If your travels find you on the sunny First Coast with your family, take it from me (the expert), where you should stay, play, and eat. How am I the expert you might ask? Well, in addition to living in the region for almost 30 years, I’ve also covered the city extensively for 10Best.com as their city expert, created countless segments for local TV, ran my own TV show highlighting the region, and written many freelance articles about everything North Florida related. I’ve covered many local destinations on my blog, but this is my first time rounding up all my favorites. So take it from me, this is the list you can’t miss.
Being a local, I can’t claim to have stayed at every hotel in and surrounding Jacksonville, but I have had the pleasure of a few staycations. If I haven’t stayed, I have probably toured many of the hotels you have to choose from when planning your stay. When it comes to family travel, certain luxuries can make a world of difference. The resorts who rate at the top of my list? One Ocean Resort and Spa (in Atlantic Beach), The Ritz-Carlton (Amelia Island), Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa, and Omni Amelia Island Plantation. Follow the links for more in depth reviews, or take my word for it and know that these world class destinations know what families need and how to serve them. From expansive pool decks, educational kids clubs, and Pirate tuck-ins, your stay at these resorts will be as memorable as any attraction you will visit during your trip. In fact, you may not even want to leave the grounds. But if you do, read on for where to go and what to eat.
Widely acknowledged as one of the best Zoos in the nation, the Jacksonville Zoo just keeps racking up the awards. We try to explore the local Zoo wherever we go and let me tell you, Jacksonville definitely competes! Innovative habitats, exotic gardens, and a terrific children’s play area top the reasons why you should visit. Recently, the zoo opened it’s Manatee hospital for rehabilitating those gentle sea cows the area’s local waterways are known for. Also of note is the Butterfly Garden, Sting Ray touch tank, and the ever popular Train which winds throughout the park and behind the scenes. Jax enjoys great weather almost year around, however it can get toasty in the summer. On a hot day, grab a snow cone or frolic around on the splash pad to cool off. Whatever season you visit, there is always something exciting happening at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.Tip: Outside food and drink are permitted so feel free to pack a cooler and enjoy a picnic on the grounds.
The beaches here are truly amazing, but if you are looking for more in the way of entertainment head over to Adventure Landing. This local amusement park has been thrilling families since I was a youngster and continues to innovate and expand. There are two locations in town, however, if your aim is to cool off your journey will bring you to the Beaches location where AL’s Shipwreck Island is housed. Relax on the Little St Johns River, slip down Xtreme water slides, rock and roll in the 50,000 gallon Wave Pool, and explore the giant ship at the center of it all. Whether you have tots or teens, the entire family is guaranteed to find something that attracts them. When you’re all dry head into the Arcade and earn those tickets, compete at Laser Tag, zoom around on Go-Karts, or practice your short game during a round of Putt-Putt. There is seriously no end to the fun that awaits. Other great area amusements include Rebounderz and Velocity Air Sports (for your inner ninja), as well as Autobahn for the family that craves a little speed. Also check out The Edge Rock Gym for more indoor entertainment.
Lovingly coined “The Sweetest Destination on Earth”, Sweet Pete’s and Candy Apple Cafe’ are truly the tastiest jewels in the heart of our fair city. What started as a mom and pop passion project, blossomed into what we know today as this sugary complex. After an appearance on the reality TV show “The Profit”, Pete and Allison Behringer transformed their historic home-based candy shop into an icon of downtown Jacksonville that’s truly larger than life. The stately historic building they are located in is a colorful oasis bursting with whimsy and imagination. Think Willy Wonka with a luxurious upgrade. Brightly hued chandeliers drip from the ceiling and multi-colored confections line the walls. Take a tour and see where the magic happens in the Sweet Pete’s candy factory, or step up your skill set and take a candy making class. Don’t leave without booking a reservation at The Candy Apple Cafe’ and Cocktails, which true to it’s name, serves up sweet and savory concoctions for young and old alike.
5. The Beaches
More and more folks are discovering the charms of Jacksonville’s Beaches every year making this a can’t miss attraction if you are in the region. Our beaches are actually several communities stretching a good 18 to 20 miles long. In the North, Atlantic Beach begins the length of coastline just south of the Mayport Naval station. The casually upscale residential community of Atlantic Beach sits right next to Neptune Beach but don’t make the mistake of getting them confused. They each have their own residential identity although they share the quaint Beaches Town Center where you’ll find the best food, and shopping at the beach. South of Neptune is Jacksonville Beach which is more popular with the college crowd and youth and a central hub of the beaches community. You’ll find the lion’s share of the beaches bars and breweries are located here, along with the fishing Pier, and the Beaches Pavilion where most Beach festivals in our region are headquartered. Last but not least is Ponte Vedra Beach, the most exclusive of our beaches. Unless you are staying at a resort or club, it’s a little harder to access this mostly residential stretch of beach, but if you do, you’ll find it quiet and less populated.
6. Fav Day Trips
There is plenty to keep you busy in the largest city by land mass in the the States. However, if you are up for exploring we are centrally located to some charming historic treasures. The Nations oldest city, St Augustine, is located just South of Jacksonville. Take A1A down for a scenic 40 minute drive along the coastline. While visiting the ancient city be sure to explore the Castillo de San Marcos Fort. For a taste of the city make time to take a free tour of the St Augustine Distillery, and reserve a table at the local favorite Ice Plant Bar. Don’t forget to visit the Lighthouse for some ghostly stories and an epic view of the shore. Or see it all by air and book a helicopter tour along the coastline. Another favorite of mine is just a short ferry ride away from the beaches. Visit the barrier islands just North of Jacksonville and experience pristine nature preserves on the Big and Small Talbot Islands, as well as the historic village of Fernandina on Amelia Island. Take a cruise and learn more about the rich history of the region, try the best Shrimp and Grits you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting, and visit the shops that stretch along a town center seemingly frozen in time.
7. Get Outdoors Favorite Hiking and Biking Spots
One of our favorite family activities when we travel is to get outdoors and embrace the green spaces in the surrounding area. Jacksonville is home to so many great nature preserves and parks. In fact the Timucuan Nature Preserve stretches for 46,000 acres and houses plenty to do in the way of hiking, biking, kayaking and more. If you love riding bikes definitely visit the Talbot Islands as mentioned above (which have miles of scenic trail space and are a part of the Timucuan Nature Preserve), as well as our very own Baldwin Rail Trail. Hanna Park is also a must visit for hiking or birding along with Guana Park further South, and Jacksonville’s beautiful Arboretum which is centered around a serene lake.
8. Riverside Arts Market
The Riverside Arts Market is a local treasure and one of the best places to score regionally made crafts, produce, and street fare. Families of all ages enjoy year around shade in it’s location under the Fuller Warren Bridge on the banks of the St Johns River. My little ones love getting their faces painted and watching the balloon artist twist and tie up colorful creations. A trip to RAM is never complete for us without purchasing a giant bag of Kettle Corn from our favorite vendor as well as ordering a wood fired pizza and enjoying it while taking in some live music. The market is extremely pet friendly and owners proudly parade their furry family members up and down the aisles. If you really want to understand what Jacksonville is all about, then add the Riverside Arts Market to your list of must-do activities.
Tip – RAM is located right next door to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Receive free admission the first weekend of the month and enjoy browsing their large permanent collection, new exhibits, and the iconic gardens.
9. Go Shopping – St Johns Town Center
One of the top reasons folks are flooding to the River City by the Sea is our terrific shopping options. The largest and most notable shopping destination in town is the St Johns Town Center. A sprawling outdoor mall that continues to expand yearly. Here in the center of town, you will find a huge selection of retailers from Target to Tiffany’s. If you are hungry, you’ll discover tons of foodie destinations both local and franchise, from fast casual to fine dining. If the kids need to burn off some energy head to the shaded play area in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Barnes and Noble is always a great spot to stop in and listen to story time, or if you are near Nordstrom, head upstairs and let the tots explore the playhouse while you find your next designer duds.
10. Best Family Friendly Restaurants
As a visitor to the region, your tastebuds might be on the hunt for some authentic Southern vittles. Jacksonville has much to offer seekers of culinary excellence and you’ll discover not only down home Southern goodness, but amazing Seafood, and delicious locally sourced harvest with a distinctive regional flare. A few of my family favorites include The Bearded Pig BBQ (which houses a delightful Beer Garden complete with misters for those hot days), Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails (conveniently located in the St Johns Town Center), and M Shack (our favorite locally owned burger joint). For a more extensive list, head over to my “Best Family Friendly Restaurants in Jacksonville” list.
Still haven’t found what you are looking for? Feel free to voice your questions in the comments below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.orgUntil then…
Enjoy the Journey!
xo- Amy West