NORTHEAST FLORIDA:
WHERE HISTORY AND PRESENT DAY MERGE

You won’t run out of things to do in Northeast Florida. You’ve got award-winning beaches, globally famous history, pristine parks, and a burgeoning food and beverage scene. The area is nicknamed the First Coast and the Historic Coast and, while no one can say for sure where Spanish explorer Ponce de León landed, he is credited with discovering Florida in 1513. In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came to shore at what was to become the first permanently occupied territory in the U.S.—known today as St. Augustine. And the rest, as they say, is history... history well worth exploring.

BY VANESSA CACERES

A DAY IN...


AMELIA ISLAND

Start with a sunrise stand up paddleboard outing along 13 miles of scenic Atlantic shoreline, or settle into a kayak and enjoy a guided tour through the marsh and surrounding waterways. Plan an afternoon at Fort Clinch, followed by a shopping stroll in downtown Fernandina Beach to uncover the history and charm, which keep the destination a top island favorite among Condé Nast Traveler’s readers. Spend your evening savoring culinary delights at one of the nationally acclaimed chefs’ tables.

JACKSONVILLE

Welcome a new day with a sunrise beach walk, then fuel up your morning with fresh biscuits at Maple Street Biscuit Company and a local coffee at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters. Grab your board, or rent one, and learn to surf in Jax Beach, one of the best spots in Florida! For lunch, enjoy the locally caught Mayport shrimp at one of the fish camps (casual seafood restaurant). In Riverside, explore the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, then enjoy dinner and a craft beer in the famous Five Points district.

ST. AUGUSTINE & PONTE VEDRA

Step back in time at the historic Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. Take a sip of legendary water at the Fountain of Youth. Keep little ones busy at the interactive Pirate and Treasure Museum. See every species of crocodilian at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Find your perfect spot along 42 miles of beach. Challenge your golf game at the Stadium Course, TPC Sawgrass. Enjoy the spicy datil pepper in the Minorcan Clam Chowder at Barnacle Bills in the Holiday Inn.

PUTNAM COUNTY

Tour Palatka’s 20 plus murals that depict the history of Putnam County. Plan to visit the 1850s Antebellum Bronson-Mulholland House and adjacent Putnam History Museum. Drive or hike through the scenic Ravine Gardens State Park. Be sure to visit the St. Johns River Center located within the Palatka Riverfront Park. Dine in one of Putnam County’s restaurants where you can get local fare and catch the vibe of the town. End your day relaxing aboard a water taxi on the beautiful St. Johns River.

Northeast Florida has no shortage of arts and culture destinations. From a symphony orchestra to well-regarded museums, there is something for everyone.

In St. Augustine, tours of places like Villa Zorayda Museum give a glimpse into the past. The building was constructed in 1883 from poured concrete and crushed coquina shells, originally as a winter residence. It is a replica of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Tours detail its historic significance in St. Augustine’s history and display many unique items—there’s even the “Sacred Cat Rug” that is more than 2,400 years old.

Nearby, Flagler College was built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in the late 1880s, originally as Hotel Ponce de León—one of the most exclusive resorts of its day. Now an historic landmark, the stunning architecture and sights at the college include a 68-foot domed ceiling, a dining room with 79 Tiffany stained glass windows, and original hotel furniture and art.

For an in-depth look at St. Augustine’s visual arts, take part in the First Friday Art Walk, which includes over 20 art galleries opening their doors for the evening. There’s complimentary parking and Old Town Trolleys offers a free shuttle with several key stops near most galleries.

If you want to take in a show, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, affectionately know as “The Amp,” is considered St. Johns County’s leading multi-purpose arts facility. St. Augustine’s Farmers Market and the Night Market are also held on the grounds of the amphitheatre.

Another place to enjoy music and shows is the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in Ponte Vedra Beach. It features performing artists from around the globe as well as special events and community gatherings.

Southwest of St. Augustine, Palatka features more than 20 outdoor murals depicting Putnam County’s historical, cultural and natural resources.

In February, head north on U.S. Route 17 to Green Cove Springs for the annual Northeast Florida Scottish Highland Games & Festival. For a year-round glimpse at the region’s Scottish connection, just visit its historical and military museums.

In downtown Jacksonville, the monthly First Wednesday Art Walk covers some 15 blocks of arts and culture. Check out the art galleries, museums, live performance venues and restaurants. The self-guided tour connects visitors to the dozens of artists and street performers in Hemming Park.

From September to May, the Jacksonville Symphony makes its home in the Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall, praised for its great acoustics, at the Times–Union Center for the Performing Arts, and also performs at other venues in Northeast Florida and around the state. The symphony is ranked among the country’s top regional orchestras.

Featuring live music, local food, drinks and shopping, the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival is promoted as one of the largest free jazz festivals in the U.S. The festival has been part of the area since 1981 and takes over 10 blocks of downtown.

Amelia Island welcomes its annual Chamber Music Festival on select weekend dates from February to May with concerts featuring world-renowned musicians.

ATTRACTIONS

With more than 450 years of history, St. Augustine is the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the U.S. The city takes its history seriously and has 36 buildings of colonial origin still standing in the historic district. To get the real skinny on the city’s history without wearing out your feet, step aboard the Old Town Trolleys, selling all-day tickets so you can hop on and hop off as you please.

While in St. Augustine, embrace your early explorer on a visit to Castillo de San Marcos, a national park that began construction in 1672. The structure is considered the oldest masonry fort in the country.

Over at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, you can drink water from its “fountain”—but you may come away with great memories more than ageless qualities. It’s located on the actual site of the first settlement in St. Augustine and was founded 42 years before Jamestown and 55 years before Plymouth Rock. Check out the cosmos in the planetarium, visit the Timucuan Village or marvel at the sound of the Spanish cannon.

St. Augustine has plenty of tours to guide you around town, from art walks and a “pup crawl” (a walking tour on which you can bring your dog) to nighttime ghost tours and culinary-focused themes.

A visit to St. Augustine isn’t complete without stopping by the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum with hands-on activities for all ages.

In Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens will take you on a world tour of animals without ever leaving Florida. For a different view of Jacksonville, use the St. Johns River Taxi in the downtown area. The taxi service also offers tours.

A popular attraction in Fernandina Beach is Fort Clinch State Park, where history and nature meet. Explore one of the best-preserved 19th-century forts in the country, then hike or bike on the park’s trails, featuring maritime hammocks, massive live oak trees and wildlife.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

Outdoor gems are abundant in Northeast Florida. Whether you want to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean, fish in the St. Johns River or take selfies at a park, there are plenty of options.

Southwest of St. Augustine, Putnam County is known as the “Bass Capital of Florida” and is home to three of the top ten fisheries in the state. The county is also the trail hub of Northeast Florida and offers ample hiking, biking and paddling trails. Be sure to check out Ravine Gardens State Park, created in a natural steephead ravine.

Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine teaches visitors about the beauty of dolphins and provides interactive attractions such as a meet and greet or dolphin swim program.

When you’re ready to chill with some beach time, you can’t go wrong with a visit to St. Augustine Beach which continues to receive impressive accolades. This popular destination was, once again, named one of America’s top beaches by TripAdvisor.

One of the best places to kayak in Northeast Florida is on a guided tour that allows you to paddle the backwaters of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in the Ponte Vedra area.

The city of Jacksonville actually has the largest urban park system in the U.S. So, plenty of natural adventures await you in Northeast Florida, be it in a city or rural area.

Jacksonville boasts 22 miles of spectacular beaches. If you’re visiting this area, consider using its free Beach Buggies to get around Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beaches and easily explore all of the beachy neighborhoods and attractions.

For more picturesque adventures on the water, Amelia Island offers Amelia River Cruises and Charters or a privately chartered sunset cruise with Windward Sailing. If you’re looking to reel in fish, Amelia Boat Club & Rentals provides rentals for fishing, cruising or sightseeing.

ENTERTAINMENT

In the mood for family fun? Foodie finds? History? Northeast Florida has something for everyone. For instance, you can dine at Florida’s oldest diner, Angel’s Diner, in Putnam County. In St. Augustine, foodies will rejoice at The Floridian Restaurant where they can enjoy farm-to-table meals with a Southern vibe. The restaurant’s carefully crafted dishes are sure to please meat and non-meat eaters alike.

The St. Augustine Distillery produces handcrafted, small batch spirits using Florida-grown ingredients to make spirits like vodka, rum and gin. Take advantage of its free tours and complimentary samples. San Sebastian Winery, not far from the St. Augustine Distillery, also conducts free tours and tastings.

If you’re all about the food, then sign up for the tour at St. Augustine’s Whetstone Chocolates. Of course, you’ll get mouth-watering samples. At Kernel Popper’s Gourmet Popcorn on St. George Street, try samples of caramel sea salt, Dr. Pepper or lemon shortbread popcorn, among its cornucopia of flavors, before settling on your favorite.

Golfers and nostalgia lovers will want to dine at The Murray Brothers Caddyshack Restaurant. It’s a favorite in the World Golf Village with plenty of memorabilia from the classic movie, starring Bill Murray.

Duffers might also want to check out the Palatka Golf Course, an original Donald Ross-designed course due west of Marineland.

In Ponte Vedra Beach, Barbara Jean’s on the Water has a great view of the Intracoastal Waterway and outdoor seating. Go for seafood specials or Southern comfort food.

Jacksonville’s nightlife is filled with bars, pubs and live music venues. Bar hop, dance the night away or buy that happy-hour cocktail—it’s all ready for the taking in vibrant neighborhoods like Riverside, downtown, Avondale and San Marco.

Jacksonville is a leader in Florida’s booming craft beer scene. One way to experience it is on the Jax Ale Trail, a self-guided or guided tour of the city’s award-winning craft breweries. Jacksonville also has a full-scale organic distillery called Manifest Distilling.

In downtown Fernandina Beach, The Patio Place provides a comfortable backdrop to indulge in sweet or savory crêpes and sit outside after a long day on the beach.

ROAD TRIPS

Get a beachy view at a laid-back pace along A1A between Flagler Beach and Fernandina Beach. This route runs parallel to the much busier I-95, and you get to cruise along the scenic route while stopping off as needed for meals, souvenirs or to snap an ocean shot.

Take in a country view for more than 60 miles along U.S.-17 between Orange Park and Crescent City. Along the way, view the picturesque St. Johns River, enjoy rolling hills (hard to come by in Florida), and stop at places like the Log Cabin Winery in Putnam County.

On the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail in the Flagler Beach area, take the double loop along scenic roads where you’ll pass by the Atlantic Ocean and Old Dixie Highway. Other highlights include driving past the winter home of John D. Rockefeller, the historic Ormond Beach fire station and sunset views near Granada Boulevard Bridge.

Head off on SR-13 just south of Jacksonville, and leisurely make your way to the small town of Spuds. This route gives you a near constant view of the St. Johns River, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you drive past older homes and trees covered with Spanish moss. A highlight along the route is the winter home of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe.

SHOPPING

St. Augustine Outlets, right off I-95, carries some 75 brand-name retailers. Nearby, St. Augustine Premium Outlets has 80 stores, including Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers Nike Factory Store and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Ready for some unique finds? Then head on down to the pedestrian-only St. George Street in St. Augustine’s Historic District. Find a bohemian piece of jewelry at Earthbound Trading Co. Nearby, stop by the Spice & Tea Exchange, an 18th-century-like trading post with displays of teas and spices that will stimulate your taste buds. At Bath Junkie, you can personalize bath and body products with customized scents. Find a gift for the artsy folks in your life at any of St. Augustine’s numerous galleries located in the historic district.

The St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville is the place to hit for the latest upscale merchandise from shops such as Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and Nordstrom. The center also includes bargain stores such as DSW Shoes.

Minutes away from downtown, Jacksonville Farmers Market is the oldest operating outdoor farmers’ market in Florida. Since 1939, vendors have offered fresh produce, herbs and local favorites, such as Mayport shrimp. Browse for crafts and handmade goods daily from dawn to dusk. For more market exploration, check out Jaxsons Night Market, a craft market held on the third Thursday of each month at Hemming Park. There’s also Riverside Arts Market, hailed as Florida’s largest open-air market. Held on Saturdays, find local arts, crafts and food galore. The view isn’t too shabby, either—it’s right beside the St. Johns River.

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