After Jacksonville and St. Augustine, my mom and I drove down to Ocala to spend the last two days of our mother/daughter trip to Florida. Ocala is a lesser-known place to visit in Florida, but one that a local told me was a “do not miss” because of the beautiful Silver Springs State Park. While I won’t be able to tell you all the top things to do in Ocala since I was here just two days, I will tell you what I prioritized doing for these two days after much research online.
It was easy to add to an itinerary, just a short drive from Jacksonville than we easily flew out of Orlando airport. Ocala itself is spread out with some things to do here located in nearby Dunnellon, so I recommend having a rental car to visit here. Ocala is known for its beautiful horses and the Silver Springs State Park, but there is more to it than that!
Of course, you will want to visit the park, so let’s start there! The idea of getting in a glass-bottom boat made me a little nervous, but it’s the only way to go out on the water here – you can’t do SUP or go swimming as it’s protected. I thought “what can we really see under the water?” Turns out, quite a lot!
The boat tour is just 45 minutes long and while I’m normally bored for tours to get over, it actually flew by. Our driver was really funny and told us some interesting stories – plus we got to see a alligator! You wouldn’t believe how clear this water is and how DEEP it goes, according to him, all the way to China. In reality, they don’t know. Specialists have come out to cave dive, but can only go down so far because the rocks get too close together and they’d get stuck – so we will never know how deep it goes.
Tons of water flows out of here into the ocean from a spring (which you’ll see bubbling underneath on the tour) which is very important because if it didn’t and we tried to keep the water as drinking water, then Florida would literally go underwater because this pressure going out keeps the sea from coming in! They have filmed tons of movies here like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and there are movie props still underwater.
You might also see monkeys. You might wonder why monkeys are in Florida. Some say it’s because of when they filmed Tarzan here and some monkeys escaped. Others say the guy who started this park (before it was a state park) brought them in as part of a tourist attraction.
I really wanted to swim in the water but since you can’t we went to KP Hole aka “rainbow springs” on the other day we were there, which has the SAME clear blue perfect water and you can swim, SUP, and kayak in it.
When you take off you’ll go with the current, so be careful not to get too far away because you’ll be tired going back up. On the other hand, you can use a third party when you book that will actually pick you up down the river and bring you back up! You can rent inner tubes and actually just float down – which we saw many families doing. Locals were saying how cold the water was in October but being from Ohio, we thought it was just perfect. As always, mom could have stayed out there all day but my arms gave out way before hers would have.
Ocala is really about nature in a lot of ways with the beautiful lagoons and the horse fields, and while we didn’t have time to visit any, you will see them anyway – as you drive past hundreds on the way in, out, and around town.
There are some seriously stunning mansions with horse farms outside but there are also normal houses, fenced in, with the horses just in the front yard like you’d see someone do with their dog. How cool is that!? Someone told us that the horses that are in Kentucky for Derby and such, come down to Florida for the winters.
While you’re out in Dunnellon at KP Hole, take a little detour to Just a Cupcake Bakery.
Everyone will tell you (as many people did for me on Instagram) that this is the best salad anywhere near Ocala. The tex-mex salad was delicious and it’s all made in-house, even the salsa. My mom had the Cuban sandwich was was delicious and the cole slaw, which we asked for the recipe for. I won’t tell you what it is but will say she doesn’t add vinegar, she keeps it simple!
Of course, you need cupcakes and they have about 30 flavors to choose from! We got birthday cake and mimosa, made with real champagne.
While we spent a lot of time in the surrounding areas of Ocala in Marion County, we spent our evenings in downtown Ocala. It is such a cute little town – almost like something out of a movie.
There are brick roads with cute boutiques, restaurants, and many wine shops which of course we had to pop into. The coolest one was Corkscrew where you can make your own wine. We went in not even knowing that but because we sign a sign for a $5 flight of wine tasters.
Wanting a great roof top view, we next with to Pi On Broadway for a beer and some guacamole! Their pizzas looked good, but we had to save room for dinner at what we were told would be our best meal in town.
For dinner, we went to The Ivy House and this pasta was the perfect way to end the trip because I can actually still taste it now if I really think about it – it’s the best pasta I think I’ve ever had. Seriously. It was a seafood pasta but I just got the shrimp. The sauce was lemony and kind of creamy – while most are little oily, this wasn’t at all. Mom got the chicken with mac and cheese and corn bread. I stole her corn bread. We also got huge side salads as our sides, and they were really good, too! This was a perfect meal; don’t miss it.
Inside the restaurant, they had these old photos of town back in the day. Pretty cool!
This mother-daughter trip was all about shopping, eating, SUP, and spa so of course we had to check out the best spa in the area. We went to the Ranch Spa and Fitness Center for massages and facials. We both got the hot stone massage (I love them and it was mom’s first time having one) and we both loved it. Such a great way to end the trip! Mom and I also had facials which were so good before our flights home.
While we weren’t there long, we did fit in quite a bit – although there is so much more than I hope I get to come back to this area again. We stayed at the Best Western which is off the highway next to all the other hotels like Hilton, Hampton Inn, etc and near a Cracker Barrel and some other restaurants. Downtown Ocala is a small town and I didn’t even see hotels in town, so this is definitely the area to stay. Plus, this gets you closer to going to Silver Springs and other places you visit outside town.
Our hotel was a great location, clean, had a pool, and had a huge epic breakfast with what is most important to me: multiple flavors of coffee creamer, lol! We loved our time and I’d definitely stay here again if we came back. This hotel was nearly renovated this year making it the best hotel in Ocala area.
Pin these things to do in Ocala for later:
This trip was a paid campaign with Visit Florida. I choose the activities I do and places I visit; all opinions are my own.
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