The northeast corner of Florida is a jumble of farmland, forests and pasture, urban sprawl and college towns, built-up beaches and bucolic sea islands. You'll find spots like Amelia Island – a natural escape for the country-club crowd – a mere hour's drive north from Jacksonville, one of the most spread out, sprawling cities in the country. Hit the road for a little more and you're in Gainesville, peppered with fair-trade coffee shops and craft cocktail bars (and, to be fair, a raucous fraternity-friendly party scene).
St Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the US, has something for everyone – history, architecture, culture, a gamut of excellent dining and plenty of kid-friendly tourist schmaltz. Further south, you'll find odd-duck antique-laden small towns and (hey, it's Florida) more miles of soft, sandy beach.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northeast Florida.
The Holy Grail of raceways has a diverse race schedule. Ticket prices skyrocket for good seats at big races, headlined by the Daytona 500 in February. It's worth wandering the massive stands for free on non-race days. First-come, first-served tram tours take in the track, pits and behind-the-scenes areas, while all-access tours give you a glimpse of media rooms and pit stalls.
This photogenic fort is an atmospheric monument to longevity: it's the country's oldest masonry fort, completed by the Spanish in 1695. In its time, the fort has been besieged twice and changed hands between nations six times – from Spain to Britain to Spain Part II to the USA to the Confederate States of America to the USA again. Park rangers lead programs hourly and shoot off cannons most weekends.
Henry Flagler's former Hotel Alcazar is home to this wonderful museum with a little bit of everything, from ornate Gilded Age furnishings to collections of marbles and cigar-box labels. The dramatic and imposing building itself is a must-see, dating back to 1887 and designed in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style by New York City architects Carrère & Hastings.
This handsome museum, Jacksonville's premier cultural space, has an excellent collection of American and European paintings, Asian decorative art and antiquities. An outdoor area showcases classical English and Italian gardens, and is one of the loveliest alfresco spaces in the city.
Relax in a giant inner tube and float through gin-clear waters at this popular park, plopped on the lazy, spring-fed Ichetucknee River. Various water sports are available here, but tubing is certainly the most popular. Floats last from 45 minutes to 3½ hours, with scattered launch points along the river. The park runs regular trams bringing tubers to the river and also a free shuttle service (May to September) between the north and south entrances.
Across from Gainesville's little Lake Alice, adjacent to a student garden, stands what appears to be two oversized birdhouses. However, these stilted gray-roofed structures are actually home to a family of Brazilian free-tailed bats. Built in 1991 after the flying mammals' poop began stinking up the campus, the population has since exploded to more than 300,000. Each night just after sundown, the bats drop from their roost – at the amazing rate of 100 bats per second – and fly off to feed.
The tiny, 1742-built Fort Matanzas National Monument is located on Rattlesnake Island, near where Menéndez de Avilés executed hundreds of shipwrecked French soldiers and colonists when rations at St Augustine ran low. Today it makes a terrific excursion via a free 10-minute ferry that launches every hour (at half-past) from 9:30am to 4:30pm, weather permitting. Once there, the ranger provides an overview and lets you wander.
Wild horses and bison roam the 20 biological communities that constitute 21,000-acre Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. This slightly eerie preserve's wet prairie, swamp, hammock and pine flatwoods are crisscrossed by multiple trails which can easily eat up a day of wandering. The 3-mile La Chua Trail takes in the Alachua Sink and Alachua Lake, offering opportunities to spot alligators and sandhill cranes.
Fifteen minutes north of town, these natural springs flow into the 18,000-acre Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and were used by Native Americans 6000 years ago. Today they're a popular developed swimming area that's great for kids. Water-equipment rentals and boat tours are available: inquire at the park office. Experienced hikers can attack the robust, blue-blaze 4.2-mile Wild Persimmon Trail, meandering through oak hammocks, floodplains and open fields.