15 Best Things to Do in Sanford, FL

Sanford, FL
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The city of Sanford, Florida, owes its label “The Historic Waterfront Gateway City” to its location at the St. Johns River’s head of navigation, at the southern shore of Lake Monroe.

Moreover, the city is the seat of Seminole County in Central Florida.

Historically, Native Americans had lived in the area for millennia before the settlers established present-day Sanford.

Henry Shelton Sanford arrived in 1870 and bought 12,548 acres that would form the basis of modern-day Sanford.

Back then, Sanford believed the region would become a transportation center, so he named it “The Gateway City to South Florida.”

Today, Sanford attracts tourists every year through various attractions, such as walking trails, a marina, and unique shops and restaurants.

The city also hosts the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Sanford Museum, and the Central Florida Soapbox Derby.

Do you want to know more about Sanford, FL?

Here’s a list of the best things to do in the city:

See the Animals at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Name sign of Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens
KLiK Photography / Shutterstock.com

This 116-acre zoo and botanical paradise in Sanford leads the state in nature conservation, encouraging citizens to do their part in preserving the environment.

Since 1986, the zoo has received accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The zoo is also a historical site, having opened to the public in 1923 under the name Sanford Municipal Zoo.

Back then, its collection comprised donated animals from the local fire department.

The zoo relocated first in 1941 to the location of the modern Sanford City Hall.

Children feeding a giraffe in Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens
KLiK Photography / Shutterstock.com

In 1975, the zoo relocated to its present address.

Today, the zoo hosts more than 350 animals, comprising over 100 species.

You can find various animals inside like leopards, cheetahs, llamas, river otters, pumas, warthogs, and many more.

Likewise, you can join activities such as feeding the giraffes or getting up close to rhinos.

Otherwise, you can ride the carousel or enjoy the splash park.

Monkey in a cage at Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens
KLiK Photography / Shutterstock.com

Learn Baseball History at the Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium

This historic stadium has experienced baseball history in ways most fans can only dream of.

Greatness passed through its halls, including hometown heroes Tim Raines and David Eckstein, along with legends Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson.

The stadium also hosted the Boston Braves and the New York Giants, two iconic teams in major league baseball.

Construction on the building finished in 1951, and it underwent renovations in 2001.

These renovations included the grandstands, putting up a new arc roof, and clubhouses for both home and away teams.

However, they maintained the historical image of the place, making you feel like you were also a part of sports history.

Today, Sanford Stadium hosts the Sanford River Rats, the hometown team playing in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.

Every year, the league draws the stars of college baseball to Central Florida.

Experience History at the Sanford Residential Historic District

Exterior of Sanford Grammar School at Residential Historic District
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This United States Historic District should help immerse you completely in the history of Sanford.

During your visit, you’ll find 432 historic buildings, such as the Sanford Grammar School and the Old Fernald-Laughton Memorial Hospital.

Likewise, this historic district is part of three national historic districts in Sanford.

Back exterior of Sanford Grammar School
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The residential district received recognition in 1989.

What makes these old houses unique?

These houses are examples of architectural history, with houses built in various popular styles in their day.

For instance, you’ll find houses in the Mission, Spanish Eclectic, Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, National, Prairie, and Craftsman styles.

Exterior of Thigpen house at Sanford Residential Historic District
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bring Your Kids to the Central Florida Soap Box Derby

The Central Florida Soap Box Derby has become a Sanford tradition, which sprang from the national youth racing program that began in 1934.

This program is open to boys and girls from seven to 20 years old.

Joining the derby helps kids form close relationships through building a car and racing in it.

In Sanford, the city’s Recreation Services Department helps host the race every May.

Your kids will surely enjoy the experience of building a gravity race car from scratch.

It should help build their character and teach them the value of confidence and perseverance.

Take a Stroll along the Sanford Riverwalk

This popular pedestrian walkway stretches for nearly five miles, running along the southern shore of Lake Monroe.

Take a break from your touristy activities and enjoy a leisurely walk along this multi-use trail.

In 2009, the Sanford Riverwalk even received the International Making Cities Livable award.

If you like fancy strolls along the river, you’ll surely love this Sanford attraction.

The Riverwalk also offers various activities, such as fishing and dining.

It also gives you access to several public parks.

Complete your Sanford adventure by exploring this scenic pathway.

Catch a Show at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center

Name sign of Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center/Ritz Theatre
SR Productions / Shutterstock.com

Another historic site you can visit in Sanford is the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center, which opened as the Milane Theater in 1923.

Back then, the theater hosted vaudeville shows, staged live dramas, and screened movies.

The theater seated 823 guests, and it had a proscenium arch and orchestra pit.

The theater became the Ritz Theater in 1936 after Frank and Stella Evans bought the place in 1933.

Front exterior of Ritz Theater/Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Their heirs ran the property well into the 1990s, although the Ritz had closed down in 1978 for failing to compete with emerging multiplexes.

In 2015, the Ritz underwent restoration, comprising repainting and marquee upgrading. The community installed the original 1930s Ritz Theater sign as well.

Today, the Ritz Theater/Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center continues to stage live performances for everyone to enjoy.

Their shows range from musicals to concerts and film screenings.

Get Spooked with the Sanford Ghost Tours

Brave tourists shouldn’t miss joining the Sanford Ghost Tours, a 90-minute adventure through the spine-chilling history of the old city.

An expert guide will regale you with stories of hauntings while exploring downtown.

Many of these stories also come from historical accounts of Sanford residents who lived there from past to present.

Likewise, the tour will end at a haunted building, so gird yourself.

However, this tour is not for ghost hunters.

Don’t join the tour lugging around your ghost-hunting equipment.

Taste Scrumptious Food with the Sanford Food Tours

If you want to try a unique way of exploring the city, join the Sanford Food Tours.

Fill your belly with good food and your imaginations with interesting local history.

You can book a private tour or join the Celery City Tour. The Celery City Tour takes you on a mile-long adventure along five stops offering mouth-watering dishes.

For instance, you can try the Tennessee Truffle, German beer at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café, or hot drinks at Rosie Lee.

Likewise, the tour lasts for about four hours, filled with stories of local culture and history, passing through Lake Monroe and the city’s National Historic Districts.

Private tours are perfect for tourists who want a flexible schedule, workmates, families, or friendly gatherings.

Learn Local History at the Sanford Museum

Exterior of Sanford Museum
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the Sanford Museum opened to the public.

It went by the name of The Henry Shelton Sanford Memorial Library and Museum in honor of the city’s namesake.

In 1974, the museum expanded, and it expanded again in 1993.

Today, the Sanford Museum holds the Sanford Family Collection, which comprises the papers and library of the city’s founder and namesake.

His daughter, Carola Sanford Dow, had donated his effects to the museum.

Likewise, you can find American and European paintings inside the museum, along with furniture and books dated between 1820 and 1890.

In 1993, the Chase Gallery opened in honor of S.O. and Margaret Chase.

This gallery features local history exhibits, such as railroads, business, education, local celebrities, riverboats, and the Naval Air Station Sanford.

The gallery also honors local sports heroes such as baseball stars Tim Raines and David Eckstein, as well as Jeff Blake and Reggie Branch of professional football.

Likewise, the gallery also celebrates Muhammad Ali’s cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown.

See the City Come Alive at Alive After 5

The largest monthly street party in Central Florida is in Sanford, and it goes by the name “Alive After 5” or AA5.

You’ll need to enter the city’s historic downtown district to join the festivities.

Likewise, this festival only happens on the second Thursday of the month, from 5 to 8 p.m., no matter the weather.

The party also takes a break from July to August.

What can you do at this street party?

You can try delicious local food, browse art galleries, or grab souvenirs from antique stores.

Likewise, you can just join the other revelers enjoying the city's nightlife.

Celebrate the community through an evening of food, music, great drinks, and unique shopping.

Jeanine Taylor opened the gallery in 1997 to show Sanford residents and guests the best pieces of modern folk art.

Her gallery is also unique because of Jeanine’s emphasis on true Southern hospitality.

For most of her entrepreneurial career, Jeanine has focused on preserving the unique culture of her home state.

She has featured the works of fellow Floridians, like the Florida Highwaymen, Ruby C. Williams, and Missionary Mary Proctor.

Likewise, she has showcased the works of Butch Anthony, John “Cornbread” Anderson, Theresa Disney, and more.

The Jeanine Taylor Folk Art Gallery spans 5,000 square feet, offering ample space for visiting artists who want to explore Central Florida.

Throughout the year, the gallery holds exhibitions and special events.

You might want to drop by if you’re in town.

Splash around at Fort Mellon Park

Splash pad at Fort Mellon Park
SR Productions / Shutterstock.com

Bring your family to the newly developed Fort Mellon Park, sitting on the shores of Lake Monroe.

This park offers guests various activities, which you can enjoy actively or passively.

For instance, you can walk along the Riverwalk or sit along the benches to soak in the gorgeous riverside views.

Likewise, the park offers a spacious playground for your kids to run around in.

However, the park’s cornerstone is its splash pad, an interactive water feature that’s perfect on hot summer days.

The splash pad is also open to everyone who wants to beat the heat.

There are also eight shaded pavilions you can rent if you want to celebrate a special occasion.

Explore Sanford’s Art Scene with the Sanford Art & Jazz Night

Previously known as the Sanford Art Walk, the Sanford Art & Jazz Night continues the tradition of showing people around the city’s thriving arts scene.

This event takes guests around Sanford’s popular destinations for arts and jazz, along with local businesses.

What are these destinations?

You’ll stop by the famous Jeanine Taylor Folk Art and the Gallery on First.

Jazz fans will love dropping by Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café and listening to the musical stylings of the Greg Parnell Jazz Band.

Likewise, you’ll also duck inside Deviant Wolfe Brewing, which also features live jazz music.

Try Craft Beers at Deviant Wolfe Brewing

Cap off your Sanford adventure by visiting another downtown institution, Deviant Wolfe Brewing.

You can find this brewery deep in the heart of the city’s historic downtown, between Tennessee Truffle and the West End Theater.

Besides craft beer, the brewery also serves savory food like hot sandwiches.

They also let you order food from nearby restaurants, which you can enjoy at the brewery’s family-style tables.

However, Deviant Wolfe shines through their beers.

They brew various types of beer, each of them with an experimental flavor.

Likewise, the brewery uses only fresh ingredients, letting them cycle specialty beers in and out of the menu, keeping things fresh.

If you don’t fancy beers, you can also try their guest ciders, wines, and kombucha.

Sample German Food at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café

In 2001, Theo and Linda Hollerbach fulfilled their dream of opening a restaurant.

From employing just seven staff, the restaurant has blossomed into a successful business, with more than 100 employees.

The Hollerbachs have also expanded their 70-seat restaurant into a 655-seat establishment.

The Hollerbachs owe their success to their scrumptious and authentic German meals.

You can try their best-selling Riesenbreze, an appetizer to get you started.

Then, you can move on to the restaurant’s specialty, the Schnitzel.

They offer various types of Schnitzel, from the classic Wiener Schnitzel to the Alpiner Schnitzel.

Of course, the restaurant also offers various sausages, such as bratwurst, Frankfurters, and knockwurst.

Expand your gustatory horizons by dropping by Hollerbach’s.

Final Thoughts

Sanford offers plenty of attractions to fill the itineraries of any serious traveler.

You can visit their natural attractions or just say downtown to sample their tasty dishes.

Likewise, you can visit historic sites to satisfy your curiosity.

See another side of sunny Florida, and book your Sanford trip today!