Best Things To Do in Jacksonville
Jacksonville often acts as a springboard for Atlantic coast exploration; the popular shoreside towns of Atlantic Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and Amelia Island are all within an hour's drive from the downtown area. But stick around Jacksonville and you'll find that this sprawling city has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to entertaining leisure travelers – especially families. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens house expansive habitats for giraffes, elephants and cheetahs. (For more big cats, take a tour through Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary.) And for the love of the arts, spend an afternoon in the Cummer or the MOCA or a Saturday at the Riverside Arts Market.
Updated September 1, 2020
- #1View all PhotosfreeAmelia Island#1 in JacksonvilleFree, Neighborhood/Area, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/Area, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
About 30 miles northeast of downtown Jacksonville, the relaxed community of Amelia Island draws families in droves with its 13 miles of beaches, historic attractions and laid-back atmosphere. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Amelia Island also provided a safe vacation haven for Jacksonville's Black residents. Florida's first Black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, purchased 200 acres of beachfront on Amelia Island and called it American Beach. Here, Black vacationers could enjoy the island without the threat of racial discrimination or violence. In 2002, the beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about the beach's culture, stories and heritage, consider a visit to the American Beach Museum.
While on the island, you can also learn about pirate lore at the Amelia Island Museum of History, look for alligators and wild horses while on a waterway cruise, hike through Fort George Island Cultural State Park or simply lounge on the sand. Recent visitors particularly recommended laying your towel along the shores of Fernandina Beach, a small community that stretches along the northern part of the barrier island.
- #2View all Photos#2 in JacksonvilleBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The southernmost of the Jacksonville Beaches, Ponte Vedra Beach draws leisure travelers in search of sprawling sands and, of course, golf. This fairly small community on the Atlantic coast (about 22 miles southeast of downtown Jacksonville) is best known as the home to the PGA Tour and THE PLAYERS Championship, which are hosted at the famous TPC Sawgrass – and that's just one of many courses and country clubs in the area. But if you would prefer to skip the fairways, you can take advantage of Ponte Vedra Beach's museums, shops and eateries. Recent visitors were also big fans of the beach, thanks to the soft sand and dolphin sightings.
Ponte Vedra Beach is also home to some of the area's more upscale hotels, including the Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach. However, be aware that accommodations here fill up quickly during the golf tournaments in the spring and during the summer, so make your reservations well in advance if you plan to stay here.
- #3View all PhotosfreeAtlantic Beach#3 in JacksonvilleBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Jacksonville isn't located right on the beach, but it won't take you long to get to the coast. Head 16 miles east along Route 10 and you'll find yourself in the charming town of Atlantic Beach. Once the first year-round Native American settlement in North America, Atlantic Beach now features vacation rentals, laid-back eateries, golf courses and, of course, a long stretch of soft sand. However, travelers warn that the summer months bring heavy crowds to the shoreline. Travelers say that spring and fall offer excellent weather and plenty of space to sprawl. Plus, there's plenty to do here even when the temperatures aren't conducive to a beach visit, including a shore stroll – a favorite activity among recent visitors.
You can visit Atlantic Beach at any time, day or night, and access is free. However, other attractions around town may operate on different schedules. To learn more about what there is to see and do in Atlantic Beach, visit the Florida Tourism Board's website.
- #4View all Photos#4 in JacksonvilleBeaches, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
If you've come to northeast Florida to take advantage of the warm weather and Atlantic coast, consider a visit to Little Talbot Island State Park. Catching the ocean waves about 25 miles northeast of downtown Jacksonville, Little Talbot Island boasts more than 5 miles of shoreline that lacks the crowds of other Florida beach destinations. But don't just come here to lounge along the sand. As one of the few undeveloped barrier islands remaining along the state's northeast coast, Little Talbot Island encompasses a variety of habitats – from salt marshes to sand dunes – that house a wide array of critters. Wildlife-watchers may catch a glimpse of such native species as river otters, marsh rabbits and bobcats.
Recent visitors agreed that a visit to Little Talbot Island yields excellent hiking and biking opportunities, plus a relaxing beach. Others were impressed with the amenities, including restrooms, dressing rooms, outdoor showers and charcoal grills.
- #5View all Photos#5 in JacksonvilleFree, Hiking, Recreation, Monuments and MemorialsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Hiking, Recreation, Monuments and MemorialsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Located on the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, which also houses Kingsley Plantation, Fort Caroline National Memorial aims to tell the story of the French colonial presence in 16th-century Florida. In addition to short walking trails, the site also houses a visitor center with exhibits detailing the preserve's natural history and environment, European exploration and settlement, and the Timucua Indians. There is also a scaled-down replica fort that was built in 1964 and is based on historic drawings of the original French fort.
Past visitors applauded the impressive St. Johns River views and the scenic nature trails found at Fort Caroline.
- #6View all Photos#6 in JacksonvilleMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Located across the St. Johns River from downtown Jacksonville, the Museum of Science & History is worth a visit if you've got kids in tow. Although some recent visitors noted that the museum itself is a bit small, many say that it was a big hit with members of the whole family. Displays include information on everything from the ocean to the history of Jacksonville to the human body, and interactive exhibits help keep younger visitors engaged. If your little ones need to get rid of some pent-up energy, you can take them to the museum's KidSpace, a spacious playground designed with kids ages 5 and younger in mind.
If you can, you should catch a show in the planetarium, according to recent travelers. A few past visitors also said the museum's exhibits could benefit from updates, but most agreed this is a good stop for rainy days.
- #7View all Photos#7 in JacksonvilleEntertainment and Nightlife, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDEntertainment and Nightlife, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
First opened in 1927, the Florida Theatre now showcases more than 200 cultural and entertainment events annually. Similar to other theaters constructed in the 1920s, the Florida Theatre boasts a lavish interior. Built in the Mediterranean Revival-style, the theater impresses travelers with its terrazzo and tile floors, amber glass light fixtures and chandeliers, terracotta exterior ornamentation and decorative columns.
Though past visitors appreciated the historic architecture, a few said the venue could benefit from some modernizations and upgrades, including new seats and improved acoustics.
- #8View all Photos#8 in JacksonvilleFree, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDFree, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Every Saturday in downtown Jacksonville (about a block from the Cummer Museum), hundreds of craftspeople and vendors gather at the Riverside Arts Market. You'll notice everything from handmade pottery and silk screens to T-shirts and fresh produce at the different booths. While you're browsing, you can enjoy entertainment from numerous street performers, and when you begin to feel peckish, you can grab something to eat from one of the many street food sellers who set up shop here.
Past visitors said that though the market is small, it's worth perusing. Others appreciated the free nearby parking and the market's covered location under an overpass (perfect for hot or rainy days).
- #9View all Photos#9 in JacksonvilleZoos and Aquariums, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDZoos and Aquariums, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Lions and tigers and … well, there are no bears, but you'll certainly find lions and tigers at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as leopards, pumas and lynx. This nonprofit organization specializes in rescuing big cats and providing them with a safe place to live. For visitors to the Jacksonville area, Catty Shack offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with these amazing animals. The sanctuary offers guided tours of the facility – both during the day and at night – that introduce visitors to the more than 40 animals. During the 45-minute guided tour, Catty Shack staff will tell you all about the sanctuary's residents, their natural habitats and personal anecdotes about interacting with the cats. Visit after dark for a nighttime tour and you can see the animals during feeding time.
Catty Shack Ranch is a bit of a drive from downtown Jacksonville – about 16 miles north along Interstate 95, to be exact. But those who have made the trip say it's well worth it. Reviewers highly recommended attending a night feeding as that's when the animals, most of which are nocturnal, are most active.
- #10View all Photos#10 in JacksonvilleMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens makes an excellent addition to the historic Riverside neighborhood, sitting just southwest of downtown Jacksonville. Established in 1958, this beautiful art museum has made a mission out of art education and community enhancement. In addition to housing impressive exhibits, the museum offers seminars and lecture series while working with Duval County Schools on additional programs for kids. But back to the art: This institution houses more than 5,000 works from various artists, including Mildred Thompson and Norman Rockwell. And while you're here, make some time for a stroll through the gardens, which feature fountains, reflecting pools and a canopy created by towering old oak trees.
Past visitors were blown away not only by the art housed here, but also by the beauty of the facility. If you can, visit at different times throughout the year to see the gardens decked out with different lighting and flora for transitioning seasons.
- #11View all Photos#11 in JacksonvilleZoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDZoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Sitting on the edge of the Trout River, about 7 miles north of downtown Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is a must if you're visiting the city with kids. This 115-acre facility is the only walking safari in northeast Florida; you are invited to wander the grounds, where you'll find opportunities to get up close and personal with animals like giraffes, great apes, big cats and elephants. The sprawling grounds also house Stingray Bay (where you can feed stingrays) and the ever-popular Play Park and Splash Ground (where you can cool off after a day in the Florida heat). In all, more than 2,000 animals and 1,000 plants call the zoo home.
Past visitors were impressed with the variety of animals at the zoo and highly recommend making a stop here if you're in Jacksonville with kids. Since most of the exhibits are outside, reviewers advised wearing sunscreen and a hat. Outside water bottles are allowed and can be refilled at any of the water fountains throughout the property. Other than that, no outside food or beverages are allowed. If you or your little ones get hungry, you'll find snack stands stationed throughout the property, as well as a café.
- #12View all Photos#12 in JacksonvilleMuseums, Free, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseums, Free, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Set in Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve – one of the last bits of unspoiled wetlands along the Atlantic Coast – Kingsley Plantation is the former home of Zephaniah Kingsley. Kingsley moved to Fort George Island in the early 1800s with his wife and three children. His wife, Anna, originally hailed from Senegal and was purchased by Kingsley as a slave. She was freed by her husband in 1811, upon which she acquired her own land on the St. Johns River and purchased slaves. When the family began occupying the Kingsley Plantation in 1814, Anna helped manage a workforce of roughly 60 enslaved people, who produced cotton, citrus fruit, sugarcane and corn on the plantation thereby supplying the Kingsley family's wealth. Because the free Black population in East Florida (a Spanish province) maintained certain rights and privileges at the time, owning land and enslaved people was a common occurrence for free people of African descent. This would all change when Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821 and racial discrimination began to shape legislative policies.
Over the course of his lifetime, Zephaniah managed to expand his plantation empire to include more than 32,000 acres (across four plantation complexes) and owned more than 200 enslaved people.
- #13View all Photos#13 in JacksonvilleParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
If you've come to Florida for the beach, a 17-mile drive east of downtown Jacksonville will get you to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, home to 1½ miles of clean, soft sand along the Atlantic coastline. And if that's not enough for you, this bit of shoreline offers some of the best surfing conditions in northeast Florida. If you're a surfing novice, you can take advantage of the park's 60-acre lake, which is great for fishing, kayaks, pedal boats and canoes. But according to recent visitors, these aren't the only reasons to visit the park. Past travelers praised the variety of bird-watching opportunities, the 20-plus miles of biking trails and the excellent camping facilities.
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park makes a great spot for a family outing. In addition to the beach and the hiking trails, you'll also find a water park (open during the summer months) and picnic areas.
- #14View all Photos#14 in JacksonvilleMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Art aficionados won't want to miss the chance to visit MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, in downtown Jacksonville. This facility – which is affiliated with the University of North Florida – showcases nearly 1,000 individual works in the mediums of painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, works on paper and new media. Its focus is on modern and contemporary art, with particular emphasis on works created from 1960 to the present.
For many museum lovers, it's MOCA's special events that are the main draw. The museum sponsors a variety of educational programs like guest lectures and youth activities. Recent visitors said the museum is small and you'll likely be able to see everything you want in less than 90 minutes. Travelers who visited with kids said the museum does a good job entertaining little ones with interactive programs as well.
- #15View all Photos#15 in JacksonvilleFree, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
For a quiet escape into nature that doesn't require much of a drive, head to the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens. Spanning 120 acres, the arboretum offers 3 miles of hiking trails, a 1-acre lake and a variety of plants and flowers.
Past visitors appreciated the serene atmosphere of the gardens and applauded the many benches stationed along the trails. Others were happy to find the flower and plant varieties clearly labeled, offering a learning opportunity for both kids and adults.
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