DeFuniak Springs, Florida: Discreet Charm and Southern Allure - 30A

DeFuniak Springs, Florida: Discreet Charm and Southern Allure

By: Kim Wennerberg | Posted Mar 16, 2024

You thought it was an irritation – a traffic pile-up impeding your path to the beach. When, all this time, it was a DESTINATION. A hidden gem that was in fact, hidden in plain sight.

Did you know that just 30 minutes north of Scenic Highway 30A, and a mere 4 blocks east of the raceway known as Highway 331, is a Hallmark movie town come to life?

Well, keep reading. But if you don’t mind, we locals would prefer you keep this little secret to yourself.

Voted the best small town in Florida twice, by both Country Living (2023) and MSN (2020), our hometown is quaint, quiet, and quirky, with a rich history and more than you might’ve guessed to keep you fully entertained. With its stately oaks and pines, Victorian homes, historic architecture, and murals in the revitalized downtown, it’s a bit like Andy Griffith meets Designing Women. Downhome Southern goodness meets class and a little sass.



Let’s dive into why this might be the ideal budget-friendly weekend getaway for your girlfriends, a day trip for the locals, or a perfect way to begin or end your beach trip.

Photo Credit: Gary Woodham

Photo by Kim Wennerberg

First, how do you say it?  It is pronounced De-FEW-nee-ack. As in…just a FEW people live here. We locals call it The Yak, DeFuniak or just DFS for short. (Pro tip: Please do not say De-FOO-nee-ack. You’ll promptly be recognized as an outsider.)

It was named after Frederick DeFuniak, President of the railroad company who sent surveyors out to set the railroad’s panhandle route in the late 1800’s.

The leader of the surveying crew, Colonel W.D. Chipley, upon seeing the perfectly round lake surrounded by virgin forest, declared, “Here a town shall be!”

The small, cheery downtown is where most of the action is, so it’s easy to navigate whether walking or driving. Touring Lake DeFuniak, the most perfectly round spring-fed lake in the entire United States (1 of 2 in the world!) which is surrounded by a natural park totaling 260 acres, is one of the best ways to see and take in the town.

Walton DeFuniak Library. Photo credit: Kim Wennerberg

Enjoy walking or biking along the mile-ish Circle Drive to view historic homes, many of them Victorian style, dating back to the 1880’s. It can feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, experiencing the architecture, details, and the surrounding Chipley Park, simply called “the Lakeyard” by the locals. Bring your family, friends, and four-leggeds (on a leash) for a fun-filled time.

Bring your Tesla or compatible EV too, because there is a super-convenient super-charging station right downtown, within walking distance of most everything.

Whether using the Lake DeFuniak self-guided walking tour with interpretive panels, or simply strolling about, you’ll glimpse several significant historic places, such as the The Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood and the picturesque Walton-DeFuniak Library. Built in 1886, the library is the oldest continuously operating library in its original building in the state of Florida. Upon entry, you’re greeted by the squeaky, creaky sound of the original wood floors and an unexpected oddity: a medieval armor collection donated by Wallace Bruce, one of the town founders.

Eat, Drink and Do

Photo credit: Perla Baking Co.

Perla Baking Co. DeFuniak isn’t just the stomping ground where Hank Williams, Sr. learned how to play the guitar. Coincidentally, his granddaughter, recording artist and entrepreneur, Holly Williams, a frequent beach visitor for decades, also recently “found” DeFuniak Springs. “I always felt such a strong sense of connection here,” said Williams. “I fell in love with the beautiful Circle Dr. and staples like Fisher’s Pharmacy and Perla Bakery! I was shocked to find out my grandfather had known and loved this place like I do!”

It’s home to yet another well-known Nashville favorite and Grammy-nominated artist, Tim Jackson. Tim Jackson’s Storyteller Tour is a singer-songwriter performance held once monthly on Friday nights at the notably restored Chautauqua Theater, which also produces a myriad of theatrical performances year-round. The intimacy of the small theater combined with the raw talent of the artists and the historic venue, creates an authentic and memorable experience like no other.

Sweet Southern Comfort, owned by Jackson’s sister Tammy and her husband Jimmy, is a great way to start or end the storyteller performance, or any other day since they serve a hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner, featuring a daily blue plate special. Regulars rave about the fried chicken but my personal fav is the oogey-gooey smashburger. Don’t put it down or risk the consequences.

Bogey’s Restaurant & Bar has been a hometown favorite since 2006. With a full bar and indoor and outdoor dining (including an upstairs deck), Bogeys showcases sightline views of Lake DeFuniak and Baldwin Ave. The fish is always locally caught grouper and it’s hard to pick a favorite. But the fish and chips, doused in malt vinegar, with homemade tartar, is tops.

Perla Bakery is the ideal spot to meet for coffee, pastries, or a business meetup. And the newest addition to the Baldwin Ave. scene is Last Stop Brew Vault, hosting it’s upcoming grand opening at the time of this writing.

H&M Hot Dog

For the proverbial “hole in the wall” experience, there are two clear choices.

First, H&M Hot Dog Stand downtown, known as Florida’s oldest hot dog stand, is hands down my top pick for the best dog. Seating a maximum of 6 inside (you read that right), with additional outdoor seating, the atmosphere is unrivaled. They have other offerings such as the hand pattied hamburger and juicy chicken club. I highly recommend the Chicago style polish dog (or maybe two)!

Next is Ed’s Restaurant, which most locals still affectionately call “Tastee Freeze” is “Home of the Pub Burger” and the best milkshakes this girl has had the world ’round. While they have plenty of fancy shake add-ons, my go-to is always the double malt vanilla shake. The steer cheeseburger with pub meat all the way is the perfect compliment. Grab a to-go order at the window on your way back home on 331N.



The Chautauqua Winery, at the corner of Hwy 331 and I-10, features daily tastings of locally curated wine, made naturally sweet from muscadine grapes. They carry nonalcoholic muscadine juice also and host several popular outdoor events on-site each year.

More To Do

Photo by: Kim Wennerberg

Photo by: Kim Wennerberg

Main Street DeFuniak Springs, part of Main Street America, has succeeded in coming alongside the residents to help revive the vibrant historic downtown. Hosting annual events such as the Tractor Parade (don’t knock it – it’s so cute!), Oktoberfest, Merry Main Street and Mistletoe Market, you’ll get all the Hallmark feels.

The 4th Friday of each month is Food Truck Friday, where you’ll find all the local chef cuisines to tempt your tastebuds. Weekly from March-October is the Main Street Farmers Market held on Baldwin Ave., where you’ll find locals and visitors alike shopping for locally grown and homemade goodies. It’s also a terrific way to gain insight and experience what it’s like to live and work in DeFuniak Springs.

You can’t have a small town without a parade: July 4th, Christmas, Mardi Gras, Walton Braves Homecoming, Black History and more. Lake DeFuniak’s Circle Dr. is the most popular route, so grab your sunglasses and candy bag and wave as the floats pass by.

Christmas Reflections

Christmas Reflections, has become THE holiday seasonal event in the panhandle. With well over 10 million lights around Lake DeFuniak, it is a can’t-miss event. Whether it’s walking, driving, or relaxing in a horse-drawn carriage, you’ll be smitten and in the Christmas spirit in no time. Weekends are the most popular and are buzzing with activity. If you’re seeking a quieter, more peaceful time, go on a weeknight when less crowded.

For a more highbrow experience, the revived Florida Chautauqua Assembly, now held annually in March, has scores of lectures and classes surrounding topics of the four pillars of Chautauqua: religion, education, arts, and recreation.

The Walton County Heritage Museum, located inside the original depot on Circle Dr. and with free admission, is an outstanding resource for history buffs.

The Lakefest is all about summer fun, sports, and live entertainment. Photo credit: Lacey Drake

The city’s Lakefest has all the summer fun with paddleboards and canoes, silly cardboard boat races, disc golf, a car and tractor show, vendors, live entertainment, vendors, and even a triathlon. This has become quite the event and is a summer must-do.

Often overlooked, are the scenic drives leading from one winding country road to another. Frequently traveled by motorcycle and car enthusiasts alike, is the drive from County Highway 280E through to Hwy 81S in Ponce de Leon (whose namesake happened to discover the fountain of youth nearby). This is one of many, so kick back and let the road and your heart lead you.

Shop

Shopping is varied and plentiful and one of my personal favorites is Vault 46. Owned by artist and creator, Margaret Hoffman, her shop is nothing shy of a triumph. She makes much of the jewelry and art and the rest, she carefully curates and displays in a way that entices you to walk through the enchanting store repeatedly, to be sure you’ve found and gathered all the treasures.

As noted previously, Fisher’s Pharmacy is more than medicine. It’s a cure for the shopping addict, with clever and personal gifts throughout the store. It’s second generation owned with first class service and a smile.

Slide over to Soirée for your party planning needs, gifts, and floral arrangements. Don’t miss The Pink House with exquisite facials and treatments by the radiant sisters and owners, Cami and Randa. You’ll feel right at home with their sweet southern ways.  And if you want to feel good about giving back, be sure to pop into All Things New, a home, garden & gift boutique and a faith based social enterprise of Be Generous, where all proceeds go to rescue women escaping addiction and sex trafficking. McLean’s Florist & Gifts,  Katie Beth’s Boutique, and 5 Oaks Mercantile round out a perfect shopping day (or two).

If antique shopping is your thing, then we’ve got you covered. Nook & Cranny is a fan-favorite consignment shop located downtown and has a little bit of everything. Next on the list is Funky Pumpkin, a 5000SF antiques, vintage, and collectibles market. You can find Porters Corner Antiques on 331N and Sanford & Sisters Antique Mall on 331S. You’ll be blessed if you happen upon the owner of Sanford & Sisters, Marie, who is 92 years old and still comes in nearly every day! Each of these stores are chock full of fun antiques and finds and I visit regularly.

Stay

Photo: Sunbright Inn

The colorful and controversial Florida Governor Sidney J. Catts, the 22nd FL governor, also once called DeFuniak Springs home. Govt Catts was the first person to win a statewide election in America as a prohibitionist and the first Florida governor to campaign in an automobile.

The former Governor Catts’ 1886 mansion recently saw the completion of a nearly two-year renovation. Now known as The Sunbright Inn, this boutique inn is undoubtedly one of the finest overnight accommodations in the southeast, with exquisite details and quality that are unmatched.  Each spacious room and suite has its own theme and is named after local interests, such as the L&N Suite, paying homage to the railroad by which the town was founded. Their tagline delightfully reads, “The Rest is History.” This would be ideal for a family or girlfriend getaway, or even a wedding party or honeymoon, with the luxurious lobby space available for rent as well.

Not far from The Sunbright Inn is the 2 story historic Hotel DeFuniak. With true New Orleans flair, it has a speakeasy feel to it. With Cafe Nola for dining downstairs, you’ll appreciate the convenience of being within walking distance to shops and other eateries. Scaredy cats beware and ghost hunters rejoice: there’s a reputed ghost in the rooms upstairs, with stories of lamps moving of their own accord!

Photo credit: Twin Lakes Camp Resort

Perhaps fancy hotels aren’t your cup of tea and you’re more of the outdoorsy type? Even if it’s “I’m outdoorsy in that I like to drink on the patio”, then look no further than Twin Lakes Camp Resort, providing glamping tents (MY kind of camping), cabins, full hookup RV sites, and fantastic fishing.

In short, visiting our little town is like opening up a treasured gift that you never even knew you wanted.

As a native of DeFuniak Springs, you might think that the luster of it all would eventually fade into the sunset over Lake DeFuniak. But I never fail to marvel at where I get to live, work, and play; the slow pace of life, the friends, the kinship, and the relationships that move my world are right here.

Don’t be too upset if you haven’t known about or visited our gem hidden in plain sight. Now that you know, we await your visit with open arms.

To learn more, visit the official DeFuniak Springs website.

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Kim Wennerberg native to Walton County, is a real estate broker and enthusiast, with a love for all things creative, including design and decorating. She can be found riding around her hometown of DeFuniak Springs with her three doodles hanging their heads out the windows.

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