A big city with a big heart, Jacksonville encompasses grand historic neighborhoods, an important military port and golden-sand beaches. It offers culture, sports, and nearby barrier islands.
Hugging the St. Johns River, Jacksonville's historic significance dates back to prehistoric residents and early French and Spanish colonists. Near the river's mouth, the Fort Caroline National Memorial, a re-created French fort with stimulating indoor exhibits, remembers the days when French Huguenots teamed with the Timucuan Indians to combat the Spanish.
The river splits downtown in half, with lively riverwalks on each side. The Jacksonville Landing, on the north bank, is vibrant with shopping and entertainment. Nearby Everbank Field is home to the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
Across the river, Friendship Fountain and Southbank Riverwalk make it worth the water taxi ride over. The Museum of Science and History fascinates kids and adults alike with interactive exhibits about marine mammals, the Civil War and more. Also in the downtown area, you'll find the Jacksonville Historical Society, located in the Old St. Andrews Episcopal Church.
Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens takes up residence in one of the town's loveliest neighborhoods, the Riverside Avondale National Register District. The art museum features an enviable collection of masterpieces and offers one of the nation's best hands-on art experiences for children. Around the museum, explore graceful vintage homes and shop along St. Johns Avenue.
Discover more shopping plus Peterbrooke Chocolatier in the San Marco historic district. In the Arlington community, the Tree Hill Nature Center boasts plentiful trails and an on-site butterfly house. The Jacksonville Zoo promises even more fun, with its Stingray Bay, Keeper Talks, Train and more.
Pablo Historical Park is home to a railroad depot which was moved from Mayport, a 28-ton steam locomotive built in 1911, and more. And your whole gang will love Adventure Landing, with its water park, batting cages, go-karts and miniature golf.
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, home to the premier surfing spot in Northeast Florida, The Poles, provides an out-of-the-way beach where you can enjoy kayaking, biking, freshwater fishing and hiking.
Where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Mayport earns the city's naval reputation as one of the busiest military ports in the country. There, the St. Johns River Ferry interrupts Route A1A, the famed oceanside drive of Florida's East Coast, with a pleasant five-minute across the St. Johns River that links Mayport to Fort George Island.
The history of Fort George Island stretches back more than 1000 years, beginning with the Timucuan Indians. But the structures at the Kingsley Plantation Historic Site date to the plantation era of the island, and include the ruins of 25 of the original slave cabins, haunting to explore.
Finally, you'll cross the bridge onto reaches to the bridge crossing onto Amelia Island. This peaceful getaway boasts beaches fringed with tall dunes, as well as bayside sweeps of marshland where kayaking is popular.
Its historic American Beach, founded in 1935 by Florida's first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, is an important African-American heritage site.
You'll discover more beach accesses off Route A1A, including Main Beach, the center of waterfront activity.
Fort Clinch State Park, home to a Civil War-era fortification where rangers dress as Union soldiers, features yet another beach. At Georgia's doorstep, the fort affords a far-reaching view of Cumberland Island, across Cumberland Pass.
Through this pass, pirates of yore to shrimpers of today have made their way into a busy Victorian seaport known as Fernandina Beach. The town protects 50 blocks of its keepsake architectural gems. Many have been turned into exquisite bed and breakfasts and delightful downtown shops and seafood restaurants.
Sheffields at the Palace, Florida's oldest saloon, serves its original purpose, while the old jailhouse, where many of the Palace's former patrons ended up, houses the Amelia Island Museum of History. It offers tours of the town's old churches, cemetery and other historic sites.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA except where otherwise noted