Jacksonville: The Gateway to the heart and soul of cosmopolitan Northeast Florida
By Bruce Northam
Senior Travel Writer
We’ve all seen Jacksonville, FL, as we speed past it on busy I-95. Well, I finally dove into it and discovered a historic, sprawling community with plenty of pride and spirit.
This big small-town of one million people unexpectedly blew me away with its colossal fingerprints on early U.S. history.
Historic Jacksonville was named for General Andrew Jackson in 1822. Jackson was well known since he was the first governor of the Florida territory.
Nearby St. Augustine lays claim to being the oldest city in the U.S. dating back to 1565. However, Chapter One of that story really starts with Jacksonville’s French settlement, at French-built Fort Caroline in 1564.
The following year the Spanish arrived to defeat the French enabling them to control Florida for almost the next 200 years. Spain ceded to British rule in 1763 but gave it back to Spain in 1784…until the U.S. gained Florida from Spain. Phew.
Prior to the European invasion, Jacksonville was part of the domain of the Timucuan Indians. It is now Florida’s most populous city. And, get this, by land area, Jacksonville is the largest city in the Lower 48.
I jumpstarted my Jacksonville experience with an AdLib Tours downtown walking tour with ultra-colorful and knowledgeable owner Gary Sass.
Funky Hat and All
Dressed up (funky hat and all) as General Andrew Jackson, Gary explained that Jacksonville is a “collection of communities.”
The tour included the fourth floor of the enormous Main Library, Florida’s largest. This museum-style archive includes dozens of olden maps that all position Florida once being the entirety of the U.S.A.
There is also an exhibit showcasing incredible sketchings via the Le Moyne-De Bry Engravings from the Ansbacher Map Collection.
Artist Jacques Le Moyne, who served as the official mapmaker on the first French expedition here, made drawings that portrayed the life and culture of Florida natives, including the Timucua, at the new settlement.
You also visit underground bank vaults and learn that they are a rarity in Florida, where digging five feet into earth mostly always reveals water.
The historic banks were built atop a slight downtown hill that made the underground vaults possible. The tour also discovers history-telling and modern outdoor murals and the sculpture representation across from James Weldon Johnson Park called The Harp (by Augusta Savage) for the 1939 World’s Fair, even though the artist wanted it called Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is the unofficial Black national anthem written by black Renaissance-man and poet, James Weldon Johnson. AdLib Tours does 80 themed tours in North Florida.
Miami’s a Million Miles Away
Culturally part of the south—and a million miles away from the tourist vibe you’d get in Miami—Jacksonville has a big-time city variety. To experience this spectrum of diversity, you have to peek around the corner into the city’s micro-neighborhoods.
Downtown means charming, well-spaced urbanity mingling classic and modern buildings with historic churches always in sight.
In the Five Points neighborhood, German-themed Hoptinger Beer Garden & Sausage House has 64 taps flowing in a spacious indoor garden along with a rooftop bar.
Where to hang your hat in Jacksonville
The Residence Inn Jacksonville Downtown (part of the Marriott Bonvoy program) has roomy suites and an impressive complimentary breakfast with healthy options. These homey digs include a full kitchen (big ole fridge and microwave) and a four-seat kitchen table next to a comfy living room.
This part of the city adjacent to St John’s River is called Riverside, with this smaller enclave being called Brooklyn.
The hotel is within walking distance of several indoor/outdoor restaurants like Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi, the Burrito Gallery where fast food meets a fun bar scene, and Anejo Cocina Mexicana, another example of a joint with local personality despite being a new build.
The Ritz Theatre and Museum (and gallery) is a sacred holding of African history and empowerment that promotes cultural and international art exchanges.
The mission here records and preserves the material and artistic culture of African American life in Northeast Florida and the African Diaspora, and showcases the many facets that make up the historical and cultural legacy of this community.
The museum features local and African artists, especially legendary Jacksonville local writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson’s story via an animatronics theatre.
Other artifacts, which are all donations from Jacksonville locals, include a 1930s black barbershop and black business cash registers from the early 1900s.
Coastal Creatures at MOSH
MOSH, Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History, is a family-oriented science destination with daily programming including “coastal creatures” and other programs that engage kids with hands-on learning.
Also, take a stroll in WWI Memorial Park alongside massive St. John’s River, the world’s second-longest north-flowing river (the Nile is longest).
Forty-five minutes northeast of downtown is Kingsley Plantation National Park, which was a cotton and indigo plantation from 1811 until the 1830s. The riverside mood is set by Spanish moss drooping from and relying on cedar and live oak trees—some of these witness-to-history live oaks being nearly 1000 years old.
The key feature here is the tabby architecture used to build slave family homes with fireplaces that are arranged in a semicircle.
Oyster Shell Cement
Tabby cement is created via cooked and refined oyster shells, sand, and water creating a lime-like mortar. Whole oyster shells are apparent in the mix, too.
This National Historic Register campus also includes a barn, kitchen house, and plantation owner’s house (dating to the late 1790s) that has a dry basement, a rarity in Florida. Gopher tortoises are in residence, as well.
Plantation owner Kingsley personally cased Africa for talented slaves, especially men adept at wood and metalworking.
Once a Timucuan Indian path, the road in and out showcases 46,000-acre Fort George Island’s incredible maze of waterways, marshes, forests, and shorelines.
Also on this road is another National Historic Register marvel, the fancy Ribault Club, named after the French Huguenot explorer.
On your way back to Jacksonville, don’t miss the seafood and merriment at Palms Fish Camp.
Downtown Jacksonville is only a 30-minute drive from Jacksonville Beach, home to colorful and beachy Salt Life Food Shack, and the thoughtful literary atmosphere inside Poe’s Tavern Nearby, the Tide Views Preserve has a fabulous pedestrian boardwalk pier over an endless marsh meeting the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a great sunset spot.
Visit Jacksonville and make a move to discover one of America’s off-the-beaten-tourist-path Americana gems.
PS, this downtown Jacksonville mural “Untitled” by London cartoonist Phlegm represents, “whatever you want it to mean.”
This trip was sponsored by Visit Jacksonville, but the opinions are the author’s own.
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