Before the emergence of Hollywood, filmmakers flocked to Jacksonville, lured by its beaches, quaint neighbourhoods, rail access and cheap labour. One of the oldest cities in Florida in the US, and the largest by population, Jacksonville is still a prized commercial centre for its port, the third-largest in the state.
It was in 1910 that Jacksonville acquired a glamorous reputation. In 1901, a raging fire that started in a factory razed a large chunk of the city to the ground. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of Florida and destroyed the lives of its residents, leaving more than 10,000 people homeless. The city gradually regained its light, the reconstruction done with so much care and planning that less than a decade later, studios sprang up, and the movie business flourished, until Hollywood opened its doors and took the business with it. Jacksonville is a very interesting city, with many of these nuggets buried in its winding lanes. If you’re visiting, these are the stops you must make.
Take a walking tour of one of the oldest cities in Florida: History comes in the form of many things in Jacksonville: the oldest park, an old bomb shelter, and if you’re lucky, in the form of your local guide dressed as General Andrew Jackson himself, the first military governor of Florida district and the seventh President of the United States. Walk by the Florida Theatre, built in 1927, where Elvis made his first appearance on an indoor stage. The story goes that Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding sat at the performance to ensure Elvis’ body movements didn’t get too suggestive as he danced, in an evening that received a delightful amount of press. Go up the Bank of America tower, one of the tallest buildings in Jacksonville, for the beautiful view of the city and of Maxwell House – the coffee blend is said to have got its logo (though never proven) from Theodore Roosevelt, who said the coffee was “Good to the last drop.” (www.adlibtours.com)
Visit the Everbank Field stadium: Some of the streets in Jacksonville have large pugmarks painted at equal distances down the middle. The city is home to a major league baseball team called the Jacksonville Jaguars. The pugmarks lead fans – essentially, all of Jacksonville – to the stadium. Like breadcrumbs, but cooler. (www.jaguars.com)
Visit Hemming Park: Jacksonville’s oldest park is at the heart of the city; it is a venue for events and plays the role of public square. But what is truly interesting about this park is the statue of Charlie Bennet, a congressman for 44 years and interestingly, the creator of the phrase that later found its way onto currency, “In God, we trust.” (www.hemmingpark.org)
Learn a thing or two about balance, go paddle-boarding: It’s always a beautiful time to be on the water in Florida, and when you take a break from the sand and surf, take time out and go paddle-boarding in the river. It’s a lot easier than it looks and the only challenge you’ll have out on the water is staying on the board for the first few minutes, after that, you’re set. If paddle-boarding seems too much to start with, you could try kayaking as well. (jacksonvillesurfandpaddle.com)
Go on the ale trail: The local craft beer scene has sprouted wings in the last few years. Jacksonville has one of the five Budweiser breweries in the country that are open for tours, and new microbreweries keep opening at a regular pace. The demand for local beer is increasing, with tourists opting for the many beer trails available in the city. You can get your beer passport and have it stamped. (www.visitjacksonville.com/jax-ale-trail)
Go on a cruise: If you don’t particularly enjoy walking around the city to take in the sights, sign up for a cruise. Put your feet up, pick up a drink from the bar, and sit on the deck as the city goes leisurely by. If you’re lucky, dolphins will come say hello. (www.foxyladycruises.com)
Biscuits for breakfast: “It’s not just about the buttermilk biscuit, but what you put inside it” – words from the wise at Maple Street Biscuit Company. This gorgeous little café at Jacksonville is a must-visit. With soft, flaky biscuits that are filled with chicken, pork, goat’s cheese or, well, chocolate, these bites are little pieces of heaven. (www.maplestreetbiscuits.com)
Visit the candy factory: If you have children with you (or not, really), go to Sweet Pete’s for a tour of how the company makes its popular candy. Jelly sweets, nut-filled chocolates, caramel treats or candy made in different shapes (sandals, shoes, dolls) – you cannot hold anyone responsible for the supreme sugar rush later.
Southbank Riverwalk: This chic neighbourhood is home to the biggest multinationals and is set against the backdrop of St John’s River, making this waterfront a great place to spend your evenings. There are walking trails, gardens and a selection of truly trendy restaurants and bars.
Visit the museum: The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens is your definitive Jax culture experience. The Museum has more than 6,000 works of art from 2100 BC to the 21st century, with distinct genres of European and American paintings. The grounds are green and beautiful, and the sculptures are magnificent. The oldest tree in Jacksonville, the Cummer Oak, proudly stands guard here, with a canopy spanning 150ft!(www.cummermuseum.org)
Hit the beach: The coast of Florida is dotted with beaches, each prettier than the other. Jacksonville is no exception. A host to several festivals, and with opportunities for both adventure and relaxation, the city’s beaches are postcard-perfect with blue waters, blue skies and clean sands. Take your beach towel and hit the surf.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.