January 5, 2016
There’s more than one side to every city, and Jacksonville, Florida is certainly no exception. Some of its sides make themselves more readily apparent than others. Those are not necessarily its best sides. But if you stay for a little while, and see past—or even embrace—the aggressive pan handlers, the apathetic dinner options (Hooters on the riverfront, anyone?) and the overwhelming size and sprawl of the city, that’s really where you’ll find its true charm.
A number of unexpected gems in Jacksonville can be found, and depending on your preferred brand of fun, they are not to be missed. For starters, there are the obvious attractions, for instance the historic Florida Theatre downtown. Begun in 1926 and opened in 1927, the beautiful architecture both inside and out are certainly worth a visit. Aside from the aesthetic draw, the theatre also boasts a wide range of shows, in the heart of downtown, alongside a host of holes in the wall that are well worth a stop before or after the show.
The Bay Street Bar & Grill is a perfectly unassuming dive bar, fully equipped with craft beers, pizza, and pool tables, if you are looking for friendly, no-frills service. On the other end of the spectrum is Dos Gatos, a vintage cocktail bar that somehow remains unpretentious to the non-hipster looking for something a little different to drink. But by far my favorite, local-recommended, inconspicuous downtown gem is a late night hot spot called Chomp Chomp. I will admit, I took a look at its tiny, brightly florescent lit storefront, with its small counter and cafeteria-like tables, and I wanted to keep walking. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t eat one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. If you judge a book by its cover, you may never know what delicious fried chicken really tastes like. Lesson learned.
But there are a number of other neighborhoods aside from downtown Jacksonville to take some time to explore. My favorite might be the Riverside & Avondale neighborhoods. The Cork Arts District is a good place to stumble upon an open studio of local artists, before stopping by Bold City Brewery for a flight of beers—on the house for first timers. If it’s a nice day, as it usually is, the Riverwalk is great for a stroll along the water, beginning/ending at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, which shows off a small but impressive art collection, and well kept gardens along the edge of the St. Johns River. A quick walk from there will bring you to Park Street, where you can get an iced coffee (or a local beer) at the trendy but modest BREW Five Points, and shop the independent boutiques and antique shops.
Jacksonville is the largest city in area in the contiguous United States, and it feels that why when driving half an hour to the beach (do that, by the way—Atlantic Beach has sand packed so tight it’s absolutely lovely for a bike ride), crossing bridges in rush hour traffic, etc. But when you’re in the heart of each little neighborhood, it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. The city’s character, like many cities, is well represented by its street art. The Outings Project, developed by Julien de Casabianca, adds a beautiful, contemplative, historic, and academic layer to the city’s most unexpected places. The old buildings, with painted signs on their brick facades lend a sense of preserved history, as if you are walking around in another era, while still somehow feeling very modern. If you find yourself in Jacksonville, take the time to get to know it and explore all it has to offer. Its treasures may not be as blatant and self-asserting as some cities’, but if you take the time to seek them out, you will not be disappointed.