The drive between Tampa/St. Pete and Orlando can be a pretty monotonous one. There's Dinosaur World and the Fantasy of Flight wartime air museum that call out to drivers and their passengers but seemingly little else to make note of on that stretch of Interstate 4. I recently discovered, however, that Lakeland is a hidden gem smack-dab in the middle of that trek between the theme parks and the Gulf Coast that is worthy of at least a half-day visit.
For lovers of history and architecture, this is especially true. History buffs will find plenty of structures in Lakeland that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Terrace Hotel, the New Florida Hotel, the Polk Theatre and the Park Trammel Building.
The Munn Park Historic District, with its rows of retail spaces built in the early 20th century, is a hub for antiquing and architecture. The neoclassical design of the 1.2-acre Hollis Garden draws visitors with its stunning botanical displays and sculptures. On a recent visit, the place was full of photographers, professionals and amateurs alike.
One of the biggest draws to Lakeland is Florida Southern College and its Frank Lloyd Wright structures. In 2012, the Florida Southern College Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service for its distinction as the world's largest single-site collection of Wright's architecture.
Wright's connection to the school began when Florida Southern College president Ludd M. Spivey, whose vision was of developing a "College of Tomorrow," visited Wright with a proposal to design the Florida Southern College campus. In 1938, ground was broken on the first of 18 planned structures on the campus. Wright saw just 12 of those buildings completed before his death in 1959. The last Wright-designed structure at FSC, the Usonian House, was dedicated in 2013.
The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center, located at 840 Johnson Ave., is the starting point for a tour that takes guests throughout the campus to give context to the sights; the docents are extremely knowledgeable about the architect's life and the relationship between Wright and the school. Groups larger than 10 guests are required to schedule a specialty tour, but online reservations for the public tours are available on the Florida Southern College website. The Usonian House, one of 20 faculty houses Wright designed, can be toured for an additional $10 fee. The film shown inside, "Florida Southern College, Frank Lloyd Wright's American Campus," should be essential viewing before truly appreciating the incredible scope of work here.
Central Florida's dining revolution is making its way here, too, with the opening of Nineteen61, helmed by chef Marcos Fernandez. He's dedicated to upscale Latin cuisine like sous vide Spanish octopus with smoked baby potatoes; Peruvian anticuchos cooked over the wood-fired grill; and duck mofongo.
The Poor Porker, an indoor-outdoor dining and retail space, is another must-visit in Lakeland. There are midcentury furnishings and kitsch for sale, pillowy beignets covered in powdered sugar and craft beers at the next-door Corner Store. Home accessories and locally made clothing can be had at BearCat and Big 6 Trading Post.
There was so much more for me to see that I couldn't fit in during my quick visit to Lakeland, like Native American mounds, historical cemeteries, taking in a Detroit Tigers spring training game, the Lake Mirror Historic tour and more. It won't be long before I make a return visit.