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If You Go ...
In recent years Lakeland has made Money Magazine's “Best Place to Live in America," coming in tenth in 1998. Lakeland is regarded as representing the best of Florida: its economy has benefited from the technology-company growth in both Tampa and Orlando, and it's also benefited from the rise of tourism in both cities.
Now, having said that, it must be admitted that Lakeland is not the most dynamic place in Florida. This is still citrus county, and most of the 170,000 people in the area either work in the citrus industry or go into Tampa for a job, so in many ways Lakeland is a bedroom community. Still, you can find some decent nightlife in downtown Lakeland; worth a visit are Molly McHugh's, Lillian's Music Store and Trader's Rock & Blues. Downtown is also home to a historic district, home to many restored buildings dating back to the early 1900s. It's a typical Florida smaller-town downtown in terms of architecture, and one get the sneaky suspicion that the designers of Celebration, Disney's designed community near DisneyWorld, basically stole the layout and feel of Lakeland and re-created it: there's a small lake and a scenic old hotel on one end of downtown and a slew of lakefronts with antique stores. Much of the downtown was renovated in recent years, to good effect.
Artsy types will delight in Lakeland. Worth a drive is the campus of Florida Southern College (111 Lake Hollingsworth Drive), where nine buildings (dubbed "Child of the Sun") comprise the largest grouping of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings in the world. Built between 1941 and 1948, the initial buildings were constructed by students and supervised personally by Wright. You can go to the campus student center and pick up a brochure detailing the history of the buildings before you embark on a tour.
One final recommendation: golf. Within a 50-mile radius of Lakeland there are more than 60 golf courses and over 500 holes of private and semiprivate golf courses.
Lakeland is also centrally located and makes a good base for spring training, as the city is located on I-4, which is the main interstate running between Tampa and Orlando. There are five spring-training camps within an easy drive: the Pittsburgh Pirates (Brandenton), Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros (Orlando/Kissimmee) and New York Yankees (Tampa).
Where to Stay: There are several hotels within two miles of Tiger Town, including the AMPAK Lakeland Mall Inn (which is within walking distance of the complex), the Holiday Inn Lakeland, Super 8, Baymont Inn, Jameson Inn, Hampton Inn, La Quinta, and Best Western Diplomat Inn.
Where to Eat: Lakeland really isn't considered the fine-dining capital of Florida, but there are a number of good restaurants in the area. You can stick close to the freeway and eat at one of the many chain restaurants, but you can also venture into town for a good meal. Best known is Mario's (1833 Edgewood Drive E.; 863/688-9616), specializing in Northern Italian cuisine. Sparky Anderson was a regular when he managed the Tigers (this to me is a dubious recommendation; there's usually a reason why these guys are baseball players and not restaurant critics). a favorite restaurant in Lakeland. Also recommended by the locals are Peebles Bar-B-Que (Florida barbeque tends to be on the tame side, but this joint is the exception; 503 Dixie Highway, Auburndale; 863-967-3085) and Branch Ranch, which features home cooking like catfish and red velvet cake (5121 Thonotosassa Rd., Plant City; 813/752-1957).
Flying In: The closest airport to Lakeland is in Tampa. It's a bigger airport that is serviced by all the major airlines. The Orlando airport, which is farther away and much bigger, can be daunting, so if fares are equal you'll definitely want to fly into Tampa.