"Jacksonville & its Beaches" Top 5 Page for this destination Jacksonville by HSC123
Jacksonville Travel Guide: 394 reviews and 755 photos
Florida's largest city, Jacksonville (pop. 850,000+) is bisected by the curving St. Johns River and flanked by a beautiful string of islands and sun-kissed beaches. Between the river and the ocean, scenic expanses of coastal wetlands and oak hammocks provide pretty settings for nature trails and residential neighborhoods alike. The city itself is the hub of Florida's First Coast region, a metropolitan area home to more than 1.4 million residents that has seen European visitors since the 1500's. Jacksonville has been getting increased attention in recent years as a destination for beaches, the arts, sports, dining, and ecotourism.
All my life I have lived in the eastern part of the city, between the beaches and downtown, which has done a lot to shape my impressions. The Jacksonville I know has seen tremendous suburban growth in recent decades while maintaining a great deal of the natural beauty distinctive to Northeast Florida. Here now is an overview of where to go and what to do while visiting my hometown. Please keep in mind that, like most metropolitan areas that have boomed since the rise of suburban culture, Jacksonville is very spread out, so having access to a car is essential. Nearly all major American cities also have their good areas and their bad, and the same is true of Jacksonville, so it is also good to know where to avoid. That said, generally the east and south sides of Jacksonville are nicer than the west and north sides, though there are exceptions to be found in pockets on all sides. So, if you are a visiting or considering a move to the "River City by the Sea," enjoy the following insider tour.
For starters, beaches are one of Florida’s biggest draws, and Jacksonville offers some of the nicest in the state. Lining the Atlantic Ocean east of town, the most popular beaches are located south of where the St. Johns River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Of these, Atlantic Beach is my favorite beach in the state. This small beach town located north of Atlantic Blvd. is anchored by the posh One Ocean Resort and boasts quite a collection of interesting oceanfront residential architecture, especially near the northern accesses at 18th and 19th Streets. Atlantic Blvd., which narrows to a modest two-lane street east of famed coastal route A1A (called Third St. here), is the heart of Beach Town Center, an array of well-loved local restaurants, boutiques, gift shops, and dessert/coffee hot spots shared by both Atlantic Beach and its laid-back neighbor to the south, Neptune Beach. The beach itself that runs along both communities features dunes topped with sea oats and soft white sand above the tidal zone which gives way to harder-packed tan sands that often yield tidal pools and shell deposits closer to the ocean. While the area around Beach Town Center can draw a crowd at times, most of the shoreline along Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach offers plenty of room to spread out and play.
South of Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach is actually the area’s busiest coastal resort town. Centered on the east end of Beach Blvd. and fronted by more of the same kind of sand just described, “Jax Beach,” as it is more commonly called, is distinguishable from its neighbors by its skyline of oceanfront highrises and the long Jacksonville Beach Pier. Jax Beach is the birthplace of the “Salt Life” clothing and bumper sticker phenomenon that has become ubiquitous throughout the Southeast. Here, A1A is lined with a myriad of restaurants spanning the range of cuisines and price points, including local faves and national chains. Downtown Jacksonville Beach has a “Seawalk,” amphitheater, and large public greenspace just north of Beach Blvd. and east of A1A. This area can get very boisterous during special events, summer days, and spring weekends, but can also get sketchy when the crowds are away. The more southern and northern stretches of Jax Beach, however, are much nicer, quieter, and more residential. Adventure Landing, located several blocks west of the ocean, just before the Intracoastal Waterway, is a popular combination amusement center and water park.
Just south of Jax Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach is the most exclusive coastal enclave in Northeast Florida. Though technically a narrow finger of neighboring St. Johns County, Ponte Vedra Beach is much more geographically and socially connected with Jacksonville than with the St. Johns County seat of St. Augustine. Here live many from Jacksonville’s wealthy executive class. Gated communities and golf are par for the course here. A pair of 5-diamond ocean resorts and the TPC Player’s Championship Course add to Ponte Vedra’s exclusive allure. That said, beach access is often obscured through this area by the residents of multi-million dollar oceanfront mansions. Mickler’s Landing, at the south end of Ponte Vedra, offers a great beach access, however, affording those who cannot afford a multi-million dollar mansion the ability to play in front of one. A little south of Mickler’s, residential development gives way to nature in the high dunes of the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas Research Reserve.
Heading back the other way, north of Atlantic Beach is Hanna Park, a popular undeveloped beach maintained by the City of Jacksonville. The north end of Hanna Park abuts Mayport NAS at “The Poles,” one of the area’s best surfing spots (named for the poles that designate the base’s restricted access point). The general public can, however, take A1A around the base property to the historic fishing village of Mayport, where A1A takes the form of a ferry boat ride across the St. Johns River , Across the St. Johns River, Jacksonville’s less populated north coast includes Huguenot Park, the city’s only designated drive-on beach, followed by two beautiful yet contrasting state parks: Little Talbot Island & Big Talbot Island. Little Talbot is known for its long expanse of wide sandy beach, while Big Talbot is a favorite of photographers for its unusual “forest” of giant driftwood and rocky areas.
Beaches aside, Jacksonville is also a big city. Those seeking arts, culture, sports, architecture, and historic preservation will find much to explore in Downtown and the neighboring historic communities of San Marco, Riverside-Avondale, and Springfield, about 15-20 miles west of the beaches. Though I think of these areas as the western bookend to my Jacksonville, they represent the traditional hub of the city. Spanning both sides of the St. Johns River, Downtown offers two Riverwalks that present pedestrians with an array of perspectives of the city’s attractive skyscrapers. These Riverwalks are connected by a water taxi, a small skyway system, and by pedestrian walkways along the Main Street and Acosta Bridges, making Downtown a great place for an interesting stroll. On the Southbank side, Friendship Fountain and the adjacent Museum of Science & History provide the main focal point for tourists and residents. On the Northbank side, the long-time focal point known as the Jacksonville Landing is open but in a state of flux as plans for a completely new replacement complex are in the works. Meanwhile, additional plans for a rival focal point area near the Sports Complex have also been proposed. With these plans, a proposed aquarium, a proposed Navy ship turned museum, and “The District” project about to break ground at the east end of the Southbank Riverwalk, Downtown boosters are hopeful that this city with a long-standing suburban mindset might finally get the right mix to lure more residents and tourists alike to its geographically unique but underappreciated central business district. Meanwhile, concerts at the historic Florida Theater and the performances of the symphony and touring Broadway productions at the Times-Union Center are big draws, as are the sporting events that take place nearby at Everbank Field (NFL Jaguars and college football) , the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville (MiLB Suns and NASL Armada), and Veterans Memorial Arena (AFL Sharks, ABA Giants, and concerts).
Just to the south, southwest, and north of Downtown, respectively, are the historic communities of San Marco, Riverside-Avondale, and Springfield. With an impressive array of riverfront estates, San Marco is the most refined of these communities, while Riverside-Avondale balances between such refinement and serving as the heart of Jacksonville’s counter-culture scene. Both areas offer upscale, pedestrian shopping and dining districts. Riverside-Avondale also boasts the renown Cummer Museum & Gardens and the rather eccentric Five Points district. Meanwhile, Springfield, with its collection of Victorian homes, gets a lot of buzz among artists and urban pioneers but is still emerging from decades of decay and a reputation as one of the city’s most dangerous areas.
South & East Jacksonville
The suburban landscape between the beaches and downtown offers a variety of noteworthy locales as well. St. Johns Town Center, located where the I-295 East Beltway meets busy Butler Blvd., is in many respects the new heart of Jacksonville. This very popular “lifestyle center” development is an open-air mall home to some of the most exclusive retailers and restaurants in the city, along with many other more common stores and eateries. It is also surrounded by office parks, big box retailers, hotels, and upscale neighborhoods catering to the business class workforce, and just a short jot down the road from the University of North Florida, which features its own network of nature trails and a bevy of NCAA sports.
Farther north up I-295, just before the iconic Dames Point Bridge, the Fort Caroline/East Arlington area has a decidedly more naturally beautiful allure. Oak hammocks, creeks, wetlands, and/or water views abound at the Fort Caroline National Memorial and the Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens, two of the best places in Jacksonville to get in touch with nature. Fort Caroline is a replica of a French encampment on a high bluff overlooking the river. It is here where it is thought that French Huguenots seeking religious freedom built a cross, perhaps first bringing Christianity to the New World. It is also thought that the first port transaction in the New World also took place here. The fort's visitor center also serves as the entrance to the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, acres of protected land suitable for kayaking, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, which serves as a centerpiece for the largest urban park system in the country. The Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens is an awesome natural area that straddles Jones Creek, with trails that take visitors over small bridges, up ravines, through dense foliage and past babbling brooks. Five miles west of the Arboretum, Jacksonville University offers a scenic riverfront campus with its own riverwalk trail. JU also offers an even broader assortment of NCAA sports than does its cross-town rival, UNF, including football and lacrosse.
North Jacksonville is a wide swath of land extending from the north bank of the Trout River eastward along the north bank of the St. Johns River (after it curves to make its final approach to the ocean). Once considered a frontier area of sorts dotted with industrial parks and backwoods neighborhoods, North Jacksonville has in recent decades enjoyed a redefining real estate boom. In addition, the expansion and sophistication of the city’s airport, seaport, and zoo, as well as the rise of ecotourism, have helped integrate North Jacksonville as a major part of the city. Jacksonville International Airport is located here, about 14 miles north of Downtown. Those who merely spend one night in the city near the airport will want to take note that the nearby River City Marketplace, situated just across Interstate 95, offers a variety of dining and shopping options. For those with bigger vacation plans taking the I-295 East Beltway toward the Beaches, North Jacksonville has some surprises. First, drivers find themselves heading toward a skyline of towering port cranes and power plant cooling towers, the epicenter of the city’s industrial might. (By the way, the Northside Generating Station, which powers much of the First Coast region, is not a nuclear power plant, though it kind of looks like one.) JAXPORT is a major East Coast seaport with most of its cargo terminals concentrated on or near Blount Island, near the Dames Point Bridge, and a Carnival Cruise Lines terminal a couple miles west of I-295 for visitors seeking to cruise to the Caribbean. This industrial landscape that visitors initially see though belies the beauty they will encounter if they exit here to explore along State Road 105. Heading east, 105 (called Heckscher Drive) quickly passes by the power and port facilities and begins an island-hopping journey through the vast acres of wetlands that define much of Jacksonville’s preserved northeast corner. This route passes a mix of waterfront homes, river views, and wetland views before eventually meeting up with A1A at the Ft. George Island ferry terminal. From this point, the road continues as A1A, curving its way through the aforementioned Talbot Islands and on up to Amelia Island, the northernmost island in Florida. Aside from the ferry terminal, Ft. George Island is also home to Kingsley Plantation, a restored plantation house with the remnants of crude slave quarters that serves as an important African-American history site. The aforementioned Huguenot Park beach also fronts the Atlantic-facing side of the island. Back the other direction on 105 (called Zoo Parkway west of I-295), visitors will find one of the city’s biggest and best attractions, the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens. Located along the Trout River, the zoo is home to more than 2,000 animals and some signature first-class exhibits. The Catty Shack Ranch, located in another part of North Jacksonville, is a well-regarded facility for retired and injured big cats like tigers, lions, and panthers, while BEAKS, located on Big Talbot Island, is a facility for rehabilitating injured birds.
Destinations a short drive from Jacksonville
Another great advantage to a stay or move to Jacksonville is the city's proximity to other great day trips and staycations. Within only about a 45-minute to a little over an hour long drive, one can reach St. Augustine, Marineland, Amelia Island, and Georgia's Golden Isles. The theme parks of Orlando and historic streets of Savannah are also about two and a half hours away. I hope you found this page to be a helpful overview of Jacksonville & its Beaches. Thank you for reading!
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