East of Jacksonville, this city is in a long row of coastal communities, collectively known as The Beaches.
By a strange quirk of local administration, residents of Jacksonville Beach are still able to vote in Jacksonville’s mayoral elections.
Anyway, Jax Beach was hooked up to the railroad in the 1880s and quickly developed as a resort. For decades the city was known for its bustling boardwalk, lined with eateries and carnival rides.
Things are a bit more low-key these days, but that’s a good thing in my book, and the beach is still at the heart of the city’s allure. There are more than 20 miles of flawless sandy shore. In places the beach is littered with whole seashells and sharks’ teeth.
Surfers are drawn to the large breaks, especially around Jax Beach’s iconic pier. The Intracoastal Waterway forms a natural boundary on the city’s west side, and is ideal for birdwatching and kayaking trips.
1. Jacksonville Beach
The Jacksonville metropolitan area has more than 20 miles of Atlantic beaches, much of which can be found within Jackson Beach’s boundaries.
What you get are spotless white sands, rolling waves, shorebirds, ample space, and sunrises that will put you in a good mood for the rest of the day. May through October is also sea turtle nesting season on this stretch of coast.
Now, the shore next to Jacksonville Beach’s downtown is officially known as Jacksonville Beach, which is a little confusing.
This is the southernmost of four local public beaches, among them Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Mayport Beach.
My favorite local access point is the gorgeous Oceanfront Park. On two acres you’ll find sheltered picnic areas, showers, a playground, and a pair of dune walkovers leading to the shore.
2. Jacksonville Beach Pier
For me, Jacksonville Beach wouldn’t be the same without its pier, one of the most iconic landmarks in the city.
At just over a quarter of a mile long, it’s a wonderful place to take a walk. You can look out over the ocean and back to the city itself to admire the ocean and the skyline.
The pier is the perfect place for sunrise or sunset as it gleams beautifully in the low sun. If you’re into fishing, you’ll have to add a couple of dollars to the price of a day pass.
Still reasonable, a fishing pass was just $5 for non-residents when I paid a visit.
The Beaches should be your first port of call if you’re heading to Florida for some surfing.
Unlike a lot of other places along the Atlantic shore, Jacksonville Beach and its neighbors get consistent swells all year. Still, winter is the main season for surfing, and cold days are the best, when cold fronts can produce overhead waves.
For me, the most obvious place to begin is Jacksonville Beach Pier. You’ll find surfers here all year, catching the waves that break either side of the pier.
If you don’t mind traveling, check out Huguenot Beach, on the other side of the St. Johns River. The advantage of this beach is that you can drive on it, and use a vehicle as your own surf hut.
4. Beaches Museum and History Park
For the inside story on the history of Jacksonville’s beach communities, you can drop by this museum along Beach Blvd downtown.
The main museum building is a thrilling trip back in time. You’ll learn about pioneer settlers, Gilded Age tourism, and the old boardwalk.
You’ll see local artifacts and slices of important history up close, showing how Jacksonville Beach evolved over time. In that vein, the temporary exhibit when I was here was ‘Wish You Were Here: Tourism at the World’s Finest Beach.’
One of the images that caught my eye was the cars lined up on the shore, in the days before 1979 when beach driving was banned here.
Outside is a campus of relocated historical buildings. There are regular docent-led tours of these structures, which include a post office, a railway depot, a steam locomotive, and a traditional Cracker-style cabin.
Those buildings sit among delightful gardens, planted with vegetables, roses, herbs, perennials and bromeliads.
5. Jax Beach Golf Club
Easily one of the best municipal courses in the state, Jax Beach Golf Club goes back more than half a century. This track was designed by architect Harrison Minchew, and is equally playable and full of surprises.
A big round of improvements had been made in the years before I played here. The last four holes were reconfigured, and the fairways and greens were replanted.
Now there’s 419 Bermuda grass, and Platinum Paspalum throughout, and a few of the peskier water hazards have been drained.
The only drawback from what I can tell is that the course is so popular it can be hard to get a tee time.
6. Adventure Landing
Among the top things for families to do in Jacksonville Beach, Adventure Island is many attractions in one. Taking center stage is Shipwreck Island Waterpark, which is a good alternative to the beach.
In store here is the Little St. Johns River, and Typhoon Lagoon, a half million-gallon wave pool. You’ve also got four high-speed water slides, and a whole play complex for little splashers.
On the drier side of things, there’s miniature golf, an arcade, laser tag, go-karts, and batting cages, to name a few.
Something that caught me by surprise was Gator Alley, where you can purchase a food pole to feed live alligators in a large enclosure.
7. Cradle Creek Preserve
At this 40-acre preserve you can explore the estuarine habitat along the Intracoastal Waterway.
Encompassing the little tributaries that feed the waterway, Cradle Creek Preserve is a tract of undisturbed land between subdivisions.
There are boardwalks following the watercourses, with excellent views over the preserve from viewing platforms. Among the habitats here are upland forest, bottomland swamp, and saltwater marsh.
Kayaking is a wonderful way to get a bit closer to nature at the preserve. You can enter from the water via Cradle Creek, which marks the southern boundary of this property. Biting yellow flies are common here, so I would pack bug spray before you come.
8. South Beach and Sunshine Playground
The standout public park in Jax Beach for me is this space in the south of the city. Children, parents and caregivers will be amazed by the Sunshine Playground.
Like a Medieval castle among the pines, this fenced amenity was updated in the early 2020s. Within, there’s a slew of little attractions, including a net climber, a slide from a replica water tower, swings, ADA ramps and panels, monkey bars, an inclusive merry-go-round and a lot more.
The next door is a fun-packed seasonal splash pad, while there’s an amazing skate park close by for bigger kids.
Among the many other amenities at South Beach Park are a basketball court, multipurpose field, picnic shelter, fitness trail and sand volleyball courts.
9. Beaches Green Market
Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, there’s a small but steady farmers’ market under the pines in Penman Park.
Beaches Green Market is important for being a producers only market, helping to boost to farmers’ in NE Florida, where agriculture is in decline.
The market has persisted through local political strife and hurricanes, and remains a lovable community event. As well as a range of vendors, there are cooking demonstrations, and kids’ activities via the Sprouts program.
One of my weekly faves is the Botanical Beverage Bar for craft kombucha, while there’s always a big contingent of craft vendors, for organic soaps, jewelry or knitwear.
10. Jax Beach Festivals
In the first few months of the year, the shorefront in downtown Jax Beach is the setting for a series of major outdoor festivals. These take place at the SeaWalk Pavilion, an impressive amphitheater with a large plaza in front.
On the calendar are the Seawalk Music Festival in February, the Springing The Blues Festival in April, and Beachella in June These events go back years, and Springing The Blues has been a local tradition for more than three decades.
In truth, there’s a good chance the SeaWalk Pavilion will be hopping whenever you come. There might be food trucks, seasonal concerts or outdoor movie shows going on, so I’d keep an eye on the schedule.
11. Castaway Island Preserve
A nice partner for the Cradle Creek Preserve, this patch of salt marsh is on the opposite, western shore of the Intracoastal Waterway.
From my experience, Castaway Island Preserve is a great place for kids to discover the area’s nature. There’s a mile-long interactive trail for little ones, marked with animal prints and featuring education boards.
Boardwalks are the only way to get through this watery environment. There are two long stretches at the preserve, both leading to overlooks where you can survey the salt marsh and Intracoastal Waterway beyond.
Try rising early and getting here when the preserve opens so you can catch the sunrise.
12. Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
This vast property is located up the coast, across the St. Johns River from Jacksonville Beach. A great place to spend the day, the preserve covers almost 50,000 acres of wilderness and historic sights.
Here you can explore some of Florida’s last unspoiled coastal wetlands. As well as huge swaths of salt marshes, there are stunning hardwood hammocks, and miles of dunes.
Since water and wetland make up so much of the preserve’s area, I’d recommend launching a kayak or canoe. One of the park’s partner’s is Kayak Amelia, offering kayak and SUP rentals for self-guided tours.
For hikes, start with the Theodore Roosevelt Area, 600 acres mostly composed of hardwood forest, with shell middens left behind hundreds of years ago by the Timucua Native Americans.
The preserve is sprinkled with interesting attractions documenting the land’s human past. For one, Fort Caroline recreates a short-lived 16th-century French colony. The Kingsley Plantation meanwhile is the oldest-surviving plantation house in the state, dating to the late 1790s.
13. Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park
Barely ten minutes north of Jacksonville Beach is another piece of coastal paradise where you could spend a whole day.
This 450-acre park is a lovely place to escape the resort-like atmosphere of Jacksonville Beach. Much of the inland area is composed of a rare parcel of mature coastal hammock.
In these woods you can hike under the canopy of magnificent oaks, or speed along single-track mountain biking trails.
Meanwhile on the shore, I think the beach is as close to perfect as you can get. Looking back from the surf you won’t see any signs of development among the dunes.
If you really want to get away from it all, you can camp out at Hanna Park overnight. There are 300 sites here for RV or primitive camping, along with six log cabins.
14. Ponte Vedra Beach
As we’ve seen, Jacksonville Beach is one of a string of shorefront communities in the Jacksonville area. To the south is the affluent Ponte Vedra, perhaps most famous for the TPC at Sawgrass golf course.
Famed for its iconic 17th island green, the course is the venue for The Players Championship, often billed as the ‘fifth major’.
If you’re out to spend some more time by the Atlantic, Mickler’s Landing Beach is the main public access. This place is nothing short of breathtaking. In particular I fell in love with the pinkish white coquina sands.
The beach has some of the most fruitful beachcombing for miles around, with large intact shells and plenty of sharks’ teeth.
The Beaches are a coastal enclave, separate from the gigantic sprawl of Florida’s largest city (by area).
Jacksonville is literally just across the Intracoastal Waterway, but downtown, on the St. Johns River, is another half an hour away by road.
It’s a journey I think everyone should make, especially if you want to break up beachtime with some culture. In that spirit you’ve got the Cummer Museum, the region’s largest fine arts museum.
The collections are exceptional, with everything from Japanese prints to Meissen porcelain. Lining the St. Johns River here are sublime gardens, planted with native Floridian species and boasting beautiful live oaks.
For families, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is NE Florida’s top attraction, with more than 2,000 animals. The grounds are fabulous, at the confluence of the Trout and St. Johns rivers, and my kids won’t soon forget hand-feeding the friendly giraffes.