Overview

Set on the banks of the scenic St. Johns River and flanked by the Atlantic Ocean, Jacksonville, Florida, is a major port and metropolitan area. A major East Coast center of U.S. Navy operations, with two naval installations for air and sea power, Jacksonville also boasts a booming downtown ripe with nightlife, activities, art and music, and an increasing number of fine shopping outlets, world-class restaurants and museums. Jacksonville visitors also can enjoy watching the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars or real jaguars at the Jacksonville Zoo.

The "First Coast," as the Jacksonville area is affectionately known, is also a water-lover's destination, with white-sand beaches plus exceptional fishing and surfing. Add to that mix a number of great golf courses, and Jacksonville is one of the premier outdoor destinations of the southeastern U.S.

True, by midsummer Jacksonville's weather is downright hot and humid, but cross-breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and the river help keep temperatures almost bearable, and the mild climate during the other three seasons more than makes up for a few scorching months. Fall, winter and spring are all ideal times to visit Jacksonville.

Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.

Geography

In terms of land area, Jacksonville is the largest city in the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., with 874 sq mi/2,264 sq km. The "River City" lines both banks of the St. John's River, Florida's longest river. The topography varies from wetland marshes beside the Intracoastal Waterway to dry sand dunes along the oceanfront to heavily forested and undeveloped areas.

The Northside boasts the airport, the zoo and the Jaxport cruise terminal. The Southside is full of great shopping, nightlife and clusters of eateries. The beaches sport excellent golf, the Mayport Naval Station, and their own personality when it comes to shopping, nightlife and restaurants. Downtown is similar to those in many other fairly metropolitan U.S. cities—with a spectacular river view, that is. It's lined with one-way streets, metered parking, and quaint cafes and galleries. The Westside, typically more rural, is home to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Interstate 95 runs north and south through the city. Running east to west is I-10, and I-75 is about an hour's drive west of the city. Butler Boulevard is the area expressway, which runs from the beach to the Southside, with many exits in between.

History

In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers discovered Florida and claimed it for Spain. The first permanent settlement in the Jacksonville area was founded in 1791 and named Cow Ford for the narrow spot in the St. John's River where cattle crossing was possible. In 1822, the city was renamed Jacksonville for Gen. Andrew Jackson, who had been the first military governor of Florida Territory and was later the seventh U.S. president.

On a May morning in 1901, a hot ember from a shanty landed on the moss roof of a fiber factory downtown. The resulting fire burned 1,700 buildings, destroyed the business district by lunchtime, and left 10,000 residents homeless. When Jacksonville was later rebuilt, the "Prairie" style of architecture was used widely and can still be seen today. The architect responsible for many of the designs, Henry J. Kluthe, was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the 1920s, Jacksonville emerged as a winter resort for wealthy citizens. Three of the new neighborhoods developed at that time (Avondale, Riverside and Springfield) are key historic districts in the city. Dozens of luxury hotels and boardinghouses, many now restored, cropped up both in Jacksonville and in neighboring St. Augustine.

The 1940s brought the U.S. Navy to town with three separate facilities, two of which are still in operation: Naval Air Station Jacksonville, on the city's Westside, and Naval Station Mayport, at the mouth of the St. John's River. Mayport is home to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, as well as dozens of other naval ships.

Sightseeing

Besides heading to the beach for surfing or swimming, you can explore downtown Jacksonville. A number of area museums—such as the Cummer Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Science and History—offer a variety of art and cultural exhibits.

Stop by the Budweiser Brewery on the Northside and sample a free glass of beer or spend a day at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens to view the jaguar exhibit, Range of the Jaguar, or its Plains of East Africa.

Nightlife

Nightlife in Jacksonville rocks. After all, the groups Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special and Limp Bizkit have all called Jax their home. But don't worry: There's jazz and piano-bar action, too.

Most places from the downtown entertainment district to the beach are casual and attract a jeans crowd. Several bars are clustered in these areas and are only steps from each other. You'll find lots of locals wherever you go. Closing time is 2 am, and though cabs can be hard to snag, most bars will call one for you.

Dining

Jacksonville has quickly become a fine-dining metropolis, and fresh local seafood is a fast-growing focus. There are plenty of restaurants for every budget and palate. The beaches, Southside and downtown provide a variety of fine eateries, many with boat access.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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