Football? Sure, but that's just the start of it

If you fail to venture past Doak Campbell Stadium on your visits to Tallahassee, you're missing out. Our state capital offers a smorgasbord of politics, history and good food.

Published March 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Admittedly, our state capital is not a sophisticated metropolis. It lacks the style of Miami and the entertainment wallop of Orlando. It doesn't have the relaxing waterfront views of Captiva Island or the charming B&Bs of historic St. Augustine. Tallahassee feels more like Georgia than Florida, more bureaucratic temple than vacation oasis. That said, our state capital is a beautiful city worth exploring. Stately trees form canopies over some streets, and the rolling hills provide a different terrain than much of the state. Here, Southern accents and hospitality are the norm.

Roughly a four-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area, Tallahassee is packed with lessons in politics and history - and it's a lot cheaper than Washington.

In just a few days, visitors can learn about modern-day politics, Civil War-era segregation and the lives of American Indians.

The city also offers gorgeous parks and bike trails, plus lakes that are perfect for canoeing. In March, you can't beat the sight of the dogwoods blooming.

Gov. Charlie Crist keeps talking about "the people's" government. So go ahead, people.

Government in action

Visit Tallahassee this spring, when the weather is ideal and activity around the Capitol is at a fever-pitch.

From March through early May, lawmakers and lobbyists scurry about the Capitol with BlackBerrys and cell phones. The annual legislative session begins Tuesday. Coinciding with the session is Springtime Tallahassee, a series of festivities including outdoor concerts and a parade. (For more information, go to www.spring timetallahassee.com.)

Senators and House representatives say their offices are always open, so find out who yours are and pay them a visit. You can watch the lawmaking process at work from the second floor of the Senate and House chambers, where there are seats set aside for the public.

The bachelor governor is all alone in the governor's mansion at night, but during the day throughout the session, he is opening the antebellum home to the public for free tours.

After hours, the place to go for drinks is downtown to Clyde's & Costello's, where politicians discuss historymaking deals over pints. On Monroe Street, a few blocks from downtown, is Cafe Cabernet, with its 700-label wine list and its reputation as a flirter's paradise.

Beyond politics

Tallahassee's charm extends beyond the Capitol to its museums, university campuses, archeological treasures and local restaurants.

The most obvious destinations are Florida State University and Florida A&M University, with their hilly campuses, red brick buildings and lush tree canopies.

Florida State, founded in 1851, was the state's college for women from 1858 until it went coed in 1947.

The best way to take in the campus on your first visit is through Legacy Walk, a historic tour of the campus' architecture, sculptures and green spaces.

Many of the buildings on the tour date to the 1910s and 1920s. One of the most beautiful is Dodd Hall. Built in 1923 as the campus dining hall, the stained-glass windows at the entrance make it a campus standout. Take a walk around Doak Campbell Stadium, where you'll see several sculptures, including a bigger-than-life depiction of football coach Bobby Bowden.

About a mile away is FAMU, Florida's only historically black public university. It dates to 1887, when it began with just 15 students and two instructors as the State Normal College for Colored Students.

One of FAMU's gems is the Black Archives, a collection of more than half a million manuscripts, photographs, rare books, journals, magazines, maps and newspapers that chronicle FAMU's history and the history of Africans and African-Americans in science, the military and the church.

The archives were started in the late 1970s and have grown into one of the Southeast's largest sources of information on African-American history and culture.

The archives' museum area can be visited for free Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For additional tour information, call (850) 599-3020.

About 2 miles north of downtown is Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park, where archaeologists have uncovered artifacts of an American Indian village and ceremonial site dating between 1100 A.D. and 1200 A.D.

The park features six mounds, one of them 36 feet tall, where archaeologists have found pottery, stone tools and even breast plates and jewelry that belonged to the Apalachee Indians.

History, inside and out

One of my favorite destinations is the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science, located near the airport, about a 15-minute drive from downtown.

The 52-acre museum is a rare combination of natural habitat zoo, historic buildings and artifacts, and environmental science center.

We spent an afternoon walking the shaded boardwalk, watching Florida black bears and panthers sleep in the sun. We saw whitetail deer and owls and watched a couple canoe along beautiful Lake Bradford.

The museum also houses the former plantation home of Catherine Murat, who counted George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte as relatives.

Compare the simple elegance of Murat's home to the barren one-room Concord schoolhouse, built in the late 19th century for the children of former slaves. Inside the white clapboard structure, poor children of all ages sat on low benches before a single blackboard. They brought sweet potatoes and cold biscuits with syrup for lunch.

Students had to learn this way until 1968, when the school finally integrated with a white school nearby.

The museum has a cafe that serves sandwiches, hot dogs and burgers. But if you're the plan-ahead type and the weather is good, bring your own lunch and have a picnic among the animals and towering trees.

In the evenings, delicious dinners can be found at Chez Pierre, Tallahassee's well-known French restaurant; and at Kool Beanz Cafe, where the motto is, fittingly, "Eat . . . Drink . . . Talk Loud . . . You're Among Friends!" The menu changes daily based on the availability of local food, and it's always delicious.

Book a hotel room now if you plan to check out Tallahassee this spring. The influx of politicians, their staffs and lobbyists make Tallahassee a busy place this time of year.

Another alternative is to go in the fall after the summer heat burns off and the leaves start to turn.

But again, book a room early.

In this town, if it's not politics, it's football.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850 ) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

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If you go

General information

For lodging and activities, call toll-free 1-800-628-2866 or go to www.seetallahassee.com.

Places to stay

The Doubletree at 101 S Adams St. is in the heart of downtown, within walking distance to the Capitol. Weekend rates are $119 to $169. (850) 224-5000 or www.doubletree.com.

One block away is a quainter option, the 41-room Governor's Inn at 209 S Adams St. Rates range from $159 to $309 for a suite. Breakfast included. (850) 681-6855 or www.thegovinn.com.

The Hilton Garden Inn at 3333 Thomasville Road is right off Interstate 10. Rates range from $159 to $171. (850) 385-3553 or hiltongarden inn.hilton.com.

Eat and drink

Mr. T's BBQ, 2525 S Monroe St. near FAMU; open only 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Owner Todd Stewart, a Tallahassee native, flame-cooks ribs until the meat falls off the bone.

Order a $12 half-slab or an $8 rib sandwich with his homemade baked beans or rib tips in rice, a dish he and his mother dreamed up.

Chez Pierre, 1215 Thomasville Road; (850) 222-0936, www.chezpierre.com.

Owners of this French restaurant, in a restored 1920s home, bill it "French Cuisine with Southern Hospitality," and the label fits. Dinner entrees range from $16 to $29; lunches top out at $13.

Kool Beanz Cafe, 921 Thomasville Road; (850) 224-2466.

Open for lunch and dinner, the ever-changing menu at Kool Beanz always wakes up the taste buds. One menu standard that's good for a light lunch: black bean cakes.

Clyde's and Costello's, 210 S Adams St.; (850) 224-2173.

This is the favored watering hole for legislators, lawmakers and other movers and shakers. Great people-watching, and a solid beer and wine list.

Five must-see destinations

Christopher Still murals, House chambers

In 1999, the House of Representatives commissioned Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Stills to create 10 murals that depict the state's history and natural beauty.

The result is a collage of rich images, each 10 feet by 4 feet. Still captures many figures in his history: Seminole Indians, Spanish conquistadors, slaves, politicians, beachcombers, even manatees enjoying Florida's natural springs.

The murals are open to the public.

Governor's Mansion, 700 N Adams St.

The mansion features a portico modeled after Andrew Jackson's columned antebellum home in Tennessee, the Hermitage.

There are private quarters for the governor and family; a swimming pool where Gov. Crist does laps; and public rooms for ceremonies.

Tours run March 2 through May 11 from 10 a.m. to noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Call (850) 488-4661 for more information.

Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science, 3945 Museum Drive

This museum is really several rolled into one. It offers animals, historic buildings, changing exhibits and nature trails.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $5.50 to $8. Call (850) 576-1636 or visit www.tallahasseemuseum.org for more information.

Knott House Museum, 301 E Park Ave.

They call this the "House That Rhymes" because 1920s resident Luella Knott, wife of state treasurer William Knott, wrote poems about the home and its furnishings, which remain there for visitors to see.

Historians say the house was built in 1843 by free black builder George Proctor. It was temporary Union Headquarters in 1865, and from here Brigadier Gen. Edward McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation.

Admission is free. There are guided tours on the hour from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Call (850) 922-2459 for more information.

Lake Jackson Mounds, off U.S. 27 north of Tallahassee

Historians believe Apalachee Indians inhabited this village and ceremonial around Lake Jackson more than eight centuries ago.

What remains are six earthen temple mounds, the largest one about 36 feet high and 278 feet by 312 feet at the base. Park visitors can enjoy picnics near the biggest mound. Call two weeks in advance to arrange a guided tour.

The park is open 8 a.m. to sunset. Call (850) 922-6007 for more information.