By: Joey Amato
The last time I visited Jacksonville, I was probably in my early-mid 20s and living in Orlando. It was a very long time ago. I was eager to visit again as I know much has changed in the city since the early 2000s. If you are ever planning on visiting Jacksonville, I would highly recommend renting a car. Jacksonville is the largest city in the country by land mass and many of its popular attractions are spread out, especially if you want to get a good idea of all the city has to offer.
I decided to stay downtown for this trip as much of my itinerary was within a few miles of city center. The Residence Inn Downtown Jacksonville is a beautiful property located within walking distance to some of the city’s attractions, great restaurants, and a block from one of Jacksonville’s popular LGBTQ nightlife spots, Incahoots. The bar offers some incredible drink specials so be sure to check their social media before you go so you can capitalize on those. It is also the place to catch a fabulous drag show while in town.
I wanted to make the focus of this trip about budget travel. Many times, people tend to not visit certain destinations, or travel at all, because they think it isn’t affordable. Before setting out on my Jacksonville adventure, I did some research and discovered some restaurants and attractions that are not only affordable, but also some of the highest recommended in the city.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the Residence Inn offers a complimentary breakfast for guests, but if you are in the mood to try out a local breakfast spot, head to Cool Moose Cafe. I met my friend there and we both had a delicious meal for around $10. Everything was scratch made and the service was wonderful.
Next, head over to the Cummer Museum of Art, which offers free admission on the first Saturday of each month. I visit so many art museums that sometimes they can become monotonous, but this museum happened to be exhibiting two very cool exhibitions during my visit. The first was The Age of Armor, an incredible collection of dozens of pieces of armor dating back hundreds of years. Most of the pieces in the collection were of European descent but there were a few pieces from other civilizations.
Another interested exhibition is a display of movie posters from Norman Studios. Jacksonville was the filmmaking hotspot prior to Hollywood with 26 movie companies calling Jacksonville home during the silent movie era. In the earliest years, Black actors and actresses were only cast as extras in films, which were mostly catering to white audiences. Richard Norman purchased the Eagles Studio complex and went on to create one of the top production companies featuring prominently black cast members. Unfortunately, Norman was forced to close his studio during the Great Depression, but his legacy can be seen in this wonderful exhibition at the museum. The Norman Studio building itself is the last known silent film studio still standing in Jacksonville and efforts are underway to make it into a museum.
For a quick lunch, head over to Arepa Please, just a few blocks from the museum. Try their signature Pabellon arepa which contains shredded beef, sweet plantains, queso blanco, and black beans. It was delicious and filling but didn’t break the bank.
I always like to visit local art galleries when I travel. On the way out to Jacksonville Beach is Gallery 725, one of the top galleries in the city. The gallery was showcasing the works of late animator Ron Campbell which included artworks based on the Beatles Yellow Submarine and the Beatles Saturday Morning TV Cartoon Series as well as Scooby Doo, Smurfs, Rugrats, Jetsons, and Flintstones. The gallery also features works from internationally renowned pop artists Peter Max and Roy Lichtenstein among other artists.
Jacksonville’s beaches are beautiful and not as crowded as South Florida’s so I would recommend spending the morning or afternoon exploring the area which also includes Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. You’ll find a ton of wonderful seafood restaurants in the area as well.
The highlight of my trip was a visit to Catty Shack Wildlife Sanctuary, which provides a safe, loving and forever home to endangered big cats. The sanctuary’s mission is to educate the public about their plight in the wild and in captivity. The sanctuary is home to a variety of big cats, but the majority of the residents are tigers. While most of them have their own individual space, the siblings share an enclosure.
I was most intrigued by the black leopard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before. Khala Hala was born at Catty Shack Ranch on June 16, 2004. She was happily positioned on her perch and made eye contact with every visitor who passed by her enclosure.
Catty Shack is undergoing a large expansion which will include some additional large enclosures to give the cats more room to roam and play.
If you are in the mood to do some shopping during your stay, head to St. Johns Town Center, a beautiful outdoor shopping experience featuring a variety of retailers ranging from Tiffany and Louis Vuitton to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. There are many dining options available there including a great Mediterranean fast-causal chain called Cava, but if you are looking for a local option, head back downtown and try S & R Dim Sum, which is located not too far from Memorial Park. I ordered the shrimp dim sum as well as the sweet and sour chicken and both were wonderful. I especially liked the chicken dish as it was only lightly breaded and sauteed rather than deep fried like in other Chinese restaurants.
For one last cocktail in Jacksonville, head to Park Place Lounge, just a short 5-minute drive from downtown. Park Place boasts an extensive Happy Hour from noon until 7pm and you can mingle with the locals on their outdoor patio.
If you are looking to escape the harsh winter but avoid the crowds of other beach cities, then Jacksonville is a great option. The city provides a variety of indoor and outdoor activities for every budget. River City Pride will take place in November, so there more than enough time to make your Jacksonville pride plans.
Enjoy the Journey!