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 houses expansive habitats for giraffes, elephants and cheetahs. (For more big cats, take a safari 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 August 22, 2016
- #1View all PhotosfreeAmelia Island#1 in JacksonvilleRecreation, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRecreation, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf 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 relaxed atmosphere. While here, you can 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 guests particularly recommend laying your towel along the shores of Fernandina Beach, a small community that stretches along the northern part of the barrier island. "The beaches are second to none. The water is clean and warm. Downtown is charming and filled with good shops and restaurants," said one TripAdvisor user.
Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach are a bit of a hike from downtown Jacksonville, and traffic can be treacherous. If you'd like to make the most out of a visit to these beachside communities, consider setting up camp there — the island is home to some of the area's more opulent accommodations, including The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. You'll also find numerous vacation rentals and condos that can accommodate larger groups. Just be sure to make your reservations well in advance if you're planning to visit in the summer.
- #2View all PhotosfreeAtlantic Beach#2 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 due 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. "Of course, it is much nicer during the good weather months, but even in winter […], most of the area attractions are open," one TripAdvisor user attested.
You can visit Atlantic Beach at any time, day or night, and access to the sands 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.
- #3View all Photos#3 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 played 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, Ponte Vedra Beach also features several museums, a variety of shops and an array of eateries.
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 May and during the summer, so make your reservations well in advance if you plan to stay here.
- #4View all Photos#4 in JacksonvilleShopping, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDShopping, FreeTYPE2 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. Adorning the different booths, you'll notice everything from handmade pottery and silk screens to T-shirts and fresh produce. While you're browsing, you'll be kept entertained by 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. "I had fish and chips for lunch while sitting on bench overlooking the river and watching the musicians play. Kettle Corn for dessert....does it get any better than that?" one TripAdvisor user asked.
The Riverside Arts Market takes place on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free. You'll also find plenty of free parking spots in the streets surrounding the market. To learn more about the artists and food options, visit the Riverside Arts Market website.
- #5View all Photos#5 in JacksonvilleTours, Zoos and AquariumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDTours, Zoos and AquariumsTYPE1 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, cougars and bobcats. 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. Stay up late 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 I-95, to be exact. But those who have made the trip say it's well worth it. "We all had a great time watching these beautiful animals and hearing their stories," said one TripAdvisor user. "I'm glad there are places like this to care for them."
- #6View all Photos#6 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 Brooklyn 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 Cummer offers seminars and lecture series while working with Duval County Schools on additional programs for kids. But back to the art: This museum houses more than 5,000 works from various artists, including Camille Pissarro 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.
Visitors are blown away not only by the art housed here, but also by how beautiful the facility is. "The Cummer is the best place to visit in Jacksonville for viewing art […], for outstanding gardens and statuary, and for exquisite views over the St. Johns River to downtown Jacksonville," said one TripAdvisor user. If you can, visit at different times throughout the year to see the gardens decked out with different lighting and flora for transitioning seasons.
- #7View all Photos#7 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 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 try your hand at feeding stingrays) and the ever-popular Play Park and Splash Ground (where you can cool off after a day in the Florida heat).
While you're here, take a spin on the Zoo Train — recent visitors say that kids are bound to love it. "The train gives a great behind the scenes view of some of the facilities and the new Asian Bamboo Garden is breathtaking," according to one TripAdvisor user.
- #8View all Photos#8 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 northwest 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 agree that a visit to Little Talbot Island should include more than an afternoon lying on the sand. "We rented bikes and rode our beach cruisers over the beach all day," one TripAdvisor user said. "Be sure to check out the bone yard — a collection of old trees on the north end of the island." If you're not sure where to start, you can sign up for a guided tour of the island, which are offered by Segway. (To learn more about tour times and prices, visit EcoMotionTours.com.)
- #9View all Photos#9 in JacksonvilleMuseums, Tours, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseums, Tours, FreeTYPE2 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. His story is slightly different than those of other plantation owners: He moved to the area in 1814 with his wife and three children, only his wife, Anna, was a former slave hailing from Senegal. Anna helped manage a workforce of roughly 60 slaves, who helped the Kingsleys produce cotton, citrus fruit, sugar cane and corn. Over the course of his lifetime, Zephaniah Kingsley managed to expand his plantation empire to include more than 32,000 acres (across four plantation complexes) and more than 200 slave workers. However, Anna worked hard as an advocate for the end of slavery, even on her own property.
Today, you are invited to explore the plantation home, the slave quarters, the barn and the rest of the property. According to one TripAdvisor user, "This is a great place to take your kids to learn about Northeast Florida history and see plantations, something few people even know existed back in the 18th and 19th centuries."
- #10View all Photos#10 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. But according to recent visitors, these aren't the only reasons to visit the park. "If you surf […] you will find some of the area's best waves here. But there are other activities to enjoy: bike or hiking trails, and a small lake for fishing," said one TripAdvisor user.
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), picnic areas and camping facilities.
- #11View all Photos#11 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 showcases nearly 1,000 individual works from artists like Alex Katz, Robert Longo and Philip Pearlstein. The museum's vast galleries house everything from paintings to sculpture to photography, while temporary exhibition space hosts touring works that explore artistic styles.
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. According to one TripAdvisor user, "They have fantastic events, like summer movie classics and guest lectures … And before I forget to mention them, the parties are fantastic, especially New Year's Eve."
- #12View all Photos#12 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 kiddos in tow. Although some recent visitors note 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. And 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, travelers recommend catching a show in the planetarium. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The JEA Science Theater has been renovated since we were there last and they have done a really nice job. The show was great — there was lots of kid participation."
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