Jacksonville, a bustling city with a booming food and beer scene, and Amelia Island, a tranquil 13-mile-long barrier island known for its pirate past and pristine coastline, are both teeming with delightful diversions worthy of exploration. Located just 34 miles apart along Florida’s First Coast, the two cities boast an illustrious past and cast of historical characters from Ponce de León to French pirate Louis Michel Aury. Both house historical districts steeped in Spanish colonial charm and dotted with scores of historical landmarks, but Jacksonville and Amelia Island are 21st-century destinations where travelers find luxury resorts, countless farm-to-fork restaurants and a craft-brewing scene that’s bursting at the seams.
1. Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
15 different wildlife exhibits dot this sprawling wildlife attraction, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year and now houses more than 2,000 exotic animals. Lots of interactive animal experiences abound, including the opportunity to feed giraffes, which freely roam and graze within a 2.5-acre African Savanna reproduction.
2. Museum of Science & History (MOSH)
Featuring a slew of interactive exhibits, MOSH specializes in immersing visitors in an enthralling exploration of everything from space and anatomy to dinosaurs and shipwrecks. It’s also home to the Bryan-Gooding Planetarium where films and cosmic concerts come to life on the 60-foot dome.
3. The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA)
Now offering free Thursday evening admission throughout 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville gives art lovers the chance to explore hundreds of pieces in its permanent and traveling exhibits, in addition to art classes, tours, lectures and films.
4. Riverside Arts Market
On Saturdays from March until December, treasure seekers head to the Riverside Arts Market a few miles from downtown Jacksonville where dozens of local artisans and crafters gather under the Fuller Warren Bridge to share their handmade wares and socialize with other creatives.
5. Jacksonville Ale Trail
Besides tours of Budweiser Breweries, Jacksonville boasts a thriving craft--brewery scene worthy of its own attraction status. The Jax Ale Trail gives beers lovers the chance to visit Jacksonville’s eight local breweries where visitors can sample the brews and collect stamps for their Ale Trail passport.
6. Hemming Park
Thanks to a massive renovation, Hemming Park, Jacksonville’s first public park, is better than ever. Hosting everything from yoga classes to art parties to concerts on the newly built stage, this 1.5-acre urban green space is an epicenter of community and fun in downtown Jacksonville.
7. Horseback Riding
Wander miles of Amelia Island‘s beautiful white sandy beaches on a Tennessee Walking Horse with Happy Trails Walking Horses tours. Open to riders six and up, these laid-back trots amidst the surf are ideal for riders of all experience levels.
8. Fernandina Beach
Featuring 50 square blocks in which every house, hotel and watering hole has a story to tell, Downtown Fernandina Beach has been named one of the country’s Top 10 Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Explore by foot or by horse-drawn carriage for a fascinating guided glimpse into this fun and funky town.
9. Fort Clinch State Park
Civil War buffs won’t want to miss Fort Clinch State Park, located at the island’s northern tip. The 1,121-acre preserve features biking and hiking trails through coastal maritime hammocks as well as campgrounds and beaches. Built in 1847, the fort was held at various times by both Confederate and Union forces.
10. Amelia Island Ghost Tours
Hear Amelia Island’s spooky stories on a historical walking tour packed with tall tales and astonishing chronicles. From visits past haunted homes to eerie gravesites, these nightly nocturnal jaunts reveal the secrets of Amelia Island’s sordid past.