At the north end of the Jacksonville Beaches, Atlantic Beach is a shorefront community, bordering Jax but about 25 minutes from downtown.
This part of the coastline was first developed at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of the railroad.
Atlantic Beach quickly became an elevated tourism hotspot, with an enormous luxury resort that burned in 1919.
These days it’s a place for blissful days at the beach. There’s a string of access points along the shore, while nature takes over at Hanna Park to the north.
I’m a big fan of the city’s tight-knit sense of community. This comes to the fore at the weekly farmers’ market in Jack Russell Park, and the Atlantic Beach Arts Market, with its bustling educational programs.
1. Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park
In Mayport on Atlantic Beach’s northern line there’s 1.5 miles of spellbinding shoreline to visit. On the shore is a perfect undeveloped beach, with nothing more than walkovers on the dunes and the endless ocean.
Inland Hanna Park comprises a rare expanse of mature coastal hammock. This is seldom found on Florida’s busy Atlantic shoreline.
For me, the highlight is the beach, but the park has many feathers in its cap. For instance, you’ve got 20+ miles of hiking and biking trails, a freshwater lake, 300 campsites, kayak rentals, and a splash for little ones.
Beyond all that, the park is a prime surfing spot, as I’ll explain a little later in this article.
2. Beaches Town Center
Where Atlantic Boulevard arrives at the ocean there’s a lively shopping and dining district, overlapping with Neptune Beach.
Beaches Town Center is my kind of place, with walkable palm-lined streets, a wealth of boutiques, a yoga studio, fitness center, a watersports outfitter, and two oceanfront hotels.
Most of all, it’s the place to come for food in Atlantic Beach. You could dine here for a week and still miss out.
Naturally, local seafood is a big part of the dining scene, but there’s also Filipino cuisine, steaks, subs, breakfast food, pan-Asian street food, BBQ, and a roster of fast food chains.
3. Atlantic Beach Access
On the shore of Atlantic beach there’s two whole miles of white sandy beaches. These can be reached at 14 public access points.
So if you’re looking for another place to unwind by the ocean, away from Hanna Park, you’ve got plenty of choices.
At my count, at least half of these access points have amenities like showers and parking spaces. If you want restaurants and shops close by, then Ahern Street is a good pick.
Further north, 10th street is a bit quieter, and has a number of parking spots next to the dune walkover. This place is also significant as the site of tycoon Henry Flagler’s immense Continental Hotel (1901-1919).
4. Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
Cross the St. Johns River and you’ll enter a National Preserve with nearly 50,000 acres of marshes, dunes, and hardwood forests.
This massive landscape is named after the Native American Timucua people, who inhabited the area for countless generations up to the Early Modern Age.
In addition to pristine natural areas, the preserve includes a number of historic sites. Two important ones are the Kingsley Plantation (c. 1797) and the 16th-century Fort Caroline, both of which offer a unique look into the past.
The preserve’s staff offer a variety of historical and natural tours, programs, and activities. Furthermore, there are even volunteer opportunities for those who’d like to help with the park’s upkeep.
5. Dutton Island Preserve
The largest of Atlantic Beach’s public parks is a preserve on the salt marsh ecosystem along the Intracoastal Waterway.
On higher ground you can hike more than three miles of trails, through live oak hammocks and pine flatwoods. Travel to the north of the preserve and you’ll arrive at a fishing pier and observation deck, with exceptional views of the marshlands.
On the south side you can launch a kayak or canoe, and follow a two-mile trail through the salt marsh. Dogs are welcome on a leash, while there are picnic areas among the pines and oaks.
6. Atlantic Beach Arts Market
Established in a charming clapboard building in 2018, the Atlantic Beach Arts Market is a few things in one.
Over 5,000 square feet, this is a creative space for almost 100 local artists and vendors. You can come to shop for a wide assortment of lovingly made items.
I wanted to take the whole store home with me. Still, a few standouts were the handblown glass, quirky pottery, oceanscape paintings, and ceramic garden decorations.
This is also a learning space, with a hopping schedule of workshops and classes, whether you want to perfect your painting skills or make your own coffee cup.
7. Tide Views Preserve
On eight acres, this preserve is another spot where you can get down to the Intracoastal Waterway.
There’s around 2,500 feet of trail and elevated boardwalk at Tide Views Preserve. This is furnished with informative signs about wetland wildlife, and offers a wonderful vantage point by the water.
On a brief walk, I saw herons, ospreys, ibises, a snowy egret, snakes, and a lot of crabs. At the far west end is a covered observation platform with a front-row view of the sunset in the evening.
8. Jack Russell Park
Atlantic Beach’s main public park for recreation lies on the west side of the City Hall. Jack Russell Park has facilities for baseball, basketball, tennis, and soccer.
To my mind, the prettiest part is the stand of tall pines on the north side. This contains the park’s main playground, as well as a cluster of picnic shelters.
To the south is the Oceanside Rotary Skateboard Park, open to skateboards and inline skates, with a number of structures including a half-bowl with a 12-foot vert. On Sundays the Jack Russell hosts Atlantic Beach’s farmers’ market, which I’ll come to below.
9. Atlantic Beach Farmers’ Market
Every Sunday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm there’s a farmers’ market under the trees at Jack Russell Park.
This was launched in the early 2020s, and attracts up to 1,000 shoppers every week. At the core of the market is seasonal fresh produce from the local farms.
When I was here I saw spices, non-GMO chicken, eggs, grass-fed beef, plants, local seafood, and a wide range of handmade crafts. These included candles, leather bags, jewelry, and a variety of soaps and lotions.
Like all the best markets, there’s always a choice of prepared food here, from wood-fired pizzas to acai bowls.
10. St. Johns River Ferry
After 300+ miles, Florida’s longest and most famous river finally meets the ocean just north of Atlantic Beach.
Traveling along the shore here, the simplest way to cross the broad lower reaches of the St. Johns River is by ferry.
Between the historic village of Mayport and Fort George Island, the ferry has been a crucial piece of infrastructure since 1874.
It’s an affordable crossing ($7 a car when I traveled), but also wonderfully scenic. On this five-minute voyage you can look across rivermouth, and maybe even see the resident dolphin pod.
Ferries depart every half-hour, Monday to Friday during daylight hours, with an extended schedule Friday-Sunday.
11. The Mayport Poles
I’ve saved room to talk about the best surf spot in the Jacksonville area. Found at the north end of Hanna Park, the Poles is an exposed beach/pier break, with fairly consistent surf all year round.
Things are perfect here when the wind blows from the west and meets an east swell. This probably happens most frequently around July, but can be expected in any season.
Another well-known surf spot in the area is by Jacksonville Beach Pier, a few miles down the coast.
12. Seafood Kitchen
A local staple for more than three decades, the Seafood Kitchen on Atlantic Blvd had just been renovated when I was in town.
What you get here are bumper portions of locally caught seafood. I was amazed to discover that a lot of the menu items had even been caught by the restaurant’s own fishing team.
If you’re visiting The Beaches for some fishing, you can also bring your own catch to this spot to have it prepared for you, in a variety of styles.
A few menu picks are the stuffed flounder, blackened grouper, blackened triggerfish tacos, and, of course, the Mayport shrimp. The latter are fresh all year, but are at their biggest around November and December.
13. Howell Park
On the banks of a creek, you can access this linear park across the road from Jack Russell Park. What got me about Howell Park was the feeling of remoteness, even though the park opens out by the city hall.
You’ll make your way into a swampy subtropical oasis, with bald cypresses, live oaks, and saw palmettos.
There’s profuse wildlife almost everywhere you look, with turtles crowding the ponds, and magnificent birds such as wood storks. You’ll find picnic tables in the grassy areas, as well as little signs identifying the ponds’ wildlife.
14. Pho Viet
With a small but noticeable community, the Jacksonville area is an underrated place to go for authentic Vietnamese food.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that pho is the best intro to this cuisine. For newcomers it’s a hot noodle soup that usually includes bean sprouts, strips of beef, lime juice, and chili peppers.
Though the soup is the restaurant’s claim to fame, Pho Viet also offers hearty subs (banh mi), and a wide choice of rice vermicelli, fried rice, and stir fries. They’re known for their ample portion sizes and reasonable prices.
15. Adventure Landing
Featuring a huge water park, mini-golf, laser tag, and a lazy river that’s perfect for tubing, Adventure Landing is one of those Jacksonville attractions that can really draw a crowd, especially during the often unbearably hot summer months.
The Shipwreck Island Play Village is the park’s centerpiece, and is generally where kids and their watchers spend most of their time, but when short attention spans win out, there are batting cages, go-cart tracks, and tons of arcade games too.
There are several food and drink concessions on-site, and they even offer adults-only events when the park is closed to little ones.