Gary Sass is an interesting guy. When you meet up with the spry local historian with Adlib Tours for your Jacksonville walking tour, you’ll instantly recognize him in the Andrew Jackson costume. (The city’s namesake may not be good enough for the $20 bill any more, but he’s still plenty beloved around this town.)
Sass will happily point out images of our seventh president around town, show you underground passageways and reveal little-known facts about JAX (Pop quiz: Can you guess what the largest city is, by size, in the United States?).
Throughout the tour — and, really, after just two or three days in town — you’ll learn quite a bit about Jacksonville. You’ll find out that the city is active, discerning and has a really big appetite.
With the Atlantic Ocean and St. John’s River as photogenic backdrops, hotels don’t have to exert themselves much to garner a reaction. One of the city’s most imposing presences, the recently renovated Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront sits on the edge of the water, right next to beloved Jacksonville Landing.
With 900-plus rooms and a handful of dining options, the hotel is an ideal answer for vacationers looking to be near EverBank Field — the venue hosts the TaxSlayer Bowl that pits Georgia Tech against Kentucky on December 31 — or conventioneers insistent on being in downtown.
When the occasion calls for a bit more pomp, make the easy drive over to One Ocean Resort & Spa, a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star escape gently kissing the water. A bit of an outlier for the area, One Ocean’s elegant lobby and upscale eatery, Azurea, almost feel like they should be in Naples or Palm Beach. But here they are, in all their coastal-chic glory, just 30 minutes from downtown Jacksonville.
If you can peel yourself away from your tranquil room of tans and soft blues, make a stop by the sleek lobby bar or pop into the Four-Star spa for a winter-approved Berries & Bubbly mani-pedi.
And once you’ve exhausted all of the interior delights, head outside and find a reclining chair near the water. If you feel like hopping in, don’t hesitate to do so. The highs in December and January are still comfortably in the mid-60s.
While it seems like the same places around the Southeast get pegged “hot foodie cities” every year, Jacksonville’s dining scene is an unheralded one that deserves more ink.
This city has something for all taste buds and budgets. If your cares lie more with the food than upscale décor, you’ll find scrumptious Belgian waffles (Metro Diner), remarkable chicken sandwiches (Maple Street Biscuit Company) and brilliant Baja bites (TacoLu) all around town.
You won’t need a tour guide to tell you that Sweet Pete’s is an edible version of Toys “R” Us. Across three floors of fun, the colorful candy emporium makes it nearly impossible to adhere to any kind of diet. Try Peeps in a host of colors, grab holiday hard candy and build your own gift box of goodies. There’s even a class for lollipop making that we’re almost certain we graduated from with honors.
The playland shows its mature side down at the first-floor Candy Apple Café. Though the name suggests a menu filled with saccharine-sprinkled goods, the kitchen focuses on a full culinary experience — arugula salads and turkey Reubens at lunch, and buttermilk fried chicken and short rib meatloaf for dinner.
But even with the more adult feel, sweet bacon appetizers and a roster of craft candy cocktails (Bourbon S’mores is as divine as it sounds) can still be ordered, too.
The latter is a fine address for good conversation and great meals. It radiates with a cosmopolitan air. The hint of royal blue emanating in the space comes from the 100-piece glass bulb installation hanging in the lobby. The menu shines with a smattering of globally inspired dishes done with a local flair, like miso-marinated salmon and Malaysian-spiced pork tenderloin.
Unity Plaza isn’t the only place cooking up change in the city, though. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, which sits in the St. Johns Town Center area, is another eatery proudly showing a side of the city few outside the 904 area code know about.
Here, the married team of Sarah Marie Johnston and James Beard Award-nominated chef Tom Gray has a sleek, two-level space that sparkles with retro chairs, spruce-and-metal-topped tables and a roster from the kitchen filled with thoughtfully sourced seafood, proteins and poultry.
If you stop by for Christmas brunch (December 18) or any other time, complete your meal with a signature Moxie cocktail like the refreshing Springboard (Absolut Elyx, Lillet Rose, strawberry shrub, lemon and grapefruit).
Jacksonville Landing is one of the city’s more adored attractions. And that’s for good reason.
The venue plays host to all kinds of events through the year. During the winter holidays, you’ll find festive happenings like the Holiday on the River Concert and Dance Series (through December 22) and the beloved Light Boat Parade (December 30) on the calendar.
When the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators come to town for their annual October showdown, the Landing turns into the ultimate tailgate party. And if you can elbow your way through the crowd on the Fourth of July, you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.
Even when you aren’t celebrating a special occasion, JAX has a great time outside. Jacksonville Surf and Paddle takes you out before sunrise to a quiet stretch of sand (not too far from One Ocean Resort, in fact) for a morning yoga session you’ll never forget. And if you happen to be more concerned with waves than warrior poses, the company provides surf lessons, paddleboard classes and even leads eco tours along Jacksonville Beach.
Kayak Amelia also does its part to ensure you appreciate Mother Nature. Roughly a 30-minute drive from the city is the starting point for the company’s marsh tour in the heart of a magical outdoor playground. After you get in a kayak, the guide leads you through canals, points out osprey and tells you where to spot the occasional manatee.
Though no one can guarantee you’ll see one of those elusive creatures during your three-hour tour, we promise that your arms will burn from the rowing. But you can’t really blame Kayak Amelia for wanting to stretch the ride out.
Jacksonville and its surrounding areas are largely a mystery to outsiders; like Sass, the area chefs and everyone else, locals simply relish the opportunity to show off as much of their great city as possible.