Lakeland, one of Florida’s hidden gems

 

In just under an hour drive from Tampa, Lakeland is a city that is worth a daytime visit. The city is known for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, an affinity for swans and an abundance of lakes.

 

Lake Mirror, downtown Lakeland. Photo by Emily McCain

The swans in Lakeland serve as unofficial mascots. You can find them as statues, in the city logo and at almost any of the city’s 38 lakes. But what most people don’t know is that the swans are local royalty.

Sleeping swan at Lake Morton. Photo by Emily McCain

In the 50s, the local swan population slowly disappeared. When two former residents heard about the swans’ disappearance, they appealed to the Queen of England for help.

Queen Elizabeth agreed to donate two swans from the royal flock living on the River Thames. She only asked that the city pays for the crating and shipping costs. $300 later, two white mute swans were on their way to Lakeland.

Today decedents of those swans can be found all around the town. One place you can visit to see them is Lake Mirror, right in the heart of downtown.

Lake Mirror is a popular place to hold events, weddings and just enjoy a nice walk. The lake is surrounded by the historic Francis Langford Promenade. The promenade is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The cobblestone promenade is named after Francis Langford, an actress and singer from Lakeland. The walk along the promenade is about a mile. It includes the community theater, a children’s park, a garden bistro and a lakefront botanical garden.

If you really want to interact with the swans, make the short walk from Lake Mirror to Lake Morton. This lake is where most of the swans can be found and where most people go to feed them.

Make sure you bring some change with you because around the lake you’ll come across a few swan feed dispensers. The city installed the dispensers to help manage what the swans are fed.

Many people like to bring white bread to feed the swans but it can be harmful to the birds in large amounts. If you don’t have change for the dispensers, you can bring things like lettuce, spinach and whole oats.

If you’re coming to town on a Saturday, start your day at the curbside farmers market. It stretches through downtown right alongside local restaurants and coffee shops.

Mitchell’s Coffee House is just a step away from the market. They’ve been serving gourmet coffee and pastries in town for two decades. You can even bring in your own mug and they’ll hold on to it for your next visit.

If you’re looking for a more eclectic atmosphere, then stop by 801 E Main. Named for its physical address, this open-air café was once a gas station. The marketplace features three distinct brands inside.

You can visit The Poor Porker food truck, where you can get coffee and beignets. You can sit outside to eat or head inside toward the Bar Calexico.

Strawberry Chocolate Beignet from The Poor Porker. Photo by Emily McCain

The bar serves local beer and specialty drinks and acts as a live music venue. While inside you can also stop in at Bearcat and Big Six trading post.

For more drinks, you can head down to Cob and Pen. The gastropub’s name comes from the local royals. A male swan is called a cob and a female is called a pen. The pub offers 16 rotating drafts and over 200 bottled beers.

Cob and Pen Gastropub. Photo by Emily McCain

The pub offers a one of a kind atmosphere. Housed in a historic Tudor home, it offers high ceilings, bay windows and a large outdoor space for lawn games.

Before leaving, make sure you stop by Florida Southern College. The college is the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. You can tour it yourself or sign up for one of the daily tours offered by the college.

Tampa Bay Central Avenue tours celebrate black history

TAMPA — Central Avenue was once the center of black life in Tampa. Now historians want to share its rich history and preserve its spirit for generations to come.

Built by emancipated slaves and freemen, Central Avenue was the heart of The Scrub, the first African-American neighborhood in Tampa.

With as many as 200 black-owned businesses on and around it, Central Avenue thrived for years.

This changed in 1967 with the death of 19-year-old Martin Chambers who was suspected of burglary and killed by police. His death sparked riots that lasted three days and ultimately destroyed Central Avenue.

Fred Hearns, noted historian and Tampa local, leads tours that highlight the cultural significance and history of the area.

Hearns works in partnership with the Tampa Bay History Center to host these tours on the last Saturday of every month, aside from some summer months.

The tour explores Central Avenue as it is today. It begins at the Robert Saunders Public Library on North Nebraska Avenue. The library is named after Saunders, who led the Tampa Chapter of the NAACP for many years.

Taken by Emily McCain

There is a stone wall outside the library with paintings preserved from the building’s past. You can explore the inside of the library, which archives and displays much of the history of Central Avenue. Guests can also appreciate the $7 million renovation the library received in 2015.

The library also features a Hall of History with interactive displays that bring you into Tampa’s past. They showcase the history of black athletes, churches, small artifacts and more. It also has a library dedicated to African-American genealogy and history.

Taken by Emily McCain

The tour then moves outside the library to Perry Harvey Sr. Park. Larger than life statues and history carved into the sidewalk, the park tells Central Avenue’s story. The displays are thanks to a $6.3 million renovation that took place in 2016.

The park features sections of optical tiles that change as you walk by them. There is also a walkway known as Leader Row. Stained concrete and cut aluminum showcase notable leaders from Central Avenue.

Nancy Dalence, Curator of Education at the Tampa Bay History Center, has worked closely with Hearns since the tours began in fall 2016. She says Hearns is one of the best black history historians in the area who brings his own accounts to the tour.

“Everybody [who] has been on the tour has just been amazed at how much history they didn’t know,” Dalence said.

“[There’s] just so many connections to great stories and it’s a really important part of our history. People just didn’t know it was here, and thanks to Fred, now they do.”

To sign up or learn more about these tours and others, you can visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org.