Jacksonville was named the second-best city to live in Florida by Forbes. It’s also one of the best to visit. It offers a fantastic mix of beaches, art, museums, the USS Orleck, an award-winning zoo, and the largest urban park system in the nation, with 80,000 acres of parks, including seven state parks, two national parks, a national preserve, and 400 city parks and gardens.
It’s known as River City. You can take a ride on a river taxi, dine in unique restaurants, and sip a local brew at one of its breweries or distilleries. Let’s explore everything there is to do in Jacksonville, Florida.
I was hosted as part of this trip, but all opinions are my own.
1. Beaches Museum
On your way to the sandy beaches, stop at the Beaches Museum combined with the Visit Jacksonville Welcome Center. Its exhibits show all about Jacksonville’s Beaches. I never knew Jacksonville Beach was once a mining town called Mineral City. Besides the interesting exhibits inside, walk across the street to Pablo Historical Park. You’ll step back in time and visit early 20th-century buildings moved from around the Jacksonville area.
2. Fort Caroline
Fort Caroline is where Florida’s history began. If Pedro Menendez hadn’t defeated Jean Ribault, Jacksonville would be the nation’s oldest city. Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center at Fort Caroline shows the tragic history of Fort Caroline’s French Huguenot settlers and early Timucuan Native American influence.
3. Jacksonville River Taxi
Traffic in Jacksonville isn’t worse than any big city, but there’s a better way to get around along the river area. Take the River Taxi. You can use it to get across from the north to the south side, take waterfront tours of the city, see manatees, or enjoy a sunset cruise. I did a sunset cruise and loved it for the beautiful sunset and gorgeous nighttime views of the well-lit skyscape of River City.
4. Jacksonville Naval Museum
The Jacksonville Naval Museum recently received the USS Orleck and she is now open for tours. I felt like I was walking in history when my guide, John, explained that the Orleck was built in 1945 and was used as floating artillery in the Korean War. It served the same purpose in Vietnam.
5. Cummer Museum Of Art
The Cummer Museum of Art is housed in 20th-century buildings along the St. Johns River. It’s filled with art from Renaissance-Italian to Remington sculptures. Its three gardens — the oldest from 1903 — are filled with features including reflecting pools, fountains, arbors, sculptures, and an ancient oak estimated to be around 200 years old. Designed by landscape architects Ellen Biddle Shipman and the Olmsted Brothers, the gardens are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro Tips: There are many free-admission times (except for ticketed events) on Tuesday from 4–9 p.m., Friday from 4–9 p.m., and the first Saturday of each month from 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission is always free for SNAP EBT and WIC cardholders. Also be sure to visit the Riverside Arts Market on Saturday down the street from the Cummer.
6. Museum Of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is filled with around 1,000 pieces in its permanent collection, making it one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the Southeast. It’s not all for grown-ups either. Visit the fifth floor for some kid-friendly activities.
7. Underground Tunnels
As close to the river and low elevation as Jacksonville is, it’s hard to imagine anything underground except mold and tree roots. However, there was once an entire system of tunnels and remnants of old bank and vault systems used to move money between Jacksonville’s many banks. Some are closed but you can access a section between the BB&T Bank building and the former Atlantic National Bank. Deep inside the tunnel is a bank vault with a Debold safe dating from the 1930s. During the Cold War, the vault was a bomb shelter. AdLib Luxury Tours’ “Top to Bottom Tours” will take you there.
8. Museum Of Science And History
Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (MOSH) on the Southbank is a treasure chest of exhibits from prehistoric times to the newest discoveries in science. MOSH is planning a move to the Northbank with an even bigger, better museum in 2026. Their newest exhibit is Planet Pioneers. It has 17 stations where you build a spaceship and a shuttle to live on Mars. Besides fantastic exhibits inside, there is the Hixon Native Plant Courtyard showcasing northeastern Florida’s native species and the Bryan-Gooding Planetarium that explores night skies. MOSH is going to move to the north side of the river in a new and better facility.
Pro Tip: After exploring the museum, walk around to the back of the grounds to view Friendship Fountain on the Riverwalk. The fountain’s undergoing repairs but is expected to reopen in the summer.
9. Kingsley Plantation
Kingsley Plantation is where you get a look at a different side of the dark history of slavery. I toured this plantation once owned by a freed African princess. Zephaniah Kingsley married Anna, freed her and their children, and left her the plantation when he died. She ran the plantation until the Civil War. You can visit the grounds and see remnants of old tabby cabins, Anna’s kitchen and parlor, and the barn. But the home is only open for tours on weekends.
10. Jacksonville Zoo
The Jacksonville Zoo is one of the top zoos in the country. It is divided into 10 sections. Be sure to visit the Land of the Tiger and the African Forest; both have won top exhibit awards. They’re one of only seven zoos in the country with an animal wellness team, like their Manatee Critical Care Facility.
11. Catty Shack
The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary is a nonprofit that provides a “forever home” for big cats that are homeless due to private zoo closures, confiscation, or abandonment. Adoption coordinator Kurt Lessenthien took me on a tour. There were so many beautiful animals that might have been put down had it not been for this wonderful shelter. Three gorgeous tigers in one area caught my eye. Kurt explained they had come from Wisconsin at just a few weeks old and had not been named. They named them after cheeses: Monterey, Colby, and Brie. There are some coatimundis and foxes that have been named “honorary cats.”
There are several tour choices: daytime tours from 1–3 p.m., night feedings on Friday and Saturday, and enrichment tours on Sundays from 1–3 p.m.
12. Ritz Theater
The Art déco-style Ritz Theater, built in 1929, was the center of the thriving Black LaVilla Community. Today, it’s still an operational live theater with an insightful museum. My favorite exhibit was about James Weldon Johnson who wrote the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
13. Florida Theater
The Florida Theatre opened on April 8, 1927, making it Jacksonville’s oldest theater. The first show was a silent movie, Let It Rain. Today, it shows plays and musical events. Over the years, it has gained a reputation as a paranormal hotbed.
14. Alhambra Theatre And Dining
Alhambra Theatre & Dining is a Jacksonville fixture. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating dinner theaters in the country. In 1967, Ted Johnson opened it. Its present owner, Craig Smith, recently overhauled pretty much everything. It’s showing world-class shows like A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline and Jersey Boys. Tod Booth, the theater’s former owner, still handles production and ensures things run smoothly. There’s the cozy Library Lounge with a roaring fireplace and a fully-stocked bar. Each play gets a different menu based on the theme. Dinners include a soup or salad, an entrée, a glass of champagne, and dessert, all beautifully prepared by executive chef, DeJuan Roy, graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, with over 20 years of culinary experience.
15. Manifest Distilling
If you would like an adult beverage, visit the taproom at Manifest Distilling. This distillery is almost all organic. It began as the brainchild of David Cohen, a graduate of brew school the Siebel Institute. Corey Gros, bar manager, took me for a tour and introduced me to the distillery cat, Ginnie.
I love that the still and other machines are named for Gilligan’s Island characters; of course, the still is Gilligan. They are rightly proud of their rye whiskey. They also produce vodka and gin and are soon going to release their first batch of bourbon. Another recent product is their canned cocktails.
The Cocktail Room is a comfortable spot to enjoy mixed drinks and the Distiller’s Tour is a great way to learn about craft distilling. If you have a group of 10 or more, you can take a private guided tastings tour.
16. Don Juan’s
Don Juan’s Restaurant is a family-owned restaurant in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville. There are complimentary chips and fresh salsa with your meal. My choice is the shredded chicken quesadilla, and for dessert, the chocolate lava cake.
17. Sweet Pete’s
Sweet Pete’s, the largest candy store in the Southeast, housed in the 1903 Seminole Club across from James Weldon Johnson Park, lets you watch candy being made. Sweet Pete’s hosts candy-making classes and has an on-site restaurant, Fizzies and Fare.
Pro Tips: More To See In Jacksonville
Jacksonville has so many things to visit, I can’t include them all. There’s Intuition Ale Works, Jacksonville Arboretum, Mayport Lighthouse, Walter Jones Historical Park and Museum, lots of parks, and more. Locals call it “Jax,” and the Jaguars rule, so avoid TIAA Banks Field area on game days unless you are going to a game. There are usually shuttles running then.