Every year, millions of travelers flock to Florida in search of the perfect vacation spot. And while cities like Miami and Orlando may be two of the most popular destinations, the Sunshine State is home to plenty of underrated hotspots — Jacksonville included.
This sprawling, populous city is best known as a major business hub. But there's a vast array of fun things to do in Jax —as the locals colloquially call it — and a surprising amount of history packed into the streets of this southern metropolis.
Where is Jacksonville, Florida?
Jacksonville is the largest city in the state of Florida, extending to 840 square miles and encompassing everything from residential neighborhoods to bustling beaches. It sits at the mouth of St. John’s River (a prominent seaport). You can catch direct flights to JAX (Jacksonville International Airport) or drive from a nearby city. Gainesville, Florida is an hour and a half away by car, while Savannah, Georgia, is just a two hour drive. Travelers arriving by car from Orlando and Tallahassee can do the trip in approximately two and a half hours.
Jacksonville’s Top Attractions
Beaches and the arts may be two of Jacksonville's most prominent attractions. Travelers can spend warm, sunny days lounging by the ocean, before retreating to one of the city's premier art institutions or artisan markets.
Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Responsible for some of the finest art collections in the Southeast, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has various pieces of world-class art dating back to 2100 B.C., as well as a constantly-evolving array of special exhibits. Its historic gardens sit on 2.5 acres of land and feature 20th century style gardens, with gorgeous fountains and sculptures. (There's even an oak tree that is one of the oldest of its kind in Jacksonville.)
Riverside Arts Market
Every Saturday, rain or shine, thousands of visitors flock to the Riverside Arts Market, where local artisans sell their art, jewelry, and other goods. With the riverfront amphitheater located nearby, you’ll be able to hear live music as you stroll through this shopping mecca. For those who are looking to put away their wallets and break a sweat, morning yoga is offered on the stage at 9 a.m.
Best Beaches in Jacksonville
A local favorite, Mickler’s Landing was the first public beach in Ponte Vedra. Follow the four-lane road as it narrows to two on your journey to this coquina-sand beach, reminiscent of Bermuda. Walk toward the shoreline, you’ll see that the beach is littered with an unquantifiable number of shells — and it’s not uncommon to find ancient shark teeth scattered among them. Many come here for beach combing, surfing, fishing, and spectacular sunsets.
Many experts believe this beach was the site of the first year-round Native American settlement in North America. Today, visitors will find pristine shoreline, surfable waves, and superb golfing just a stone's throw away.
If you’re looking for a beach that offers more than just a pretty view, you’ll want to visit the urban Jacksonville Beach. Sure, it has an attractive coast and popular fishing pier (not to mention some of the best waves you’ll find in Florida for surfing), but many visitors come here to experience the juxtaposition of city and sea. You’ll find a boardwalk that boasts excellent restaurants, shops, and places to stay, and if you feel like hopping in your car, Neptune Beach is just a short drive north.
Major Events and Festivals in Jacksonville
No matter what time of year you plan a trip to Jacksonville, travelers will find a dizzying number of events and festivals on offer.
Mandarin Art Festival
Every Easter weekend since 1968, the Mandarin Art Festival has attracted visitors to Jacksonville. Now, it's the longest running event in northeast Florida. While many come back each year to see their favorite local artists, a popular feature of this festival is the Children’s Art Show, where a handful of work from students in public and private elementary and middle schools are displayed and judged in various categories.
Great Atlantic Festival
Mixing two of Southerners' favorite things — seafood and music — this oceanfront festival kicks off every spring at the Seawalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach. There’s no purchase necessary to attend, and you can enjoy live music from several different genres, fresh seafood, and rides and games for those who need to keep a younger audience occupied. And if you think this is a small celebration, think again: festival-goers enter by the thousands to party.
Fireworks in Jacksonville
Every Fourth of July, Jacksonville celebrates with an impressive fireworks show in several different locations. Head downtown to the St. John’s River for fireworks and live music performances, and watch the sky light up above the Friendship Fountain, which shoots water upwards of 100 feet. If you feel like honoring Independence Day surfside, pack up your beach chairs and head to Jacksonville Beach, where fireworks are deployed from the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier.
Shopping in Jacksonville
Leave room for shopping on your Jacksonville vacation. The city has no shortage of upscale designer storefronts and independent boutiques.
St. John’s Town Center
This outdoor, upscale open-air mall opened in 2005 and now has 150 stores, all with recognizable names. Shoppers come here for luxury. Whether you’re simply enjoying the attractive palm tree-lined streets, or you’re stocking up on Louis Vuitton-branded swag, you’ll find that this mammoth shopping square is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon (or two).
Unlike St. John's Town Center, historic Five Points focuses on one-of-a-kind boutiques and boasts beautiful, historic architecture.
Best Restaurants in Jacksonville
If you’re looking for places to eat in Jacksonville, you’ll have so many choices that you can easily feel overwhelmed. There is a place to eat for every craving, whether that’s the fresh catch of the day or something to satisfy your sweet tooth. Jacksonville’s culinary culture is thriving.
Most Romantic Restaurant: Restaurant Orsay
Restaurant Orsay will make you forget the humid Florida climate and transport you straight to France. This restaurant is the brainchild of restaurateur Jonathan Insetta, and features seasonal French fare, creative cocktails, and a lovely ambience.
Cheap Eats: Southern Roots
Spent your last dollar shopping? Hit up Southern Roots, a cozy counter-service spot that offers delicious breakfast and lunch fare, with an emphasis on organic and vegan foods.
Best Breakfast: Maple Street Biscuit Company
Before you start your day, head to Maple Street Biscuit Company, a trendy breakfast restaurant that has three locations in Jacksonville. Just don't come here if you’re looking for something healthy: the menu here is focused entirely on biscuits.
Best Dessert: Cinottis
A fifth-generation family-run bakery, Cinottis may look like every other bakery you’ve encountered — but it is much, much more. Don’t leave Jacksonville until you try one of their homemade donuts or cookies.
Best Bars in Jacksonville
After sitting out in the sun for hours on end, nothing feels more refreshing than an icy cold glass in your hand. Happily, Jacksonville has numerous bars — some of which are right along the beach.
Surfer the Bar
What once was the iconic concert venue, Freebird, is now Surfer the Bar, the first of its kind on U.S. mainland. A full craft cocktail menu, an outdoor tiki bar, and a fully refurbished 1962 Airstream trailer that acts as the bar’s permanent food truck are just a few of the draws.
The Shim-Sham Room
Divided into three unique areas (an upscale vintage lounge, a main bar, and an outside patio bar) The Shim-Sham Room will make you want to don the favorite outfit you packed, order a cocktail, and make friends with every local you meet.
Lynch’s is your quintessential Irish pub with a twist: there's quirky decor, and live entertainment happens almost nightly here. But fret not, it’s still an Irish bar, which means there are up to 50 beers on tap and a vast array of beer flights, so you won’t run out of choices.
Where to Stay in Jacksonville
The beauty of staying at most Jacksonville hotels is their proximity to the ocean. You’ll find that beachfront properties dot the coast of the Atlantic and, from the luxury hotels to the affordable hotels, your room will almost always come with a view.
Boutique Hotels in Jacksonville
One Ocean is a boutique hotel that offers luxurious suites, panoramic ocean views, and top-of-the-line service. Enjoy a day of pampering at the hotel’s spa, or feast on coastal cuisine at Azurea Restaurant, their on-site eatery. When you’re ready to feel the sand between your toes, you’re just minutes away from the Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra beaches.
Pet-friendly and a quick walk from restaurants, shops and activities, Hotel Indigo’s Jacksonville Deerwood Park hotel is in a prime location for travelers, in the neighborhood of Tapestry Park. Though the beach is a bit further of a drive, your stay here is very much worth your while.
Luxury Hotels in Jacksonville
Nestled midway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, The Lodge & Club sits right on the beach, and has a distinctive Old World aesthetic and charming suites. With 10 acres of seaside property and access to miles of Atlantic beaches, you can choose to do as much or as little as you please here. Rent a bicycle cruiser, go paddleboarding, or enjoy one of the resort’s two restaurants.
Vacation Rentals in Jacksonville
Another great way to find a place to stay in Jacksonville is by searching on websites like Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway. Staying at a Jacksonville vacation rental is a great way to feel like a local.