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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Jacksonville

Jacksonville is where South meets North. Southern gentility, neighborliness, and cuisine is still practiced with pride, and this city, so rich in cultural and historical heritage, is also well-endowed with modern sights, sounds, and experiences to enjoy. But despite the downtown towers, local folk still believe in small-town values. Perhaps nowhere else in Florida are the contrasts so stark - and so interesting.

This is a "river city," and life here revolves around the St. Johns River running right through town, as well as the ocean to the east of town. Jacksonville also offers surprises galore. Few people know that Jacksonville was actually the first Hollywood. In the early-1900s, this was the motion-picture capital of the world, a thriving film and production location before anyone east of Los Angeles had ever heard of that other Hollywood.

Jax residents are blessed to be sitting alongside a grand river, a nearby ocean with spectacular beaches, natural wonderlands just beyond (and sometimes within) the city limits, and enough outdoor-recreation options and tourist attractions to fill up a year-long visit.

1 Admire the Exhibits at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens Michel Curi / photo modified
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Ninah May Holden Cummer was a local philanthropist who wanted to create "a center of beauty and culture" in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see the opening of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in 1961. But the gift she bequeathed to the city and its visitors will live on forever.

The museum is now home to more than 5,000 pieces of world-class art, among them works from artists such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, and Norman Rockwell, and including the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain. As for the "Gardens" part, there are actually four different gardens, including an English and Italian garden, each stunningly beautiful and serene in its own distinct way.

Address: 829 Riverside Avenue, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.cummermuseum.org

2 Roam among the Wild Ones at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary

Tigers at Catty Shack Ranch
Tigers at Catty Shack Ranch Rob Bixby / photo modified
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The mission of this non-profit organization is a noble one - to educate the public on the dangers of owning big cats as pets and on threats to the cats from changing weather patterns, environmental pollution, diminishing habitats, and human hunters. None of the animals living here have ever been bought, sold, or traded; they've all been brought here (mostly by owners who couldn't care for them properly). You and the kids can see some of the world's most exotic - and wild - cats up close, in their own habitats. Residents of the sanctuary include lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, bobcats, foxes, and coatimundis (which are not big cats, but actually members of the raccoon family, with very long snouts). One of the best things about this place, however, is its employees - not one of them is paid for their work. They do it out of love.

Address: 1860 Starratt Road, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.cattyshack.org

3 Travel Back to the Old South at Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation
Kingsley Plantation
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At the Kingsley Plantation, on Fort George Island east of the city, you can take a trip back to the 19th century. This is a good example of a grand Southern mansion in the pre-Civil War days, and a lifestyle that died with the Confederacy. There's a plantation house, a kitchen house, a barn, and the remains of some 25 slave cabins. Zephaniah Kingsley was the master of the plantation, and he later married one of his slaves, who became a successful businesswoman and property owner. However, discrimination against her and her family caused them to move to what is now the Dominican Republic. The Kingsleys were not the original owners of this land, however; Native Americans lived here more than a thousand years ago, and some visitors swear they've spotted several ghosts on the property. This is the last remaining plantation house in Florida.

Address: 11676 Palmetto Avenue, Jacksonville, Florida

4 See a Performance at the Florida Theatre

Florida Theatre
Florida Theatre Caitlin Regan / photo modified
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On April 8, 1927, the Florida Theatre opened. Where there once stood a ramshackle police precinct filled with some of the most unsavory characters in Northeast Florida, suddenly there was a beautifully-crafted, classic performing arts theater, with a stunning old-world ambience. Since that time, some of the most famous performers in the world have appeared here, playing music ranging from rock to Rachmaninoff and Holiday presentations to happy children's theater, as well as everything in between. And, oh, yes, one young performer had his first solo show here: Elvis Presley.

Address: 128 East Forsyth Street, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.floridatheatre.com

5 Take the Family to Fort George Island

Fort George Island
Fort George Island Jon Dawson / photo modified
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For a different side of the Jacksonville area, head for Fort George Island Cultural State Park. This spot is a bundle of contradictions. For one thing, it's a historic landmark, the site of Fort George, built in 1736 to defend the southern flank of what was then the British colony of Georgia. It's a place of lush natural beauty, interesting wildlife, and great recreational opportunities, and a most beautiful and calming silence. And, yet, it's also the site of The Ribault Club, Jacksonville's most raucous and glittery club for the rich-and-famous in the Roaring Twenties. An outfit named Kayak Amelia can set you up for a guided tour of the island on a cross-terrain Segway, or you can go boating, fishing, kayaking, geocaching, cycling, birding, canoeing, picnicking, and hiking.

Official site: www.floridastateparks.org

6 Explore Amelia Island

Pier, Amelia Island
Pier, Amelia Island
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You may not have heard of Amelia Island, about 20 miles north of Jacksonville. But rest assured, the Spanish, French, English, and Scottish did, and some of them captured the island, lost it, and then re-captured it again. Amelia Island must be the most desired place in America, because eight flags have flown over it - more flags than anywhere else. Through the early years, the island's local cast of characters included pirates, gun-runners, Confederates, Union soldiers, escaped prisoners, and sailors who jumped ship.

Today, the island's main town of Fernandina Beach looks much as it did then, with brick sidewalks and red-brick Victorian buildings from the late-1800s, many now filled with interesting shops, restaurants, and galleries. Take a horse-and-buggy ride through town and stroll these old streets for some great surprises. The island also offers great hiking, biking, horseback riding, beaches, a couple of interesting museums, and ghost tours. History buffs might also enjoy the Civil War reenactments at historic Fort Clinch.

7 See the City in Style on the Water Taxi

Water taxi
Water taxi
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St. Johns River Taxi and Tours will take you to three stops along the Southbank and three stops along the Northbank. The modern, comfortable, covered boats seat up to a hundred and offer spectacular views of the city and skyline. The company also offers special trips to places like the Riverside Arts market and the Museum of Science & History, and you can also sign up for the popular sunset cruise, when the lights of the city turn into a continually-changing tableaux. One of the best things about the River Taxi, though, is that you don't have to go anywhere. Many people take it for the sheer joy of the ride along the river and the panorama of the city spread out before them.

Official site: www.jaxrivertaxi.com

8 Enjoy Thrills and Chills at Adventure Landing

Adventure Landing
Adventure Landing Leigh Caldwell / photo modified
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At Adventure Landing Jacksonville Beach Shipwreck Island Water Park, the kids will be screaming and splashing all day long, and parents will turn into kids again. A day at the beach never sounded so exciting! Attractions include miniature golf, laser tag, the Wacky Worm roller-coaster, go-karts, the Frog Hopper, and a ride for the more serious roller-coaster lovers called 3D Max Flight. You'll also find plenty of wacky, wild, watery, wonderful "splash" attractions - thrills and chills galore for the whole family.

Address: 1944 Beach Boulevard, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Official site: www.adventurelanding.com

9 Take a Stroll on the Riverwalk

Riverwalk
Riverwalk
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The St. Johns River is the commercial, transportation, historic, and "people" heart of Jacksonville. It's very romantic to walk along the river at night, when a calm takes over the water just as the city on either side of it is lighting up, and it's very musical during the day, with frequent performances by excellent musicians and bands. In addition, there are some good restaurants along the way. This is a great place to jog, run, bike, or just walk. Keep a sharp eye out because you may well see dolphins cavorting in the water.

10 Soak Up the Sun and Surf at Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach
Atlantic Beach
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Just a short drive from the urban buzz of Jacksonville is another world, called Atlantic Beach, where the only sounds are the soothing waves lapping a beautiful beach and the seabirds splashing into and out of it. One of the best ways to get there is the St. Johns River Ferry, which plies the river amid all types of interesting scenery. Several deep-sea fishing charter companies operate out of Atlantic Beach, and if you take one of them, chances are good you can bring your catch to a local restaurant for cooking. The Tide Views Preserve is a tranquil spot of great natural beauty, with a long pier jutting out into the marshes and a park with trails and boardwalks. Atlantic Beach is a great place to just relax and soak in the smells, sights, and sounds of one of Florida's great getaways.

11 Become a Child Again at the Museum of Science and History

Museum of Science and History
Museum of Science and History Michel Curi / photo modified
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If you love seeing your child's face light up with wonder, visit the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). Originating in an old Victorian home in 1941, this museum has since grown into one of the finest in Florida, with an outstanding collection of "Signature Exhibits" and traveling ones. These exhibits range from historic looks at Northeast Florida to revealing glimpses of future technology and communications as well as energy and ecosystems. There's a peaceful courtyard with native plants, and an interactive play area for younger children. Kids of all ages will love the Space Science Gallery and the Bryan-Gooding Planetarium. At MOSH, it won't be just the kids' faces lighting up with wonder - yours will, too.

Address: 1025 Museum Circle, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.themosh.org

12 Go "Ape" at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Elephant at the Jacksonville Zoo
Elephant at the Jacksonville Zoo
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Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is more than just a zoo, it's an exciting experience. Behind-the-scenes tours, close-up encounters with the animals, and a walk-through Butterfly Garden and Land of the Tiger exhibit are just some of the fun things to do here. There's also a Play Park and Splash Ground for the kids, and at Stingray Bay, you can pat the inhabitants. Kids can also ride an old-fashioned carousel or sign up for the Zookeeper For A Day program. A colorful Old-Time Zoo Train goes to all the exhibits. Other highlights include a 4D theater and the River Quest Scenic River Cruise, and yes, there are hundreds of animals from all over the world, in all sizes, shapes, and colors.

Address: 370 Zoo Parkway, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.jacksonvillezoo.org

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