Home to colleges, cultural cornerstones, and a vibrant downtown, Lakeland is more than just the largest city in Polk County. No matter what your tastes are, Lakeland is a must-see during a vacation to Florida’s Sweetest Spot.
But be forewarned – this isn’t a theme-park-and-palm-trees destination. Lakeland is unvarnished Florida, a mix of the urbane with a dash of Southern hospitality. Here, guests enjoy everything from fine dining to alligators in the wild, long walks along massive lakes, or through architectural wonders. If you do all that, you’ll still need to stash some time for a round of golf, a night at the pub, or some first-class shopping to really experience everything Lakeland has to offer.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
It may look like a quiet city in the middle of the state, but it has a wild side. In fact, the wildlife is so friendly it will walk right up to you and eat out of your hand. Safari Wilderness Ranch, just moments from downtown Lakeland, is an African safari experience where Watusi cattle – the African version of the longhorn – roam. Opened in 2012, the ranch, a 260-acre expanse, is not a zoo. Instead, the animals roam free, allowing the eland, water buffalo, and antelope to mingle while lemurs dance away on their island home in the middle of it all. There are even breeds of hoofstock that are no longer found in the wild, such as the Scimitar-horned oryx.
Visitors have their choice of excursion types: safari bus, kayak safari, camel expedition, all-terrain vehicle safari, and a guided drive-through option. Most opt for the safari bus, which offers not only shade from Florida’s intense sun but also allows visitors to enjoy those memory-creating up-close creature encounters. Many animals simply walk up to the bus, seemingly as interested in looking at the passengers as the passengers are looking at the wildlife.
However, don’t discount the other options. If you choose the guided drive-through option, you must make a reservation in advance. On the kayak safari, you’ll navigate through freshwater areas for close-up encounters with wetland species such as Defassa waterbuck and red lechwe. Mid-way through the kayak safari, visitors navigate to the lemur island and get to hand feed grapes to two different species of lemurs. If you’d rather your transportation be fur-covered, the camel option pairs you with one of these loveable creatures for an unforgettable experience.
Safari Wilderness is located at 10850 Moore Road, Lakeland. For more information visit safariwilderness.com.
Two Rare Architectural Works Just Miles Apart
Rising up from the flat terrain outside of Lakeland – and just minutes from Safari Wilderness – is an architectural feat unlike any other in the Southeastern United States. Welcome to the grounds of Florida Polytechnic University and its signature Innovation, Science, and Technology Building designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. Featuring arched pergolas and operable louvers, the shape of the building changes during the day as the moving louvers keep the students below in the shade.
Considered a working piece of avant-garde architecture, the complex houses Florida’s only state university focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A few of Calatrava’s other works include the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the Oculus, in New York City; Garde de Oriente in Portugal; Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana in Italy and the Museu do Amanha in Brazil, as well as the Greenwich Peninsula project in London.
The Innovation, Science, and Technology Building earned more than 20 architectural and engineering awards. For visitors, the white arcs and lines contrast nicely against Central Florida’s typical blue skies, making the grounds one of the most photographed – and Instagramed – locations in the area.
Of course, when you think of Florida, you think of oranges. But how about a college whose fabled architect designed it to look like a citrus grove?
More than 80 years after then-campus president Ludd M. Spivey convinced famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to construct his “College of Tomorrow” on the grounds of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, people still visit from around the world to see the largest one-site collection of the architect’s work.
Envisioning the campus rising out of the ground, Wright dubbed it the “Child of the Sun.” The buildings, constructed of concrete blocks with native sands and shells added, also have square pieces of glass embedded in the blocks. When struck by direct sunlight, the glass inside the blocks cast an array of kaleidoscopic beams throughout the inside of the buildings. Wright laid out the buildings in a manner inspired by the orange groves he walked through.
Still considered one of the country’s most striking campuses, no matter if you choose to take a guided tour or explore on your own, you’re sure to leave inspired. Don’t miss the crown jewel, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, or Wright’s recently brought-to-life piece of domestic bliss, the Usonian House.
Sometimes the Best Things Are Free
Just a short walk away from Florida Southern College you’ll find one of the top-10 art museums in the state. And you can enjoy it for free.
The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College offers an extensive permanent collection of contemporary and modern art, as well as pre-Columbian, Asian, European, and American decorative arts. Around 20 exhibitions rotate throughout its nine galleries each year, and it remains home to rare 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, as well as ceramic plates made by Pablo Picasso. The outdoor garden area showcases a number of permanent sculptures.
There are also workshops led by experienced art educators on the first Saturday of every month that give families time to create artwork together.
The museum is closed on Mondays as well as on major holidays and hours of operation vary by season, so be sure to check the website, polkmuseumofart.org, before heading out.
A Downtown Full of Options
From eateries to coffee, clothing to stationary, a visit to downtown Lakeland offers a day’s worth of experiences in one spot.
If food expresses cultural identity, Lakeland must be a little confusing. This city simply defies labels. Sure, you’ll find barbecue and Southern cooking as well as Mexican and Italian cuisine. But if you are looking for mash-ups and cultural callbacks, as well as one of the top 10 best restaurants in the state, you’ve come to the right place.
And confusion has never tasted so good. Consider Nineteen61, for example. Is the cuisine Cuban, Latin, Spanish, or Peruvian? Honestly, you won’t care about a label when it comes to your table. From ceviche to Spanish salads, Cuban standards such as ropa vieja and Peruvian-style Chinese fried rice – arroz chaufa – this culinary mash-up has been considered one of the top 10 Spanish restaurants in the state since the day the doors opened. Open for both lunch and dinner, locals get here early and take advantage of the tapas menu at the bar before dinner, from the fried calamari in a jalapeno caramel to the empanadas. 215 E. Main Street, Lakeland.
Just around the corner, Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille brings Louisianna-inspired food and atmosphere to Central Florida. From casual drinks at the bar to lunch with friends or a special dinner, Harry’s fits the bill. You can grab a Hurricane and dive into their fried green tomatoes or signature crab cakes, but don’t eat too much, the catfish etouffee or red beans and rice will be worth the wait. And at the end of the night, leave room for Oreo beignets.
Not to be outdone is Mojo Federal Swine and Spirits. Once again, make sure you bring your appetite along on this outing. From barbecue favorites like brisket and spare ribs to Southern delights shrimp and grits, sandwiches, and more, Mojo offers refined barbecue and Deep South favorites – did we mention homemade banana pudding?
If you’d rather try a local sip, you can’t be more Lakeland than Swan Brewing. What started as a 10-by-10 tent at the Downtown Farmers Curb Market today occupies what was, once upon a time, a 1940s automobile repair shop. Offering well over 20 beers on tap, the majority of them are brewed in town. Family and dog-friendly, they are also food truck-friendly.
Also downtown is Revival, where Cosmopolitans aren’t just for watching reruns of “Sex and the City.” Those retro drinks of lore are making a comeback, and nowhere is that more evident than at Revival in Lakeland. Gin, whiskey, vodka and more can be served either shaken or stirred, or you can choose from their menu of beers and wines.
So, take a few days and see why Polk County is known as Florida’s Sweetest Spot – and not just for our baked goods. For more Central Florida vacation ideas, go to www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.