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 of the interstate makes visiting Jacksonville a daunting task.
Surprisingly, the downtown area of Jacksonville is only minutes off of 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 was one of my favorite finds in Jacksonville. This 100-year-old Victorian mansion, amid downtown, sticks 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 that 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.
Aside from picture-perfect beaches, Jacksonville itself has abundant outdoor life in the form of seven state, 400 cities, and two national parks. 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 a lot of 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. With Nola Moca’s upscale menu and dishes, museum food has never been so good. Check out 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 1920’s glitzy era and enduring long enough to reach Florida’s Historic Hotels of America status. It is one of the best things to see and do in Jacksonville.
My room, one of 23 available at the hotel, 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 is well-known for its Sunday Brunch. Catered events, meetings, and weddings are popular here and were in full-force during my stay.
Breakfast is included with your stay at Casa Marina Hotel. It is set up in the bar area across from the check-in desk and features eggs, breakfast meats, potatoes, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee, and juices.
Upstairs, Casa Marina’s 4th-floor Penthouse Lounge has exceptional happy hour deals, including discounted sliders (grass-fed beef or pulled pork) and Martinis. I had a Key Lime Martini with Stoli Vanilla Vodka, Licor 43, and fresh lime juice with a splash of cream; it was sensational! I can see why this lounge is so lively and popular amongst locals. The Jacksonville Pier is only a short walk away.
Eat Incredible Biscuits
That is what you do 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 the principles that Maple Street operates on.
My favorites 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). They are Instagram-worthy and incredibly delicious. Coffee lovers will appreciate Maple Street Biscuit’s locally roasted coffee that has a stellar reputation.
Unleash Your Inner Sports Fan
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) is 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, which brings top teams from the SEC, Big 10, and ACC.
Jacksonville 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!
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Art with a Killer View
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 the 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) from 4 to 9 PM as well as the first Saturday of each month from 10 to 4 PM. Be sure to take in the lovely outdoor gardens with fountains, arbors, and reflecting pools. Outdoors, enjoy the English Gardens and spectacular bridge and St. John’s River views in the city.
Enjoy Taco Tuesday Deals
The Pier Cantina & Sandbar at Jacksonville Beach has terrific happy hour pricing. Enjoy oceanfront dining at high top tables, $2.99 for every taco on the menu, drink discounts, and freaking fantastic Queso Dip and chips. This is my idea of a perfect Taco Tuesday.
Shop Till You Drop
St. Johns Town Center is a beautiful palm-tree lined upscale shopping complex flanked by anchor stores Nordstrom and Dillards plus popular choices like Barnes & Noble and The Cheesecake Factory.
The open-air mall offers over one hundred retail stores, with anything and everything you would ever need. I was thrilled to see names that 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.
Snap Up the Jacksonville Freebies
Street art or murals are all the rage, not only in the United States but in many other countries around the world. You will find some impressive murals in Jacksonville created by some of the world’s most talented muralists. Look for these vibrant works of art in the neighborhoods of Riverside, Murray Hill, and Jacksonville Beach.
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 parked around these outdoor gems.
Eat at a Cool Restaurant
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 at 5:30 PM.
Curry dishes are my favorite, and I was quite shocked to see an ethnic dish like this on the Salt Life Food Shack menu, so of course, I ordered it. 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!
Stroll the Landing
Nestled along the photogenic St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville is The Landing, a year-round entertainment venue with waterfront restaurants, a large indoor food court, and shopping. This beloved landmark is surrounded by entertainment or nightclub options. I found this to be an enjoyable fun place to hang out and eat some chips and salsa from Cinco de Mayo while enjoying an adult libation. You will have great views of the Jacksonville skyline from this riverfront marketplace. Access The Landing via boat or kayak from public launch ramps.
Take In Local and Professional Theatre
During my trip to Jacksonville, I was privy to enjoy two-holiday performances of A Christmas Carol at both the Alhambra Theatre and the Times-Union Center. Before the performance, I enjoyed a delicious three-course holiday meal, which could be added on to the ticket price.
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 2020 season at Alhambra Theatre includes the shows How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Grease, and Singin’ in the Rain.
An off-Broadway production 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 Rent and Bandstand, as well as concerts (Diana Ross, Josh Groban), 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. Come 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?