I think most fans going to the game in Jacksonville do one of two things: either they stay on St. Simons or Jekyll Islands, Amelia Island, or down in St. Augustine and go to the actual city of Jacksonville for the game OR they stay in Jacksonville and spend all of their waking hours when not at the game partying at “The Landing”. I have yet to meet anyone who actually toured the city of Jacksonville while there.
Believe it or not there are things to do in and around Jacksonville proper and many of them are suitable for children and families.
The area where the St. John’s River flows into the Atlantic ocean has been the site of human settlement since long before history was recorded. The Timucuan Indians greeted the first Europeans to settle in the area in 1564 when a group of French Huguenots led by Jean Ribault built Fort Caroline somewhere on the South bank of the St. John’s River. The fort and settlement were essentially destroyed by the Spanish but a replica of the fort is maintained by the National Park Service as part of the Timucuan Ecologic and Historic Preserve. The Preserve also contains the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Area–approximately 600 acres of hardwood forest, scrub brush, grass and wetlands chock full of trails to explore “old Florida”. Still part of the preserve but on St. George Island across the river lies Kingsley Plantation–an example of the plantation life-style of early Florida (before it was even a state), the Ribault Monument-dedicated to Jean Ribault and the early French settlers, the Saturiwa Nature Trail, the Ribault Club/Fort George Hotel Historic Site, the Rollins Bird and Plant Sanctuary, and various buildings and settlements of St. George Island. Plan to spend the entire day exploring all that the preserve and neighboring parks have to offer.
If you would rather commune with nature a little closer to the downtown area of Jacksonville plan to visit the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens. You can spend hours wandering the quiet and well-maintained miles of trails seeing native trees, flowers, and plants. There is no charge to enjoy walking the paths and learning about the regional flora and fauna.
In 1821 Florida became a territory of the United States. Because of the natural harbor of the St. John’s River many thought the area then known as “Cowford” would be an ideal location for a permanent settlement and land was donated for a city to be named Jacksonville after the territorial governor, Andrew Jackson (who, ironically, never visited the city named for him). Jacksonville became a major port and the maritime history of the city is chronicled in the Jacksonville Heritage Maritime Center. There you can see any and every thing devoted to Jacksonville’s history as it pertains to its being a sea port.
The city grew quickly primarily because of its location and became one of the leading ports for Florida exports–citrus, timber, cattle, pork, cotton, etc. The WBtS saw serious growth for Jacksonville as the port, although blockaded by Union ships, was a strategic point for supplying Confederate troops. A look at Jacksonville and Florida during the WBtS from an interesting perspective as well as general displays concerning the war can be found at the Southern Museum of History. Despite there never being a major battle to occupy Jacksonville the city changed hands several times during the war as occupying forces came and went. After the war the port city boomed. Driven by not only the exports as mentioned above but also by tourism the region began to grow.
Not everything was going well. There were out-breaks and epidemics because of the climate and in 1901 a major fire destroyed most of Jacksonville. That fire is examined at the Jacksonville Fire Museum along with a history of fire fighting in Jacksonville and northeast Florida.
Did you know that at one point Jacksonville was one of the leading film sites in the United States? Originally centered in New York City many film producers began looking for a more temperate climate where they could work year round. In addition to that there was also the exotic settings right at the front door of the city, the cheaper labor, and the easy rail access and the combination led to Jacksonville becoming “The Winter Film Capital of the World”. A combination of several things including a move to California by many film executives and an actual dislike of the film industry by local residents caused Jacksonville to be abandoned by the studios but at one time almost every major motion picture studio had facilities in or around Jacksonville. The only one left is Norman Studios and it is open for tours by appointment but there is not a lot to see unless you are seriously interested in silent films. They are working to add more exhibits so if you are interested keep that in mind.
When one thinks of “culture” Jacksonville is not the first place that comes to mind but there are several very good museums in the city. One of these is The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Left to the city by the Cummer family in 1958 the gardens were part of the original Cummer estate and the home was turned into an art museum featuring the works collected by the Cummer family. Much has been added to both the museum and the gardens to make this well worth a visit if looking for something cultural during your visit. Another often over-looked option is the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. Devoted to collecting important historical manuscripts there are also some excellent historical exhibits to see while there. They also have many exhibits geared towards children so bear that in mind if traveling with the family. And if you like contemporary art then The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville will suit your needs.
Did you ever notice the beautiful Gothic Revival Church on your way to the game? This former Episcopal Church, built in 1887, and the restored Merrill House, built in 1875 and moved from its original location to the lot next to the church, is the home of the Jacksonville Historical Society. There is also a branch with exhibits located at The Landing but the main exhibits are at the church and house. Go and find the complete history of Jacksonville and tour a couple of beautifully restored nineteenth century structures at the same time. The historical society has also purchased the old St. Luke’s Hospital property on Palmetto Street and actually offers parking at that site on game day so if you would rather your money go to help a historical organization as opposed to a private one then consider parking there.
The MOSH or Museum of Science and History is geared mostly towards children so consider this option if you brought the family. With exhibits on everything from your body (a walk through exhibition on the body starting at the mouth and working your way through the entire digestive tract) to an aquarium of native water dwellers to a natural history of northeast Florida to a nature center there is something for just about every child to enjoy. The Alexander Brest Planetarium is also part of the museum.
If you have read through these tours you know how much I enjoy zoos and Jacksonville has one of the best in the region. One of the highlights is the “Wild Florida” section featuring animals native to the region is as close to their native habitat as possible in a zoo. Feed a giraffe, get “up close and personal” with a great ape, or play with sting-rays as all of these are possible at this excellent zoo. (note: many zoos have reciprocal agreements with membership so joining one allows free or reduced price entry at others). Another option for animal lovers–especially if you like big cats–is CattyShack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary. Open since 2004 but operating for several years prior this animal sanctuary devoted to lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats, &c is one of the most popular places to visit in Jacksonville. Due to different programs and offerings and the fact that the entire staff are volunteers their hours vary so check the web site before making plans. And for the younger set there is Tree Hill Nature Center. This “hands on” nature center features nature trails, a petting zoo, and a butterfly house to entertain the children.
It might not seem like that big of a deal getting from one side of the river to the other but when was the last time you did it by boat? And if you have not done it in a while or at all then chances are your children have not and sometimes something as pedestrian as crossing a river becomes an adventure–no matter what your age. The St. John’s River Ferry is just short of a mile long trip across the river and links Mayport with St. George’s Island as part of highway A1A. You get a great view of the river and if you time things right you have a chance of catching sight of one of the big ocean going ships on its way to or from the port of Jacksonville or one of the Navy planes out of the Mayport Naval Air Station located right next door. Waiting on the ferry–or the drawbridge–can be a royal pain in the keester if you are in a hurry but it can also be an adventure if you “make a mind of it”.
These suggestions do not even consider all of the beaches or golf courses in and around Jacksonville and if you want to spend a day or more playing golf or playing in the sand then you will be hard pressed to find a better place than north-east Florida. However when you have finished those options then consider breaking out and enjoying some of the other things that Jacksonville has to offer.