What happens when you unearth hidden gems in an underrated city? You’re in for some of the coolest spots in the state!
As Florida’s largest city and the 12th most populated city in the United States, Jacksonville is home to stunning beaches, beautiful architecture, and top-notch restaurants. Most spots on this list are historic, incredibly unique to Jacksonville, and not to be found anywhere else.
1. Treaty Oak
Known as “Jacksonville’s oldest resident,” the Treaty Oak dates back to 1822. It’s believed to be the oldest live oak tree in Jacksonville and is just as old, if not older, than the city itself. A journalist dispersed a fictitious story about a peace treaty signed under its canopy in order to save the tree, and it worked. The tree was protected, and the name stuck!
Treaty Oak has stood for over 250 years in the same spot on the south bank of Jacksonville, growing to a circumference of 25 feet and a height of 70 feet. It’s a surprising sight, especially since the oak tree is located in the one-block-long Jesse Ball DuPont Park, which is surrounded by towering skyscrapers.
The trunk of Treaty Oak is surrounded by a wooden deck that invites visitors to get up close and marvel at the immensity of the tree. The branches are thick and long, reaching all the way to the ground. Certain branches have to be held up by planks to prevent the limbs from buckling under their own weight. When visiting Treaty Oak, you’ll also notice black cables running along the trunk and branches. These were installed to keep the tree safe from lightning during storms.
2. The Volstead
Whether you’re yearning for an escape to a different decade or searching for a strong handcrafted drink, look no further than The Volstead. Named after the Volstead Act that banned the sale of alcohol during the Prohibition era, this cozy bar oozes the elegance of the 1920s.
With dim lights and smooth jazz playing in the background, you’ll be able to enjoy unique takes on classic cocktails. Seasonal ingredients feature prominently on a one-of-a-kind menu that is well worth the drinks’ $12 price tags. If you’re dying to recreate The Volstead’s cocktails, you can even participate in a Masterclass to flex your hidden talent.
On Sundays, The Volstead comes alive with the sound of dancing feet on the hardwood floor. With a free swing class at the beginning of the night (7 p.m.), you’ll be able to dance the night away!
3. Jacksonville Zoo And Gardens
Unless you’re with kids or a lover of animals, a visit to the zoo may not be the first thing that comes to mind as you explore a new city. However, odds are you’ve never been to an animal sanctuary that allows you to interact with your favorite species quite like the Jacksonville Zoo.
A hidden gem, the Jacksonville Zoo is known for its 2,000 animals, 1,000 species of flora, animal encounters, and behind-the-scenes tours. From feeding giraffes to touching stingrays, it’s the ultimate place to get close to the most fascinating animals. If that’s not enough, you can also take a night hike after the zoo has closed or play zoo keeper for a day, learning to care for a wide variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles.
The Jacksonville Zoo is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday you can visit between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Adult admission costs $19.95 and is available for purchase at the park entrance, or you can buy tickets online.
4. Cummer Museum Of Art And Gardens
As one of the largest collections of art in the South, The Cummer Museum of Art displays over 5,000 pieces ranging from 2100 B.C. to the modern age. In addition to a permanent collection, the museum has several changing exhibits on display.
Located in Riverside near the hip neighborhood of Five Points, the Cummer Museum was founded in 1961 to “engage and inspire through the arts, gardens, and education.” You can peruse the museum on your own, with a complimentary pamphlet, or with a group tour (starting at $12). Although the museum is closed on Mondays, it’s open starting at 10 a.m. throughout the rest of the week and adult admission is $10.
Looking for a budget-friendly Jacksonville activity? Admission is free every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and on the first Saturday of the month.
In addition to the art gallery, the museum’s gardens are also not to be missed. Set on two and a half acres, the gardens are filled with sculptures, fountains, and leafy trees. The Cummer Oak, another momentous oak tree that reaches 150 feet into the sky, is also at home in the garden. The garden is open during the same hours as the museum.
5. Balis Park
A triangular public space on one of the San Marco area’s busiest streets, Balis Park can easily get overlooked. This park, a quaint reflection of the unique district it’s situated in, consists of a gazebo, a lion water fountain, and a bronze sculpture.
Modeled and named after St. Mark’s Square in Venice, San Marco is a proudly historic neighborhood situated across the river from downtown Jacksonville. Many of the houses and structures in the area are protected by the San Marco Preservation Society. It’s not uncommon to see plaques designating the structure’s significance while strolling around town.
Balis Park, built in the late 1980s, has become an icon of the small neighborhood. Named after the benefactor’s late husband, Sheffield Balis, the park holds community events like book readings and yoga classes. Every April and November, art vendors from across the country arrive in San Marco for its biannual Art Festival.
6. Cowford Chophouse
Situated in a repurposed 1902 bank, Cowford Chophouse is a stylish, high-end restaurant located in downtown Jacksonville. The renovated building’s warm lighting and high ceilings add to the luxurious ambiance.
Although there are many incredible food options in Jacksonville, Cowford Chophouse is a hidden gem in plain sight. Known for its perfectly seared steaks and fresh seafood, the three-story restaurant and bar is the perfect place to spend an evening. Other remarkable dishes include potatoes au gratin, crab soup, and vanilla creme brulee. An incredible happy hour is hosted Monday to Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., with $5 beer, $7 cocktails, and snacks ranging from $6 to $18.
Don’t forget to head upstairs to the rooftop bar, where you’ll be able to view the downtown skyline. Perfect for sunset, you’ll be able to watch the city lights come to life while you sip a perfectly-crafted Cowford Mule.
7. Big Talbot Island State Park
The most popular, and closest, beaches to Jacksonville are Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach. Want to get off the beaten path? Drive north of Jacksonville to Big Talbot Island State Park. The island is open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day. It’s the perfect place to get out of the city, go bird-watching, practice your photography skills, and kayak along the coast. There are small fees ($2 to $4) for vehicle entry and using the fishing pier, trailhead, and picnic area.
Boneyard Beach is the most unique attraction at Big Talbot Island State Park. Wild and untouched, giant uprooted trees and driftwood that resemble an elephant graveyard sit nestled in the sand. They look like bones, hence the name Boneyard Beach. These massive trees are a sight to be seen in person!
Delay your return to civilization and stay overnight in your RV, cabin, tent, or boat. Although Big Talbot Island State Park does not have a campground, Little Talbot Island (just two miles south) does. Overnight accommodation ranges from $16 to $160 a night.
Craving sand and shore? Check out the best Florida beaches that typically aren’t ridiculously crowded.
8. Florida Theatre
The Florida Theatre is set in the heart of downtown Jacksonville. First opened in 1927, it’s become a beloved, and underrated, Jacksonville icon. The theater is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as of 1982.
Some of the most famous names in the arts have come through the Florida Theatre, including B.B. King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the New York City Opera, and Madeleine Albright. Elvis Presley held one of his first indoor concerts at the Florida Theatre. It’s even said that -- due to Presley’s reputation -- a judge sat through the whole concert monitoring the singer’s dancing to make sure it wasn’t too suggestive for the Floridian audience!
The Florida Theatre is still active today, with shows ranging from ballet to opera to jazz music to comedy shows.