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13 Top-Rated Attractions in Jacksonville, FL

Written by Steve Winston and Bryan Dearsley
Mar 10, 2020

Jacksonville in Florida — known locally simply as "Jax" — is where South meets North. Southern gentility, neighborliness, and cuisine is still practiced with pride. Yet while this city is so rich in cultural and historical heritage, it's also well-endowed with many modern sights and experiences to enjoy, too. But despite the downtown high-rises and tall office blocks, the local folk still very much 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. Jacksonville also offers surprises galore. For example, few people know that Jacksonville was actually the original 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 indeed 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. To learn more about these and the many other fun places to visit in this dynamic Florida city, be sure to read our list of the top attractions in Jacksonville.

1. Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens | Michel Curi / photo modified

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 & 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 art — some dating back more than 3,000 years — including more recent works from artists such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, and Norman Rockwell, and including the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain.

As for the 2.5-acre gardens, there are actually four different gardens, including an English and Italian garden, each more than 100 years old and stunningly beautiful and serene in its own distinct way. Guided tours of the museum and gardens are available, and a good café is located on-site.

If there's time afterwards in your travel itinerary, consider a visit to the Museum Of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA). Set in the University of North Florida, MOCA features a sizable collection of contemporary artworks from local, national, and international artists.

Address: 829 Riverside Avenue, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.cummermuseum.org

2. The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary

Tigers at The Catty Shack Ranch | Rob Bixby / photo modified

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 mostly been brought here by owners who couldn't care for them properly.

As a result, you and the kids can see some of the world's most exotic cats up close. Residents of the sanctuary include lions, tigers, pumas, 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. Guided tours are available.

Address: 1860 Starratt Road, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.cattyshack.org

3. Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation

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 from the pre-Civil War days, and a lifestyle that, thankfully, 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. Built in the 1790s, Kingsley is the last remaining plantation house in Florida. Guided tours are available, but be sure to check ahead of your visit for availability.

Address: 11676 Palmetto Avenue, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/kp_visiting.htm

4. Florida Theatre

Florida Theatre | Caitlin Regan / photo modified

On April 8, 1927, the Florida Theatre opened. Where 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 happy holiday presentations to children's theater, and pretty much everything in between. And oh, yes, one young performer had his first solo show here: Elvis Presley.

The Ritz Theatre & Museum is another Jacksonville cultural landmark and a wonderful place to visit. Located in the city's LaVilla area, the Ritz focuses on African-American culture and features music and dance performances, along with theatrical productions, films, and educational programs. The attraction's museum area features displays and artifacts relating to the lives of people of African descent in the area.

Address: 128 East Forsyth Street, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.floridatheatre.com

5. Fort George Island Cultural State Park

Fort George Island Cultural State Park | Jon Dawson / photo modified

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 also a place of lush natural beauty, interesting wildlife, and great recreational opportunities — not to mention 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. The island is also the site of the Kingsley Plantation attraction.

Official site: www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/fort-george-island-cultural-state-park

6. Amelia Island

Pier, Amelia Island

While you may not have heard of Amelia Island, about 20 miles north of Jacksonville, rest assured the Spanish, French, English, and Scottish knew of it. At various times, some of them even captured the island, lost it, and then recaptured it again from their enemies.

At one time, in fact, Amelia Island must have been the most desired place in America, because eight different flags have flown over it — more flags than anywhere else in the US. In these early years, the island's cast of characters was known to have 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.

One of the top things to do here is to take a horse-and-buggy ride through town, and afterwards 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. If you're here in May, be sure to visit the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival.

7. St. Johns River Taxi

Water taxi

St. Johns River Taxi 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 passengers and offer spectacular views of the city and skyline. The company also offers special trips and tours 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 need a particular destination in mind. Many people take it simply for the sheer joy of the ride along the river and the panorama of the city spread out before them.

Address: 1015 Museum Cir, Jacksonville, Florida

Official site: www.jaxrivertaxi.com

8. Adventure Landing

Adventure Landing | Leigh Caldwell / photo modified

At Adventure Landing Jacksonville Beach — the first of 10 such theme parks that have sprung up since this one opened in 1995 — the kids will be screaming and splashing all day long, and parents will turn into kids again.

Attractions at this popular theme park 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 spills galore for the whole family.

Address: 1944 Beach Boulevard, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Official site: https://jacksonville-beach.adventurelanding.com

9. Jacksonville Riverwalks

Riverwalk

The St. Johns River is the commercial, transportation, and historic heart of Jacksonville. Now insisting of two sections — the Northbank and Southbank — this fun network of pedestrian walkways extends some 3.5 miles along the river, connecting a number of hotels and attractions.

It's romantic to walk along the river at dusk, when a calm takes over the water just as the city on either side of it is lighting up. During the day, it's fun to stop and listen to the frequent performances by excellent street performers and bands. In addition, there are some good restaurants along the way. It's also a safe place to jog, run, bike, or just walk. And keep a sharp eye out because you may well see dolphins cavorting in the water.

10. Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach

Just a short drive east from the urban buzz of Jacksonville is another world altogether: Atlantic Beach. Here, the only sounds to be heard are the soothing waves lapping against a beautiful beach, and the seabirds swooping above the water. One of the best ways to get to Atlantic Beach is via 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.

Another good place to visit is the Tide Views Preserve. This tranquil spot is popular for its 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 getaway destinations.

11. Museum of Science and History

Museum of Science and History | Michel Curi / photo modified

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 both permanent and traveling exhibits.

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 also 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. Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Elephant at the Jacksonville Zoo

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is more than just a zoo: it's an exciting experience that's fun for the whole family. 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

13. Jacksonville Beach & Beaches Museum

Sunny day at the City of Jacksonville Beach

Located just a few minutes' drive south of Atlantic Beach, the City of Jacksonville Beach is well worth a visit. The highlight, as the name suggests, is the lovely 4.5-mile-long stretch of golden sand that beckons to be enjoyed and explored.

In addition to the superb surfing and swimming conditions here (with lifeguard attendants), if fishing's your thing, you'll want to make your way to the 625-foot-long Jackson Beach Fishing Pier. And if fishing's not your thing, the views over the beach are incredible.

After all that sun and sea, be sure to pay a visit to the Beaches Museum. Not only will you learn more about the history of the beach communities that stretch along the coast from its many permanent exhibits, you can also visit a late 19th-century chapel that has been carefully restored. The museum also hosts regular music events, along with educational talks and seminars.

Address: 381 Beach Boulevard, Jacksonville Beach, Florida

Official site: www.beachesmuseum.org

Where to Stay in Jacksonville for Sightseeing

To ensure you get the very best out of your Jacksonville vacation accommodations, be sure to consider checking out (and into) the following highly recommended options. These top-rated hotels and resorts are all within easy reach of the area's best attractions, beaches, and entertainment options, with many also being adjacent to (and offering views of) the St. Johns River.

  • Luxury Hotels: For those seeking affordable luxury, the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront is a good option and features classy modern suites that come with spacious living areas and kitchenettes, along with amenities including a restaurant and a rooftop pool.

    Also worth considering, the Marriott Jacksonville features chic rooms in a good central location with great facilities including on-site dining and a business center.

    Prefer something on the beach? The elegant One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach looks directly onto the ocean, and offers quality rooms, a great spa, and plenty of sunbathing space around the heated pool.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Our favorite mid-range hotel in Jacksonville is the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Jacksonville Riverfront, popular for its location on the St. Johns River and its balconies overlooking the surrounding scenery.

    At the higher end of the mid-range quality, Aloft Jacksonville Tapestry Park offers bright modern rooms with spacious bathrooms, plus great amenities including a 24-hour fitness center and a saltwater pool.

    The Omni Jacksonville Hotel is another quality mid-priced location to consider, and comes with rooms with views over the river (including some larger suites), room service, and a variety of dining options.

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