Travel Like a Local: Ocala, Florida

Travel Like a Local: Ocala, Florida

Words by Rebecca Deurlein

Photos contributed by Ocala/Marion County CVB

While mouse ears and beaches might be top of mind when it comes to Florida, Ocala is distinctly different, a forested enclave that is rural and quiet. Known as the Horse Capital of the World, it is dominated by horse farms and famous for its World Equestrian Center (WEC), where riders come from far-flung regions to compete in hunter/jumper shows and Grand Prix events. Ocala is a place for horse lovers, yes, but it’s also a city that stays true to its Florida roots, with dining, shops, and adventures that make you forget about the mouse ears. Whether you make it your sole destination or part of your Florida road trip, Ocala will show you a side of the Sunshine State you won’t want to miss. 


To fully soak up the horse country vibe, rest your head at The Equestrian Hotel, a luxury resort that sits adjacent to the World Equestrian Center. The hotel is centrally located on an enormous property filled with A-Class stables, indoor and outdoor arenas, ponds, and horse trails meandering through live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. As you make your approach, your initial view of the hotel will bring a gasp. It is grand, but the rooms are so intimately close to the main arena that you can pull your chair up to the windows of your well-appointed room, sip your morning coffee, and watch the athletes compete. Onsite restaurants give you an opportunity to sit jeans-to-breeches with riders, and a stroll around the lush property is guaranteed to restore peace to your soul. Or check out the recently opened and pet-friendly The Riding Academy Hotel, a sister resort on the same property as The Equestrian and WEC. It features upscale suites with separate sleeping and living quarters and Sub-Zero refrigerators, along with the chic and whimsical equestrian theme found in the posh lobbies and guest rooms. 


The best way to begin sampling the dozens of delicious local restaurants in downtown Ocala is to join Brick City Food Tours. Guides will lead you on an informative walk that includes four sit-down tasting locations—so, bonus—you can get a lay of the land in addition to the treats. If you came to Florida to dine on the water, visit The Blue Gator on the Withlacoochee River. The tiki bar and restaurant serve classic Florida fare, such as fried gator bites and baskets of grouper fingers. Or take a seat on the spacious deck at Swampy’s Bar & Grille and dig into a Po Boy while watching a family of otters practice their barrel roll on the Rainbow River. For something completely different, meet local celebrity chef and Food Network’s BBQ Brawl winner Rashad Jones. His Master of ‘Cue food truck has been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and now you can visit his first brick-and-mortar location at Big Lee’s Serious About BBQ. Order a brisket sandwich, then purchase it by the pound to take with you.


When in Florida, you must buy oranges, and there’s no better place than The Orange Shop. Opened in 1936, this local establishment grows, picks, hand-packs, and sells a huge variety of citrus, including lesser-known Temples and Tangy Tangerine Tangos. Don’t leave without honey and pecans. At The Juniper General Store just around the corner from the WEC, you can enjoy a beer or a coffee while perusing the local dry goods, gifts, and souvenirs. Historic Downtown Ocala offers boutiques, gift shops, and antique stores, and if the timing works, be sure to attend First Friday Art Walk for some community spirit. If you fall in love with The Equestrian Hotel, you can take it home with you. The new Equestrian Collection boutique features the same luxury linens, furnishings, and home décor you’ll find in your room and throughout the hotel. Sferra cashmere, A Soft Idea throw blankets, luxe robes from the hotel’s Calluna Spa, Holly Holden place settings, Corbell Silver antiques, and William Yeoward Crystal—it’s all there in its finery. 


Ocala outdoor adventures abound, whether in the sky, on the land, or over the water. Start at The Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park, home of Florida’s longest, fastest, and highest over-water zip lines. If you don’t have a need for speed, the park also offers kayaking, horseback riding, and gem mining. For a little water action, launch a tube at KP Hole Park or Rainbow Springs State Park and take a float down the Rainbow River. The water maintains its 72-degree temperature year-round, so you can enjoy a refreshing dip after a day in the Florida sunshine. Or rent a bike at one of many shops and hit the trails. Ocala National Forest offers designated trails for all abilities, and for the thrill seekers, Santos Trails are nationally recognized for mountain biking adventure. For indoor exploration, you can spend an entire day at Appleton Museum of Art. Permanent collections highlight Florida and equestrian art, of course, but the museum covers everything from historical African and Asian works to modern and contemporary pieces.