(UPDATED JULY 2022) Jacksonville is a city I’ve driven through dozens of times (busy I-95 runs through it) but never stopped to sightsee. Being the largest city by landmass in the United States and having 17 exits off the interstate makes visiting Jacksonville a daunting task. Surprisingly, downtown Jacksonville is only minutes off the interstate, and once you are there, plenty of things are walkable, and the streets are easy to navigate. Best of all, there are so many fun things to do; it blew my mind. Here are the best things to do in Jacksonville.
Tour a Whimsical Candy Factory
Sweet Pete’s Candy Shop is one of my favorite finds in Jacksonville. This 100-year-old downtown Victorian mansion stands out like a sore thumb among its neighboring properties. Not only can you peruse room after room of edible gourmet goodies, but you can also take a factory tour that shows Sweet Pete’s in action, making some of the products that ship worldwide.
You must taste Sweet Pete’s soft, easy-to-chew caramels. They are so sought-after that Sweet Pete’s produces 10,000 pounds of them annually. I won’t spoil the tour for you, but the prize at the end is well worth the $5 fee. Sweet Pete’s tours last 30 minutes. If you can get out unscathed (meaning not making a purchase), you have much stronger willpower than I do.
Unwind at Jacksonville Beach
Jacksonville (Jax) Beach has lovely beaches, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about them. You don’t have to drive further south into Florida to get a nice beach vacation; everything you need is right here. Dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean is a must when you are in the area.
Aside from picture-perfect beaches, Jacksonville has abundant outdoor life in the form of parks—seven state, 400 city, and two national. They also have more shoreline than any other city in the United States, with a whopping 1100 miles between the St. Johns River, Atlantic Ocean, and Intracoastal Waterway. How amazing is that?
Dive into Contemporary Art at the MOCA
I visit many art galleries during my travels, but I have never really understood or learned to appreciate contemporary art. Having a guide at the MOCA: Museum of Contemporary Art made all the difference in the world! I was floored by how each piece made such perfect sense and really spoke to me after learning a bit about the artist and the art piece from my guide.
Had I been left alone, I would have missed the genius Call & Response art in MOCA’s permanent collection featuring art by Rosemarie Fiore’s colored smoke fireworks.
In Project Atrium, the huge hanging exhibit in the main hall, Juan Fontanive, creates a kinetic sculpture that shows a seasonal color change through a display of thin metal rods, pulleys, drives, and linkages. The choreography is beautiful. Be sure to note when the rods are white and slowly start changing as with the seasons.
MOCA offers family workshops, winter art camps, and seminars. The museum food has never been so good with Nola Moca’s upscale menu and dishes. Check the museum’s calendar for seasonal dinners, tastings, and catering.
Stay in Timeless Oceanfront Accommodations
The historic Casa Marina Hotel was my home while in Jacksonville. I loved its beachfront address, where I could enjoy the salty air and gorgeous sunrises. The Spanish-Mediterranean-designed Casa Marina is a Jacksonville landmark, having lived through the 1920s glitzy era and enduring long enough to reach Florida’s Historic Hotels of America status.
My room was spacious, offered a separate living room, and though dated, oozed with charm. An enticing verandah in the center of the hotel hosted a seating area and was great for cuddling up with a good book. Casa Marina, well-known for its Sunday Brunch, includes a typical breakfast buffet with your stay. You’ll find eggs, toast, yogurt, fruit, breakfast meat, and coffee.
Upstairs, Casa Marina’s 4th-floor Rooftop Bar has exceptional happy hour deals, including discounted sliders (grass-fed beef or pulled pork) and Martinis. I can see why this lounge is so lively and popular amongst locals; plus, the Jacksonville Pier is only a short walk away.
Eat Incredible Biscuits
You do that when you dine at Maple Street Biscuit Company, a Southern diner with killer breakfast dishes and signature flaky buttermilk biscuits. Think comfort food with a modern twist, one of Maple Street’s principles.
My favorite dishes at Maple Street Biscuit Company are the Five (heavenly fried chicken breast, bacon, cheese, and sausage gravy) and Squawking Goat (fried chicken breast, fried goat cheese medallion, drenched in house-made pepper jelly). Coffee lovers will appreciate Maple Street Biscuit’s locally roasted coffee with a stellar reputation.
Support the Jacksonville Jaguars
Though I didn’t have the chance to catch a sporting event, Jacksonville is home to a plethora of professional sporting teams. The most important (because I’m a football fan) are the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville hosts two major college sporting events: the highly anticipated Florida vs. Georgia football game that has been played since 1933, and the TaxSlayer Bowl brings top teams from the SEC, Big 10, and ACC.
Jacksonville, Florida, also has indoor football, college football, minor league baseball, professional surfing, competitive fishing, basketball, golf, hockey, and soccer. I don’t think you will get bored anytime soon!
The Stunning Cummer Museum
The Cummer Museum (a Tudor mansion) showcases elaborate exhibits, portraits, landscape paintings, and visiting exhibits. On my visit, Bijous Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris, was a touring show featuring lovely and creative jewelry pieces that were easy to admire. Cummer Museum has excellent programs for children, including Cityscapes and Mediterranean Landscape art classes.
Admission to the Cummer Museum is free on Tuesdays (thanks, Florida Blue) and the first Saturday of each month. Be sure to take in the lovely outdoor gardens with fountains, arbors, and reflecting pools. Outdoors, enjoy the English Gardens, spectacular bridge, and the city’s St. John’s River views.
Shop at St. Johns Town Center
St. Johns Town Center is a beautiful, open-air mall offering over one hundred retail stores, with anything and everything you would ever need. I was thrilled to see names I used to shop in, such as Ballard Designs, Vineyard Vines, J. Jill, L’Occitane, and Pottery Barn Kids/Babies. The outdoor area is excellent for strolling and browsing, with palm-tree-lined streets throughout the complex. St. Johns’ anchor stores are Nordstrom and Dillards, plus you’ll also find a Cheesecake Factory and Barnes & Noble on the property.
Snap Up the Jacksonville Freebies
Street art or murals are all the rage, not only in the United States but worldwide. Some impressive Jacksonville murals were created by some of the world’s most talented muralists. Look for these vibrant works of art in Riverside, Murray Hill, and Jacksonville Beach neighborhoods.
Also, try to take in Hemmingway Park Sculptures. The giant human head/mouth is one you won’t want to miss. There are more than 90 food trucks around Jacksonville; many are parked around these outdoor gems.
Eat at Salt Life Food Shack
Inspired by the beachwear brand by the same name, the Salt Life Food Shack is a fun, surf-themed beach restaurant with a desirable menu of burgers, seafood, sushi, and more. The casual two-story eatery features live music daily.
Curry dishes are my favorite, and I was shocked to see an ethnic dish like this on the Salt Life Food Shack menu. I ordered it, of course. My Crunchy Chicken Thai Bowl was so scrumptious— almond-crusted chicken over a bed of rice with veggies and a yellow cream curry sauce. Fresh coconut shavings added a nice second layer to the flavors. I ate every last bite. My friend chose a burger and fries, plated beautifully with a side of Shack sauce. Nom!
Take In Local and Professional Theatre at Alhambra
During my visit, I was privy to enjoy A Christmas Carol’s two-holiday performances at the Alhambra Theatre and the Times-Union Center. Before the performance at Alhambra, I enjoyed a delicious three-course holiday meal, which requires a separate ticket.
I loved the size and charm of the local theatre, and the production was fantastic! Great acting, lovely costumes, and beautiful singing made for a perfect night. The 2022-23 season at Alhambra Theatre includes the shows Grumpy Old Men, Ghost: The Musical, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Off-Broadway production of A Christmas Carol was visiting the glamorous 2,900-seat Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. The show was entertaining and featured a more traditional score of the story. For the theater’s upcoming season, check out Broadway musicals Hits! The Musical and Disney Princess: The Concert, as well as concerts (The O’Jays and The Spinners, Myriam Hernandez), symphonies, plays, comedies, and dance events.
Explore a Great Florida Destination
Jacksonville, Florida, is not a place to drive by. There are dozens of activities and attractions to get involved in, many unique to the area. See why we think Jacksonville might be one of Florida’s most overlooked yet desirable cities when you explore these best things to do in Jacksonville.
Did we miss anything that you love to do?
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