Pop quiz: Can you name the largest city in Florida? You know, the one with the most people and the Godzilla-size municipal footprint?
Miami, you say? Sonny Crockett, please!
The correct answer is Jacksonville – and it’s not even close. Not only is Jacksonville’s population of 843,000 more than double Miami’s and triple Orlando’s, but the 885 square miles within its municipality makes it the largest city, size-wise, in the United States, thanks to its 1968 consolidation with surrounding Duval County.
That’s just one of the surprises that await unsuspecting newbies who choose to sample the Sunshine State by starting with this eclectic, eccentric river-city hub. Scratch beneath the surface of its often-overwhelming, traffic-snarled suburban sprawl and you’ll find a creative, industrious city that hasn’t always received the credit it deserves for helping forge the Florida mystique.
Here are 20 things you need to know if you’re planning to make tracks to Jax.
1. Getting your bearings takes time.
— John Kucko (@john_kucko) February 19, 2016
GPS aside, the plain truth is, getting to Jacksonville is easy; getting around Jax is complicated.
Being conveniently located where the eastern terminus of I-10 intersects I-95, the favored north-south route to and from Miami, Jax never lacks for traffic. Ever. Since many of those heading east and south have nothing but sand, saltwater and margaritas on their minds, the minute they spy water, they think they’ve hit the Atlantic.
Surprise: Jax is a river town, 20 miles inland, bub. That water you suddenly see all around you is the expansive St. Johns River or one of its tributaries. Working your way around town can involve a dozen bridges until you get the hang of it.
Did I mention that the St. Johns is one of only two rivers in North America that flows north? Surprise again!
2. Forget your bucket list
While senior citizens still retire in droves to Florida in the time-honored “Seinfeld” and “Golden Girls” tradition, they’re definitely not flocking to Jacksonville. In fact, the median age here is 36 years old, making Jax the youngest major city in the state.
3. Jax is the Deep South
Despite its current Nashville-urban-hipster intentions, Jax is as Dixie as Florida gets; so Southern, in fact, that wags once tagged it “the Capital of South Georgia,” a nod to the state line just 25 miles north.
4. Fort Clinch
— Erin Wiggle (@erinwiggle) June 14, 2016
Jax served as a major supply point for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Its movement of hogs and cattle was abruptly interrupted when the Union seized control of Fort Clinch on Fernandina Beach. You can tour the old fort on nearby Amelia Island.
5. Almost Hollywood
Moviemaking saved Jacksonville’s bacon, not once but twice. In the years that followed the Great Fire of 1901, which destroyed its business district and left 10,000 homeless, film pioneers established more than 30 silent movie studios in warm, photogenic Jax, earning it the nickname “Winter Film Capital of the World. It woulda become Hollywood if Hollywood hadn’t. Nearly a century later, Hollywood returned to help Jax through a rocky urban development phase by filming “G.I. Jane” (1997), “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” (1998) around town.
6. Now that’s a skyline!
Having lived in most of the coastal cities in Florida, including Jacksonville, I can say without prejudice that downtown Jax from the water cuts the prettiest profile, a perfectly proportioned, thoroughly modern wowser of a skyline.
— maddehatteur (@MaddHatter1996) November 28, 2015
At the center of that splendid skyline lie the Riverwalks, Jacksonville’s lovely waterfront public promenades, located on the north and south banks of the St. Johns and united by the Downtown Trolley, the Skyway monorail and water taxis. Whether you’re heading to a Jaguars NFL game at EverBank Field, a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville or a post-latte morning jog on its three miles of riverfront, this is the #1 hang in Jax.
8. Have a ball
— Raymond Paultre (@RayPaultre) December 13, 2015
Ever since Jax launched its prized NFL franchise in 1995, the Jaguars’ home stadium has hosted the 2005 Super Bowl and the annual college clash between Florida and Georgia, also known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” As impressive as the two world’s-largest end zone video screens may be, it’s the two swimming pools in the north end zone bleachers that remain the envy of sports fans everywhere.
9. Sandy tires 411
While Jax has its fair share of spectacular beaches (they don’t call this the First Coast for nothing), each comprises its own municipality, with its own mayor, city council, school board – and rules. If you long to drive on the beach, it’s not allowed within the three main beach towns (Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach); you’ll have to either head north to Huguenot Memorial Park or south to the Matanzas Inlet area of St. Johns County, where you’ll need a sticker pass to feel the beach beneath your Michelins.
10. TPC Sawgrass
Speaking of St. Johns County, TPC Sawgrass, the golf Mecca at Ponte Vedra Beach, hosts the PGA Players Championship each year at its Stadium Course. Further south in St. Augustine, the World Golf Hall of Fame honors the sport’s best players of both genders.
11. Little Talbot Island State Park
The barrier island, a popular fishing and hunting destination for five centuries, offers a one-stop feast of surf fishing, bike riding, beach dozing and loggerhead turtle selfie-snapping.
12. MOCA Jacksonville
MOCA Jacksonville Museum of contemporary Art ? pic.twitter.com/0iJCCt8sI3
— ✿Hanna✿ (@HannaShames) June 18, 2016
The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville features a dazzling permanent collection that features Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as touring exhibits by modern visionaries like Andy Warhol.
Bohemian coffee shops, outdoor cafes and chat-worthy boutiques dot this urban-cool historic district southwest of downtown, especially on Saturdays when the Riverside Arts Market coalesces beneath the Warren Fuller Bridge.
14. Gators? Got ‘em!
— WECT News (@wectnews) June 28, 2016
The first tip I received upon arrival in Jax was to check under my car in the morning for alligators. You’ll do the same. No kidding.
15. Fort George Island Cultural State Park
Intrigued by the television remake of “Roots?” Grab the handlebars and join a Segway tour of the Kingsley Plantation for a first-hand look at what life was like on a 16th century Southern plantation.
16. The big three
Three Jax theatrical landmarks from the ‘20s still roar today. The beautifully restored Florida Theater (1927) hosts more than 200 concerts and cultural events each year. The Sun-Ray Theater (1927) screened the state’s first “talkies.” And the Ritz Theater and Museum (1929), which hosted a Who’s Who of jazz greats, remains a center of the African-American community.
17. The Elbow
— The Elbow (@TheElbowJax) August 16, 2015
Speaking of swagger, this downtown nightlife district comes alive with music venues, brew pubs, foodie haunts and accoutrements for today’s club scene.
18. Jax Ale Trail
It’s official: the explosion of craft breweries now makes it possible to sip one’s way from Pringlehead in Orange Park to River City and Bold City breweries downtown all the way out to Zeta and Engine 15 at Jax Beach. Stay thirsty, my friends!
19. San Marcos
This upscale community southeast of downtown features wonderful 19th century homes, Art Deco buildings and the best holiday lights in town.
20. Military maneuvers
You’ll likely have friends and neighbors in uniform, that is if you aren’t already enlisted. Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport, Kings Bay Naval Base, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Naval Aviation Depot Jacksonville and Marine Corps Blount Island Command employ 50,000+ active duty, reserve and civilian men and women, and provide another 59,000 jobs.