Oct 30, 2020
Nothing but Beach: A Guide to the Jacksonville Waterfront
Jacksonville is the biggest city in Florida, and with that territory comes a beach shoreline of 22 miles. Not to mention, the St. Johns River runs through the city, meaning you have even more waterfront activities to do and sights to see. There’s plenty to explore on the water, from diving to surfing to fresh seafood and of course, swimming! Whether you’re from a surf town or visiting an ocean for the first time, you’re sure to find new plenty of experiences and exciting things to do in Jacksonville. This guide will give you a taste of several beaches on this long shoreline, as well as other great activities to add to your itinerary. What are you waiting for? Keep reading for tips on how to make the most out of your trip in and around Jacksonville!
The Hot Spots
The main beaches in Jacksonville are Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Mayport Beach, and Atlantic Beach. Collectively they’re known as the Jacksonville Beaches, but these are just the tip of the iceberg of beach life in Jacksonville. Beautiful white sand stretches across these four beaches and there’s plenty to see and do. Take note: there are many pay-to-park options as well as a few free parking options in lots and side streets.
Almost 4 miles of picturesque white sand, a long pier, great waves for surfing, and ocean view restaurants make up Jacksonville Beach. While it gets relatively busy, the beach is wide enough for you to bring a picnic, play a game of volleyball, ride a bike, go surfing, and so much more. Along the beach are rental shops with umbrellas, chairs, bikes, and other beach items if you forget yours at home or your hotel. East Coast Sport Rentals and Beach Life Rentals are a couple places to check out for beach gear. If you bring your four-legged friend with you, keep in mind that dogs are allowed on the beach before 9:00 am and after 5:00 pm.
The Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier, almost a quarter of a mile long, is open from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm (depending on the season it may close earlier) and is the perfect spot to cast a line into the Atlantic. Bait shops are available on the pier as well as other concessions. It’s also wheelchair-accessible so anyone can get a close-up view of the ocean and enjoy the salt breezes.
Rent a paddleboard at Jax Surf and Paddle and run out to Neptune Beach if you want to work on your balance! Around lunchtime, chill at the Lemon Bar for live music, food and drinks, and a beautiful beachside view. For other shopping and dining options, the Beaches Town Center is an outdoor mall strip that’s still fairly close to the ocean by Neptune Beach. If you happen to be there on the third Thursday of the month, stick around for the North Beaches Art Walk to get a glimpse of some local Jacksonville art. Beaches Town Center opens early and closes late, so feel free to take your time strolling through.
If you’re looking for an uncrowded beach to fully relax on, head to Atlantic Beach. Since few people are there, it’s a perfect spot to learn how to surf without worrying about bumping into others. Although there are waves year-round, wintertime is the best surfing season. You can also kayak in the ocean or enjoy the sunset while lounging in the sand.
If you’re interested in camping close to the beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in the Atlantic Beach area is a great option. In this 450-acre park, you’ll find campsites, a freshwater lake for kayaking and fishing, hiking and biking trails, and more. Hanna Park is perfect for the outdoors explorer. If you’re a seasoned surfer, make your way to Mayport Poles, which a worthwhile surf spot accessible only through this park. It costs $5 per car to get into Hanna Park, plus you’re welcome to bring pets as long as they’re leashed.
Sitting between the ocean and the St. Johns River, Mayport is both a community and a naval station. While parts of the Mayport area are exclusive to those with access to the naval base, it’s worth visiting what you can and enjoying some great ocean view restaurants. The secluded Seminole Beach faces the Atlantic Ocean and is a small and uncrowded getaway. Near the river, you can eat at Singletons Seafood Shack or Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant for a beautiful view and great dining.
The Talbot Islands State Parks are off the coast just north of Jacksonville. Both Big Talbot Island and Little Talbot Island offer swimming, hiking, fishing, and more, but there are also a handful of unique beaches that you’ve got to see. Make sure you grab your camera before you head to these state parks. Note that there is an entrance fee for both parks.
Black Rock Beach
Just 20 minutes from downtown Jacksonville, Black Rock Beach has unique geological soil formations unlike any other beach in Jacksonville. In fact, you won’t find these kinds of formations in most other places in the US. The black “rocks” on the shore that look like cooled lava are actually compressed sand — you may think that you’ve suddenly arrived in Hawaii! Black Rock Beach is off the beaten path in Jacksonville, but it’s easy to access through Big Talbot Island Park, and there’s even a hiking trail that you can explore. Be sure to get here early as parking is limited.
Big Talbot Island Park is home to Boneyard Beach, which is a picturesque beach full of giant driftwood trees. This is a great spot for a visually stunning walk by the ocean, and you’ll even see 30-foot bluffs on the shoreline. Find your way out here if you want a little break from the normal sights and sounds of the other Jacksonville beaches. Take note that visitors are not allowed to take pieces of driftwood home — these are part of the park’s extraordinary ecology.
Other Beaches to Visit
Huguenot Memorial Park
For veteran surfers, Huguenot Memorial Park is the perfect place to find some of the best waves in Jacksonville. Located across the St. Johns from Mayport, this surfing spot (also known as North Jetty) is popular with Jacksonville locals and tends to get crowded. If you’re just learning how to surf, we suggest hanging out at Atlantic Beach where there’s a bit more room for you to exercise those surfing muscles.
Other things to do in the water here include kayaking, fishing, and paddleboarding. This park is also a prime spot for birdwatching and camping, and visitors can even drive on the beach (no faster than 5 mph, you speedsters).
Ponte Vedra Beach
Travel just south of Jacksonville Beach and you’ll end up at Ponte Vedra Beach. One of the biggest things it’s known for is golf — THE PLAYERS Championship on the PGA Tour is played in this beautiful location. Even if you’re not a pro-golfer, you can still play a round on the amazing golf course at TPC Sawgrass where the tournament is held, or grab a bite to eat at Nineteen at the golf course.
Besides gorgeous golf courses, you’ll find some of Florida’s highest dunes on Ponte Vedra Beach (they’re up to 40 feet high!). Make your way to a seaside resort to unwind on the white sand beach. Shark teeth are easy to find in the sand, so give your little ones a pouch to keep them in and look for some of nature’s souvenirs you can bring back home. Dogs are also allowed on the beach, as long as they’re leashed.
On the southern end of Ponte Vedra, Mickler Beach or Mickler’s Landing has plenty of facilities for parking, picnicking, and showers for you to clean off after fun in the sun. With wheelchair-accessible walkovers to the beach, it’s super easy for everyone to get to the water and to bring any rolling coolers or wagons to the sand. Lifeguards are on duty throughout the summer months, so this is a great beachfront park for your summer family vacation.
Travel down the scenic A1A, and before you get to St. Augustine, you’ll end up in Vilano Beach. There’s plenty of fishing options here, from Vilano Beach Pier to surf fishing to going out a little ways to sea on a boat (rent a boat or even a jet ski through Beaches Marina). If you’re looking for a good boat tour, book with Red Boat Tours and they’ll pick you up right off the pier for a variety of sightseeing options. Around August, you can also catch the Florida Skimboarding Pro/Am Tournament for free on the beach and maybe get inspired to pick up a new hobby.
Where to Eat / Seaside Dining
Arguably one of the best things about going to the beach is fresh seafood, plucked straight from the ocean and prepared rather than frozen. Jacksonville is home to some great ocean view restaurants, including the North Beach Fish Camp (ask for a table on the second floor for a view) and Dockside Seafood (you’ll get some ocean sights even while you wait).
Southern Kitchen & Bar is just a stone’s throw away from the waters of Jacksonville Beach. Here, you can get a few different experiences in one spot — they have an ocean view dining option, a lounge with live music, and a beautiful bar. Their menu is definitely something to take pride in, and there’s also a patio outside to enjoy the fresh air.
For both a meal and a market, visit Beachside Seafood at Jacksonville Beach. The seafood market is inside on the first floor, but there’s seating both upstairs and downstairs for you to hang out and enjoy your food.
For a quick meal by Mayport Beach, stop by Singletons Seafood Shack. Don’t let the “Shack” fool you — the food is worth a visit, especially after a long day on the water! Close by is Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant, where you can both eat and buy fresh fish to whip up your own meal on a night in.
Cousins Maine Lobster serves up, you guessed it, Maine-style lobster. They have a brick-and-mortar location right by Neptune Beach, but see their website for other pop-up events they may have in and around Jacksonville. Neptune Beach is also home to the Lemon Bar, which is a great pit stop in the middle of your beach activities to relax, sip on a drink, and enjoy the beautiful view.
With restaurant locations at Jacksonville Beach, Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, and St. Augustine Beach, you’re bound to cross Salt Life Food Shack. While each location is just a short walk from the beach, the atmosphere is as laid back as stretching out on the sand all day. Their menus vary by location, offering Sushi Tuesdays and Oyster & Margarita Thursdays. Check out their website for more specifics depending on where you are.
Even if you want something besides seafood, there are great options for ocean views while you eat. See our list of Jacksonville’s best food to start planning your meals.
Jacksonville Waterfront Activities
Ahh, surfing. The ultimate beach activity (besides swimming and getting a little sunburned, right?). Jacksonville beaches are great for both new and experienced surfers. If you don’t have your own board to bring to the beach, there are plenty of rental shops along the water, as well as a few surf schools that will help you get steady on a board.
If you’re planning on spending a lot of time at the main Jacksonville beaches, you’ll find surf shops and great waves. Surf by either side of the Jacksonville Beach Pier, and if you’re new to surfing, Atlantic Beach is the place to go. It’s spacious enough that you won’t have to worry about running into others.
More experienced surfers should definitely check out the Mayport Poles, which is accessible through Hanna Park, as well as Huguenot Memorial Park. Although Huguenot Park tends to get crowded, you’ll get some of the best waves in Jacksonville here and get to hang with some local surfers.
For lessons and/or rentals by Neptune Beach, visit Jax Surf & Paddle. They’ve got plenty of other beach goodies you can rent as well — paddleboards, bikes, kayaks, beach chairs, and more. Plus Neptune Beach isn’t super far from the other main beaches, so you can grab a board and head to Atlantic Beach if you want. The Thompson Surf School at Jacksonville Beach is also another option if you just want to focus on lessons or gaining confidence on a board. Further south at Mickler Beach is North Guana Outpost where you can rent surfboards and more, as well as get hands-on lessons.
Jacksonville winters are the best time to catch a wave, but you’re still able to surf no matter what time of year you visit. Keep an eye on Surfline for live surf reports online that you can follow and know the best times to hit water.
With over 50 boat and kayak launches and many waterways to explore, kayaking in Jacksonville is an easy, fun adventure for everyone. You can rent kayak gear from several companies around the city, but make sure you dress comfortably (be prepared to get wet and wear strappy sandals or tennis shoes!), and bring sunscreen and bug spray.
If you’re at Hanna Park, swing by Adventure Kayak Florida for a kayak or canoe to venture around the 60-acre lake. They offer lessons and guided tours for kayaking, plus you’ll get to enjoy the fullness of Hanna Park.
Beach Life Rentals will let you rent kayaks to take out into the ocean — there’s nothing like paddling through the surf! They also have chairs and umbrellas to rent that you can prop up to save your spot on the beach. Find them at Jacksonville Beach in front of the Casa Marina Hotel and Best Western Oceanfront Hotel.
Near Ponte Vedra Beach and Mickler Beach is North Guana Outpost, where you can rent and book an eco tour around the Guana Reserve.
For rentals and the option to take an urban kayak tour around Jacksonville, check out Adventures Up the Creek. Their extensive tour is not recommended for beginners, but you can see great sights of the city as you travel the waterways of downtown Jacksonville. What’s great about this company is that they provide more than just the essentials: you also get water and snacks with your tour. Adventures Up the Creek offers rentals and tours for Amelia Island as well, so be sure to consider this one way to explore the beautiful island.
If you’re unfamiliar with stand up paddleboarding (also known as SUP), you could mistake it for using surfboards incorrectly. Standing on one of these boards takes a little more balance than you might expect, but don’t shy away from the challenge just because you might get a workout. Many rental shops provide lessons as well as a board and paddle, like All Wet Sports (next to Pottsburg Creek) and Jax Surf & Paddle (right by Neptune Beach). Both shops offer private and group lessons for people who are new to the sport, and you can also rent a board for when you’re ready to get out on the water on your own.
Paddleboarding isn’t limited to the ocean waters! You can paddle through the St. Johns River or other waterways in the city. There are tons of launches throughout the city — Bethesda Park, Northbank Riverwalk, Dutton Island, and New Rose Creek to name a few — so you can find something close to where you’re staying or get tips from the rental shop you choose. A number of shops offer tours through Jacksonville waterways, including Jax Surf & Paddle and Black Creek Outfitters. Make sure you call ahead for tour times and to reserve your spot.
If you end up loving paddleboarding and want to get your own, Tribal Boards sells sturdy inflatable boards that you can roll up in a backpack and take home. Bring it to your local lake or river and relive your trip to Jacksonville!
Jacksonville Beach is one of the best spots for fishing in the ocean. Check out the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier (it stretches out for almost a quarter of a mile!) for bait and easy wheelchair access to the water. At pretty much every other beach, you can sink your toes in the sand and try your hand at surf fishing; just make sure you’re working on your cast so you can get that line in the surf and catch some whiting, bluefish, or pompano. Since saltwater fishing is a little different from freshwater fishing, peruse this guide to saltwater fishing if you’re new to the sport.
Rent a boat to get off the Jacksonville coastline and fish in deeper waters where you’ll find grouper, flounder, bluefish, sea trout, and more. For some exclusive Jacksonville sights, venture out to the reefs (see our Diving tips for more on the reefs), traverse the Gulf Stream located about 90 miles from Jacksonville Beach, or make your way out to sea from a marina. There are many places to rent a boat, but to give you a headstart, check out Doctors Lake Marina and Jax Boat Rentals. You can also go out with a guide like with Enterprise Fishing Charters if you don’t have a boating license (but you can get one here!).
The St. Johns River also has some great fishing spots, like Stockton Park, Memorial Park near the Riverside Arts Market, or Mill Cove. No need to hop on a boat for some great catches — the river is home to bass, seatrout, red drum, flounder, catfish, and more. If you set up on a bank or at a park, you’ll have space to teach the kids about the patient art of fishing.
Note: Whether you’re freshwater or saltwater fishing, Florida requires all fishers to obtain a fishing license. You can apply for one at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
Jacksonville’s coastline is home to over 100 Atlantic Ocean reefs where you can dive and see magnificent marine life — coral, turtles, and hundreds of fish — and sunken artificial structures lining the continental shelf. Be sure to visit in the summer for warm waters as you dive.
Some Jacksonville reefs that you’ll want to add to your bucket list include:
- Spike Reef, which is named after the sunken Coast Guard boat that created this reef in 2009. It’s 75 feet below the surface of the water, and you’re sure to find unique fish swimming through the depths.
- Blackmar’s Reef, which includes both natural and manmade reefs (try to see the five ships and two planes down here!). Spear fishermen and underwater photographers come to this reef for the clear visibility. This reef isn’t a dive for new divers, so work on your scuba chops before heading here.
- Coppedge Tug Wreck, about 20 miles from the Mayport jetties and sitting in fairly shallow water. Schools of colorful fish occupy this wrecked tug boat, and the dive is great for both new and experienced divers.
- The Nine Mile Reef, which is a natural reef that runs from Jacksonville all the way to Daytona Beach! You’ll see divers, fishers, and large fish in this area. It’s located nine miles off the Mayport jetties, and the average depth of the reef is 70 feet.
To get a headstart on planning your trip under the sea, check out Scuba Schedule’s Jacksonville tours or the Scuba Station for options on Amelia Island. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent from Atlantic Pro Divers, where you can also get your dive certification. Note that you will need a dive certification before you jump in the water, and that process can take three to four days. Check out this list of certification types for more info and to pick one that best suits you and your fellow vacationers.
We’ve mentioned it already, but aside from the beautiful oceanside spots, don’t miss out on St. Johns River! It’s the longest river in Florida and meets the ocean right by Mayport Beach. Jacksonville sits in the “lower basin” of the river, which is unique to several kinds of fish that you won’t find in other parts of the river. It runs right through downtown Jacksonville, so you’re sure to spot it as you see the city.
Jump on a river taxi for a proper tour of the river. You can ride the Jax River Taxi all day for just $10, plus they have nine hop-on hop-off locations. They also offer transportation for Jaguars football games and specialty cruises.
Jacksonville also boasts of tons of free activities for the whole family, so don’t worry about saying “no” to a great idea. Aside from hanging out on the beach or walking the shoreline, there are various options off the water you can explore. Take a free tour of the Beaches Museum, see the massive Friendship Fountain in St. Johns River Park, spend a Saturday morning at the exciting Riverside Arts Market, ride the Jacksonville Skyway for a view and to get around the city for free, and more.
Got room in your itinerary for a day trip outside of Jacksonville? Consider the peaceful Amelia Island, just 45 minutes north of Jacksonville, or the laid-back St. Augustine Beach, 45 minutes south.
On Amelia Island, you’ll find few crowds on the 13 miles of shoreline. Visit Fernandina Beach on the north side of the island to relax and unwind, stroll through shops in the downtown district, explore the coastline on a kayak, or go horseback riding on the beach. For kayak rentals and tours of Amelia Island, visit Kayak Amelia or Adventures Up the Creek. If you’re scuba certified, both sides of Amelia Island offer beautiful reefs to explore. You’ll want to catch the incoming tide so the water is clear enough for you to see marine life, natural reefs, and sunken treasures. Scuba Station is a great spot to get your dive certification and rent scuba gear.
If you’re able to stay on Amelia Island for more than a day, be sure to visit Fort Clinch State Park. Camp out for a night, go on a beautiful hike, fish, swim . . . you won’t get bored exploring the great outdoors in this serene park. Note that because it’s a state park, there is an entrance fee.
In St. Augustine, make your way to St. Augustine Beach and Ocean Hammock Park to observe sea turtle nestings and hatchings. Visit between March and October to catch sight of these sweet creatures, but make sure you also give them space! If you’re hoping to run into less people, just south of St. Augustine Beach is Butler Beach, where you can find loads of free parking, including spots right on the beach. Further south, you’ll find Crescent Beach which has hard-packed sand, perfect for an evening bike ride or a friendly game of beach volleyball.
There are also some great restaurants to check out in St. Augustine. The Reef Restaurant will give you one of the best oceanside views you can get as you eat, as well as fresh seafood and other meats that are locally sourced as much as possible. Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille has dishes described as “southern, cajun, and creole” — the best of several worlds at one place. Sunset Grille (“Somewhere on A1A”) is a favorite for both visitors and locals. From chowder to baby back ribs to fresh seafood, you’ll be sure to enjoy the variety on their menu. Make sure at least one person at your table orders the coconut shrimp!
Ready for one of these getaways? We’ve got all you need to know to plan your best day trip.
We’ve thrown a lot of information about Jacksonville and the surrounding areas at you, but the bottom line is this — start planning your trip! This city is a worthwhile vacation for the whole family, and you’re sure to make some wonderful memories and stories to share. Even if you don’t have time to plan an itinerary, the Jacksonville beaches welcome spontaneity and getaways. What are you waiting for?