jax200The tourism slogan for Jacksonville, Florida, is “You Don’t Know Jax.” For me, it was true.  Now I know Jax. It’s an affordable family vacation destination that is far more than just a beach town.

On a recent press trip, I was surprised to find that Jacksonville offers a hip downtown as well as the beach.  I love the beach but having a downtown with a variety of things to do and places to eat is an imperative, especially when you’re traveling with kids and the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Even if the sun shines every day, a day-trip to the museums, funky bookstores or live music restaurants like Burrito Gallery break up family vacation monotony.

Jacksonville offers more than 100,000 acres of protected forestry for hiking, biking and kayaking.  There are offshore islands to explore if you tire of the urban or beach areas.  The downtown area is filled with vibrant nightlife and family festivals and the beaches provide outdoor music and incredible surfing.

Read about it below or watch the JAX family trip highlights movie.

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What to Do in Jacksonville

There are plenty of fun free things to do in Jacksonville and the team at Visit Jacksonville, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, arranged a full itinerary to give us reporters a broad overview of other cool things to do in Jacksonville.

Our favorite: The Museum of Science & History (MOSH).  This place is spectacular.  It blends science and history in a way that keeps you interested and wanting more.  Be sure to check out a Science Theatre Show.

No. 2 on our list of top spots is Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. This unique and interactive space gets kids to interact with art–paintings, music, performing arts. It’s the best interactive art museum I have seen yet.

Other tour highlights:

  1. World Golf Hall of Fame:   Interactive and historic. Your ticket gets you into the IMAX theatre and you get to play on the putting green.
  2. Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens:  Beautiful, clean and huge. Petting stingrays and feeding lorikeets were a big hit.
  3. Adventure Landing: Water park heaven and games galore.  My 9 year-old loved the mini golf and I liked the laser tag.  My older son would have liked the go karts.
  4. Hanna Park: Great playgrounds, disc golf, beach and wide open spaces
  5. Kingsley Plantation:  Slave quarters still standing, pictures and the rangers make it real.
  6. Jacksonville Suns: Who doesn’t love minor league baseball?!  Family friendly and fun.  Even the cheap seats are good.

Other nearby attractions are Amelia Island, a resort community, and St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States.  You can also tour a renowned perfumery, a brewery and animatron where they make roller coasters.

Where to Stay in Jacksonville

We stayed at the Quality Inn Suites in Jacksonville Beach, which is perfect for a families traveling with kids.  There is kitchenette, a pullout couch in the living room and the bedroom has two queen beds.  We had a gorgeous view of the ocean and the free breakfast included home-made waffles. The outdoor pool was heated but it still wasn’t warm enough for me, so we hung out in the Jacuzzi.

I was perfectly comfortable at the Quality Inn Suites and happily recommend it to family travelers, with one disclaimer:  don’t turn on the heat. I had to turn the heat off at night because the noise it emitted kept me awake.

We toured two other local hotels:  the Holiday Inn Express and One Ocean Resort.

The Holiday Inn Express is similar to the Quality Inn Suites except there is no ocean view and the foyer did not smell like a new hotel should.  The saving grace:  family rooms with bunk beds.

One Ocean Resort is a luxury property, and is really fantastic.  I can only speak from a tour perspective, we did not stay there, but everything I saw and experienced there was spectacular.

The sun, sand and water vibe at One Ocean is evident in their décor and philosophy.  The rooms are enormous and a personal concierge, called the guest historian, will call you prior to arrival to ask about your preferences so the amenity cabinet can be properly stocked upon arrival.  Every room has an ocean view and the color red was only allowed on the Exit signs.  Everything else is azure, taupe, white, and relaxing.

My son said gave the kids club a thumbs up.  They made cookies and played but did not play video games.  Best of all, the price for this luxury tops out at around $250/night.

What to Eat in Jacksonville

The food in Jacksonville was acceptable but not fantastic with two exceptions:  Burrito Gallery, where I had a shrimp taco and a tofu burrito, and Azurea at the One Ocean Resort Hotel & Spa.  The sea bass at Azurea was the best I have ever tasted. Every dish was presented with creativity and all ingredients were fresh.  Best of all, the chef is a dad who enjoys creating food for kids.  Our kids all had fresh shrimp for dinner, which was a nice change from the usual kiddie menu choices.

Getting to Jacksonville

Non-stop flights from La Guardia and JFK get you to Jacksonville in under three hours.  Within 25 minutes of landing, you can be at one of Jacksonville’s many beaches.  Each beach differs slightly in vibe: some a bit more kitchy than others but the ones I saw were clean with soft, cushion-y sand.   That’s enough to make me wanna know Jax.