Water provides the lifeblood of this historic (founded in 1822) and sprawling (840 square miles) cultural melting pot. From the St. Johns River, to the Intracoastal Waterway, to the broad sands of the Atlantic shore, the city has more than 1,000 miles of navigable waterways. Downtown’s once industrial waterfront is now the welcoming Riverwalk that links residential areas, commercial towers, entertainment and restaurant districts on both sides of the river. Cargo and cruise ships glide past charming neighborhoods, as the city is home to one of the largest commercial ports on the Atlantic Coast. The port and the city’s strategic location also attracted the military, making aircraft carriers and high-tech jets common sights. But it’s not all about the water: Jacksonville boasts the country’s largest urban park system, from tiny riverfront green spaces to the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve. The riches of the area have fed residents for millennia, and continue to do so, as a new wave of chefs and brewers reinvent the food scene, adding to the vibrancy of this historic, but demographically young, city.
After the Great Fire of 1901, Jacksonville’s downtown rose from the ashes, much influenced by Chicago’s soaring Prairie-Style high-rises. One of these masterpieces now houses City Hall, and more of the city’s architectural treasures are being rescued with a focus on urban living. The Riverwalk’s three miles of public access attract locals and visitors who can hop easily from Northbank to Southbank via water taxis, the free Skyway or several bridges. A quarter of a million people gather at the One Spark Festival to celebrate innovation, technology and the arts, and the Jazz Festival and Light Parade attract diverse crowds. Nearby restaurants range from the elegant Chart House, Wine Cellar and bb’s, to exotic Indochine and casual bistros. Late-night hot spots include Underbelly, home to live music, and The Volstead, a speakeasy celebrating the city’s Prohibition past. Sports fans congregate before and after Jaguars’ and Suns’ games at the nearby sports complex. Those seeking more refined pursuits have been heading downtown since Jacksonville was a silent-movie production hub. Today, there is no lack of choice: the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts is home to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra; the Museum of Contemporary Art, with Café Nola and an intimate performance space; the Museum of Science and History; and the Florida Theatre, a lovingly restored movie palace. The Ritz Theatre and La Villa Museum offer insight into the city’s substantial African-American history, and nearby Springfield, home to the wealthy at the turn of the last century, is experiencing a rebirth.
Just minutes from downtown is San Marco, with the Venice-inspired San Marco Square at its heart, and whose well once supplied the town with water. Lined with trendy clothing boutiques, the original Peterbrooke’s Chocolatier, art galleries and theaters, the square offers plenty of choices in eateries, ranging from neighborhood diners to the French-inspired Bistro Aix and The Grotto, Matthews and Taverna. Theatre Jacksonville, the oldest community theatre in the country, should not be missed, nor should the San Marco Theater, an Art Deco movie house built in 1938 which offers dinner, drinks and films. San Marco’s Grape and Grain Exchange offers a choice of local, craft beers as does Aardwolf Brewery.
Listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, Riverside, with its tree-lined streets, brick cottages, parks and vibrant dining scene, was recently voted one of the country’s “Top 10 Great Neighborhoods.” Its central treasure, Memorial Park, was designed by the famed Olmsted brothers of Central Park. Today it offers superb views across the river, steps from restaurants such as Black Sheep, where diners can enjoy the sunset from the rooftop terrace. The Cummer museum’s world-class art collection and gardens are just a block away. Nearby, the bustling Riverside Arts Market, with live music, art and organic produce, is held in the shade of the I-95 overpass every Saturday. Just around the corner is Five Points, with outdoor cafés, hip boutiques, nightclubs, a growing warehouse art district, independent coffee houses and Sun-Ray Cinema, a restored 1927 movie theater that specializes in cult films and food. A food and craft beer district has emerged on adjacent King Street with locally owned restaurants like Pele’s Wood Fire, Lola’s and Corner Taco, in addition to breweries like Intuition Ale Works. A few blocks west along St. Johns Avenue, Avondale offers high-end boutiques, antique stores and upscale dining options, like Biscottis, Blue Fish and The Brick, with live jazz.
With the airport, the cruise ship terminal and the Amtrak station, this part of town is what many visitors see first. It’s also where French explorers first set foot at Fort Caroline, 450 years ago. A reconstruction of that fort is part of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Park, which explores 6,000 years, from the Timucua people through the Civil War. Kingsley Plantation’s restored main house and coquina-walled slave quarters offer insight into antebellum life. The north side is also home to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, founded in 1914, and Talbot Island State Park, a perfect place for bird watching and hiking. The Mayport Ferry provides a charming river crossing near Mayport Naval Station with views of ships, and local restaurants such as Singleton’s and Safe Harbor, serving up Mayport shrimp and seafood in an authentic setting.
Three beach communities are tied together by 22 miles of Atlantic shoreline. An early morning kayak ride with the before-school surfers offers the perfect perspective. The rising sun flashes off the windows of the condo and hotel towers of Jacksonville Beach, southernmost of the three towns, and most commercial. The skyline dips to the low cottages and dunes of Neptune Beach, then rises sharply at the One Ocean resort tower, marking the border with artsy, upscale, Atlantic Beach. One of the favorite forms of transport is to bike along the shore, deftly combining tanning and exercise. Surfing is also popular here or just taking in the sights from the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier.
Jacksonville Beach has more restaurants, night spots and plain old watering holes than both of the other beaches combined, plus the attraction of the beach itself. If the ocean is not enough to satisfy the kids, Adventure Landing Water Park with its go-kart track, miniature golf and roller coaster should exhaust any energy they have left. At the end of Beach Boulevard stands the distinctive tower of the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps building, and nearby Sea Walk Pavilion, home to free music festivals and movie nights. Freebird Live, a showcase for national and local rock musicians, is just across First Street from the Pavilion. A stroll along the Sea Walk takes you past waterfront restaurants, surf shops and tourist emporia filled with seashells, sunglasses and kitschy memorabilia, and the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier offers a place to drop a line in the ocean or just enjoy the view. A block inland, the J. Johnson Gallery, a yellow, Mediterranean building owned by photographer Jennifer Johnson, exhibits works by internationally known contemporary artists. The Casa Marina hotel, haunt of silent-film stars from Jacksonville’s “Winter Film Capital of the World” era, is a great place to enjoy dinner or a glass of wine while watching the moon rise from the sea. The Beaches Museum and History Park offers a glimpse into the area’s past with its restored 19th-century home, a chapel and a 28-ton steam locomotive.
Neptune Beach has maintained its residential personality by restricting building height on the beachfront, meaning its broad sands are always bathed in sunlight. To experience life as it’s lived in this funky beach community, a renta-bike ride along Midway and The Strand passes eclectic cottages and garage apartments. The Seahorse, a flamingo-pink, old-Florida motel, forms the north-end landmark, along with Pete’s Bar, serving drinks since the ’30s. Rumor has it that Hemingway lifted a glass there. Beaches Town Center, a shopping and dining district shared with neighboring Atlantic Beach, is home to the Book Mark, a venerable independent book store, and a variety of eateries, from Sliders Seafood Grill, an oyster bar and restaurant, to Mezza, a brick-oven pizzeria. Custom goldsmith Jay Lubeck offers art jewelry at Jewels by Lubeck.
Though it begins at One Ocean, a towering resort hotel, the rest of Atlantic Beach is more residential, with century-old beach cottages nestled between soaring architectural residences. The Atlantic Beach side of Beaches Town Center has more dining and shopping choices, from the New Orleans-inspired Ragtime, who pioneered the local craft beer movement three decades ago, to Poe’s Tavern. A few blocks away from the ocean on Atlantic Boulevard are two restaurants enjoyed by locals: Seafood Kitchen and the Fish Company, both offering authentic Mayport shrimp and seafood.