As New Year’s fireworks sparkled over Jacksonville’s St. Johns River, locals and visitors had more places — and reasons — to celebrate than ever.
Downtown and Riverside are bursting with restaurants, food trucks, markets, boutiques, art studios, music stages and craft-brew bars. Their indie owners aim not just to please, but to thrill.
Jacksonville may be the nation’s most sprawling city, but these neighborhoods can be explored car-free. It’s easy and refreshing to walk the Northbank Riverwalk between downtown and Riverside, scenic city blocks, and the Main Street and Acosta bridges to Southbank. (Southbank’s rebuilt Riverwalk will open by March.)
For faster navigation, rent a bicycle from one of the shops around town. On weekdays, you can ride the Skyway monorail (now free, Skyway crosses the river to reach downtown stations on both banks) or the Riverside Trolley (75 cents). Another tip: the Greyhound bus station downtown gives you a car-free, wallet-friendly option for traveling from Tampa to Jacksonville.
Once there, you can indulge your inner hedonist — even on a budget.
Markets fill streets every weekend, many weekdays and several weeknights. Every Saturday, the Riverside Arts Market presents open-air shopping under the Fuller Warren Bridge.
Temptations range from home decor to artisanal foods from such start-ups as FreshJax.
Downtown’s first Wednesday Art Walk has expanded to nearly 50 stops with new downtown shops, food and fashion trucks and even corporate residents, including the Omni Hotel, which displays artwork by local talents.
Jaxsons Night Market fills Hemming Park on third Thursdays with booths displaying handcrafted goods, fashion trucks packed with clothes and accessories, all kinds of live music and amusing street performers.
On Fridays, jewelry crafters and other vendors add allure to Jacksonville Landing. And every day, you can browse unique goods and gifts at indie boutiques popping up around town, such as Grease Rags Clothing Company, an overnight sensation that sells retro apparel, and Nicole Made This, organic skin-care products crafted by Nicole Butler, who hosted a Tampa radio show for 10 years before moving to Jacksonville. (By the way, her Beer Lotion smells amazing.)
Seasoned and emerging chefs are opening outposts downtown, making the city core a dining destination, said Jaxsons Night Market founder Mike Field.
“Now you can enjoy a locally brewed craft beer along the riverfront, farm-to-table dining at the art museum or a whimsical Southern-inspired meal in a 100-year-old building.”
After being shuttered for years, that building now sparkles with Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails and Sweet Pete’s new digs. Since moving in just weeks ago, the beloved gourmet candy crafter has created a fantasy treats boutique and dessert bar/cafe.
Hemming Park kicked off 2015 by opening Charlie’s Cafe, a lunch terrace served by food trucks. Local musicians add extra flavor. Across the street, Chamblin’s Uptown devotes part of its real-deal Bookmine to a festive healthy-fare cafe. And a few blocks away, diners savor new dishes at chic Indochine and homey Burrito Gallery, while Chomp Chomp has become a street-eats hit.
Waterside, locals flock to the Omni’s freshly renovated Juliette’s Bistro for themed buffets that include Southern Comfort Food Fridays (old favorites elevated with gourmet touches).
“Jacksonville’s always evolving,” says sous chef Ben Winchester. “We’re the new melting pot of the South.”
In Riverside’s historic 5 Points, Black Sheep won awards soon after opening for its Southern Americana creations. Neighbors serving under-$10 meals include Corner Taco, a truck that recently opened a storefront (delectable homemade corn tortillas!), Hawkers, which serves spicy Asian food cart bites in a gleaming space, and Tapa That, specializing in casual-gourmet.
On King Street, Sweet Theory Baking Co. packs in patrons for made-daily treats such as lavender double-chocolate chip cookies, chai doughnuts and addictive black pepper biscuit sandwiches.
Food-spotters will flock to Riverside Park for the annual Northeast Florida Veg Fest on March 7, the inaugural GastroFest from March 20 to 22 in Hemming Park and the annual Food Truck Championship downtown in May.
The new magnet for fresh-roasted coffee is Vagabond Coffee, an immensely popular mobile unit stationed at Hemming Park. For adult beverages, the area is rife with great brewpubs and nightclubs. Stops on Jacksonville’s newly minted Ale Trail include Bold City Brewery and Intuition Ale Works in Riverside, River City Brewing Company on Southbank’s Riverwalk waterfront and Aardwolf Brewery south of downtown.
Jacksonville Landing, the riverfront entertainment center, presents free concerts outside and indoors. Try to catch traditional Irish tunes and Celtic rock by Belfast transplant Spade McQuade, a regular at Finn MacCool’s, and swamp rock by IveyWest, whose members hail from Jax and Tampa.
From there, it’s a quick walk to a hopping nightlife district called The Elbow. Best bets include Underbelly, Dos Gatos and 1904 Music Hall.
Jacksonville’s Main Library, based in a stunning art-filled building downtown, presents several free concerts each month in acoustically superb Hicks Auditorium. Talent comes from near and far; a recent concert featured a piano prodigy from China.
On the Southbank at the Museum of Science & History, $5 First Friday Cosmic Concerts fill the world’s largest single-lens planetarium with laser rock shows.
Downtown’s annual music festivals include the nation’s largest free jazz fest, which draws global fans each May.
New public artworks brighten buildings’ walls and windows. Look for the owl sculpture perched on a corner of the library, where indoor artworks include photographs by Floridians, hair-raising antique engravings and murals show-and-telling local history. Behind the library, Main Street Park has transformed into a sculpture park. And the Museum of Contemporary Art has expanded its downtown quarters; Riverside’s Cummer Museum of Art charms all ages inside and in its fairy-tale riverfront gardens. Frequent special exhibitions ensure there’s always something new. The same goes for indie galleries popping up around town.
For fitness buffs:
Sightsee while jogging or biking the beautifully landscaped Riverwalk. Northbank’s path winds between Riverside and downtown; cross by bridge to the shorter Southbank trail and cool off by Friendship Park’s riverfront fountains.
Jacksonville is moving forward with gusto. With so many places to indulge, visitors will too.