Jacksonville, the largest city by landmass in the nation and Northeast Florida’s historic urban economic engine, is a natural water wonderland that sports more shoreline than any other city in the U.S., with 22 miles of beaches, 40 miles of the Intracoastal Waterway and the longest stretch of the St. Johns River in the state of Florida. Founded in 1822, Jacksonville is home to the largest urban-park system in the country with more than 400 city parks, two national parks and seven state parks that offer tons of opportunities to swim, surf, paddleboard, scuba dive, boat, and fish as well as hike, camp, bike and spot local wildlife.
A growing culinary destination with chefs trained all over the world now calling the city home, the area features hundreds of local restaurants with tailored menus showcasing local produce and fresh seafood and provisions. Another foodie-scene highlight is the amount of unique cocktail lounges and craft breweries.
Consistently ranked as one of the Top 25 Big Cities for Arts in the nation, Jacksonville presents a diverse art scene with world-class museums, a rich musical past, African-American roots and Southern values.
"With a perfect mix of Florida Flavors and Southern Hospitality, Jacksonville offers visitors a chance to have so many unique experiences all in one destination," says Patty Jimenez, leisure communications specialist for Visit Jacksonville. "From the cool vibe at the beaches, to the creative spirit of Riverside and the upscale atmosphere at Avondale, each neighborhood of the city has its own authentic personality and countless attractions to discover. It’s like having a beach vacation, city vacation and nature getaway all at once. Who wouldn’t want to experience that? Hip, young, active and green, that is what Jacksonville is all about and what makes this “River City by the Sea” so special and definitely worth the trip."
Downtown Jacksonville combines big-city offerings with small-town charm and Southern hospitality. With 9 million annual visitors, Jacksonville is the “The Winter City in a Summer Land,” a phrase coined in the 1870s during the rise of Florida’s tourism industry. The St. Johns River that once buzzed with paddle wheelers, steamships and schooners remains the lifeblood of the district where luxury yachts, water taxis and sunset cruises sail past the thriving cultural corridors.
The Riverwalk and Main Street Bridge connect the North and Southbank of downtown Jacksonville via a three-mile pedestrian pathway, providing walkers and cyclists breathtaking views. To get from one side of the river to the other without walking or driving, hop aboard one of the many water taxis that shuttle across the river or the free Skyway automated tram system that glides above the river and city streets to connect various points of interest. On the Northbank is Jacksonville Landing, a riverfront marketplace modeled after Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Next door is the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, home of the Jacksonville Symphony. On the Southbank is St. Johns River Park with the stunning Friendship Fountain and MOSH, a science and history museum complete with a newly updated planetarium.
Stretching across Downtown Jacksonville’s core are more than 50 venues that host the monthly First Wednesday Art Walk, and on Saturdays from March to December the Riverside Arts Market located under the Fuller Warren Bridge presents an outdoor bazaar of live music, food and crafts. For contemporary art, check out the MOCA’s rotating exhibitions. The Florida Theatre, an iconic entertainment venue once home to vaudeville acts and silent films, now caters to all tastes in music, comedy and theater.
The home of Jacksonville sports lies on the city’s east side. There you’ll find EverBank Field, home to Jaguars football, along with Suns baseball at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville as well as Sharks arena football and Giants basketball at Veterans Memorial Arena.
The Elbow is Downtown Jacksonville’s entertainment district, a walkable borough home to award-winning culinary, nightlife, live-music and performance venues. Cultivated around the historic Florida Theatre, The Elbow encompasses eight restaurants and nine bars between Bay and Adams streets, and Main and Liberty streets, with three additional spots to open in 2016. Must-visit spots include 1904 Music Hall, Burro Bar, The Hourglass Pub, Chomp Chomp, Indochine and Dos Gatos. The Elbow’s Art Walk After Dark features live music, art exhibits and food and drinks specials. Thursday nights offer extended happy hours and specials as well as DJs, open mic shows, trivia and live music.
Located just minutes from Southbank is the historic neighborhood of San Marco, where Mediterranean influence meets a burgeoning dining district full of elegant bistros. Stroll along San Marco Square and you'll discover incredible dining, upscale boutiques and sensational art galleries. Also located within the square is San Marco Theatre, an Art-Deco movie house, and Theatre Jacksonville, the oldest community theater in the country dating back to 1938.
Don't miss the San Marco fountain of lions, which reflects the neighborhood's Venetian influence. San Marco’s dining scene includes some of Jacksonville’s best restaurants with Matthew’s, bb’s, The Grotto, Indochine, Taverna and Maple Street Biscuit Company. Nightlight hot spots like Grape and Grain Exchange, Le Bar at Bistro AIX, The Parlour, Sidecar and Aarrdwolf Brewing Company keep the party going.
Riverside Avondale is internationally renown for its distinctive mix of history, culture, character and community and is considered one of American’s great historic neighborhoods. During the peak years of Riverside’s development from 1895 to 1929, following the great fire that consumed downtown, the neighborhood became a laboratory for aspiring architects. The richness and variety of homes built during this period include Colonial Revival, Georgian, Shingle, Queen Anne/Victorian, Tudor and bungalow styles.
Canopied residential streets lead visitors to pocket parks, some with river access, and quaint shopping districts where boutiques, restaurants and bars nest in 1920s-era commercial buildings. Nearby, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens offers world-class art spanning from 2100 B.C. through the 21st century, including the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain.
In the 1920s, Five Points began as a commercial district catering to the rapidly growing residential areas surrounding it. Although officially a part of the Riverside-Avondale Historic District, Five Points has evolved into one of Jacksonville’s most vibrant urban-core districts. Ground zero for the city’s bohemians and hipsters, it’s now acquiring a decidedly upscale urban gloss. Tattoo parlors and head shops sit comfortably among classy fashion boutiques and Jacksonville’s finest independent film house, Sun-Ray Cinema, which first opened in 1927 as the Riverside Theatre, the first in the city to screen films with sound. The attractive 1920s-era commercial strip with its unique architecture and colorful storefronts ends at the Five Points intersection with its iconic blinking light. Home of the first indoor-outdoor miniature golf course, the Park Arcade Building is now home to fashion emporiums featuring independent designers and cool vintage clothing as well as quaint cafés serving home-brewed tea, towering ice-cream cones or a latte with foam that’s a work of art in itself. Here you’ll also find a variety of antique malls, natural-food stores, salons and lively local bars and dining options. After you’ve had your fill, take a stroll down to the river to enjoy one of the city’s most scenic and restful spaces, Memorial Park.
Neptune Beach/ Atlantic Beach
The coastal skyline dips to its lowest point along the residential village of Neptune Beach where building-height restrictions leave the sandy shores bathed in constant sunlight. An ideal, quiet neighborhood for a leisurely bike ride along the coast, Neptune Beach, with its funky bungalows and cottages, comes to an end at the hip strip of shops known as Beaches Town Center. Marking the division between Neptune and Atlantic Beach, the artsy entertainment district where Atlantic Boulevard meets the ocean is approximately 12 miles east from downtown Jacksonville. The inviting, pedestrian-friendly area offers many boutiques, fitness centers, restaurants and two oceanfront hotels.
On the Neptune side, you won’t want to miss Lillie’s Coffee Bar where you can relax in a shady courtyard while enjoying a hot-pressed panini, fresh salad, tasty breakfast and local desserts along with beer and wine.
Toward Atlantic Beach, eateries like Poe’s Tavern and the New Orleans-inspired Ragtime serve up local, craft beer and fresh, fine fare. Enjoy Atlantic Beach’s two miles of white sandy shore with 14 ocean access points in addition to 65 acres dedicated to parks, including the Dutton Island Preserve on the Intercoastal Waterway.
With more than four miles of sandy beaches for swimming, surfing, fishing and fun in the sun, the relaxed coastal town of Jacksonville Beach is the commercial hub of the region’s three beach towns. Home to towering condos and hotels, Jax Beach sports a host of restaurants, nightclubs and bars. The American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps provides ocean safety to residents and visitors along beaches year round.
Check out the Sea Walk that runs north along the coast from the end of Beach Boulevard. It’s perfect for a leisurely stroll or bike ride, with access to waterfront restaurants, surf shops and kitschy souvenir shops. There’s also a pavilion that hosts free concerts throughout the year.
The Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier is nearly a quarter-mile long and offers visitors close-up views of the Atlantic Ocean and anglers access to deepwater species of fish. One block inland is the J. Johnson Gallery, a classic Mediterranean building exhibiting works by internationally renown contemporary artists. The Beaches Museum and History Park preserves a restored 19th-century house, a 28-ton steam locomotive built in 1911 by H.A. Porter and Company and the newly restored Beaches Museum Chapel. The historic Casa Marina hotel, previously a haunt for silent-film-era stars, is a great escape to enjoy dinner while watching the moonrise from the Atlantic.