By Jonathan Hollis, Special Correspondent for Pop Candy
USA Today's Pop Traveler listed seven reasons why someone should visit Jacksonville.
I know what you're thinking: Jacksonville? Isn't that the hot, swampy sprawl in southern Georgia?
Well, I've lived in many places, and you know what? I'm always more than psyched to spend time in my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. For me, the River City has a gravitational pull that's more than just a sentimental connection -- it has a charm all its own.
Here are seven reasons why:
1. Water /nature/outdoor activities -- If you like water, you'll like Jacksonville. The heart of the city is located on the St. Johns River, where you'll find all sorts of recreational waterway traffic and activity. One of my favorite pastimes is cruising on the river near downtown Jacksonville at night and taking in the views of the illuminated cityscape.
Heading east, you'll run into a stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway, a truly unique piece of aquatic and ecological beauty. However, if you find the river and Intracoastal too confining, you're just a short drive away from the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, which can be accessed from several delightful, laid-back beach communities along the First Coast.
The beaches also have many thriving nightlife venues: In Jacksonville Beach, grab a cocktail at Casa Marina Inn and Restaurant, hear some rock 'n' roll at Freebird Live or karaoke at the divey Mango's Beach Bar and Grille. In Atlantic Beach, sample some microbrews at Ragtime Tavern, and in Neptune Beach, drink on the oceanfront at Lemon Bar.
As you can imagine, the abundance of surrounding waters makes Jacksonville a fantastic fishing destination. Inshore or offshore, there are plenty of spots where you can cast a line and contemplate the meaning of life -- or consume a 12-pack of beer. If you want to reach relaxation nirvana -- and watch other people fish - Jacksonville hosts the AT&T Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament in July and the Jacksonville Kayak Fishing Classic every May.
If you're looking to stay dry, there's still plenty to do outside. Jacksonville's urban park system is the largest in the country, with more than 111,600 acres. Go for a refreshing run on one of the trails in the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, explore the exhilarating bike routes in Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, or sleep under the stars at one of the waterfront campsites in Huguenot Memorial Park. And if your encounters with interesting creatures leave you wanting for more, consider making a trip to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Finally, all golf enthusiasts should have Jacksonville on their radars, as there are over 70 public and private courses in the area. Also, the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach is the site of the PGA Tour headquarters and hosts the Players Championship in May.
2. Sports -- Golf and fishing aren't the only sports Jacksonvillians are into. The city currently has six professional and semi-professional teams, including the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, the Arena Football League's Jacksonville Sharks and the American Basketball Association's Jacksonville Giants. Additionally, the Jacksonville Bullies, a professional indoor lacrosse team, plans to begin playing this fall.
Jacksonville also hosts two notable collegiate football events every year. The annual Florida-Georgia game is played at EverBank Field in October; the game-day revelry is known as "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." EverBank Field is also the site of the Gator Bowl, which is played on or around New Year's Day.
3. Music -- While it's certainly no New York or Nashville, Jacksonville sports a vibrant music scene. A few legends spent time or got their start here: Ray Charles tickled the ivories in the LaVilla neighborhood early in his career, Southern rock groups The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet all originated here and guitarist Derek Trucks hails from Jax.
A number of contemporary punk and rock acts also call Jacksonville home, including Yellowcard, Limp Bizkit, Shinedown and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. And three Miami bass (or "booty music") outfits are from here: Quad City DJ's, 95 South and 69 Boyz (Tootsee Roll).
Jacksonville has several great performance venues and consistently attracts high-profile artists. This April alone will see Van Halen, Gwar and Elvis Costello, along with the Welcome to Rockville festival featuring Korn, Shinedown, Evanescence and others.
4. Downtown -- After leaving the airport, one of the first areas you'll hit is downtown Jacksonville. Here, you'll find unique cultural fare, such as the First Wednesday Art Walk, a celebration of local artists, musicians, museums, bars and restaurants that takes place on the first Wednesday of every month.
You'll also more find more traditional fine art staples, such as the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Along the riverfront, the Jacksonville Landing is a hub of shops, eateries and live entertainment, as well as a spot where you can board a water taxi for a relaxing jaunt on the St. Johns. At night, you can get your hipster bar fix at Club TSI or Dos Gatos, rub elbows with young professionals at the upscale Mark's club/lounge, or get your line dance on at Maverick's Rock N' Honky Tonk.
5. Riverside -- Just south of Downtown on the west side of the St. Johns is Riverside, which is perhaps Jacksonville's edgiest locale. In 2010 the American Planning Association designated the larger Riverside-Avondale area one of the year's Top 10 neighborhoods, an honor that's also been bestowed on Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Pike Place Market in Seattle.
In Riverside, you'll find elegant residential architecture, numerous parks and a distinct eclectic feel. A mix of bars, boutique shops and cafes makes up the streets of Riverside's historic Five Points district. Stop by Cozy Tea, a lovely place that serves tea, sandwiches and fine goodies, or grab a drink at O'Brothers Irish Pub. During the day, visit the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. On Saturdays, stop by the Riverside Arts Market, a weekly cultural festival featuring arts, crafts, music and food.
Over the last few years, the King Street District has become one of the city's premier nighttime alt-destinations. A cluster of trendy, well-managed establishments, including Kickbacks Gastropub and The Loft, has transformed the area into a hip, happening scene that has something to offer just about everyone.
6. San Marco Square -- On the opposite side of the St. Johns from Riverside is the gorgeous San Marco Square, a pleasant district comprised of eateries, shops, bookstores, lounges and theaters. Works of art appear in a number of spots, and toward the center of the square, you'll find a quaint, tree-lined park with a bandstand, fountains and benches.
Be sure to see a movie at the Art Deco San Marco Theatre, an old-fashioned film house. After the movie, you can head down to Square One, a two-story bar and lounge that often features live entertainment, including the occasional burlesque performance. There's also Laylas, a Middle Eastern hookah bar, and The Grotto, where you can decompress with a glass of wine.
7. St. Johns Town Center -- The St. Johns Town Center is Jacksonville's massive outdoor retail mecca. This large open-air mall features big-name anchor stores like Barnes & Noble and Best Buy, as well as brand stores like Apple, Betsey Johnson and Louis Vuitton. It's the perfect place to knock out some shopping and soak up some Florida sun.
The Town Center opened in 2005 and now has apartments, hotels and a number of high-end restaurants. As for the nightlife, patrons experience a blend of rock, dance and country vibes at Whisky River (where they can also ride a mechanical bull). BlackFinn offers more of a traditional drink-and-chat atmosphere, and Suite's is the place if you want to don your finest Friday-night threads and swagger about with classy drink in hand.