By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Praising its beaches, parks, family-friendly food scene and affordable hotel rates, Lonely Planet ranks Jacksonville on its world list of “10 Best Value Destinations.”
The city also draws raves from Expedia, which considers Jacksonville one of the “21 Supercool U.S. cities.”
Your family – and wallet – will agree.
With 1,100 miles of navigable water, Jacksonville has more shoreline than any other city in the nation. The easiest way to get on the water is aboard the St. Johns River Taxi, which has multiple downtown stops on its 30-minute loop. It also offers tours that focus on the environment or science and history. Monitor wait time and locations on the taxi’s live tracking site.
The St. Johns River Ferry, 4610 Ocean St., is a car and passenger ferry that has operated between Mayport Village and Fort George Island since 1874. Also known as the Mayport Ferry, it departs every half hour and is a great, scenic way to spot dolphins, manatees and big fish on the water.
Beach Buggy, in cooperation with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, provides free, on-demand rides between the beaches on electric carts and passenger vans.
The Jacksonville area has 22 miles of beaches. The city’s main beaches – Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Mayport Beach and Atlantic Beach – are public and pet-friendly if the family pooch is along for the trip.
Home to sand dunes and some of Florida’s best golf courses, the quieter seaside community of Ponte Vedra Beach, just south of downtown Jacksonville, is a favorite upscale retreat for families.
Huguenot Memorial Park, 10980 Heckscher Dr., allows visitors to drive on the sand and park on the beach, making it easy for families with a lot of gear in tow.
Family Photo Op
The maritime forest at Big Talbot Island State Park, State Road AIA North, is a Jacksonville favorite photo spot, with a giant driftwood collection on the three-mile-long “Boneyard Beach.”
The Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier, 503 1st St. North, stretches about a quarter-mile into the ocean and provides a beautiful backdrop, as well as an easy spot for fishing. (There’s a bait shop on the pier.)
Jacksonville’s beach break and soft, sandy bottom make it a prime surfing location – and a great place to learn the art of riding waves. The Wave Masters amateur surfing competition has been held every May here since 1983.
Jax Surf & Paddle, 241 Atlantic Blvd., in Neptune Beach offers extended and half-day surf camps for kids, ages 6 to 16.
The all-female staff at Saltwater Cowgirls, 931 3rd St. North, in Jacksonville Beach provides girls-only surf camps for ages 7 to 17, and private lessons for all ages. Learn more about favorite surf spots, like “The Poles” outside of Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, and surfing competitions at Visit Jacksonville.
Crazy Fish, 4461 Port Arthur Rd., offers airboat and fishing tours on the Intracoastal Waterway. Take the Do-It-Yourself route and rent a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) or kayak from one of the many outfitters that offer rentals and tours.
Mayport shrimp, harvested by generations of shrimpers here for centuries, is best sampled at one of the city’s many fish camps, where it’s found fried, steamed, in chowders and in classic shrimp burgers.
Maple Street Biscuit Company, 410 N. Third St. in Jacksonville Beach, is a favorite breakfast spot for fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice and Southern comfort food like biscuits and gravy, waffles, and grits.
At Sweet Pete’s, 400 N. Hogan St., there are behind-the-scenes factory tours and candy-making classes where kids can learn how to make gummy candies, chocolate truffles or taffy. The offerings even include “toddler time” for ages 2 to 4, with story time and a sweet treat.
The 122-acre Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, 370 Zoo Pkwy., is home to more than 2,000 animals, with the award-winning African Forest exhibit of primates and many opportunities to interact with animals such as stingrays, giraffes, and lorikeets. Native wildlife is also abundant in the most-visited gardens in North Florida.
Tree Hill Nature Center, 7152 Lone Star Rd., is a 50-acre wilderness preserve dedicated to hands-on environmental education. Along with trails and a butterfly garden, you’ll find animal and nature exhibits and shows.
In downtown, the Museum of Science and History (MOSH), 1025 Museum Circle, features interactive exhibits, daily science and live animal shows, and one of the largest single-lens planetariums in the world. A “Little Learners” hands-on class for pre-schoolers and their caregivers occurs at 9:30 a.m. every Saturday.
The Hands On Children’s Museum, 8580 Beach Blvd., is a small refuge for children 8 and under that features castle, grocery store and other kid-friendly play areas.
On the first Wednesday of every month, downtown Jacksonville comes alive for Art Walk, featuring family-friendly visual and live arts events that encourage people to walk around and explore galleries and shops.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), 333 N. Laura St., admission is free on the first Wednesday of every month during Art Walk from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Jacksonville has the largest urban park system in the nation, with more than 80,000 acres of green spaces. At James Weldon Johnson Park, a historic downtown public square at 135 W. Monroe St., a fenced-in Kids Zone in the northwest corner features 100 big blue foam blocks for creative construction projects. The park regularly hosts food trucks, concerts and events.
Visit the city’s oldest landmark, a 250-year-old Treaty Oak tree, at Jessie Ball Dupont Park, 1123 Prudential Dr. The octopus-like Southern live oak, which is more than 70 feet tall and 25 feet in circumference, is so beloved that cables have been installed to support its heavy limbs and a lightning protection system has been installed. Climbing isn’t allowed, but walking through it is an adventure.
At Topgolf Jacksonville, 10531 Brightman Blvd., families can compete with micro-chipped golf balls to see who hits the most targets or play giant Jenga matches.
Edge Rock Gym, 3563 Phillips Hwy., has classes and day passes for indoor rock climbing, including a Rocks & Rope teen class, for ages 8 to 19.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, 12713 Ft. Caroline Rd., is a 46,000-acre national preserve that is home to the French colonial settlement of Fort Caroline and Kingsley Plantation, the oldest surviving plantation house in the state. Family-friendly house tours and ranger talks are scheduled regularly.
The Ritz Theatre and Museum, 829 N. Davis St., was rebuilt on the site of a historical theater in the La Villa community, known from the 1920s through the 1960s as the “Harlem of the South.” The 426-seat hall still presents live music, dance and theater, including family matinees.
More Family Fun
Traveling to other Florida destinations with your gang? Here are more ideas for family fun around the Sunshine State.