There a lot of fun things to do in Ocala, Florida! Both kids and adults will love the parks, museums, and restaurants that call Ocala home.
Fun Things To Do In Ocala, Florida
Thanks to house sitting we’ve really gotten to know Ocala well. We’ve house sat for the same wonderful family a few times now and it’s allowed us to “travel slow” and visit some of the top Ocala attractions as well as some hidden gems.
So where is Ocala? Located in Central Florida, it’s about 40 miles southeast of Gainesville and 80 miles northwest of Orlando. Right off of I-75, it’s really easy to get to. People often drive right past it, but it’s a city that we’ve grown to love and we feel more people should know about all of the fun things to do in and around the city.
Because of that, we’ve put together this huge list of things to do in Ocala. Enjoy!
Ocala Visitors Center
After you finish reading this, you’ll have a really good idea of what to do in Ocala, but we still recommend stopping by the Ocala Visitors Center. The staff really knows their stuff and they are super helpful. We went in and ended up leaving with a ton of pamphlets and they recommended many of the attractions we list below.
Historic Downtown Ocala
Without question, one of the top things to do in Ocala is to visit historic Downtown Ocala. The square has a lovely gazebo and you always see people hanging out on benches or strolling along past the various restaurants that surround the square.
Historic Downtown Ocala also has a lot of public parking, most of which is free. You don’t see that very often, so it’s definitely something we appreciate.
First Fridays In Ocala
One of the most popular Downtown Ocala events is First Fridays. As the name implies, this Ocala event takes place the first Friday of every month from September through May from 6pm to 9 pm.
It’s free and takes place throughout Downtown Ocala. Local artists line the streets with their work, there are live musical performances, and there are family art activities. Many of the shops in downtown stay open longer too, so it’s a great time to explore and support local small businesses.
Ocala Painted Horse Statues
As you wander around Historic Downtown Ocala, or as you drive around the rest of the city, you may see a few painted horse statues. Originally, there were over 50 of these horse statues and they were part of the Horse Fever Project, which helped support the Marion Cultural Alliance and other charities.
Many of the painted horses are now privately owned, but you can still see them sprinkled throughout Ocala. We were always on the lookout for them and in total we found 11.
Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology
A great place to learn more about the area is the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology. The exhibits in the museum cover over 13,000 years and they are broken down nicely into different sections. The exhibits are also changed frequently and are created by staff that are obviously very passionate about the area.
Appleton Museum of Art
We absolutely loved the Appleton Museum of Art! Yes, it’s an art museum. But it’s so much more than that! It’s more of a cultural center that displays both art and artifacts from all over the world; there are over 18,000 pieces in their permanent collection.
Those interested in attending fun Ocala events should check out the museums calendar of events. The museum offers classes for all ages, special talks, and even concerts! There are also rotating exhibits throughout the year.
Silver Springs State Park
If you’re looking for things to do in Ocala with kids, we definitely recommend visiting Silver Springs State Park. It’s one of the top Ocala attractions and is considered Florida’s first tourist attraction.
The springs are beautiful and clear and can best be seen by taking the park’s famous glass bottom boat tour. You get to see wildlife and vegetation up close that way. And because of the water’s clarity, many classic movies and shows have been filmed at the springs. On the boat tour you will also see leftover props that are still in the water from movies such as “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
The park also has walking trails and even a campground where you can rent cabins. If you’d like to spend more time on the water, we recommend kayaking or canoeing.
Silver River Museum
Located in a different section of Silver Springs State Park is the Silver River Museum. The $2 entry fee applies for both the park and museum, just keep your receipt. And you will have to drive from one to the other since the entrance to the museum is different than the main entrance to the park.
The museum is open to the public on weekends and consists of various exhibits about the natural history of the area. Outside, there are also recreations of a pioneer settlement and segregation-era African-American one-room schoolhouse.
History buffs should visit Fort King National Historic Landmark. Fort King played a pivotal role during the Second Seminole War. It was here that famous Seminole Osceola took his first major stand against the U.S. Army.
Visitors will now see a recreation of the second Fort King that was originally built in 1837. There is also a visitors center, interpretive trail, and picnic facilities.
Official Florida Flamingo Museum
There are a few free things to do in Ocala, but visiting the Official Florida Flamingo Museum is probably the quirkiest! Cindy Dunlow has loved and collected flamingo-related items since she was a child. A few years ago, she actually broke the Guinness World Record for most flamingo items!
Currently, she was over 1200 flamingo-related items and you can see them all inside her custom frame shop, Cindy Dunlow Frames. It’s amazing how many things there are with flamingos. We even saw flamingo toilet paper! We had the pleasure of meeting Cindy the day that we stopped in and she was so sweet and told us all about her collection.
Tuscawilla Art Park
Another of the things to do in Ocala with kids that we recommend is a visit to Tuscawilla Art Park. The three-acre park was created in cooperation with local artists and groups so that people of all ages could enjoy it.
The grounds have public art, gardens, and walkways that meander throughout the park. There is also a stage where concerts and other cultural events regularly take place. Tuscawilla Art Park is also a popular place to conduct photo shoots.
Just north of Tuscawilla Art Park is the Ocala Skatepark, another fun place to take the kiddos. We saw plenty of kids on skateboards and bikes and even families playing football on the grass next to the skatepark.
When you visit Ocala, if you’re looking for a really beautiful and tranquil place to walk, meditate, or even contemplate life, we recommend visiting Sholom Park. We’ve been there multiple times and can’t wait to return.
The park is a private property, created by Sidney and Ina Colen. However, the park is free and was intentionally made so that everyone could come and find a peaceful place to reflect and enjoy their surroundings. There are multiple trails that are all interconnected, weaving between magnificent tall trees and beautiful gardens.
Veterans Memorial Park
The Veterans Memorial Park in Ocala is a lovely way to recognize the ultimate sacrifice many have paid for this country. Made of over 5,000 bricks, the memorial also has plaques and benches that tell the history of all wars, conflicts, and battles beginning with the Indian Wars in 1628.
Ocala Scenic Drives
The area surrounding Ocala is pretty impressive but some of the most scenic drives in Ocala are south of the city along State Highway 475. We spent an afternoon driving south along this route, looping east towards the city of Belleview, and then back north towards Ocala.
We pulled the car over by ranches to look at horses up close and stopped to take photos of the trees creating what looked like a tunnel over the road. It was a great way to explore the area and see a different side of the city.
While on the south side of the city, we recommend visiting the Santos Trailhead. Mountain biking in Ocala is very popular and there are over 80 miles of bike trails at Santos. Even if you don’t have a bike, though, you can still enjoy the park. There are both hiking trails and a paved multi-use path.
Ocala National Forest
Because of the shear size of it, there are a lot of things to do in Ocala National Forest. It’s the southernmost forest in the continental US and within its 387,000 acres it has over 600 lakes, rivers, and springs.
The biggest natural springs in Ocala National Forest are Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs, Juniper Springs, and Alexander Springs. These springs produce millions of gallons of beautiful crystal clear water daily that stay at a constant 72 degrees all year round.
Besides swimming, kayaking, and other water activities, the Ocala National Forest hiking trails are also very popular. We hiked a few of the trails and were impressed with the natural beauty we saw.
Ocala National Forest is also home to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. The award-winning author of The Yearling, and many other books, was inspired by her surroundings when living in the forest. You can take a tour of her impeccably preserved home and learn about her and her work.
Ocala In December
We’ve been to Ocala multiple times now and each visit has been at different times of the year. However, being in Ocala in December is especially fun and festive.
We’ve already mentioned how much we love historic Downtown Ocala, but during the holiday season the square is lit up beautifully with lights and a giant Christmas tree. Nightlife in Ocala literally revolves around downtown, and it seems everyone is out enjoying the lights and atmosphere.
Another of the Ocala events that we recommend is the annual Christmas Parade. The whole city turns out for it (and people from around the county), lining the parade route with chairs and blankets hours before it even starts. There are a lot of floats and the parade lasts just over an hour and a half.
Also in December, Fort King does their annual recreation of a battle that took place at the fort between Seminole Indians and the US Army in December of 1835. Everyone is dressed in period clothing and besides the reenactment there are also demonstrations and vendors.
Additional Things To Do In Ocala
Even though we’ve spent a lot of time in town, there are still more Ocala attractions that we would like to visit the next time we’re there. We don’t have personal experience with these, but we’ve heard good things about them so we’ll list them here for you:
- Go horse back riding in Ocala; after all it is the “Horse Capital of the World.”
- Visit the Florida Carriage & Car Museum. The last time we checked it was undergoing renovations.
- Visit the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners Association Museum and Gallery.
- Visit the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
- Go zip-lining with The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours.
Where To Eat And Drink In Ocala
It’s hard to narrow down the best places to eat in Ocala because there are so many good restaurants and bars in town! There are obviously a lot around Downtown Ocala, but throughout the city there are great food options.
For great Southern cooking, we recommend Brick City Southern Kitchen & Whiskey Bar; we had the Shrimp & Grits and they were amazing. For BBQ we recommend Big Lee’s Food Truck. Vicky freely admits to not caring much for BBQ, even after eating in Kansas City, but the Brisket Stuffed Mac-N-Cheese is something she still dreams about.
If you’re a wine lover, we recommend Katya Vineyards. They have a tasting room in Downtown Ocala and they offer wine tastings for $15 and an incredible menu created by Chef Tony Deras. For beer lovers, we recommend the brewery Infinite Ale Works. They have 34 craft beers and ciders on tap and you can purchase a flight of four Infinite Ale Works Brews for $10.
Hotels In Ocala
As we mentioned earlier, we were house sitting while in Ocala so we didn’t have to stay in any hotels. There are plenty to choose from though; some close to downtown and others right off of I-75. We recommend checking the hotel rates below.
Things To Do Near Ocala
Aside from everything in town, we also found a ton of things to do near Ocala. They were all day trips and easy to get to. Because we were taking care of a pet during our house sit in Ocala, we couldn’t be gone for more than a day.
Because we ended up doing so many day trips, we’ll go into more detail in a future post. Stay tuned!
Final Thoughts On Fun Things To Do In Ocala
We know Central Florida often gets overlooked, or people head straight to Disney World and then leave. But in reality, there are a lot of fun things to do in Ocala and the surrounding area. Beautiful parks, fascinating museums, fun outdoor activities, entertaining nightlife, and mouthwatering restaurants. Ocala is a city that has something for everyone.