A vacation to Florida may not bring the city of Jacksonville to the top of everyone’s list. With Disney World, Universal Studios and the beaches of Miami as major attractions, it is easy to overlook the city with a population of over 800,000. However, this list serves as a tide-turner or breakdown of pull factors that should drive anyone with a keen interest in culture, sports or the environment to the northeast-Florida location. As the biggest city in terms of area in the contiguous United States, Jacksonville is certainly hard to drive through once travelers know the items listed as the number of attractions dives well into the hundreds on most travel listings. Below are 10 of the best things to see and do when heading through the southern states on a long drive, multi-day stop-over or a tour of some of the nicest stadiums the United States has to offer.
11. Castaway Island Preserve
For nearly 50 years the Castaway Island Preserve has worked to create the largest urban park system in the United States. It acts to protect the most vulnerable of lands in North Florida. The Timucuan trail of public parks is the spawn of these lands.
Through a plethora of partnerships including conservancies, water management departments and the National Park Service the system of urban parks has grown from 30,000 acres to 80,000. With undeniable beauty and so much to see, the parks tell a historical and cultural story that is almost inconceivable. From forestry to ponds, the trails take any visitor on a walk through many different types of vegetation. Perfect for the environmentally savvy, Castaway Island Preserve is sure to impress anyone from hikers to families with little ones. The naturally preserved landscape provides a different look of continental America, one that is not seen in any areas surrounding other budding metropolis.
10. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Close to the Jacksonville River Walk stands the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Somewhat of a hidden gem, the museum just south of downtown Jacksonville features regional artists that capture the imaginations of onlookers. Spring and summer at the gardens are breathtaking to all, just as is the surrounding area.
Statues, paths, ponds and more await visitors looking for a picturesque photo not too far from the city. The view overlooking the water is simply stunning and is worthy of the trip in itself. The gardens are well kept and are as interesting to walk around as any, leaving tourists wondering what is around each bend. The fountains and paths are of particular interests, showcasing different monuments and statues at every turn. This type of location is great for anyone looking to take in local history, or alternatively, those wanting to stare out at a view of the water not attainable anywhere else in Florida.
9. Little Talbot Island State Park
A smash hit with all its visitors, Little Talbot Island State Park borders a marsh as well as a phenomenally kept beach among other well-kept areas. The campgrounds are a fan favorite due to the immediate access to such vibrant vegetation. The peaceful setting is said to be one the cleanest campgrounds found anywhere, almost as if man never settled it.
The sandy beach includes starfish, horseshoe crabs and sharks when looking out into the water. A great location for bike rides or walks with relatives or friends; Little Talbot Island State Park is picturesque enough for a wedding or any important event that needs a great background to enhance the experience. The spacious park is said to be a little off the path, but this quaintness only adds to the ambiance. A small $5 fee is well worth the access to countless picnic tables and grilling areas making it ideal for a camping destination.
8. Big Talbot Island State Park
We wouldn’t want Little Talbot to get lonely, luckily Big Talbot Island State Park is there for those who may feel a little closed off by the trees of the smaller setting. Big Talbot will have visitors believing they just discovered America with the vast, seemingly unexplored grassland.
At a steal of just three dollars, visit in the summer months for the chance to see various species of birds throughout the park. Beautiful white pelicans, herons and wood storks should not be disturbed in this open space. Simply walk along the beach to get a first-hand look at species of birds rarely seen by urban residents. Virtually untouched, Boneyard Beach receives great reviews from those looking for a place to walk and reflect. It is no wonder it is ranked as one of the top attractions in all of Jacksonville. Consider a picnic, bike or fish, but unfortunately no overnight stays are permitted.
7. Veterans Memorial Wall
Adjacent to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Veterans Memorial Wall is a quarter-million dollar monument that was dedicated to more than 1,500 war heroes in 1995. It is 65 feet long and made of black granite. Veterans from World War 1 all the way through to Operation Desert Storm and current middle-eastern conflicts are honored here.
An eternal flame stands in the front of the monument, where Jacksonville’s Memorial Day Ceremony takes place. At the ceremony, any fallen soldiers from the year past are honored by having their names added to the site. Since the monuments completion, tremendous measures were made to ensure its preservation when the destruction of the nearby Veterans Memorial Coliseum took place. This type of respect and dedication is the only reason needed to stop by this monument while en route to anywhere, really. Sadly, in 2005 additional panels were added to provide space for names of those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
6. Museum of Science and History
The Jacksonville Museum of Science and History (or MOSH as the kids say) is full of unique and state-of-the-art exhibits. MOSH contains a rotation of traveling exhibits such as Shipwreck, which has over 500 artifacts excavated from famous shipwrecks through time.
Space and energy-centric exhibits dominate the core attractions along with local history. At prices between six and 10 dollars it is easy to see why so many are attracted to the wide-array of knowledge that MOSH provides. Year-round camps and Boy & Girl Scout workshops ensure that the kids will be interacting socially and learning at the same time. Local artists also have their works circled through the museum, providing local exposure to some of the areas better talents. Perhaps the most intrusive exhibit ever is “The Body Within”, where visitors walk in through a giant open mouth and exit through the digestive track of the human body.
5. Fort Caroline National Memorial
This fort memorializes a short presence of the French during the 16th century in Florida. Disputes over territory, religion, and arms are the central theme of the site’s history that landmarks the first contact between natives and Europeans.
Surrounded by greenery, the fort’s walls overlook the ocean that was meant to keep frequent visitors away but alas, this did not happen. French colonies that were after religious freedoms settled here before moving further toward the center of America, and were greeted by natives upon their arrival. A children’s program and museum is on the property to inform visitors of the full history of settlements, which often surprise tourists due to how far back in time the stories go. Take a stroll down the paths with overhanging trees and quickly see why the French chose to stay instead of hopping on their ships and heading back to their homeland.
4. Jacksonville Jazz Festival
Each spring during Memorial Day weekend, Jacksonville puts on a music show like no other. The Jacksonville Jazz festival brings world-renowned musicians to the city for performances on multiple stages over 4 days.
Music lovers should plan their stop Jacksonville to coincide with this festival which features big name Jazz act along with other event features like a piano competition, jazz brunch, outdoor art fair on the streets of downtown and the popular ‘Jazz After Dark’ which sees performances lasting until 2am. Best of all, most festival events are actually free of charge! The Jazz Festival has long been one of the biggest festivals in the city of Jacksonville so join in the celebration and rhythm for a guaranteed good time.
3. Friendship Fountain
The recently remodeled Friendship Fountain should find its way onto everyone’s list of things to see when in Jacksonville. Situated on the St. Johns River, it beautifully overlooks the water from across the Jacksonville Landing. This site is a photographer’s dream when the sun is ready to set or rise.
The Main Street Bridge acts as a perfect background for the colorful display of water fountains to which the site gets its name. As there is seemingly no way to be angry when taking in this scenery, this is indeed a good spot to reflect by one’s self or with a partner. The tranquility and feeling of calm is rare in such a location that can be compared to a cleaner, friendlier setting than looking across from the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Of course, the lack of noise is a contributing factor to this location’s aura as well.
2. EverBank Field
The home of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team since 1995 has undergone a whole lot of changes since it broke ground. At a cost of $121 million it is relatively cheap for an NFL stadium but that does not take away from the energy that can’t be found anywhere else in Jacksonville. The stadium was opened on the site of the old Gator Bowl Stadium that had been around since 1949. It still includes portions of the old stadium on the four hectares of land next to the St. Johns River.
With an original capacity of 73,000, expansions in the last decade have raised the seat total to just under 77,000 (about 10,000 seats more than the NFL minimum). The stadium hosted Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, not to mention the countless other college football games and concerts. There is no atmosphere quite like an NFL football game in America, so this is a highly suggested spot for those who won’t necessarily get frequent chances to attend a game.
1. Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
This wildlife sanctuary is the home of many exotic cats that are rescued and taken care of on the location. Cougars, leopards, bobcats and foxes are just some of the species in the habitat. Additionally, 25 Siberian tigers (the majority of which are adorable cubs) are kept here along with a select few African lions.
Although it has been open for 30 years the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary became accredited to be open to the public in 2004. A medical facility on the property lends assistance to the care of the animals with a group of dedicated veterinarians and even dentists. Cat lovers are encouraged to participate in the adoption program; donations made to the sanctuary provide direct funding to the animals by way of food and medical care. The mantra of the facility is to educate children on the dangers of owning or attempting to domesticate wild cats, so it is safe to say Mike Tyson likely did not visit here as a youth.