It’s no surprise that Florida is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, with its beautiful sandy beaches, theme parks, fresh orange juice and seafood, and the Kennedy Space Center, just to name a few. Add in Florida’s great outdoors (my personal favorite part of Florida) and you’re really in for a treat.
I live in Jacksonville, and if you’re thinking about coming to North Florida on assignment, I’d say you’ve made a great choice. In this article, I would like to give you the local’s tour of some of my favorite spots across the northern part of the state.
Pensacola and Destin
In Pensacola and Destin, you will see some of the most beautiful looking water in the country. Outside of Hawaii or the Florida Keys, you would be hard-pressed to find a similar shade of turquoise blue. I have done a couple of dives in that area, and this area offers both wreck and reef diving as well as shore and boat diving. The area also offers plenty of fishing, paddle boarding, surfing, and other water sports. The beaches have fine, soft sand and are a great place to spend the day.
In addition to the water, Pensacola has a charming downtown area and is also the home of the National Naval Aviation Museum.
The Forgotten Coast
The Forgotten Coast got its name because, well, most people have forgotten about it. You won’t find many tourists here, or even tourist facilities, but what you will find is a wild coastline with sites like Alligator Point (and alligator warning signs which I suggest you heed) and Wakulla Springs. It’s very likely you’ll find beaches all to yourself when you visit. The Forgotten Coast is the antithesis of the mega theme parks of Orlando and one of my top spots.
The Florida Springs
Florida’s limestone filters rainwater for hundreds of miles, where it bubbles up into freshwater springs with sometimes over 200-foot visibility. There are hundreds of springs in Florida — most of which are located in North Florida. It is open for snorkeling, diving, tubing, camping, and simply hanging out for the day. Other top springs in the area include Blue Springs, Manatee Springs, and Ichetucknee Springs.
Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida, so most people coming from out of town are probably going to a sporting event. My favorite thing about Gainesville, though, is the food. Upper Crust, for example, sells homemade croissants (most places don’t do that), breads, cakes, and more. Satchel’s Pizza, a quirky restaurant where you can eat in a van or under an airplane, is also a local favorite.
There are a lot of microbreweries, parks (I have a two-year old that loves walking in the Loblolly Woods Nature Park), arts, and nightlife in Gainesville as well. Depot Park is a great place to take little kids.
Jacksonville and Beaches
Jacksonville, my hometown for almost four years now, is not only a great place to live, but is an often overlooked spot for tourists just getting into Florida.
As a place to live (including on assignment), our neighborhoods of Avondale, Ortega, Riverside, and San Marco are walk-able and bike-able, have restaurants, venues, and bars, are filled with playgrounds and sidewalks for families, and have a farmer’s market, the Cummer Museum, the Museum of Science and History, and plenty of other things to do on the weekend.
For a day on the beach, you’re only about 30-45 minutes from downtown to Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fernandina Beach, and others. Amelia Island is also a beautiful spot, with paddling in the inlet, biking, bird watching, and places for quiet relaxation. Our two-mile Riverwalk offers biking and walking with a chance to see manatees and dolphins in the St. Johns River (I’ve seen both while walking that path) part of the year. For a longer bike ride or run, we’ve got the 14.5-mile Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail.
St. Augustine is a popular tourist destination and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the continental United States. It was founded in 1565 by Spanish settlers and the old city still has buildings dating to the 1700’s. It offers the Castillo de San Marcos, trolley rides around the city, the Lightner Museum, tons of restaurants, bars, and shops (many with live music and waterfront dining), festivals all year round, and much, much more. My personal favorite is the St Augustine Alligator Farm.
Summers in Florida are hot, so even though it’s a popular time of the year I don’t recommend walking around the city in the summertime. While December can be crowded, they light the entire city up for the holidays. Fall is also a great time to visit, which in this area really begins in late October.