With nearly one million residents, Jacksonville is Florida’s most populous city. At 840 square miles, it is also the largest American city by area outside of Alaska. The St. Johns River flows through the geographic center of Jacksonville and meets the Atlantic Ocean at the old fishing village of Mayport, which is famous for its sweet, buttery, lobster-like shrimp. Between its beaches, culture and booming culinary scene, it’s the perfect place to take refuge during the winter months.
Here’s how to spend a perfect weekend in Jacksonville, Florida.
How to Get to Jacksonville
Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) is located 15 miles north of the city center and just outside the I-295 beltway that encircles the neighborhoods you are most likely to visit. With more than 200 daily flights to over 30 destinations, it’s relatively easy to get here from the major cities using the main carriers. Allegiant, Breeze and Silver Airways connect Jacksonville with smaller cities like Flint, Hartford and Providence. Additionally, both Amtrak Silver routes (Meteor and Star) that connect New York and Miami make stops in Jacksonville.
Once in town, the fully automated, 2.5-mile, eight-stop JTA Skyway monorail is free and useful if you plan to stay downtown. All other visitors should have a car as the city is spread out to the point where using Uber or Lyft can end up costing more than a rental car.
Where to Stay in Jacksonville
Staying in a central location will make it easier for you to explore neighborhoods like Springfield to the north and San Marco to the south. Downtown hotel options on the Southbank include the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Southbank Hotel. Across the St. Johns River, there’s the Hyatt Regency and Marriott.
If you want to be closer to the beach, the Salt Air Inn & Suites and Hotel Palms are both within walking distance. If shopping is more your thing, there are a handful of hotels near the St. Johns Town Center open-air mall, including the Homewood Suites.
What to Do in Jacksonville
A tour company called Art Bikes runs the Architecture, Art and History excursion, which takes guests by e-bike from Tucker Cycles in Avondale to the mansions along Richmond Street and across the Fuller Warren Bridge to San Marco. Trees (often covered in Spanish moss) will provide some shade from the intense Florida heat. There are frequent stops, usually under one of those trees, and the fact that the e-bikes require little physical exertion makes this tour manageable for most fitness levels. For fans of Southern rock, the tour highlight is stopping outside the former real-estate office of Leonard Skinner (the most famous rock band to come out of Jacksonville took its name, Lynyrd Skynyrd, from the former gym teacher-turned-realtor). The tour also stops in front of the Gray House, where a jam session took place in 1969 that led to the creation of the Allman Brothers Band.
The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens is the largest fine arts museum in northeast Florida. With more than 5,000 works in the permanent collection and rotating exhibitions, it’s primarily about the art here; but there’s also some history to learn (including the namesake of the museum), as well as the picturesque outdoor gardens along the St. Johns River. If you’re visiting before February, be sure to check out the exhibit “Jacksonville’s Norman Studios.” In the years leading up to the Great Depression, Norman Studios produced several films with all-Black casts, and some of those movie posters are on display. Nowadays, we take for granted that Los Angeles is the film capital of North America, but the exhibit reminds us that it could have just as easily been Jacksonville. Museum admission is free on Tuesday evenings.
The Riverside Arts Market takes place under the Fuller Warren Bridge on the Northbank on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Annual events include River City Pride, which takes place in October. There’s also Porchfest, which is a music and arts festival held in November in Historic Springfield.
Where to Eat and Drink in Jacksonville
Jacksonville may not be an international jet-set destination like Miami, but you’ll still find a range of culinary offerings from Cambodian and Peruvian to fried gator tails and the famous Mayport shrimp. The latter are best enjoyed at the source, which is east of downtown, where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Taste of Jacksonville Food Tours runs five-stop, three-hour walking tours in the San Marco neighborhood. On the other side of the St. Johns River, Avondale, Five Points and Murray Hill are all worthy of separate food crawls. Hawkers Asian Street Food is located in Five Points, opposite Riverside Park; there’s also a location in Neptune Beach, just three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. The laksa will open your sinuses, while the meat used in the duck bao has a respectable lean-to-fat ratio. Inside, the vibe is similar to Phat Eatery in Houston’s Katy Asian Town, but the menu is pan-Asian.
Open daily for breakfast and lunch, the Fox Restaurant is the coolest diner in town. Pay close attention to the sign on the paper towel dispenser above the sink, which instructs employees to carve Slayer into forearms before returning to work. But this is no somber experience, and you don’t have to be a thrash metal or horror fan to enjoy yourself. Energetic owner Ian Chase chats with customers as if they were neighbors, giving this place the feel of a Main Street diner somewhere in Maine but with sunny Florida weather.
Also, in Five Points, Mixed Fillings Pie Shop is open Wednesday through Saturday and often sells out of coveted slices. It’s a good idea to check their Instagram page if Mixed Fillings is your only stop in the area, but — as some of the best dining spots in Jacksonville are in Five Points — you won’t have an issue finding other options. Ordering online will always be your safest bet here.
While spots in Avondale, Five Points and San Marco tend to be more upscale, attracting a more sophisticated crowd, there are equally interesting options farther from downtown. Located on the edge of Murray Hill off I-10, Banana Leaf is a Southeast Asian restaurant run by a Cambodian family with mostly Khmer (and some Thai) dishes on the menu. Like most Asian restaurants where you’ll get a lot for what you spend, it’s located in a small strip mall, which looks like a scaled-down version of something you’d find in South Indy or Houston’s Chinatown. Skip the classic pho and pad thai, and instead try the Phnom Penh Noodle Soup. Loat cha is another worthy noodle dish that’s difficult to find, even at some Cambodian restaurants.
South of San Marco, in the Lakewood neighborhood, Sabor Mix Ceviche & Grill has all the Peruvian classics, most of which are $20 or less. The asu mare ceviche is a must-try.
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