Tallahassee may be the capital of Florida, graced with loads of old Southern charm and two major universities ( Florida State and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University or FAMU ), but it often gets short shrift as a tourist destination — and certainly doesn’t appear on many eco-hotspot lists. But don’t let its sleepy backwoods reputation fool you. Tallahassee not only has a colorful history stretching back 500 years, lovely old antebellum mansions and loads of sophisticated cultural offerings, but it also boasts plenty of progressive green goings on: lush wildlife and nature areas that include biking, hiking and canoeing; a thriving eco-food movement; and a decidedly un-backwoods interest in carbon-friendly mass transit and green building.

In fact, the Nature Conservancy calls the region one of “America’s Last Great Places.” Tallahassee was recently named one of the world’s most livable cities at the International Awards for Liveable Communities (LivCom) and also achieved Silver and Gold certification as a Green City by the Florida Green Building Coalition (the first in Florida to receive the Gold certification). Among its cited accomplishments: green training for government employees and elected officials, Florida-friendly landscaping at municipal facilities and promotion of green power and renewable energy credits.

Go green

Located on the eastern edge of Florida’s panhandle, Tallahassee remains a small (172,000 residents), quiet city — easy to get around on foot, particularly in the downtown area with its plentiful cultural and historic sites, restaurants and parks. Public transportation is widely available via StarMetro buses. Not only are they bicycle-friendly (cyclists can transport their bikes on outside racks), but StarMetro is also about to go green in a big way with the addition of some zero-emission, all-electric buses to its fleet.

Tallahassee is also home to several greenways for cyclists, hikers and horse enthusiasts. A must-see is the gorgeous Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway , which encompasses 6 miles along one of the city’s nine historic canopy roads. Originally Indian trails, these gracious old byways are lined with giant moss-draped live oaks, sweet gums, hickory trees and pines and are protected as eco-treasures by the city and citizen groups alike. Another i mpressive greenway is the Tallahassee-St. Marks State Trail , a rails-to-trails corridor running 19 miles from the city, south through the Apalachicola National Forest , and on down to the community of St. Marks on the Gulf coast. Be sure to visit St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge , home to coastal marshes, tidal creeks and abundant wildlife.

Eat green

Locally grown fare is almost a way of life in Tallahassee. Fresh, organic produce is available citywide throughout the week at farmers markets, including the Downtown MarketPlace (open Saturdays from March to mid-December); the Tallahassee Farmers’ Market (open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays); and the Lake Ella Growers Market , sponsored by FAMU’s Statewide Small Farm Program and held every Wednesday behind a beloved local hangout, the Black Dog Café . New Leaf Market also sells local produce and organic wine and beer.

Eco-friendly restaurants abound in Tallahassee. Those hankering for down-home cooking will especially love Soul Vegetarian Restaurant , specializing in (you guessed it) vegan soul food (BBQ tofu, collard greens and cornbread, anyone?).

Green oenophiles may want to drive or bike to Monticello Organic Vineyard & Winery in nearby Monticello, and artisan cheese connoisseurs won’t want to miss Sweet Grass Dairy about 45 minutes north in Thomasville, Ga.

Sleep green

Tallahassee is mostly dominated by hotel chains, meaning don’t hold out for a charming eco-friendly inn or B&B. However, several hotel chains are beginning to go green, so be sure to book your stay in one with eco-credentials. Check the Florida Green Lodging Program (sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection) or IStayGreen.org .

If you’re lodging outside Tallahassee, consider the Wildwood Resort in Crawfordville, about 30 minutes south in Wakulla County. Certified by the Florida Green Lodging Program, it bills itself as an “eco-friendly, nature-based hotel and golf retreat” and offers trained Green Guides to escort eco-adventurous guests on birding, biking, kayaking and canoeing tours.

For a night under the stars consider camping in and around Tallahassee or try more rustic forest camping in the Apalachicola National Forest .

See green

Tallahassee offers a treasure trove of parks within the city limits. Check out Alfred B. Maclay Gardens for its alluring ornamental gardens, hiking and biking on five miles of trails, and a lake for swimming and canoeing.

Another top pick: the Tallahassee Museum , with hiking trails for wildlife viewing, a butterfly garden, and Big Bend Farm , offering a glimpse of old Florida’s more “sustainable” way of life.

The Tallahassee area also affords some stunning day trips. Just southeast in the small town of Wacissa, there’s a little-known swampy wonderland worth a canoe or kayak trip. Gliding along the Wacissa River is like a trip down prehistoric lane with its centuries-old, moss-draped bald cypress trees and an impressive array of prehistoric-looking waterfowl. Unfortunately, this gem may soon be headed for the endangered list: Town residents are in a fight with Nestlé Corp. , which is looking to pump an estimated 450,000 gallons of water a day from the spring-fed river to bottle and sell.

Perhaps even more spectacular is Wakulla Springs State Park , half an hour south of Tallahassee. This first magnitude spring discharges 200 million to 300 million gallons of water a day and features the deepest and longest submerged freshwater cave system on the planet (many Ice Age fossils, including mastodon bones, have been discovered there). The park boasts plenty of hiking trails, swimming, snorkeling, and the lovely old Wakulla Springs Lodge . Most impressive, though, are the guided boat tours along the cypress-lined Wakulla River, teeming with alligators, herons, anhingas, and the occasional manatee. It’s not hard to see why Wakulla was Hollywood’s jungly go-to set for several early Tarzan hmovies and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Thumbnail photo: Sarah Cady /Flickr

MNN homepage photo: pinkcotton/Flickr

Destination of the Week: Tallahassee, Fla.
Indulge your inner Tarzan (or Jane) in the wild areas surrounding the city, or take in more civilized affairs like farmers markets and bike trails.