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 land mass in the United States and having 17 exits off of the interstate makes visiting Jacksonville a daunting task. Surprisingly, the downtown area 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 in Jacksonville, Florida that it really blew my mind. Here are some of my favorites.
Tour a Whimsical Candy Factory
Sweet Pete’s was one of my favorite finds in Jacksonville. This 100-year-old Victorian mansion, in the midst of 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 the caramels; soft, easy to chew, and very flavorful. They are so sought-after that Sweet Pete’s makes 10,000 pounds of caramels each year. I won’t spoil the tour for you, but the prize at the end is well worth the $5 fee. Tours last 30 minutes. If you can get out unscathed (meaning not making a purchase), you have a much stronger willpower than I do.
Please Your Palate at Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails
Inside Sweet Pete’s wonderful candy emporium is a sophisticated farm-to-table, French meets Southern eats eatery specializing in craft cocktails. The restaurant is definitely something to see while the food lives up to the hype. I dined at the bar where a friendly bartender took care of me and concocted cool cocktails with incredible flair. I tried the House-made Petite Corn Dogs as a starter. They were almost too adorable to eat, but I dove right in. The dogs were served with a small amount of zesty cheddar ale fondue that paired well with the breading.
Next came a bowl of Candy Apple Bisque, a smoky tomato soup with Boursin cheese and croutons. Delicious! My friend ordered Mac ‘n Cheese which was so epic that it should be illegal! If you are a fan of real macaroni and cheese (without those pesky breadcrumbs taking away from the expensive Fontina and White Cheddar cheeses in the sauce) then this is a dish for you. The creamy dish was topped with a stack of onion hay and candied bacon. I loved it! Bonus, Candy Apple Cafe serves brunch all day. How fabulous is that?
View Interesting Art with a Killer Bridge View
The Cummer Museum (a Tudor mansion) showcases elaborate exhibits, portraits, landscape paintings, and visiting exhibits. During my trip, 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 really great programs for children, including Cityscapes and Mediterranean Landscape art classes.
Admission to the 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. Only a few of the outdoor gardens have reopened due to the damage by Hurricane Irma, but from the English Gardens, you have the best bridge and St. Johns River photo-ops that I found anywhere in Jacksonville.
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 really 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 city, 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?
Enjoy Taco Tuesday Deals
The Pier Cantina & Sandbar at Jacksonville Beach has amazing 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.
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 all of the rods are white and start changing slowly 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. Casa Marina (Spanish-Mediterranean in design) is a landmark, having lived through the 1920’s glitzy era and enduring long enough to reach Florida’s Historic Hotels of America status.
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 fine seating area and was great for cuddling up with a good book. Casa Marina is well-known for their restaurant’s Sunday Brunch, which I heard mentioned many times by locals. Catered events, meetings, and weddings are popular here and in full-force during my stay. The staff members that I encountered during my visit were all exceptional.
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 $2 sliders (grass-fed beef or pulled pork) and $7 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 daily drink specials are priced just right and the intimate rooftop lounge affords great photo ops of the beach. The Jacksonville Pier is only a short walk away.
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 great for strolling and browsing.
Get Excited About 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 are the Five (heavenly fried chicken breast, bacon, cheese, and sausage gravy) and Squawking Goat (fried chicken breast, fried goat cheese medallion, drenched in housemade 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 Bow, 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!
Snap Up Freebies in Jacksonville
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 the Cool Salt Life 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 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 really added a nice second layer to the flavors. I ate every last bite. My friend chose a burger, which was plated beautifully and the fries paired with a side of Shack sauce. Nom!
Stroll the Landing in Downtown
Nestled along the photogenic St. Johns River is The Landing, a year-round entertainment venue with waterfront restaurants, a huge indoor food court, and shopping. This beloved landmark is also dotted with nightclubs. I found this to be a really fun place to just 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. A delicious three-course holiday meal was served for dinner at the Alhambra Theatre before the performance. 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 2018 season at Alhambra includes the shows Kiss Me, Kate, Elf, The Musical, and Little Shop of Horrors.
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, the venue welcomes A Chorus Line, Peter Pan, and Million Dollar Quartet, as well as concerts, symphonies, plays, comedies, and dance events.
Explore a Big Florida Offering
Jacksonville, Florida is not a city to simply 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. Did we miss anything that you love to do?