You don't have to stare at a greeting card to picture a bustling old main street lined with decorated shops and lampposts. Historic small-town shopping districts are easy to find, and more charming than Walmart.
Beyond the downtowns of St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Safety Harbor, there are more options now than ever to take a retro holiday stroll.
Sure, there are still empty storefronts and many towns still have a long way to go, but several central Florida historic downtowns are on the upswing and have enough shops to keep you busy the better part of a day. Plus, a handful are putting on outdoor markets and holiday-themed events to create an even bigger draw to their quaint quarters.
In Crystal River, take a trolley to downtown shops and visit a pristine natural treasure, Three Sisters Springs, a hangout for manatees during the winter season.
To take the shuttle, purchase your ticket ($15 for adults, $7.50 for kids 6-16) at Crystal River City Hall, 123 NW U.S. 19. The Three Sister Springs office is on the south side of the building. Once you get your armband, you can get on and off the trolley every 30 minutes at Sister Springs State Park, Hunter Springs Park, South Citrus and Heritage Village. Trolley tickets include a full day admission to Sister Springs.
The Heritage House at 657 N Citrus Ave. has one of the most eye-popping retail displays you'll see this season. The majestic main house, built in the late 1800s, has remained in the Tolle family, now owned by Laura Lou Tolle Fitzpatrick. The estate lures visitors with country charms aplenty: a 1940s truck painted with stars and stripes; a gazebo dedicated to matriarch Ada B. Tolle; palm trees, magnolias and oak canopies and a wrap-around porch. The property now known as Heritage Village comprises cottages transformed into shops, an art gallery and other businesses.
Stroll south on Citrus to visit shops and restaurants on and around Crystal River's original tiny downtown block. A giant replica of a 19th century fishing boat sits across from the Coastal Heritage Museum, the former City Hall. The WPA constructed the beautifully textured building from local limestone in 1939. If you're there after dark, down a pint at the Irish bar, Burke's of Ireland. The pub is home to the Nature Coast Brewing Company.
While in Citrus, consider a visit to Inverness, the county seat. Its "Historic Olde Town" entices visitors with tree-lined streets and outdoor dining. Popular spots include Connors Gifts, the vintage Valerie Theater and the Old Courthouse Museum — you can't miss its grand cupola and clock.
The Citrus County Chamber of Commerce sponsors horse carriage rides on a first-come, first-serve basis, at no charge. Visit their tent at the Inverness town square for registration. Or head down there from 5-8 p.m. on Friday for the Holly Jolly Friday Night Thunder with "cool cars and Christmas singers."
Lush and shady, Brooksville makes an ideal setting for a Southern Gothic novel. Its stately Queen Anne homes, pine trees that seem to kiss the sky and curvy country roads with rolling hills and mossy oak tunnels make you feel like you've entered a portal to the past.
But it's more than a country town. Brooksville has embraced the old and the new. Shop "for the artsy type" at Young & Co., 12 W. Jefferson St., or head to the Florida Cracker Kitchen, 966 E. Jefferson St., for classic Southern vittles and vegetarian-friendly fare (breakfast and lunch only). While there you can purchase a trucker hat, art, jewelry and other items from the restaurant's trading company. If you're there late enough for supper, Rising Sun Bistro & Market prepares well-reviewed Southern fusion.
Patricia's Boutique sells elegant gowns for holiday occasions. The House of Passage on Main Street shows off a well-appointed mix of the elegant, funky and homespun.
The city's downtown district association presents the Christmas on Main Street event series, which has family fun stuff through Dec. 24. Catch a Christmas Carriage Ride from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20, departing from the Hernando County Courthouse for $5 per person. From 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, bring the kids to meet Santa and two of his reindeer at Hernando Park.
Warm up with a great cuppa joe or peppermint mocha at Mountaineer Coffee, where roasters cook their beans on the premises. The cafe looks like a mini mid-century lodge with contemporary fixtures and an exposed concrete ceiling and floor. Why "Mountaineer"? Owner Daniel Pritz's grandfather, Richard Lantz, ran an antique shop by the same name in West Virginia. For a sinfully delicious treat, try their homemade Nutella Pop Tart.
Heading southwest to the gulf beach communities, it's more and more apparent that not all are just strips of T-shirt shops and loud restaurants. Just a block from the gulf, St. Pete Beach's Pass-a-Grille neighborhood and Corey Avenue Business District offer a bevy of vintage charms.
Pass-a-Grille is frozen in time during a pivotal period in Florida history, when the invention of air conditioning first led to an influx of seasonal residents. Shop along Eighth Avenue and stroll by early 20th-century residences in the southernmost beach hamlet — which you can learn about by taking the walking tour in a free brochure at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum.
Corey Avenue, with its mix of art deco, Mediterranean-Revival and Key West-style architecture had its first grand opening before World War II. The Upham Company built the first building on the northeast corner of Corey Avenue and Blind Pass Road in 1937. In the past decade, businesses with colorful storefronts and awnings have flourished on and around the strip. Every Sunday, October through May, the district hosts a street market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The shops all open their doors in tandem with 75 outdoor vendors selling art, clothing and gift items plus those gourmet goods, spices and organic veggies required for feast preparations.
Holiday shoppers can find a range of price points at boutiques like Annabel's and local, original artwork at the Art Expo Custom Framing Gallery. For that special ring or pendant, visit Owen Sweet Jewelry Design. Or, browse Simply Perfect for those geegaws that entertain and enchant the people on your list who seem to have everything.
At Paradise Gifts , you'll find beachy decor and perhaps the best greeter you won't find at a Walmart — a sweet basset hound/Rottweiler mix named Murphy Mabel.