Seeking Culture & History in Tallahassee

My friend Lesley and I met in anthropology class a few years back—a requirement for her major, an elective for mine. Although our interests are different academically, what we do for fun is the exact same. I love that I can always ring up Lesley when there’s a new gallery opening or festival, and she’s always down to come along.

Lesley’s looking into a masters program in anthropology at Florida State, but is the program worth the relocation? I tagged along on her road trip to Tallahassee to weigh the pros and cons.

Tallahassee sits in the Florida Panhandle and has a mix of Southern charm and diverse cultural history. The ongoing influx of college students keeps energy high (FAMU is also in town), but the state capital is a center of activity for other reasons, too—from politics and history to the lush outdoors. I knew we would find plenty to do on our investigative trek.

Day 1: Assessing Tallahassee’s Cultural Side

We started our late morning at Mission San Luis, a 17th-century landmark and archaeological site. Our guide wore period clothing, but she wasn’t the only character living in the past—the blacksmith hammering away at a horseshoe over a fragrant open fire really sold the historic atmosphere. We toured the mission’s grounds while period interpreters regaled us with stories of how the area was first home to the Apalachee, and later became a Spanish mission with an onsite church and fort.

After the tour, we wandered the beautiful indoor gallery, which featured Spanish colonial paintings, relics of the Roman Catholic faith, and Apalachee artifacts that were excavated from these same grounds. So far, we both agreed this experience places a checkmark in the pro column.

Mission San Luis

Next, we headed for what we heard was one of the best treats Downtown has to offer, the Railroad Square Art Park—10 acres of local artistry, fitness activities, drinks and dining all dedicated to cultivating today’s culture. The former lumberyard-turned-industrial-park is a full-on creative haven where woodworkers, sculptors, photographers, and painters work and host events. We could easily spend an entire day or week here alone. But first, we needed lunch. 

The Crum Box Gast Garden is known for their grilled sausage sandwiches, and I had mine spicy (do it, if you can). We also wet our whistles with fresh pours of Lucky Goat, the gourmet coffee at Black Dog on the Square. Our tanks full, we headed straight for the contemporary works at 621 Gallery, Inc. and South of Soho Cooperative Art Gallery.  At 621, we loved the bold whimsy of Jourdan Joly’s mixed media sculptures. His work is playful, but extraordinary in detail and craftsmanship. Lesley particularly loved how easily we could hop from one art studio to the next. “I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” Lesley said excitedly. I knew without even asking: it’s another check in the pros.

Day 2: Discovering Tallahassee’s History

Over breakfast, we searched online for historical attractions and found the John G. Riley House and Museum, in the former Smokey Hollow neighborhood east of downtown. It’s a center for Tallahassee’s African American heritage—smaller museums like this are a dream for history lovers like us, because they have such a tailored focus.

Soon after we walked through the century-old building’s wood and glass-paned double doors, we were transported to an era and neighborhood that was home to an active black middle class in the 1890s. We particularly appreciated how well The Riley House was preserved to both affirm this community, and operate as a vibrant cultural center. We took the guided Landmarks & Legacies tour, which lead us through sites like the Historic Frenchtown Community and the Meek-Eaton Black Archives at FAMU (we totally geeked out on the architectural details of the old buildings).

John G. Riley House and Museum

To keep the feel-good times rolling, Lesley and I decided to head north for the evening to enjoy some soulful blues at Bradfordville Blues Club, a backwoods mom-and-pop joint where we found a bustling crowd and a legacy of historic American music. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, but a different artist performs each night, so the wait is worth it.  The cozy venue has plenty of personality, with portraits of Blues legends—including E.C. Scott and Jimmy Rogers—serving as wall and tabletop decor.

Colin Hackley at Bradfordville Blues Club
Photo Credit: Colin Hackley

During a set break, Lesley and I hopped over to the fried catfish stand next door and devoured a delicious, fresh serving with a side of fries. We also used the intermission as a chance to chat up the club musicians. They often hang outside by the bonfire, swapping stories and enjoying the fresh air. “I could easily see myself hanging out here after a long week of studies,” Lesley said to me we approached the bonfire.

A drummer we met told us that Tallahassee has tons going on in the springtime, too. There’s Word of the South, a literature and music festival with multiple stages and hours of entertainment. Springtime Tallahassee is another gem of a weekend featuring live music, a parade, and tons of arts and crafts and food vendors. “I’ll have to check those out when spring semester starts,” Lesley told the drummer. Then she said to me, “You’ll have to come visit then.”

It seems her decision was made, and it was a good one. Living history thrives at every turn and culture spills from every corner in Tallahassee. I’m excited for her, because it’s clear that she’ll be living in a city full of history, art, and culture (perfect for an anthropology nut seeking a masters).

In fact, the only con I could think of was that I’d no longer be able to quickly ring Lesley to attend cultural events with me. Then I remembered that I got to visit, and that’s a pro for me.

Discover Tallahassee’s artful and historic soul.


Visit Tallahassee


Leon County Division of Tourism (Visit Tallahassee)

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