Last Updated on May 8, 2023

I am not going to sugar coat my Jacksonville Visitor’s Guide. I’m not going to paint a picture rosier than reality. I’ve lived in the Jacksonville area since 2012 and commuted to work daily in the city for nine years.

Because of that intimacy, I know its high points and failings better than any drop-in travel writer spending a weekend ever could. Having lived and traveled extensively through the U.S., I also know how it stacks up against other similarly sized cities.

Attempts to invigorate Jacksonville’s downtown have failed for 50 years. Efforts are ongoing, successes and setbacks occur with regularity. Ditto Jacksonville’s riverfront. The riverfront represents the city’s greatest opportunity for becoming a more desirable destination for both travelers and residents.

If you love the beach and golf, you’ll love Jacksonville, Florida. If you do, you should move here. Seriously. Golf is a 12-month activity in north Florida with public and private courses everywhere. It’s a major recreational, competitive and social activity across the region.

I often tell people when discussing Jacksonville that it’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit, upending the old saying “it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” My Jacksonville Visitor’s Guide seeks neither to encourage or discourage you from visiting. I seek only to share the truth.

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A City of Contrasts

Jacksonville epitomizes that “big little city” trope.

Jacksonville’s sports scene is exceptionally BIG! Jacksonville lays claim to one of 32 National Football League teams putting it in a class with New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.

Jacksonville hosts college football’s biggest and best neutral site game – the Florida-Georgia game – annually. The Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas would argue that, but we’re quibbling. It’s an enormous annual event which has brought 100,000 college football fans to town each October since anyone reading this was alive.

Ponte Vedra, Florida next door hosts the Professional Golf Association’s The Players Championship each March. It is no worse than the fifth most prestigious golf tournament in the world. Its stature is more U.S. Open than Hartford Open.

The organization and presentation of this event is what Jacksonville does best; I would happily compare The Players toe-to-toe with any other annual weekend sporting event, concert or festival anywhere in the world for visitor experience.

Thanks to a quirk of city governance, Jacksonville is the largest city by land size in the continental U.S. despite only having about 1 million residents. It’s borders mirror that of Duval County. Jacksonville’s “consolidation” was a promise made in 1968 by the city’s white government officials to improve living conditions for Black residents by absorbing them into Jacksonville. Those politicians and all who have followed have failed to live up to that promise.

Between TIAA Bank Field where the NFL’s Jaguars play and the adjacent Daily’s Place, a premiere small concert venue on par with anything its size in the country, and the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena across the street, most major musical acts stop here. Michael Jackson’s massive 1984 “Victory” tour had three dates in Jax at what was then the Gator Bowl. The Beatles played here in 1964, demanding seating be integrated.

On the flip side, I don’t think anyone would consider the city’s local live music scene robust. That wasn’t always the case. Southern Rock was born here.

The festival landscape is uninspiring. Craft beer, on the other hand, a Jacksonville visitors guide could go on and on about Jacksonville’s craft beer.

Jacksonville, Florida Museums

Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields painting.
Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields courtesy Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

My Jacksonville Visitor’s Guide gives the city high marks for sports and big music events, cultural opportunities, however, are lacking when compared to other cities this size. The highlight of Jacksonville, Florida museums is unquestionably the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

In addition to travel, I primarily write about the arts. The Cummer isn’t a large museum, it’s permanent collection has its strengths and weaknesses, but the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has a temporary exhibition program unsurpassed by any art museum in Florida and that goes for Miami, Tampa and Orlando. A constant rotation of diverse shows ranging from Asian art to Indigenous artwork to cutting edge contemporary painting fill the galleries at the Cummer.

Artworks by giants of American painting Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton and John Singer Sargent are on permanent display. The museum even has a Peter Paul Reubens painting. My favorite, though, is Jacksonville native Mildred Thompson’s radiant Magnetic Fields.

Many visitors to the Cummer will enjoy what can be found outdoors in the gardens along the St. John’s River more than the artwork inside. The Cummer’s exceptional botanic gardens are divided into three spaces: the Olmsted Garden, the English Garden and the Italian Garden.

The jewel in the crown of the Cummer Gardens is the Italian Garden. Designed in 1931, this garden was conceived as the ultimate display garden for founder Ninah Cummer’s large collection of Italian marble garden ornaments and hundreds of azaleas.

The Cummer is located in one of Jacksonville’s few walkable neighborhoods with shops and restaurants: Riverside. Next door to the Cummer, the Riverside Arts Market operates every Saturday from 10 AM – 3 PM.  

Right near here, you’ll find an AMAZING Venezuelan-meets-New York-deli sandwich place, Arepa Please. Enormous arepas – like fluffy pita sandwiches – are served fresh with a dizzying array of intriguing ingredients including plantains. GO HERE!

Taqueria Cinco is strong for Mexican and Biggies Pizza 5 Points serves up massive and delicious slices and pies.

Between the Riverside Arts Market, the Cummer and the restaurants, you can put a real nice Saturday afternoon together in this neighborhood. If you’re reading a Jacksonville visitors guide and it doesn’t mention Riverside, it’s bootleg.

MOCA Jax, the city’s contemporary art museum, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown, two miles away. This is not a walkable two miles as you cross bridges and busy streets. It feels more like 10. Jacksonville’s public transportation system – if you can call it that – is weak. You’ll for sure need a car when visiting.

The Atrium Project highlights MOCA Jax’ programming. Throughout the year, leading artists are invited to take over the museum’s soaring atrium space with routinely dazzling results.

At James Weldon Johnson Park (more on him soon) across the street from MOCA Jax, art lovers should be sure to find the mural painted in homage to Jacksonville native Augusta Savage’s (more on her soon) harp sculpture.

The Jessie Ball duPont Center, two blocks from MOCA Jax, exists in what was once the Haydon Burns Public Library, a minty green mid-century modern architectural gem worth a peep in its own right. Puerto Rican mosaic artist Celso González Quiñones has exuberantly memorialized six Black dignitaries, two-by-two, in three murals installed side-by-side along an outer wall at the Jessie.

World-renowned writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida near Orlando, joins Jacksonville poet and performer Ebony Payne-English on one mural. Another shows the late civil rights leader Rutledge Pearson, one-time President of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, and Jacksonville historian and author Rodney L. Hurst.

The third depicts educator, soprano and humanitarian Eartha M.M. White and educator Johnnetta Cole, former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, both Jacksonville natives. Hurst and Cole are still living. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Cole.

The vivid murals dazzle in the sun.

Two blocks from the DuPont building, downtown’s best restaurant, Cowford Chophouse, delights. Go out of your way to enjoy cocktails on the rooftop.

Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (MOSH) targets kids primarily. I’ve never been and don’t hear much about it. I think “adequate” would be an apt description. Almost adjacent to it however, and worth a stop when in the area, is Treaty Oak Park with its gargantuan, hundreds of years old, live oak tree.

Not exactly a museum, more of an historic site, Norman Studios takes visitors back to the early 20th century when Jacksonville was a hub for the movie industry. Norman Studios produced films starring all-Black casts directed toward Black audiences.

Black History Jacksonville, FL

Jacksonville Black History figures mural at Jessie Ball DuPont Foundation building.
Jacksonville Black History figures mural at Jessie Ball DuPont Foundation building. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Norman Studios represents one of Jacksonville’s numerous contributions to Black History in America all of which the city does a terrible job promoting. I’ll let you figure out for yourself why this Deep South city would attempt to undermine its Black history.

Jacksonville is the home of James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), composer of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the de facto Black National Anthem. James Weldon Johnson Park was named after a local Confederate soldier until 2020. Jacksonville’s most infamous occurrence of racial violence, Axe Handle Saturday, occurred here in 1960.

Confederate monuments still stand in Jacksonville and in 2022, a rash of antisemitic, neo-Nazi, white supremacist publicity stunts in the form of projections, airplane flyovers and demonstrations marred events in the city. Jacksonville’s Republican mayor at the time, Lenny Curry, did nothing to stop them.

Jacksonville plans on opening Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park in the city’s historically African American LaVilla neighborhood in late 2023.

Sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, is also from Jacksonville. You can see her work at the Cummer Museum. She became the first African American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934 and the first Black woman to open her own gallery.

In Atlantic Beach, next to a newly installed mural park, the Voo-Swar restaurant/bar first welcomed guests in 1963, one year prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act ending segregation in public areas and banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

That history, along with the flavors of proceeding decades serving some of the area’s best ribs, chicken wings and burgers, is infused in the walls. Little of this Florida remains in a state controlled by developers hell bent on squeezing out the old for the new.

Voo-Swar is a living, breathing relic. A treasure. A portal to the past alive in the present. That’s a gem you won’t find in many Jacksonville visitors guides.

The Beaches vs. Downtown

Early Morning At The Pier In Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
Early Morning At The Pier In Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Photo by Shutterstock.

A tension has long existed in Jacksonville between the beaches and downtown. Jacksonville’s beaches – Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach – are as good as you’ll find anywhere. Period. Compare them to Daytona, Miami, the Gulf side and for wide, long, uninterrupted stretches of mostly clean, free, uncrowded sand, Jacksonville comes out on top.

There’s the rub.

Because the Jacksonville beaches are so nice, that’s where all the residents and tourists want to visit, so that’s where all the boutiques and happening restaurants and good hotels and “fun” happens. Downtown Jacksonville has been ignored as a result with little reason for many people to visit beyond the occasional sporting event or concert.

The beaches in Jacksonville are a hoot, they have the energy and nightlife. Jacksonville’s weather isn’t totally winter-proof, this isn’t South Florida, December through February can be cold, but those months also bring sunny, 80-degree days (warmer inland) where locals and travelers alike take advantage of the beach.

There’s even a little surfing community here. The conditions aren’t great, but it can be done.

Atlantic Beach on the north end of the Jacksonville Beaches is particularly lively. Numerous local shops and restaurants bring people into the walkable neighborhood. The One Ocean Resort there is as close as this Jacksonville visitors guide gets to South Beach.

Two of my favorite Jacksonville restaurants can be found a mile-and-a-half inland from Jacksonville Beach on Beach Boulevard. Taco Lu has long been the area’s go-to for quality, casual Mexican and Angie’s Subs next to it has an almost college-town feel to it.

I have a separate guide to visiting Jacksonville Beach in Florida if that’s what you’re looking for.

Jacksonville Further Afield

Feeding time at Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville.
Feeding time at Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Safe Harbor Seafood restaurant is 10.5 miles north of Jax Beach where the St. John’s River comes in from the Atlantic Ocean next to the Mayport Naval Station. Jacksonville is a big military town with numerous installations. The restaurant and adjoining Safe Harbor Seafood Market recall the old-school Florida fish shacks now nearly extinct.

Both the restaurant and market are exceptional and a good haul from downtown or the beaches. As mentioned, what is considered the City of Jacksonville is spread out over a massive geography. Safe Harbor is a full 20 miles from the Cummer. Additionally, due to the St. John’s River running through Jacksonville, the city is connected by bridges, which, if you aren’t familiar with, can make getting around town frustrating and confusing.

Also located well away from downtown or the beaches is the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. You’re unlikely to find anything here you’ve never seen before, but the presentation is first rate for a mid-sized city and is well worth the visit, particularly if you have kids.

My Jacksonville visitors guide preferred animal encounter can be found at Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, a non-profit organization housing abandoned, abused or otherwise unwanted big cats – lions, tigers, etc. – mostly those previously trapped in miserable lives as attractions at roadside “zoos,” kept by idiots for pets or otherwise ensnared in the exotic animal trade. Mostly volunteer run, tours are available daily at 1:00 with night feedings open to the public Fridays and Saturdays additionally at 6:00. Check the schedule. Tickets for the day tours can be purchased on site, night feedings require online order in advance.

Also north of town, the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve is Jacksonville’s national park named in honor of the area’s indigenous inhabitants. The park encompasses a number of individual sites with the main visitor center found at the Fort Caroline National Memorial.

Combined, the associated locations do a good job sharing the area’s pre-contact, colonial and 19th century history while providing visitors access to the area’s ecological beauty and variety from coast to marsh to river to forest.

Again, Jacksonville is massive, it’s the size of an entire county. Further north still, Little Talbot Island State Park is one of my favorites in Florida’s award winning state park system. This gem is outstanding for birdwatching, beach strolling, hiking, splashing in the tide or shelling. It’s rarely crowded with plenty of parking and entry is only a couple bucks per car. If you want a beach-meets-nature experience as opposed to the beach-meets-commerce experience in town, come here.

Jacksonville’s airport also calls the north side home. It’s a wonderful little airport, very easy to navigate.

Finally, for those spending extended time in Jacksonville, it’s worth considering venturing further afield still and checking out the two popular destinations which bookend the city: Amelia Island to the north where I live and St. Augustine to the outh. A day trip to either is well worth the time.

St. Aug is packed with tourists exploring the historic downtown and Spanish Colonial History. Don’t miss the St. Augustine Alligator Farm if you’re an animal lover.

Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach has an historic downtown as well, although much smaller and less crowded, more of a genteel Southern experience with the live oak trees. American Beach is a must-see for Black History. From Jacksonville, take Hecksher Drive/A1A for a beautiful route along the ocean.

There it is. Jacksonville. Warts and all. Visit. Don’t.

Either way, now you know the truth.

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