This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Jacksonville. All opinions are 100% mine.

Jacksonville (or Jax, if you’re a local) was a pleasant surprise for me.  I’m not sure what I expected, but the city’s young, hip population makes it one fun, hip city with a ton to do. I filled my days in Jacksonville soaking up the city’s rich culture and history, while my evenings were spent enjoying delicious meals and experiencing the city’s vibrant live music and nightlife.

There’s plenty of reasons why you should Visit Jacksonville, but here’s a few:

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

Explore Jax’s Art Scene

Jax is home to some of the most-visited museums in the Southeast and the city has an impressive collection of world-renowned public street art.

A stop at MOCA Jax in Downtown is a must if you appreciate art. The museum is home to some impressive and thought provoking contemporary art. I loved how some of the galleries were curated by artist, while others were grouped by like styles or sources of inspiration.  Make sure not to leave the museum without having a meal at the restaurant located inside, Nola MOCA.  Nola’s menu is filled with playful, upscale takes on classic southern and comfort food. Much like the pieces within MOCA’s galleries, your food will also look like a work of art (and taste delicious too).

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

From MOCA stroll around Downtown to view some of the city’s public art collection.  The Art in Public Places Program integrates a wide array of murals, mosaics, paste-ups and sculptures created by acclaimed artists throughout the city. Not only does the collection beautify the city, it’s free and accessible to the public.

You can check out the artists whose works are scattered throughout downtown and a map of their pieces here.

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

Dine on Delectable Delights

I had the best meal I’ve had in a long time in at at Restaurant Doro in Jacksonville’s Atlantic Beach. Everything on the menu looked amazing, so I ended up deciding on three small plates so I could sample more dishes. I started with a chilled tomato and watermelon soup, which was a unique refreshing play on gazpacho. My next course was THE best kale salad I’ve ever had (and trust me when I say I’ve eaten a lot of kale salads) – this one had almonds, goat cheese and figs tossed in a light zesty dressing with a touch of sea salt.  I ended my meal with fun twist on a German classic – pork schnitzel topped in a spicy sweet Korean-inspired sauce. I’m getting hungry just thinking about my fabulous meal at Doro!

My other favorite meals in Jacksonville included the one I had at the historic Casa Marina Hotel (they have a serious Sunday brunch spread), Royal Palm Village Wine and Tapas (I loved every tapa that I tried), and Five Points Tavern (having slung my fair share of drinks working in the service industry during college, I was blown away by the fact that the server/bartender manning the outside patio bar kept a notebook next to the register so he could “study” and knew each regular customer’s beverage of choice).

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

Educate Yourself with Jax’s History

Jacksonville is one of the oldest cities in the nation and has historical sites dating back to 1564. While in Jax, I decided to visit Kingsley Plantation, the city’s oldest home and one of Florida’s last remaining plantations. The home was owned by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., whose first wife was Anna Kingsley, one of his slaves… Kingsley emancipated Anna when she was 18 and trusted her to help him run his plantation. Jacksonville was a Spanish colony at that time and Spain provided certain rights to free blacks; however, as you probably know, the United States slavery system didn’t work that way. Kingsley tried to persuade the government to maintain the status of the free black population once Florida became part of the United States, but he was unsuccessful and eventually ended up moving his family to Haiti. Kingsley Plantation, like the rest of the South, has a complicated history, but it’s a history that it is important that we know (and remember) as Americans.

On a (much) lighter note, Kingsley Plantation is located on what is now Timucuan Preserve, a positively stunning National Park!

Get Festival Fever

I was surprised to learn that Jax hosts more than 20 outdoor music and food festivals throughout the year. There is ALWAYS something going on and festivals are a big part of the city’s culture and vibe.  Beaches Freedom Festival seemed like an obvious choice while I was visiting. Free Admission? Check. Live music? Check. A well-stocked beer garden? Check. Even a hot dog eating contest? Check, check, check. Need I say more? 🙂

Make sure to check out the city’s event calendar when you visit so you’re in the know about everything going on about town.

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

Explore Jax’s Cool, Hip Neighborhoods

Jacksonville is a large city and each neighborhood has its own distinct vibe, so you’ll want to set aside ample time to explore the neighborhoods that appeal to your personal travel style.

I’d recommend starting in historic Riverside at the Riverside Arts Market held each Saturday from 10AM-3PM. This is no ordinary farmers market or craft fair, it’s an eeeeeevent. The RAM hosts a variety of local small businesses – farmers to artists to makers, bakers and more. I was blown away by the unique handcrafted goods and variety of food vendors. I thought that I’d maybe spend an hour strolling through the market, but I LOVED the RAM and could have stayed all day (and swiped my credit card quite a few more times)… I ended up purchasing some handmade leather and gemstone jewelry for myself (I’m even more obsessed with the pieces now than when I first bought them) and organic dog treats for my picky pup, Bruce Willis (which he happily devoured upon my return home). Before leaving the RAM, make sure to savor a super-pleasant hour or two enjoying some craft brews and jamming out to the live band with the St. Johns River as your backdrop. Afterwards, walk down the block and visit the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, home to one of the finest art collections in the Southeast and 2.5 acres of historic gardens.

From Riverside it’s just a few minutes’ drive to the bohemian neighborhood of Five Points, home to eclectic restaurants, bars and shops. Whether you’re a hipster, boho, or hippie, Five Points has something for you – I promise! Within a couple block radius you’ll find dive bars, food-focused upscale fare and shops selling anything from healing crystals to trendy mainstream clothing.  Don’t leave without heading up to the rooftop at Black Sheep for an expertly crafted cocktail and locally-sourced fare in modern swank setting, or grabbing a sophisticated meal at cozy and unpretentious Five Points Tavern.

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

Stay in (Retro-Chic) Style

The cherry on the top of my Jax trip was my stay at Hotel Palms in Atlantic Beach.  Hotel Palms used to be a motor court motel, which has now been revamped into a boutique hotel. I’ve stayed in a LOT of hotels as a travel blogger, but I can honestly say I haven’t stayed anywhere quite like Hotel Palms.  The hotel is hip and upscale, while still paying homage to the motor court’s retro roots.

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

The hotel’s location is perfect – just three blocks from the ocean and walking distance to Beaches Town Center which is brimming with restaurants, bars and shops. (Make sure to use one of the hotel’s bikes to cycle down to the beach for an epic sunrise and awesome start to your day). My room was chic, stylish and spacious (3 of the qualities I look for when booking accommodations), and the outdoor fire pit centrally between the rooms made it super easy to meet other travelers.

One of the things about Hotel Palms that left a lasting impression on me (other than the property’s quirky style) was the attention to detail – reclaimed wood headboards, a carefully curated mini bar and Sunday morning “coffee cocktails.”

Another thing that I couldn’t help but notice was the number of Jax locals I met who were guests at the hotel… Even though they live in-town 30 minutes away from the beach (and clearly know the ins and outs of the city), they choose to stay at Hotel Palms every so often because they love the hotel’s vibe as much as I do. Everyone I met was positively delightful… local, traveler or hotel staff member. Ryan was manning the front desk and bar for the majority of my stay. He always had a smile on his face and time to pour me a glass of rosé no matter how busy he was and offered spot-on recommendations to make my visit to Jax even more memorable.

Visiting a large sprawling city as a solo traveler can be tough, but I found myself consistently surprised by the city’s hip vibe, friendly residents and cultural offerings. I now get why the city’s  ad campaign slogan is “Jax. It’s Easier Here.

Surprising Reasons to Visit Jacksonville

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