Tucked away in the northeastern corner of one the USA’s most visited states, Jacksonville, Florida’s most populous city, offers all the benefits of a beach town combined with city life and Southern charm. With warm temperatures year round – January’s highs average in the 60s – it’s always a pleasant time to visit.
Jacksonville is part of Florida’s First Coast, the first part of the state settled by non-native people. That not only means its stories date back to before many other places, but it’s also been ruled by a number of countries. History buffs should start their exploration with a visit to Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a national park that captures the history of the area’s earliest residents. The area was previously under Spanish and British rule and was also part of the Confederate States of America. Trace those tales with help from the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Museums for all
Museums are a definite perk of city life, and Jacksonville offers them in abundance. You’ll find an institution to entertain and educate nearly any traveler. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens offers a soothing, inspiring respite from city life. You’ll find more unforgettable art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. Or tickle your creative fancy with another way of thinking at the Museum of Science and History. MOSH is educational, sure, but it’s also interactive and fun for kids and adults alike.
Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve © DWalker44 / Getty Images
Finding your niche
At 840 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city by land area in the continental United States. But its system of 500 neighborhoods creates a more intimate sense of place. If you’re looking for art, boutiques and bistros, Five Points, San Marco or Atlantic Beach may be the place to stay. Want a historic flavor? The city includes three designated historic districts: Riverside/Avondale (of which Five Points is part), Springfield and St. Johns Quarter.
There are many perks of Jacksonville’s year-round warm weather, including near-unlimited access to sports. The most prominent is the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars. EverBank Field includes unusual amenities such as pools with a gridiron view. Football fans will also love the annual Taxslayer Bowl. Or plan a vacation around the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party: the annual matchup between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia, which dates to 1933. Minor league baseball is also a hit with the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, a Miami Marlins farm team. Are you more participant than spectator? Get out and run. There’s a race for every season, including Gate River Run, the country’s largest 15k, which attracts 13,000 people annually.
The famous Sawgrass golf course, situated along Ponte Vedra Beach © TraceRouda / Getty Images
We can’t over emphasize those warm-weather perks, and golf is another. Jacksonville offers convenient access to 70 private and public courses scattered throughout Northeast Florida. These greens combine for a total of 1200 holes, leaving enthusiasts little reason to complain (except when they miss par). Jacksonville’s also a place to watch the greats. The Players Championship at Sawgrass in nearby Ponte Vedra returns every May. You might also plan a side trip to the PGA TOUR Golf Academy, located 30 miles south of downtown in nearby St Augustine.
In many other places, you’re forced to choose from big-city amenities or a coastal pace. Not so in Jacksonville. Whether your current view is skyscrapers or sawgrass, you’re never far from the beach. It’s one of the city’s distinctive perks. And there’s a beach for every mood. Take in the charming, small-but-posh town feel of Atlantic and Neptune beaches, or the slower pace of Mickler’s Landing or Huguenot Park. Want every beach-side shop imaginable? Jacksonville Beach is for you.
In addition to the city’s 22 miles of beaches, Jacksonville offers 1100 miles of shoreline. That means every opportunity to get in the water, whether you prefer to surf or swim. It’s a fisher’s dream, with 60 species of fish and nearly every type of fishing you could want. Fly fishing? Yep. Or charter a boat to deeper waters. You can also get up close with aquatic life while scuba diving around 22 reefs. Or rent a kayak – perhaps at the beach’s Hanna Park – and explore the coast at a human-powered pace.
You're never far from the beach in Jacksonville © Diane Macdonald / Getty Images
Parks and trails
Hanna Park offers abundant opportunity in a stunning coastal setting, with 20 miles of hiking or biking trails. (Rent a set of wheels at a number of nearby stores.) But it’s only 447 of thousands of acres of area parks. In addition to the city’s 400-plus parks, Jacksonville is home to seven state and two national park properties (the aforementioned Timucuan and Fort Caroline). There’s nothing to keep you inside besides a little heat – and hey, that’s what all that water is for!
You’re visiting the birthplace of Southern rock, where the Allman Brothers Band was formed and Lynyrd Skynyrd inspired others to turn it up. Welcome to Rockville, an annual celebration of all things rock, has seen artists like Def Leppard, Limp Bizkit and Slash perform. But regardless of the genre you prefer, the city has a festival for you: Jacksonville Jazz Festival is the nation’s second largest, held every May; and Spring the Blues has brought its sound to the beaches of Jacksonville since 1991. With many annual music fests and a plethora of music venues, this city will keep you dancing.
Food and drink
With this much water, it’s no wonder there’s so much delicious seafood. And we’re serious – it’s good. But the culinary scene is also diverse, with dozens of food trucks and international influence. If you’re looking for a big-name chef, stop by Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Chef Tom Gray has been a nominee twice for Best Chef: South in the James Beard Awards. Those who prefer craft beer over cocktails can hop on the Jax Ale Trail for a self-guided tour of seven local breweries. Want to stay in and cook? Swing by the Jacksonville Farmers Market, which dates to 1938 and is the state’s oldest.