There’s lots to do in Jacksonville, but if you’re seeking fewer crowds and less traffic, there are smaller towns less than two hours away worth a visit.
1. Lake City
For outdoor fun, travel about an hour west to Lake City. O’Leno State Park pays homage to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with preserved buildings, museums, and stature. Their Nature Center highlights local wildlife. The Santa Fe River flows through it for kayaking or canoeing. There are two campgrounds, Dogwood and Magnolia. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a popular tubing spot. Festivals include the Wuffstock Festival, an admission-free day of doggie fun every November.
Lake City’s main street, Marion Avenue, has no big-name department stores. You’ll park free next to places like Nearly New Consignment, Blue Goose Art Studio, and similar boutique stores. Halpatter Brewing Company’s restaurant and beer garden is kid- and dog-friendly. Marion Street Bistro is a good downtown choice.
The Blanche Hotel, built in 1902, was just renovated. Downstairs has boutique shops like Prohibition, a bar with a 1920s vibe, and the Daily Cup of Jo to get you started.
2. St. Augustine
There’s plenty to see traveling south from Jacksonville. St. Augustine has new attractions plus the old favorites. Step through the City Gates. Castillo de San Marcos stands guard over the Ancient City. You’ll find The Fountain of Youth, Oldest House, Old Jail, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. The Lightner Museum showcases fantastic treasures. Stroll St. George Street to The Colonial Quarter or St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine. St. Augustine Lighthouse has a ghost tour. Fort Mose and the ACCORD Museum tell African American history.
For outdoor fun, hit the beaches. Go kayaking on Salt Run or camping in Anastasia or Faver Dykes State Park. St. Augustine Eco Tours Boating Expeditions offers choices. See wildlife at St. Augustine Alligator Farm or swim with dolphins at Marineland.
New attractions include the Pirate and Treasure Museum, the Medieval Torture Museum, the Classic Car Museum, and the St. Augustine Distillery. After touring the distillery, you can dine in the Ice Plant Restaurant.
Saint Francis Inn and Casa Monica are two historical lodging choices.
Pro Tip: Parking is expensive. Choose the Red or Green Hop-on Hop-off Trolleys.
3. Green Cove Springs
Drive 15 minutes south on Highway 17 for the charm of small-town Old Florida in Green Cove Springs.
Green Cove Springs Spring Park and City Pier represent the heart of town that, in the late 1900s, was once a busy tourist location. Visitors came to soak in the warm water spring that still supplies the community pool. Events include Food Truck Friday and Third Saturday Market in the park.
Camp Chowenwaw County Park on Black Creek, once a private Girl Scout camp, offers camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and more. The Railroad Museum and neighboring haunted Old Jail are fun and informative. Clay County Fair in April brings big-name entertainment to the area.
For dining, Ronnie’s, across from Spring Park, boasts the world’s best wings.
River Park Inn offers modern comfort and beautiful antiques catty-corner from Spring Park.
DeLand is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. Swim in its cool springs or watch manatees play. Blue Spring State Park’s best time for manatee watching is mid-November until mid-March. It offers camping and cabins. The best deal is the two-hour boat tour. Hontoon Island State Park, only reachable by boat, has tent camping or primitive cabins. You can rent a kayak, canoe, or bicycle to explore the island and look for alligators, bears, and other wildlife. DeLeon Springs State Park rents kayaks and canoes and has an eco/history boat tour. Try its Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant. The tables are equipped with griddles where you cook your own pancakes. The servers bring your choices of batter and toppings. Lyonia Environmental Center offers interpretive exhibits and wildlife.
Editor’s Note: Love manatees? Consider our Essential Tips For Swimming With Crystal River Manatees and 6 Florida Places To See Manatees In The Wild.
Wings of the West, a collection of six wings painted by Erica Group, starts near West Volusia Visitor’s Center in Artisans Alley. Downtown, browse antique shops and unique boutique stores. Athens Theater commands your attention.
DeLand Airport is one of the world’s skydiving hotspots. The Wings of the West Skydive DeLand Wings are bi-plane wings that give a nod to the area’s flight history.
Urban Brick is a locally owned Italian restaurant. Bake Chop is a good lunch choice. For upscale dining, try The Table or Santorini Greek Restaurant.
The DeLand Hotel, a restored Roaring ’20s Era boutique hotel just a few blocks from downtown, has a restaurant with outdoor seating and a bar.
5. Fernandina Beach
Go north for 15 minutes to Fernandina Beach. For history and ghosts, visit Ft. Clinch. Amelia Island Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Florida. There’s a 50-block historic district where the Palace Saloon, the state’s oldest continuously operating bar, is located. Amelia River Cruises takes you to see sea wildlife and the wild horses of Cumberland Island National Seashore. Marlin and Barrel Distillery offers tours and handcrafted rum and vodka. The American Beach Museum tells the story of “The Negro Ocean Playground,” a Black beach, during segregation.
6. Georgia’s Golden Isles
Go East into Georgia’s Golden Isles in less than an hour and 15 minutes. They’re like three sisters with a lot of the same basic attractions but different personalities.
Cumberland Island, accessible only by National Park Ferry or private boats, is the wild child of the sisters. The oldest standing building on the island, Tabby House, was built around 1790 by General Nathaniel Greene as a temporary dwelling. The most striking structure is Dungeness Castle ruins. Built by Thomas Carnegie on the site of the original Dungeness ruins, fire ravaged it in 1959, leaving only a skeleton. Ice House Museum, originally the Carnegies’ icehouse, covers the island history.
Feral horses, descendants of horses abandoned from early settlers to dray horses abandoned during the Civil War, are one species of animal life that you’ll see.
Greyfield, the site of JFK. Jr.’s wedding reception, is the only lodging on the island.
Footsteps Tour walks you through the Dungeness Historic District, while the Land and Legacies Tour travels to the north end of the island where participants view Plum Orchard, Stafford Cemetery, and the African American Settlement. Learn more about the Cumberland Island tours here.
There are five primitive campgrounds on the island.
Pro Tips: To get around the island, you can hike or bring a bike or rent one at the concession stand. Bring food and drinks with you and haul out trash. This is the only destination I recommend that might be strenuous if you or someone you’re traveling with is challenged by walking a lot or being outdoors for several hours. There are no restaurants or motorized transportation, and all the facilities on the island are primitive.
St. Simons Island
St. Simons Island is the stately sister. Fort Frederica, the largest, most-costly British fort in North America, is where its modern history began in 1736. Parts of the fort, the barracks, and some foundations remain.
Hamilton Plantation and Slave Cabins offers a glimpse into what life was like for enslaved people on St. Simons. Two cabins remain. They’re just a few blocks down Arthur J. Moore Drive from Gascoigne Bluff Park.
If you are seeing faces peering at you from the gnarled oaks, you haven’t lost it. You’re seeing the Tree Spirits of St. Simons!
One name you’ll hear on Saint Simons Island is Eugenia Price, the novelist who moved here and wrote about the real-life settlers. Christ Church, built in 1884 to replace the church destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War, has a cemetery with stones dating to the 1700s. It contains the remains of many of Eugenia Price’s characters and the author herself.
St. Simons Lighthouse holds many ghost stories. It’s one of the oldest working lighthouses in the nation. Neptune Park sits between the pier and the lighthouse. The park’s iconic sculpture of a mother whale and her baby reminds visitors of the Right Whales that visit this coast. If you’re lucky, you may spot one of the few remaining whales that use this area as their calving ground from December to March.
The World War II Home Front Museum, the island’s newest museum, is the only museum telling the story of German ships that prowled our Atlantic shoreline.
One great way to see the island is on the Lighthouse Trolley Tour, while the Dolphin Boat Tour is a wonderful way to see the watery side of St. Simons and some dolphins. Both are offered by Lighthouse Trolleys Land & Sea Tours.
The best lodging is King and Prince Resort, dating to pre-WWII. They have an award-winning restaurant, ECHO. There are many great restaurants here: Georgia Sea Grill, Gnat’s Landing, Southern Soul BBQ, and, for something different, Golden Isles Olive Oil.
Jekyll Island is the sister that married money. Today, as a state park, many of the millionaires’ “cottages” are open to tour including homes owned by Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, Goodyear, Macy, Crane, J.P. Morgan, and more. There’re several tours that take you to see the mansions and other parts of the island. Relive the golden age at Jekyll Island Club Resort, where you’ll be pampered in Victorian elegance. If you want to keep playing the millionaire, dine in the Grand Dining Room. Golfers have a choice of four club courses.
Visit Mosaic Jekyll Island Museum for island history. Moving back to the 21st century, see the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
Jekyll Island Campground, on the north end of the island, has everything from primitive to full hookup. The campers’ store has bike rentals so you can use the 20 miles of paved bike trails.
This gives you a week’s worth of day trips, but you will definitely want to spend more time in some of these small-town charmers. Each is unique and equally fun to visit.