Travel: A Journey to Jacksonville

From pristine beaches to vibrant city, the heart of Florida’s First Coast delivers sun and fun from east to west.

Area beaches attract surfers of all skill levels (©RYAN KETTERMAN)

When driving north on I-95, you’ve likely passed right through Jacksonville without stopping—on your way to somewhere else. You may have discounted its big-city vibe in search of an idyllic beach vacation along the Atlantic coast. But Jacksonville is worth a closer look, offering a taste of both worlds.

At 840 square miles, Jax is the largest city by land mass in the continental U.S.—from its oceanside communities on the east to a bustling downtown on the west.

Start out by heading to Beaches Museum in Jacksonville Beach. This free, self-guided tour transports you back to when the area was called Pablo Beach. Watch the short film of this community’s heritage, then tour the exhibits reflecting its pioneer days. Across the street, you can take a docent-led tour of key community structures. Check out the 1873 Oesterreicher-McCormick Florida cracker cabin, the 1887 St. Paul’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church and Beaches Chapel, and the 1903 Pablo Beach Post Office. Climb aboard the iconic 1911 steam locomotive where you can ring the bell and imagine rail travel as an East Coast engineer.

Next, don your flip flops. With 22 miles of expansive, pet-friendly beaches, Jax offers plenty of toes-in-the-sand delight—all less than an hour’s drive from downtown. You’ll find public parking every few blocks, and you can hop aboard the free Beach Buggy that runs between Jax, Neptune and Atlantic beaches.

The streets of downtown Jacksonville are populated with eye-catching murals on buildings (LISA A. BEACH)

Jax Beach buzzes with places to explore and things to do, from restaurants, surf shops and seaside stores to kayaking, paddle boarding and fishing at the pier. Atlantic Beach draws a surfer crowd, while Neptune Beach evokes a more residential feel—ideal for setting up camp with a beach umbrella.

If you’re craving a back-to-nature beach spot, check out Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, just north of Atlantic Beach. A nominal $5-per-car entrance fee gives you access to scenic trails, beautiful beaches, camping and water activities. Kids will enjoy the zip line, and the playscape and splash park, which sit adjacent to a 60-acre lake surrounded by Spanish moss-draped live oaks, native wildflowers, and egrets and ospreys soaring overhead. Head to the beach for unspoiled shoreline, whether you’re swimming, romping with your dog or riding the waves at the Poles—an area that is a top draw for seasoned surfers.

Ready for drinks? Hit the Jax Ale Trail, where you can grab a brewery passport and sip your way around Jax’s craft beer scene. Among the selection of breweries, you can sample fresh-brewed IPAs, sours, lagers, stouts and more. A local fave is Atlantic Beach Brewing Company, with a spacious bar up front and a taproom in the back filled with board games, couches and a pool table. Go during special events to score branded merchandise, and be sure to order the solid Mayport Red. When you’re hungry, walk a few doors down to Cantina Louie for the area’s best Mexican food.

To the west of the beach communities, downtown Jacksonville offers historic architecture, museums, eye-popping wall murals, and shopping and dining sprinkled throughout the city and outlying neighborhoods.

Kick off your Jax history lesson with a trip to the library on Laura Street. Besides the impressive Morris Ansbacher Map Room on the fourth floor, you’ll find a charred-looking diorama dramatizing the catastrophic Great Fire of 1901. According to the State Library and Archives of Florida, the fire started around lunchtime. By the time it was brought under control that night, it had destroyed 146 city blocks (including 2,368 buildings), left 10,000 people homeless and killed seven residents.

Although the fire was devastating, the city was soon experiencing an architectural renaissance. Pick up a brochure at the Visit Jacksonville headquarters on Laura Street to take the self-guided walking tour of historic buildings. Architectural styles range from Prairie School (Florida Life Building) to Egyptian Revival (Morocco Temple) to Queen Anne (old Brewster Hospital).

A view of the city at dusk from the St. Johns River (VISITJACKSONVILLE.COM)

For a cultural treat, don’t miss the Cummer Museum of Art in historic Riverside. Making the Masters accessible with its recent French Moderns exhibit, Cummer houses a permanent art collection featuring more than 5,000 works, some dating back 8,000 years. Tour the stunning formal gardens in back that overlook the St. Johns River. Afterwards, stroll to Memorial Park and take in the Beaux Arts-style bronze sculpture, Spiritualized Life, then walk to the Five Points neighborhood for dinner.

Jax boasts the largest urban park system in the country: 450 city parks, seven state parks and three national parks. Downtown, you might find local musicians treating the lunch crowd to a concert in of Hemming Park. In Arlington, you’ll find the peaceful Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens, a hidden gem featuring acres of trails to explore.

Before heading home, be sure to visit San Marco, another walkable neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown. Lined with bistros, bookstores and boutiques—plus fantastic local dining—the town center bustles with local flair. Snap a pic of the fountain of lions, and stop by San Marco Theatre, built in 1938 and recognized by USA Today as “one of the 10 best classic cinemas in the USA.”

Get Set… Go:

Jacksonville is just a little over two hours’ drive northeast of Orlando via I-4 and I-95. visitjacksonville.com

Get the App

Download the free “Visit JAX!” mobile app to help plan your trip, create an itinerary and map out the best routes to the beaches. You’ll learn about upcoming events, things to see and do, where to eat and drink, and local art and historic tours.

Where to Stay
Because you’ll be busy ping-ponging between downtown Jax and the beaches, opt for the conveniently located Holiday Inn Express Jacksonville Beach, located just a few blocks from the beach and a short drive to the city center.

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Sweet Pete’s, a three-story confectionary emporium in the downtown area, is stocked with retro candy, lollipops, caramels, gourmet popcorn, ice cream, toys and more. You can even watch candy makers handcraft chocolates in the factory.

Retail Therapy
For coastal charm, head to Atlantic Beach Arts Market (artist co-op and vintage market) or Beaches Town Center (Neptune Beach) for local finds. Also, check out  St. John’s Town Center, an upscale shopping mecca with 200-plus stores and restaurants.