Our favorite: Jacksonville – for a visit or forever

You’ve heard the saying, “it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Jacksonville is the opposite.

While not a bad place to visit for beaches, golf, and outdoor recreation, Jacksonville shows its best side to those fortunate enough to live with it every day. Jacksonville is just south of Amelia Island where we live. I drive into Jacksonville along the ocean for work every day.

I love Jacksonville.

It’s big enough to attract major concerts and sporting events and support a lively dining scene, yet small enough to easily navigate without being stuck in the car all day. The cost of living is dirt-cheap, the weather is perfect, the people are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere, and the city seems to be on the verge of major progress almost everywhere you look.

If you love golf, there may be no better place to live in the world.

If you’re vacationing in Jacksonville, you’ll find these recommendations helpful, but I don’t recommend vacationing here as much as I do living here – it’s the best.

Travel – Jacksonville International Airport

I like to say Jacksonville is the “easiest” place I’ve ever lived. JIA contributes to this ease – especially from Amelia Island. Located on the north side of Jacksonville, we can drive to modern, airy JIA in just over 30 minutes at off hours.

Parking is cheap – $5 a day for remote or off-site parking. Compare this to $20 in Atlanta. That’s a big difference if you’re gone for a week.

Parking shuttles are rarely crowded and numerous. Security lines are easily navigable. Kristi and I can leave our house and be at our gate in under an hour.

What the airport lacks in direct flights, it makes up for in ease.

Breakfast – Metro Diner

Metro Diner’s various Jacksonville locations aren’t merely our favorite breakfast spots in northeast Florida, they’re among our favorite anywhere.

Sunday Brunch – Nineteen restaurant in the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass

Open Sundays only and wonderful for a special occasion. The buffet has all of the breakfast standards and well done at that. Be sure to walk around the world-famous TPC golf course after.

Kristi feeding giraffe at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Kristi feeding giraffe at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. (Photo credit TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

Attraction – Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Jacksonville’s Zoo is way better than expected for a city of Jacksonville’s relatively small size. Jaguars and Tigers are highlights, as are the native egrets and herons that mingle with the exotic wildlife.

Kristi loves feeding the giraffes.

Sweet potato fries – Ragtime Tavern

The long-time locals’ hangout a block off of Atlantic Beach has a solid menu overall, but the sweet potato fries – cut waffle style – steal the show. They may be Kristi’s favorite food item in the state. Crispy on the outside, a little chewy in the middle, always served piping hot.

The Atlantic Beach area is also a standout for window shopping, bars, restaurants and boutiques. Stay at the swanky, but not overpriced One Ocean hotel when in the area.

Art Gallery – Cutter and Cutter Fine Art

Cutter and Cutter Fine Art, like TPC Sawgrass, is located just south of Jacksonville in tony Ponte Vedra Beach. For the purposes of our list, we’re considering everything inside Duval County as “Jacksonville.”

Cutter and Cutter has the finest selection of high-end fine art from local and international artists we’ve come across in the area. The gallery displays numerous artists in a variety of price ranges – some we can even afford without too big a stretch.

The uniform quality of the work from traditional oil on canvass impressionist landscapes to more contemporary interpretations dazzles with its excellence.

Sandwich – Angie’s Subs

Super-local, super-casual, almost beachy sandwich shop with specialties like the Jack Del Rio Grande, the Dirty Gringo, and the Father Dan. Angie’s Subs is a fixture in the community and does a great deal of community service.

Fast, reasonably priced, large portions and delicious, Angie’s Subs is worth a stop on your way to the beach.

Taco’s – Taco Lu

Locally famous and popular to an almost ridiculous degree. Expect to wait if you visit during peak lunch or dinner hours. If the wait is too long, head to Angie’s Subs (above) which is just down Beach Boulevard.

Radio Station – 1010 XL Jax Sports Radio

This is where I worked when we moved to Amelia Island and I work out of the radio station office with Gridiron Now to this day. 1010 XL offers surprisingly high-quality, live-and-local talk shows for market No. 48. With local personalities on the air from 6:00 AM to midnight many week days, few sports radio stations of a comparable size anywhere in the country are more committed to local programming – the asset which still makes radio great.

Microbrewery – Green Room Brewing

Two blocks from Neptune Beach, Green Room Brewing has permanent and rotating taps in a casual atmosphere – that’s a theme in Jacksonville: casual and beachy. No food is served, but you’re welcome to bring your own.

Duval (as the Jacksonville area is often referred to by locals, in honor of Duval County) has a well-established craft beer scene and Green Room Brewing sits among a tightly-clustered group of microbews including Zeta, Southern Swells and Engine 15.

Place to watch a concert – Florida Theatre

Opened in 1927, the stunningly beautiful Florida Theatre is a throwback to a glamourous bygone area. Located smack-dab in downtown Jacksonville, the Theatre is worth a visit irrespective of the act performing.

Kristi with Pete of Sweet Pete's.
Kristi with Pete of Sweet Pete’s. (Photo credit TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

Nearby parking is cheap as are concessions – $2 for a bottle of water when we went, another example of what I mean when I say Jacksonville is the “easiest” place I’ve ever lived.

Sweet treats and downtown restaurant – Sweet Pete’s Candy and the Candy Apple restaurant

Kristi and I first learned of Sweet Pete’s from the CNBC show “The Profit” which “rescued” Sweet Pete’s during one of its early episodes. Neither Kristi nor I have a particularly strong sweet tooth, but if you do, the candy shop at Sweet Pete’s has everything you could possibly desire.

Located in the same historic building as the candy shop is the outstanding Candy Apple restaurant serving breakfast selections all day – I love that – hand-crafted cocktails, candied bacon, a solid croque monsieur, fish, steak, comfort food and more.

I probably look more forward to eating here than Kristi; I really love this restaurant and the menu. With it’s lively vibe, downtown location, full bar and eclectic menu, this would be a great date spot.

Sweet Pete’s offers candy making classes and event space as well.

Gym – Florida Extreme Fitness

A powerlifter’s haven with many competitive lifters, myself included, training there. Great equipment, great facility, great atmosphere.

Try someplace else if your workout consists of reading a magazine on an elliptical machine.

Beach – pass

On holidays, avoid the crowds and take the short drive to Amelia Island where the beaches always have room. Outside of holidays, any beach along the Atlantic Ocean in Jacksonville is wonderful – these are among the most underrated beaches in the world.

Barbecue – Four Rivers Smokehouse

With about 10 locations in Florida and now open in Atlanta, the secret of Four Rivers is officially out.

Yes, they have ribs and chicken and pulled pork and brisket, but I go for the burnt ends which are flat-out spectacular.

Great sides and biscuits, reasonably priced, large portions… everything you’re looking for in a BBQ joint.

Good time for a good cause – Catty Shack Ranch

Catty Shack Ranch is a big cat rescue facility housing lions, tigers, mountain lions, leopards and other wildlife. Tours are available to the public on a limited schedule.

Catty Shack Ranch is an all-volunteer organization so it doesn’t have the same amenities, resources, hours or staffing as a regular zoo.

Be sure to plan your visit around a night feeding!

Tiger feeding at Catty Shack Ranch.
Tiger feeding at Catty Shack Ranch. (Photo credit TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

Party – Florida vs. Georgia game

Jacksonville has the NFL’s Jaguars, the PGA’s The Players Championship, birthed Lynyrd Skynrd and is home to some of the best beaches in the world, but it’s the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” – the Florida vs. Georgia football game – that remains its claim to fame. At least in my opinion.

As a college football junkie, there was nothing I was more looking forward to attending upon moving to the area. Kristi and I have attended the game each year except for our first year here, when I won a trip to whisky school at Glenlevit in Scotland.

Seafood – Safe Harbor Seafood

Fresh, local, authentic. Whether dining in, carrying out, or picking up just-caught seafood in their market to prepare yourself, Safe Harbor is as legit as it gets. Many locals swear by the shrimp nachos.

It’s two locations – Atlantic Beach and Mayport – are often packed with lines to order so here’s a pro tip: call in your order for takeout to avoid the line and find someplace close by to eat, your car will do just fine in a pinch. They don’t let take-out orders eat in the restaurant.

Pizza – Bearded Buffalo Brewing Company

The pizza is better than the beer and the beer is damn good too.

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