It’s the United States’ largest city by land mass; it boasts 22 miles of beaches; it survived the third-biggest fire in America; it was the country’s first film headquarters, pre-dating Hollywood; and it’s the proud site of the Jax Ale Trail, featuring eight craft breweries. Here’s why you need to visit Jacksonville.
This year we’re going to highlight the Top Spots in Florida for a day (or two!) away from the theme parks, and you don’t have to do any of the work, either. We’ve created pick-and-mix itineraries you can assemble to suit your style, and we’ll start with Jacksonville, 2.5 hours north of Orlando via Interstate 95. It can be done in a day, but two would be better. Here’s how:
BREAKFAST: Forget the likes of Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, Bob Evans and Perkins. When it comes to the real deal, that ain’t it. For the authentic experience, you need to go to Metro Diner (3302 Hendricks Ave, Jacksonville). This is a genuine, classic American diner, where the waitresses call you “sweetie,” “honey,” and “baby doll,” even if you’re a hairy bloke. And you’ll like it, too.
You won’t find tourists dining alongside you, nor delicate fruit parfaits or chia seed pudding on the menu, but you will find some of the most scrumptious comfort food south of the Mason-Dixon line here, including a massive Fried Chicken & Waffle breakfast (big enough to split, even though it’s a single serving), Breakfast Pie (a skillet of eggs, cheese, mushrooms, onions, peppers and red skinned potatoes PLUS a side dish) and, of course, Biscuits & Gravy (two enormous savoury-scone-style buttermilk biscuits, a river of sausage gravy AND two eggs AND a pile of perfectly-crisped hash browns). Tuck into a Pulled Pork Mac Stack (mac and cheese topped with half a pound of BBQ) and you’ll be shouting, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner” (which, incidentally, IS the Must-Try signature item at dinner).
Yes, there are healthy options, too, including gluten-friendly items, but why would you do that to yourself when a holiday is the perfect excuse to splurge on Cheese Fries, Shrimp & Grits or Country Fried Steak? Don’t forget to use that most iconic of Southern phrases when you thank them, saying, “Ya’ll done gave me a rip roarin’ time!”
Run by the National Park Service, Kingsley Plantation is a trip back in time, specifically to the 1700s, when Spain owned the territory and slaves worked the fields of highly-prized Sea Island cotton. Tour the home, detached kitchen, barn, and slave quarters, allowing around 1 hour for the full experience. Add another 50 minutes for the scenic drive from Metro Diner, including a long, narrow road through natural foliage and moss-draped oaks to reach the park.
Kingsley is one of the last plantation homes in Florida, and certainly the most complete, with its 25 original slave cabins still relatively intact. Its history is incredibly unusual in that, under Spanish law, slaves could, in some circumstances, buy their freedom. Even more astounding, the plantation was eventually owned by Anna Madgigine Jai, who was born a Wolof princess in Senegal before her capture into slavery. She became the plantation master’s “common law wife,” was freed by him at the age of 18 and assumed co-responsibility for Kingsley Plantation.
Pick up a free audio tour, and be sure to visit on a weekend when tours inside the home are conducted. The site is open daily from 9am-5pm (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day) and it’s free.
Head 11 miles north via highway A1A until you reach Boneyard Beach. This beach isn’t named for a dinosaur archeological dig or the rusting hull of a long-ago shipwreck, as you might think. Instead, it’s one of the most photogenic spots you’ll ever find for its twisted, dead trees and bleached-out driftwood, fallen into Nassau Sound’s shoreline as the bluffs eroded during hurricanes and fierce storms.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: boring! But trust us, this 3-mile stretch is a photographic treasure, worthy of both wall art and your Instagram account. A pleasant, sandy trail leads from the parking area to the beach, with a few viewing spots along the way, and while you may only spend 15 minutes or so here, it’s a worthwhile diversion. Take note, if the day is hot you can walk in the shallow water, but this is NOT the place for a swim.
Optional Side Trip: Soak up the sun at Little Talbot Island State Park beach, or take a walk there and do some wildlife spotting or bird watching.
You’re just off the Atlantic Ocean’s coast, so it’s fresh-caught seafood all the way, and it doesn’t get any fresher than Palms Fish Camp. Hopefully you split breakfast, so you’ve got room for Palms’ seafood gumbo or chowder, a bucket of fresh oysters or scallops, or a delicious plate of Shrimp & Grits. Want to try everything? Go for the Palms Platter. Not into seafood? Don’t worry. There’s plenty on the menu to keep landlubbers happy.
You’re going to need to digest for a while, and Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is a step above the average art museum, with a fascinating mix of ancient and modern art. It’s a genuine historical and cultural treasure, but if your holiday radar is more tuned to simple family fun, head for The Main Event for indoor bowling and arcade games, the thrills of iFLY indoor ‘sky-diving’ or Bravoz Entertainment Center, with laser tag, jump arena, mini-bowling and Ninja Warrior Course!
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dining in Jacksonville, but we’re going to steer you toward our new favourite, BlackSheep. With a wonderfully local and farm-fresh menu, killer cocktails and a fabulous array of craft beers, this is the place for an original dining experience with oodles of local style.
If you decide you’d like to stay overnight, book a room at the Omni or the Hyatt, then book your spot on the Jax Brew Bus and sample three local breweries along the Jax Ale Trail, with a 4.5-hour tour that features up to 12 samples! Other live entertainment is found at Comedy Zone Jacksonville, the wild variety of the Florida Theatre and the swish Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, which underlines the city’s allure for culture vultures.
Or just indulge your inner retail therapist with a trip to The Jacksonville Landing (a “festival marketplace”), the lively River City Marketplace or all-out shopping frenzy of St John’s Town Center, with its 175-plus stores.
It all adds up to an all-encompassing Florida-adventure-with-a-difference, in one of the most happening cities in the Sunshine State. Your only problem will be fitting it all into two days!