Plant City Grows Florida Mixture of Strawberries, Trains and History

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The Willaford Railroad Museum includes the rail viewing platform, the restored train station and many pieces of vintage rail equipment. It hosts frequent entertainment. | Photo by Jeff Orenstein

Can you name a small town where antiques, a beautiful historic district, strawberries and trains meet and attract throngs of local visitors?

The answer is Plant City, Fla. This town of about 34,000 is located just off Interstate 4 between Tampa and Lakeland and is a mecca for locals because of its many attractions.

Named after railroad and hotel magnate Henry B. Plant, the present town dates to the mid-1800s where it was built on a native American city named Itchepackesassa. Eventually, it changed its name to Cork and then, after Plant brought the South Florida Railroad through town in 1884 and connected it with the wider world, the town incorporated as Plant City in 1885.

Long a regional agricultural center, it was known for cotton until strawberries put the town on the map and the railroad brought the berries to hungry markets far and wide.

It deserves its title as the winter strawberry capital of the world because almost three-quarters of winter strawberries consumed worldwide are grown in and around Plant City. Florida’s largest strawberry grower, Wish Farms, is a major local grower. The town also draws big-name entertainers and large crowds to its huge early spring Strawberry Festival.

Plant City is cognizant of its heritage and has an active and successful preservation movement. The city’s quaint and walkable downtown area is filled with antique shops, restaurants, murals and parks. The city holds frequent vintage car shows and other events downtown, making it a bustling place year-round. The city’s many beautiful old homes are preserved in a historical district adjacent to downtown.

Since two busy railroads bisect the town and cross in the middle, rail enthusiasts have gathered there for a long time. The town responded by preserving its old railroad station and building a railroad museum and train-viewing platform in the center of town.

Before You Go, Check Out:

Plant City’s downtown historic district looks like it belongs in an earlier century, although it is bustling with 21st-century business. | Photo by Jeff Orenstein

Getting There:

Plant City can be easily reached by highway and air; train and cruise ship connections are nearby.

  • By air, Tampa International (TPA) is 31 miles away, and Orlando International (MCO) is 63 miles distant. Both offer frequent international and domestic connections.
  • By train, Amtrak runs through on its New York-to-Miami route but doesn’t stop. The nearest stations are Lakeland and Tampa.
  • By car, Plant City is located on state Route 39, just off I-4, 25 miles east of Tampa, 13 miles west of Lakeland and 62 miles from Orlando.
  • The nearest cruise port is Tampa. Port Canaveral is 107 miles away.

Must-Sees for a Short Trip:

  • Check out the restored train station and viewing platform for a taste of the town’s rail history.
  • Have lunch at the restored Whistle Stop Cafe.
  • Walk around downtown and visit the shops.

If You Only Have Two or Three Days:

Recommended for a slightly longer stay are:

  • A drive through the historic district north of downtown to see the beautiful old homes.
  • Visit a you-pick strawberry farm during the growing season.
  • Explore the nearby Dinosaur World theme park.
The historic district of Plant City contains many stately and well-maintained homes. | Photo by Jeff Orenstein

If You Have Several Days:

  • A visit to Tampa for museums, restaurants, Ybor City and Busch Gardens.
  • Explore Orlando’s theme parks.
  • Visit Florida Southern College in Lakeland to see the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings located on campus.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way:

Dress for your visit informally and appropriate for the season. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and don’t worry about dressing up.

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage: A walkable downtown, quaint cafes and a lot of antiques make this a senior mecca.

Mobility Level: There are no special impediments to getting around, although the town lacks a public transit system. The terrain is flat and shops are automobile accessible.

When To Go: Year round. Summers are hot and humid but crowds are less. Winter (especially early March, during the Strawberry Festival) brings great weather and throngs of visitors.

Where to Stay: There are some chain hotels at the I-4 exit and many more hotel options in Lakeland and Tampa.

Special Travel Interests: Antiques, restored buildings and strawberries.

Jewish Plant City

If you’re looking for organized Judaism in Plant City, you will soon discover it’s a town with many churches but no organized Jewish houses of worship.

The area’s most notable Jewish presence comes from Wish Farms, Florida’s largest strawberry grower. It was founded by Polish immigrants Harris and Yetta Wishnatzki and still run by their descendants.

The absence of a synagogue is not surprising, though, given the city’s small population (about 34,000, with about 0.5 percent being Jewish) and its proximity to the Jewish community in Lakeland. There also is a large Jewish community in Greater Tampa Bay, with many Jewish institutions and approximately 58,000 Jews living there, including the owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

Notable Jewish places to visit in Greater Tampa Bay include the Florida Holocaust Museum, the fourth-largest Holocaust museum in the United States, and the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center. Kosher food is available at several places as well.

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.