Last Updated on December 21, 2023

If you’re heading towards central Florida, consider skipping Orlando for the charms of its northern neighbor: Seminole County. It’s more than theme parks and tee-shirt shops. Seminole County offers natural attractions, chef-driven restaurants, and entertainment. It has less traffic and parking is free.

Seminole County is an emerging destination. With fewer theme parks and more natural attractions, it offers a look at real Florida with natural attractions, chef-driven restaurants, less traffic and free parking.

About that name. The local tourism folks use “Orlando North” because when attending conventions and events for visitor bureaus, people would ask: “Seminole County? Are you near the Everglades?” The headwaters of the Everglades are near here, but Everglades National Park is more than 250 miles away.

Since Disney made Orlando known worldwide, this area capitalizes on its location just to the north. If you really want to see that mouse, he’s about 30-miles away. Since accommodations are much cheaper in Seminole County, you can save money and drive into Orlando.

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Garden

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Garden is Sanford’s top spot for learning about our fellow creatures. There’s Rae, a rescued American Bald Eagle, injured as a fledgling and unable to survive in the wild. Her neighbors include two bear siblings, Ella and Guignard, captured as cubs and kept as pets.

You’ll meet Herby, the chicken, Kookie, the goat, Morton, the alpaca, llama, pigmy, Boar, Nigerian goats and other livestock in the petting zoo. If you feel a bond with the sloths, it may be because they imitate some human behavior. Our guide told us that they eat food that is not highly nutritious and sleep a lot in the wild.

The zoo houses over 400 animals from big cats to primates. Altogether, there are over 150 species here.

The zoo garden is beautiful and set up in many cases where the animal inhabitants can munch on the plants. The zoo has places for visitors to grab a quick snack also.

Cultural Corridor

Orlando North Nightlife
© Kathleen Walls

For those who enjoy more urban fun, head to downtown Sanford and check out its Cultural Corridor. This bricked stretch of Sanford Avenue features signs along its Pathways to History telling the history of early Sanford. You can park your car and ride the Free Trolley anywhere in Sanford’s historic downtown.

Restaurants, art galleries, pubs, breweries, antique shops, and boutiques abound on Sanford Avenue and the side streets.

Sanford Ghost Tour

A unique Sanford nighttime treat is the Sanford Ghost Tour. Even for nonbelievers, it’s fun. Gary Holmes, your guide, who also owns Sanford Homebrew Shop, is a knowledgeable Sanford resident.

Gary will tell you a lot of the city’s history, how it once was the Celery producing capital of the world. Also, learn about the dark side of the town’s history. One spot on the tour is the old fire station, which served as a jail, armory, and city hall. It is now two stories, but once it had a third story that served as a courtroom.

Another of the haunted spots is Willow Tree Café. The bartender on duty told us of an experience he had. The bar has many decorative steins in keeping with its German theme. One of the steins kept moving when no one was around.

Gary worked there before he bought Sanford Homebrew Shop; he relayed that there was a mannequin upstairs that often was moved to a different spot when he worked there. Still, none of the staff had moved her. Gary believes there are two spirits there, an old man and a young girl. He believes the young girl is more of a poltergeist spirit, and the older man directs her energy.

Willow Tree Café

Willow Café
© Kathleen Walls

This is a place you will want to enjoy for dinner before or after your tour. It feels like a visit to Germany without the airfare. Enjoy authentic dishes like—German Potato Salad or giant pretzels with a cheesy dip. Try Weinkraut Esbein, Jager Schnitzel; and for dessert, German Chocolate Cake.

The German band, Jimmy and Eckhart, is better than most Vegas acts. The décor completes the illusion of a Bavarian village.

Wondermade

Wondermade, Orlando North
© Kathleen Walls

Wondermade is another place to experience unusual desserts. They make and export marshmallows around the world. It all began when co-founder Nathan Clark gifted his wife with a candy thermometer and a marshmallow recipe.

Their Bourbon Marshmallows are over the top, and the ice cream is fantastic. If you become addicted to marshmallows, they offer workshops on some fancy ways to enjoy them.

Sanford Limo Cycle Tour

Sanford Limo Cycle Tour
© Kathleen Walls

If you haven’t tried a Limo Cycle Tour, you are missing out. Sanford’s Limo Cycle is a 15-passenger tour-mobile with 10 pedal seats that you pedal like a bicycle. For those who are feeling lazy, five seats are non-pedal, and there’s an electric motor to assist half-hearted pedaling. You can pub-crawl and not have to worry about drinking and driving.

Wop’s Hops Brewing Company

Breweries are popping up like weeds in downtown Sanford. Most have courtyards and allow dogs. All are kid-friendly.

Wop’s Hops Brewing Company is Sanford’s first microbrewery. It’s in a historic 1924 landmark, Stokes Fish Market building. The building was the Fish Market from 1947 to 1975. They don’t serve food, but you can bring your own or order from many nearby restaurants.

Sanford Brewing Company

Another brewhouse, Sanford Brewing Company, offers open Mic on Mondays and Trivia on Tuesdays. They serve handcrafted beer, ciders, meads, and specialty sodas. Their huge Fried Pretzel with Beer Cheese Dip, burgers, or meatball sandwiches and a kid’s food menu make everyone happy. Furry friends are welcome at patio tables.

Deviant Wolfe Brewery

They are the new kid on the block, having opened in February 2018. Though the brewery is new, the historic building Deviant calls home isn’t. It was a bank back in the 1930s or 40’s. The vault door is preserved, and a large brick wall built in the 1920s sits on one side of the taproom. They’re pet friendly

Celery City Craft

It is a taproom that showcases craft beers. It has a bistro menu with light food and snacks. It’s also dog-friendly.

Imperial

Downtown Sanford prides itself on being unique. A perfect example is the Imperial. By day it’s an import antique shop, and at 5 PM, it morphs into a crafty cocktail bar.

Barbara Lee

You don’t have to stay on land for entertainment. Enjoy dining and dancing on the water with a dinner cruise on the Barbara Lee, a locally owned paddlewheel boat. You can choose a day cruise where you see the county from a different viewpoint or nighttime for the entertainment and food.

Goldsboro’s Historical Museum

There’s a lot of history in Sanford, but the rest of the county has its share as well. A part that is often overlooked is African American. Goldsboro was founded in 1891 by William Clark, the brother of Joseph Clark. The latter founded Eatonville, Florida’s first black town in neighboring Orange County.

Goldsboro’s Historical Museum is housed in a modest double-wide trailer but so worth a visit. History is showcased in a room labeled the “Trailblazers of Goldsboro” shows those early Goldsboro citizens. Another room shows the symbols that were used to degrade Black people, like picaninny dolls and a mammy.

Several other buildings tell Goldsboro’s story, Crooms Academy, Art Center, Garden, Francis Oliver Cultural Center, and Page Jackson Cemetery. Goldsboro flourished as an independent city until 1911. Local politicians dissolved Goldsboro’s charter and forced it to become part of Sanford.

Ritz Theater

For nighttime entertainment, the Ritz is a classic. It was built in 1923 and operates as Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center offering live performances, concerts, and classic movies.

Sanford Art Walk

If you’re visiting on the third Saturday of the month from 6-9 PM, you can enjoy the Sanford Art Walk along historic 1st Street and dine from one of the food trucks.

Airboat with the Eagles

Eagles spotted on an airboat tour
© Kathleen Walls

While in Orlando North head to Oviedo and get close to nature. Try an airboat ride on Lake Jesup, the lake with the largest concentration of alligators in the U.S. You are pretty sure to spot a few and maybe even a pair of eagles.

Our captain drove the airboat around a small island called Bird Island, where we spotted even more birds, this time wading birds. He is an experienced birder and very keen at identifying birds.

Their Lazy Gator Bar and Black Hammock Gift Shop have resident parrots and macaws who will talk to you from their chain-link enclosure. You can dine in the restaurant if you wish.

Wekiva Island in Orlando North

Wekiva Island - Orlando North
© Kathleen Walls

This is another natural spot. It’s a river haven where you can enjoy nature your own way. You can fish from designated areas or reserve your own cabana. You’re sure to see lots of wildlife, alligators, otters, deer, bears, and wading birds.

I choose to kayak. The river was quiet, and I saw a few alligators and a lot of wading birds. I paddled down as far as the entrance to Wekiwa State Park. You can choose your own adventure. They rent kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, or you can bring your own small boat. Nothing over 25 HP is allowed here.

After your adventure, enjoy a drink at the semi-outdoor bar called the Tooting Otter and try the food and bar located under a large tent pavilion. I tried the Coconut Shrimp with French fries and slaw. The food was amazing.

They do several events; Wednesdays are Wine and Paint Days. Wind Down Wednesday is similar but features a local winery. A popular annual event is Winter Wonderland. Santa and snow reign. Because this is Florida, the snow is manmade.

Wekiwa Springs State Park

In Orlando North, the park is located off Route 46. The entrance is on the Orange County side of the Orange/Seminole line, but it’s a great base for campers. It’s about a mile and a half west of Wekiva Island off Wekiva Springs Road. In case you’re wondering about the different spelling, “Wekiwa” was the Creek word for “flowing waters,” and settlers misunderstood it as “Wekiva.”

The park has 60 spacious camp sites. Each site has water, an electrical hook-up, a fire ring and grill, and a picnic table.

You could spend days at this park there is so much to do. On hot days, swimming in this crystal-clear spring is a treat. It’s 72 degrees year-round. The spring bubbles up out of the ground inside the swimming area.

Paddle the spring in a canoe, or kayak. Rentals are available at the concession stand. It’s about a 1-mile paddle back to Wekiva Island.

There’s a small Nature Center near the springs that illuminates native wildlife. When you want to chill out, there are picnic tables, and a concession stand for soft drinks and snacks.

Dining Spots in Orlando North

Gator’s Riverside Grille, located east of downtown on the St. Johns River, has great seafood and great wings. You can drive there or go by boat.

Route 46 Entertainment District. You’ll find tender barbeque at the Smokehouse and then stroll over next door to the Garage Bar for dancing and entertainment. There’s a feeling of a museum here with antique cars around the front and country-style memorabilia inside the Smokehouse. For something unique try, The Tennessee Truffle. Memphis native, Chef Nat Russell, specializes in farm-to-table Southern fusion cooking.

On Saturdays, there’s Lake Mary Farmers Market on the square. You can dine across the Street at Lonnie’s Fusion Cuisine. From the out-front tables, you can enjoy the music from the farmer’s market and watch the shoppers

Author

  • Kathleen Walls

    Kathleen Walls, a former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. Originally from New Orleans, she currently resides in Middleburg, FL and has lived in Florida most of her life while traveling extensively.