is designed as an oval, with tram service around the property, and features multiple stops including a playground, a butterfly house, a nature center, a greenhouse, a botanical garden, a treehouse, and the scenic treetop canopy walk. Visit the Depot Café for lunch or a snack, then spend some time enjoying the view across the park from the rooftop bar.


Another gem located within Bonnet Springs Park is the Florida Children’s Museum. Visitors will find something for the whole family in this two-story state-of-the-art facility, that offers 47,800 square feet of hands-on exploration. The museum has several galleries full of interactive permanent exhibits including the Watermelon Seeds gallery for the youngest of children. The St. Christopher’s Project City Play gallery is a child-sized version of a real city that allows children to explore a wide range of careers. They can transform into a firefighter, create their own TV newscast, or take a shift as a cashier at the local supermarket. Out front is the Harrell Family Charities Front Yard, an enclosed outdoor space featuring a 100-foot climbable alligator named Blinky, after a famous one-eyed resident alligator who called Lakeland home in the 1970s. Admission to the museum is $15 per person for those ages 2 and up. Parking is free, as is admission for children under age 2.


If you wish to see an alligator in its natural habitat, head over to Circle B Bar Reserve on the East edge of Lakeland. Called one of the “Top 50 Places to See Wildlife” by USA Today, the former 1,267-acre cattle ranch has been restored to its original natural state. Today, birders, hikers, photographers, painters, and nature lovers come from around the world to experience this natural treasure. The reserve, which is made up of freshwater marshes, hardwood swamps, oak hammocks, creeks, and lakes, is home to an assortment of wildlife, including waterfowl, ospreys, eagles, and alligators. For the best opportunity to spy a gator, don’t miss the 1.2-mile Alligator Alley trail which overlooks Lake Hancock. The on-site Polk Nature Discovery Center helps visitors of all ages understand the delicate ecosystem of Central Florida with indoor and outdoor classrooms and numerous exhibits specifically designed to engage and excite young minds. Admission is free for both the reserve and the Discovery Center. The Discovery Center is closed on Mondays.

Another way to see wildlife is to take a tour at Safari Wilderness Ranch in North Lakeland. This attraction was named one of the “10 Best Safaris in the U.S.” by Fodors.com. Here you can witness the dramatic landscapes of the Serengeti without setting foot on an airplane. You’ll be guided through lush wetlands and open grasslands and enjoy spectacular close-up encounters with huge herds of exotic hoofstock. This 260-acre preserve is surrounded by Florida’s Green Swamp, an 870-square-mile pristine watershed that is the source of five of Florida’s finest rivers. Tours are available by safari vehicle, on camelback, on ATVs and by kayak. One-hour drive-through safaris are also available (using your vehicle) and optional extras include lemur feedings and a cheetah encounter.
Reservations are required.

With so much to see and do in this sweet spot of Florida, go to https://visitcentralflorida.org/cities-towns/lakeland/ or call 1-800-828-7655 to plan your vacation in Central Florida’s Polk County.