Vacation Made Easy—Thanks to JAX
The largest city (by area) in the Lower 48, Jacksonville has all the trappings of a buzzing metropolis, from great indie shopping to destination dining. But the even bigger draw—now more than ever—is the extensive menu of outdoorsy offerings, which make fun singularly easy no matter the season.
With the most expansive urban park system in the country, more than enough beachfront to go around—not to mention rivers, creeks and lakes—JAX is the easy getaway you've been craving, even if you didn't know it. Read on for the top 6 reasons why.
Just getting there is easy
It is, as they say, easier in JAX—and that starts with the drive in. The city sits at the junction of two of the nation’s main arteries—the I-95 and I-10—so you’re quite possibly looking at a straight shot (and a piece-of-cake road trip either way).
The #beachlife can't be beat
Water babies and beach bums, JAX is your HQ. With 22 miles of wide, sandy beaches, there’s plenty of room to stretch out.
Like untouched barrier islands strewn with dramatic driftwood? JAX has that. (See: Boneyard Beach.) Love the feel of a classic seaside town with surf shops and ice cream within walking distance of your umbrella? Oh yes, they’ve got that, too. (Check out Atlantic Beach.) Want to drive on the beach and set up a picnic in the back of your truck? Go for it at Huguenot Park. Point is, the beachy buffet here is effectively bottomless.
Still, you’ll want check out a few mainstays to get the lay of the…sand: The major public beaches include Atlantic, Neptune, Jacksonville and Mayport. Good luck choosing a favorite. Each has its own lure, so plan on beach-hopping along world-famous A1A to explore.
Surfers may want to proceed directly to the Jacksonville Beach Pier (a local favorite)—though waves up and down the city’s coast have attracted pros since the 60s. And newbies do well here, too: There are plenty of beginner-friendly spots with gentle rollers, long breaks and sandy bottoms. Looking for lessons and/or surf camps? Jax Surf and Paddle has both—as well as standup paddleboard rentals. And if ever there were a place to SUP, it’s “Lake Atlantic” (as locals call the ocean on spectacularly calm days). You can paddle along the shore for miles with only dolphins and pelicans for company. If you’d like yogis for company, too, look for one of the local SUP yoga classes. Or skip the board and simply join a sunrise yoga class on the beach.
The local waterways are just as worthy
Not to be outdone, the north-flowing St. Johns River is lined with old, moss-draped oaks and teeming with sub-surface biodiversity (though the manatees and dolphins are good about popping up to give you the occasional show, so keep your eyes peeled on the river for tail swirls).
In the heart of Downtown JAX, where the St. Johns winds past five of the city’s seven iconic bridges, hop the River Taxi—for either for simple transport or even better, a tour. If you’re looking at the latter, options include sunset cruises, trips into the historic Riverside, Ortega and San Marco neighborhoods and dolphin tours.
If you’re into fishing, we’re guessing you already know: The St. Johns River, the Intracoastal Waterways and the surrounding tributaries and creeks are paradise. Go for the famous Inshore Slam (when you catch a redfish, a speckled sea trout and a flounder in the same day) to gain instant street (or river?) cred.
Need a charter to show you the best local spots and put you on the sheepshead or massive bull reds? Check out the list of local guides for a captain who'll show for a thrilling day on the water.
The urban parklands are unrivaled
With the nation’s largest urban park system, JAX suits landlubbers just as well. There are literally hundreds of city and state parks and national historic sites and monuments.
North Floridian turf was such a hot commodity during the colonial era that the Spanish, French and English tussled over various sites along the Atlantic and St. Johns River for centuries. You can get start to get a sense of that time at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, where ruins and a museum tell the story of the first French colonists’ arrival in 1564. Meanwhile, at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, you’ll find 46,000 acres of coastal wetland, salt marsh and historic markers focus on the indigenous Timucuan people and the Spanish colonialists.
If you’re keen to sleep under the stars, book a campsite at the beachside Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. There are tent and RV sites, plus cozy cabins. Bonus: Hanna Park is home to The Poles, one of Jacksonville’s most famous surf spots. For more beachside park fun, don't miss Big Talbot Island and Little Talbot Island—the latter, especially, if you want to get away to your own little undeveloped desert isle. Just you, the dunes, the baby sea turtles and some of nature’s most dramatic installation art: weathered fallen trunks of palms and cedars.
Also not to be missed: the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail, 14.5 paved miles along a former railway. Weaving past fauna and flora, the path is fabulously flat and mostly—blessedly—shaded.
Back in the heart of JAX, there’s a shocking number of official city parks to choose from—more than 400, in fact. A few good starters: Riverside Park, one of the city's oldest and largest, where you'll find a carriage lane from the late 1800s, a duck-filled pond and plenty of playground space for the kids; Klutho Park, where you’ll want to explore the sculpture walk before setting off for historic Springfield; and Jesse Ball duPont Park, home to the sprawling, 250-year-old Treaty Oak.
And that’s just the tiniest sampling. With 80,000 acres of undeveloped wetlands, marshes, forests and coastline, JAX has a way of making you forget you’re in one of America’s largest cities.
It'll suit you to a tee
Jaxons love playing outside—and they love their sports—so the presence of more or less 70 golf courses comes as no surprise. And with golf finding all kinds of new fans (it's the ultimate social distancing sport, after all), hitting the links is an ever more beloved way to get some exercise in the sun.
Connoisseurs will love that several of Florida's top-ranked courses are here, from the Tom Fazio-designed Pablo Creek to Arnold Palmer's signature Blue Sky Golf Club. For a real Florida feel, play a round amid tidal marshlands at Queens Harbour Yacht & Country Club—great for wildlife spotting while you're chasing birdies and eagles on the course.
Eating like a local means all kinds of good things
Playing outside all day will work up your appetite—and JAX will seriously come through for you every time.
Not that you need to take a break from the outdoors to eat well: You can pick up exquisite to-go food—and turn it into a picnic in just about every spot we’ve mentioned in this story.
Then again, there’s nothing like grabbing a locally caught fish sandwich from Safe Harbor Seafood to eat alfresco. Or pick up a Squawking Goat—that is, a fried chicken, goat cheese and pepper jelly biscuit—from the original Maple Street Biscuit Company in San Marco, and eat across the street next to the iconic lion statues in the square. Looking for some apres-surf perfection? Head to Angie’s Subs in Jacksonville Beach for a crusty sub, and do not, under any circumstances, forget the famous Peruvian Sauce. And there’s nothing more #DUVAL than the pita-meets-deli Camel Rider from The Sheik, a JAX favorite since the '70s, when Arab immigrants introduced new flavors to the local food scene.
Not that the city’s parks are your only alfresco options: Many of its restaurants are designed to take full advantage of the sun. Don’t miss the Black Sheep’s airy rooftop, where the menu is local, sustainable and seasonal. Or TacoLu’s back patio, where you’ll want to try the tacos, street corn and tequila selection. More in the mood for BBQ? Eating at the Bearded Pig is almost like being in your own backyard except, with all due respect, the ribs are so much better. And if brunch is your thing, don’t miss the Eggs Benedict Over Fried Green Tomatoes on the roof at beachside Casa Marina. Fun fact: The hotel served as the beachfront celebrity hot spot for the burgeoning silent film industry in the 1920s.
Another fun fact? The nation’s commercial shrimping industry got its start in North Florida, so you’re never more than a stone’s throw from the freshest shrimp anywhere. So don’t leave town without grabbing a pound or two of just-hauled-from-the-sea Mayport jumbo shrimp for a peel-and-eat picnic on the beach.
As for the best local sweets, get to Arlington’s The Donut Shoppe early to snag a few fresh “Uglies” from this decades-old community institution. Also try the cake batter-dipped ice cream cone from Dreamette, the perfect companion at day's end on the Riverwalk.