I am a native resident of the often underappreciated yet very unique coastal metropolis of Jacksonville. With more than 850,000 residents living with its limits, Jacksonville is Florida’s largest city and the 12th largest city in the United States. In many ways defined by its aquatic setting, Jacksonville is bisected by the curving, north-flowing St. Johns River and flanked by a beautiful string of islands and beaches including idyllic Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, lively Jacksonville Beach, exclusive Ponte Vedra Beach, and an array of preserved city and state park beaches. Between the river and the ocean, scenic expanses of coastal wetlands and oak hammocks provide pretty settings for nature trails and residential neighborhoods alike.
Neptune Beach, about 17 miles east of Downtown, is one of several beaches in the Jacksonville area.
Jacksonville is the hub of Florida’s First Coast region, a five-county metropolitan area home to more than 1.5 million residents that has seen European visitors reach its shores since the 1500’s. The neighboring metro area towns of St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach depend heavily on this rich history as a big part of their respective identities, while Jacksonville has been getting increased attention as a destination for beaches, the arts, sports, dining, and ecotourism, though the modern city has a significant history of its own as well.
The Dames Point Bridge is an iconic part of Jacksonville’s I-295 East Beltway.
Many people do not realize that a part of what is now present-day Jacksonville is steeped in French colonial history. Ft. Caroline National Memorial is a historic site located on the south bank of the St. Johns River, about halfway between Downtown Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean. Today, a replica fort stands in the approximate spot where French Huguenots established a base camp in 1564. Previously, Juan Ponce de Leon first came ashore somewhere between present-day Jacksonville and Saint Augustine back in 1513. He declared “La Florida” for the Spanish, but never established a permanent settlement. French Huguenots arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 and set up Ft. Caroline two years later as a base camp. That makes this part of Jacksonville the place where Protestant Christianity first arrived in the New World. Of course, this angered Spain (the Inquisition was going on at the time). In 1565, Spain sent Pedro Menendez to establish St. Augustine to the south, and the Spanish massacred the French. As a result, Florida remained Spanish during most of its Colonial period.
Bank of America Tower is Jacksonville’s tallest building.
Jacksonville also has had an interesting history in the modern era as well. Originally called “Cowford” due to its location at a narrow stretch of the St. Johns River where cattle could be forded, Jacksonville was eventually named for Andrew Jackson, whom actually never set foot in the city. In 1901, flames engulfed the city (then much smaller in area) in what became the third largest urban fire in American history. Tragedy led to a building boom as Jacksonville, one of Florida’s primary tourist destinations, bounced back. During the early 20th Century, before Hollywood became the center of the motion picture industry, Jacksonville became known as the “Winter Film Capital of the World.” Many silent movies were filmed here, but as is the case with present-day Hollywood, real-life drama and debauchery accompanied these entertainers. The city had enough of their antics and sent the industry packing … leading to its relocation in Hollywood, California.
Everbank Field is the home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tourism waned after Henry Flagler extended his railroad to South Florida. Other industries, including a seaport and a major Navy presence, gave the city a hard-working, diverse economy, while at the same time many other smaller Florida destinations began making names for themselves as vacation hot-spots. In the 1950s, the city expanded both in population and land area thanks to a unique city-county consolidation. Today, Jacksonville remains the largest city in square miles of any in the 48 contiguous states. Only Duval County’s three beach towns and the tiny community of Baldwin were not absorbed into the city’s incorporated limits.
Dolphins can be seen in the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean, like this one near Fort Caroline.
After expressways and malls helped fuel suburban growth, new skyscrapers, riverwalks, and venues for both performing arts and sports helped give Downtown a renewed sense of place–at least during traditional work hours and special events. Of course, it was the arrival of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1990s that finally gave Jacksonville much wider name recognition, especially after the city hosted Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.
Massive ships also travel Jacksonville’s waters, like this one seen from Mayport.
In recent decades, Jacksonville has done much to clean up its image and re-establish itself as a major player in the Florida tourism game. I would rate the city’s beaches as some of the best in the state, and its network of city, state, and national park lands give Jacksonville the largest urban park system in the country. The Cummer Museum & Gardens has long been entrenched as one of the finest art museums in the Southeast. For over a decade now, St. Johns Town Center, located in the city’s busy Southside, has given the city a first-class shopping and dining lifestyle center boasting many high-end retailers and restaurants. Jacksonville has also now been a point of departure for cruises to the Caribbean on Carnival Cruise Lines for over a decade as well. Even the century-old Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens has seen years of extensive redevelopment and expansion.
Jacksonville Beach is the most populous and visited of Jacksonville’s beach towns.
Of course, the city’s sporting interests are also a part of the local culture, including professional team franchises, abundant golf course, and all kinds of water-related recreational pursuits. As for Downtown, a couple of major-scale riverfront developments have now been approved for construction that could prove to be major game changers for what has long been an attractive yet underappreciated riverfront.