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Sanford: Historic Charm

Spend a few hours in Sanford and you’ll see why the locals call it home.

Magnolia Square

Known as “Celery City” for its most successful crop during the early 1900s, Sanford has it all—antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, craft beer—and more, as residents and public officials are quick to share.

“Sanford’s a great city that’s growing every day with increased residential and retail development happening right now and more on the horizon,” says Mayor Jeff Triplett. “Our centrally located city provides access to ideal education, health care, public parks [and] the arts, [and is] home to a variety of locally owned small businesses in our historic downtown.” Triplett also says that Seminole Towne Center mall, Orlando Sanford International Airport, Amtrak Auto Train, Sunrail station and Central Florida Zoo are other key factors that make Sanford an ideal and attractive city.

Situated along Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River, Sanford boasts brick-lined streets and towering oak trees that complement the backdrop of 19th- and 20th-century architecture found in its commercial and residential historic districts. One 100-year-old home is owned by 18-year resident John DiDonna, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

“It was a house I fell in love with when I first moved here,” he says. His wife, who grew up in Sanford, has adored the home since she was 10 years old. “That’s one part of Sanford that’s kind of amazing. It’s got these wonderful little communities, wonderful little neighborhoods, then you have this great historic district, which is just tremendous. They take great pride in the houses that they have here.”

The historic architecture continues throughout Downtown Sanford, which is anchored by Magnolia Square. Located on 1st Street, it’s home to unique shops, like Washburn Imports. There, you can peruse handcrafted furniture, artwork, craftwork and accessories by day, and by night, you can order boutique wine, craft beer or classic cocktails from its Imperial bar, while relaxing on and around its one-of-a-kind inventory.

Magnolia Square is also home to the Jeanine Taylor Art Gallery, where DiDonna is a regular customer. “However long she’s been open, we’ve been buying stuff from Jeanine Taylor,” he says. “[And] the people are warm and loving when you walk in. They know you. If you’ve been there twice, they know your name, which is incredible.”

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, plenty of options are available to satisfy your cravings. One of Sanford’s most popular eateries—Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café—has been a city staple for more than 15 years, serving such classic German dishes as sausages, schnitzels and spätzle. And, on Thursday through Sunday evenings, live entertainment includes German songs and sing-alongs, audience participation, and traditions like the “Ein Prosit” toast. Also, the café’s deli, Magnolia Street Market, offers freshly made sandwiches and cakes, meats and cheeses, and traditional German wines, beers and snacks.

Foodies will also want to visit The Smiling Bison for its frequently changing menu of gastronomic fare. If craft beer is your thing, be sure to visit some of the other bars and breweries serving up local suds, like Celery City Craft, Buster’s Bistro, Sanford Brewing Company and Wop’s Hops. (Plus, if you’re a homebrewer, Sanford Homebrew Shop sells fresh grains, hops and yeast.)

Other resident favorites include The Tennessee Truffle— whose chef, Nat Russell, was the executive chef at Winter Park’s Café de France—The Breezeway Restaurant & Bar, Riverwalk Pizzeria, Fuel BBQ and Mattie’s Delectable Desserts.

“We are foodies, and so are my children, so this town is absolutely the best place to be,” says Jennifer Hornburg, a native Floridian who grew up in Winter Park and moved to Sanford three years ago.

Hornburg name-checks The Smiling Bison and Buster’s Bistro as favorites, saying of the latter: “They have a service dog named Shadow my kids run in [for]. I think that’s part of what’s so magical for us—when you have small children, a lot of times you don’t feel comfortable taking them out places because, ‘Is it kid-friendly? Are people going to be annoyed with you?’” Per Hornburg, that’s not the case in Sanford. “If we go someplace without our kids, the restaurant owners are like, ‘Where are the children?’ It’s just so family friendly.”

In addition to the downtown shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, just a few blocks down 1st Street you’ll find the Sanford Museum, which houses the library and papers of its founder, Henry Shelton Sanford. It also hosts the Chase Gallery, which exhibits some of the city’s local history, including railroads, riverboats, agriculture, local celebrities, the Naval Air Station Sanford and more.

Speaking of riverboats, Sanford’s waterfront location makes it easy to get your sea legs, with three marinas that offer level-ready access to Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River. If you don’t own a boat, you can rent one from the Boat Tree Marina, or take sailing lessons from U-Sail. Or, better yet, sit back, relax and let someone else do the steering while cruising down the St. Johns aboard an authentic sternwheeler.

Don’t forget Sanford’s 27 city parks, though. “The parks up here are phenomenal for the kids,” Hornburg says. “Fort Mellon Park has an awesome playground—it’s right on the lake. There’s another one called Park on Park that’s all shaded.”

The city hosts lots of regular weekly and monthly events, too, including the Sanford Farmers Market every Saturday morning, an Alive After 5 street party the second Thursday of each month, and the Sanford Art Walk the fourth Friday of each month, among many others.

No matter how you spend your time in Sanford, the residents make one thing clear: It’s small-town living at its best.

Hornburg says she’s grown up watching Sanford fluctuate from being a family-oriented town to going through a rough patch. “It’s really cool to see this next generation of residents and business owners coming in and putting all this energy toward [overcoming the city’s former reputation],” she says. “What we’ve seen as a family and as residents…there’s something magical about this community that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.”

DiDonna is so enamored with Sanford that he runs monthly clean-ups, where 60 to 100 residents get together to clean the city’s streets. “Why?” he asks. “Just because we love it. And people flocked to it the first time we did it.”

The city’s law enforcement is even a point of pride. “The police are amazing,” DiDonna says. “The police in this town are friends with everybody. The fact that I walk down the street and they know my name, the fact that I had to fill out paperwork for them because I’m doing some stuff with them, the fact that they didn’t contact me by email and say, ‘Hey, can you please come into the office?’ They showed up at my door with [the] paperwork, came in, and sat and chatted. That’s the kind of police we have in this town.”

Hornburg concurs. “[In March,] we hosted Cupcakes with a Cop for the downtown business owners and Sanford Police Department, and we had over a hundred people show up,” she explains. “I don’t know if it was the cupcakes or the police, but it was just this awesome meet and greet.

“Where else can [this happen]? Everyone is so invested personally and professionally and emotionally in this downtown that everybody wants to know, ‘What can I do? How can I help you? How can we support you?’ [It’s] amazing.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s April 2017 issue.