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Best Things To Do in Jacksonville

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Surprisingly, for a non-tourism town, there are a number of cool things to do in Jacksonville. These mostly revolve around history and nature. Unlike coastal South Florida, there are still vast swaths of Northeast Florida that are pretty much the way it was when experienced by William Bartram, whose 18th century descriptions of the area inspired the imagery for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem Kubla Khan. You can go back a ways, to Gilded Age mansions in Fernandina, further back to pre-Civil War plantations, or take a trip on the river to see the primeval Florida that so captivated early settlers.

Anheuser-Busch Brewery

Neighborhood: Northside

What’s more fun than drinking beer? Watching it being made ... well, maybe drinking it is more fun after all, but if you’re over 21, you can do that on the Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour as well. If you’ve ever wondered what a “born on” date was and how dried piles of hops and barley turn into liquid gold, this is where you find out. You’ll see it all, from the raw ingredients to the big steel vats to the bottling line and (finally) nice cold glasses of beer— two free samples with every tour.

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Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Neighborhood: Northside
Now nearly 100 years old, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has earned a reputation as one of the best in the southeast. The 92-acre park includes a series of themed gardens—savannah, Trout River, Asian bamboo—along with habitat areas for lions, antelope, crocodiles and even komodo dragons among other species. If you’re a sucker for giraffes (we admit it—the spindly legged, googly eyed critters are really cute), head for the “overlook,” a boardwalk that puts you eye-to-eye with the 18-foot-tall mammals. If you can only see a couple of exhibits, go from there straight to Range of the Jaguar, an unusual themed exhibit with jaguars (naturally) and other South American animals. The zoo is open 9AM - 5PM daily (except Christmas and New Year) and admission is $13.95 for adults, children 3-12 $8.95 (2 and under free), with discounts for seniors and students. There are a couple of snack bars on site and you can picnic in an area adjacent to the parking lot, but you might want to plan your visit to end before lunch or begin afterward.

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Kayak Amelia

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

The coastal lagoons and salt marshes of Northeast Florida are beautiful, peaceful places with broad stretches of calm water surrounded by vast swaths of tall bullrush and chord grass. This is the Florida the European explorers saw when they arrived in the 16th century, and it’s the Florida that sustained the native populations, who took fish and oysters from the water. Kayak Amelia runs three-hour guided tours from Little Talbot Island State Park or you can rent a kayak and do your own thing. Aside from seeing lots of grass, you’re very likely to see dolphins. During the spring and summer, it’s not uncommon to see manatees as they come into the protected coastal waters or as they head south in winter when it gets cold (if it’s really cold, they head for the freshwater springs, though) and whales. The area around Amelia Island is the only known calving ground for North Atlantic right whales, who come here to bear young before heading north to feed in the spring and summer. The tours run about $60 per person with a brief “learn how to do this” beforehand and the route follows the current, so you’re going downstream at all times.

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Amelia River Cruise

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

If you’re not able to paddle a kayak—or just unwilling to do anything remotely laborious on your vacation—you can see some of the same sights on the (powered) Amelia River Cruise. These cover a great deal more territory, naturally, and after leaving from the Fernandina waterfront, cruise all the way up to Cumberland Island, Georgia, the largest wilderness barrier island in the country. Cumberland Island was where John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette—at Greyfield Inn, which was built by the Carnegie family. You may see wild horses along the shoreline and there are several options for tours. We think the sunset cruise is the best; it’ll get you back to Fernandina in time for dinner in town or at the Ocean Grill.

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Fort Clinch State Park

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

This masonry fort was begun in 1847 but never completely finished. It was garrisoned during the Civil War—by the Union after a brief occupation by Confederates at the beginning of the war—the Spanish-American War and WWII. The fort was built to protect Cumberland Sound, which is the approach to the town of Fernandina, which was the most important city in Florida at the time. The location, literally at the extreme northeastern tip of the state, is the key to its present popularity. It’s surrounded by parkland, and the drive in from the state park gate passes under live oaks thickly hung with Spanish moss. There are large, isolated campsites if you brought your tent, otherwise, tour the fort (there are Civil War-era re-enactors here the first weekend of each month and interpretive exhibits and guides at other times), look for shark’s teeth along the beach or fish from the pier. It’s a great day outdoors and kids love looking at real cannons and picking up shells on the beach.

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Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier

Neighborhood: Jacksonville Beach

Hurricane Floyd trashed the historic Jacksonville Beach pier, so the city built a new one (at a new location) that opened in 2005. This isn’t a Jersey Shore style entertainment complex; it’s a fishing pier. You pay $4 and you can fish off of it without buying a Florida fishing permit. Most days you’ll find dedicated surfcasters and coastal fishermen lining the rails tending lines, and they can help with any questions you have about bait, depths and quarry.

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Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier  

Jacksonville Beaches

There are about 4 miles of beach in Jacksonville Beach proper, but the ocean doesn’t respect municipal boundaries; the strip of sand runs all the way up past Neptune beach and south down to and through Ponte Vedra. If you’re just going to the beach as a day trip, park in downtown Atlantic Beach and walk the few blocks to the sand. When you’re hungry or thirsty, a quick trip back up will bring you to the cluster of bars and restaurants that surround city hall (Ragtime is great for lunch, as is Sun Dog). In Jacksonville Beach there’s public parking next to the pier and you can walk to the sand from there.

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Kingsley Plantation

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

This isn’t the grand Greek Revival Tara-style mansion of the movies; it’s much more reflective of the majority of Southern plantations with a modest Georgian four-square style house and slave quarters built from tabby. Tabby is found all over coastal Georgia and Florida and up into South Carolina. It’s a concrete material made by mixing sand, water, lime (from burning oyster shells), ash (from the fire used to burn the shells) and whole oyster shells. The Kingsleys were an offbeat and fascinating bunch. Zephaniah Kingsley was born in England in 1765, moving with his parents to Charleston, SC at age 5. The Kingsleys were Loyalists and moved to Canada during the American Revolution. Zephaniah moved to Florida—then controlled by Spain, not the United States—in 1803 and acquired land around Doctor’s Inlet south of Jacksonville, purchasing slaves to work the land. One of those slaves was Anta Majigeen Ndiaye, a native of Senegal bought by Kingsley at the slave market in Havana, Cuba. Kingsley eventually married Anna (an English version of her name), liberated her and made her a partner in his businesses, even setting her up with her own farm and her own slaves. After Florida was transferred to the United States, the Kingsleys—who had several children—were afraid that growing racism threatened their children, so they moved to Haiti, which had recently become a free black republic. Though Zephaniah died in 1843, Anna returned to Jacksonville after the Civil War, in 1865, and died there in 1870. The property itself is beautiful, overlooking the Fort George River, and it makes a fascinating and peaceful day trip.

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Fernandina Historic District

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

Because of its sheltered, deepwater port, Fernandina was much more important than Jacksonville during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the starting point for David Yulee’s railroad across the state to Cedar Key, and it was on the border between Spanish Florida and English Georgia, making it a haven for smugglers — a tradition that continued right through the Spanish-American War and on through Prohibition. Author Stephen Crane (Red Badge of Courage) came to Fernandina in 1897, fell in love with brothel owner Cora Taylor and shipped out on The Commodore, which was smuggling guns to rebels in Cuba. The Commodore sank near Daytona Beach and Crane turned the incident into a short story, The Open Boat. The city engaged in legitimate commerce, too, and local merchants got rich trading in lumber, turpentine and cattle. The mansions they built are still standing, many lovingly restored Gilded Age masterpieces with heart pine floors, stained glass windows and acres of ginger bread trim. Walking down Centre Street from the waterfront, you pass through the city’s old commercial district, where many of the buildings date to the last decades of the 19th century. Turning south off of Centre onto any of the numbered cross streets takes you into the heart of the 50-square-block historic district where you’ll find example after the example of remarkable 19th century architecture. In particular, the Fairbanks House (at 7th and Cedar) is one of the few remaining examples of Italianate residential architecture left in North Florida. It’s now a bed and breakfast, so don’t be afraid to go up to the porch and knock. The Bailey House (7th and Ash) is a Queen Anne masterpiece while Villa Las Palmas (Alachua and 4th), a California Mission Style mansion shows the diversity of styles in Fernandina’s historic district. 

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Fernandina Historic District  

The Palace Saloon

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

Often billed as the oldest continuously operating saloon in Florida, the Palace Bar is an anchor along Fernandina’s Centre Street. Opened by German immigrant Louis Hirth in 1903, it was furnished with hand-carved accents and furniture procured by Hirth with the help of fellow immigrant (and brewer) Adolphus Busch. The lavish interior attracted the era’s elite—Carnegies, Rockefellers, du Ponts, Pulitzers, J.P. Morgan—who wintered at mansions along the south Georgia coast. Part of The Palace has been converted to a VIP bar, Sheffield’s. It feels a little like moving that wayward party girl in with your spinster aunt, but it has undoubtedly livened up the entertainment side of the complex. It’s well worth visiting the Palace, even if just for an hour to drink a cool beer at the hand-carved bar. 

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Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

Neighborhood: Downtown

This gem on the St. Johns River has a large collection that covers a considerable patch of 14th through 19th century art. Its European collection contains works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rubens and Vasari while the American works include pieces by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Benjamin West, Winslow Homer and Norman Rockwell. There are also sculpture, pottery, jewelry and mosaics from Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Museum occupies the former site of the Cummer family home and its gardens, expanded and restored, are wonderful. Wander the paths through the Italian garden down to the arches overlooking the St. Johns River and then back through the massive plantings of hydrangea and dogwood in the English gardens.

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Florida Theatre

Neighborhood: Downtown

The Florida Theater opened in 1927 and was what was then known as an “atmospheric”: its interior architecture was intended to look like a castle courtyard, complete with a proscenium coffered to give the impression of a portcullis. After World War II, the rise of the suburbs and virtual abandonment of downtown led to its demise, but it was resurrected and reopened in 1983. It was designed to show movies and host live entertainment, a role it continues today. In 1956 it found itself the focus of a LIFE Magazine article in the 1950s when a local judge sat through a live performance by a young Elvis Presley to make sure that “Elvis the Pelvis” (as he was called) didn’t do anything lewd or provocative with his hips during the show. Seriously. Nowadays the Theatre shows classic films (The Birds, Harvey, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) and hosts live performances (Black Crowes, War, Asleep At The Wheel, Taj Mahal, Leontyne Price). Check the website to see what’s playing while you’re in town.

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Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts

With three auditoriums overlooking the St. Johns River next door to Jacksonville Landing, the Times-Union Center is a beautiful place for a symphony concert, a comedy performance or musical theater. As the city’s largest municipal venue, it books a broad variety of performances from Crosby, Stills & Nash to Seinfeld to The Pirates of Penzance and the Jacksonville Symphony. Check the website for shows during your visit.

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Ritz Theater & LaVilla Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown

The white community had the Florida Theatre, but the black community had The Ritz. After the Civil War, freed former slaves congregated in an area known as LaVilla, and The Ritz became its cultural focal point. When, like their white neighbors, blacks began moving out of downtown and into the suburbs in the 1970s, La Villa spiraled into disrepair. A concerted effort by the community led to its renovation and reopening in 1999 and today, it hosts a large black heritage museum and presents live performances with an emphasis on jazz, R&B and classical. If you take in a show, arrive early to tour the museum to learn more about the life and times of Florida’s black community.

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Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art

Neighborhood: Downtown

MOCA is the modern counterpoint to the nearby Cummer, collecting only works from 1960 onward. The collection isn’t large but it does cover the major bases—Calder, Katz, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist—and brings in traveling exhibits and often hosts shows by area artists. It’s a nice little museum, fun for a couple of hours, and you can have lunch at the Café Nola. The jerk chicken wrap with homemade tortilla chips is just as offbeat and delicious as the art.

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Florida-Georgia Game

Neighborhood: Downtown

This is a once-a-year event, played in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium/EverBank Field (the NFL Jaguars home stadium). This is one of college football’s premiere rivalry games pitting the University of Florida Gators against the University of Georgia Bulldogs and one of the few played at a neutral site (Jacksonville is only 38 miles from the Georgia border). The game has been played annually since 1915 and came to be known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in honor of the massive tailgating and illicit in-stadium consumption of alcohol. The game’s promoters have been playing that down in recent years, but it’s still the region’s largest party. The current standings in the series are 47-39-2 in favor of UGA, although Halloween weekend has turned scary for the Dogs of late as the Gators have gone 17-3 over the past two decades—and Georgia is pissed about it. If you’re in town the last weekend in October and you’re a college football fan, this is one game you cannot miss.

TPC Sawgrass

Neighborhood: Ponte Vedra

Undoubtedly one of the best golf courses in the Southeast, Sawgrass is the home of the Tournament Players Championship. Designed by Pete and Alice Dye to be difficult, it started off too hard even for the pros it was meant for, and was subsequently toned down, but just a little. The 17th is its signature hole—a 137-yard drive onto a short green surrounded on three sides by water. The course has a Marriott resort attached to it that’s consistently ranked in the top ten golf resorts in the U.S. Unlike many of the top flight championship courses, you can play it without being a member. This is just down the street from the Ponte Vedra Inn and its two courses, so if you’re looking for a great golf getaway, staying at either property gives you four tracks to choose from, although you won’t master any of them in a week.

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TPC Sawgrass  

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park

Neighborhood: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

This park located on Fort George Island next to the Timucuan Preserve is an idyllic spot if you’re looking for an unspoiled and uncrowded beach. It does host a lot of campers in the winter (there are both tent sites and RV sites), but the beachfront stretches for more than a mile and folks tend to clump up around the access points. If you just walk a little, you’ll have your own stretch of sand to lay on—no tiki bars, no condos, no beach wagons. Just you, the sand and the surf. Ahhhhhh.

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