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The Beginner’s Guide to Jacksonville, Florida

Written by: Caroline Strickland, Realtor

I landed in Jacksonville on July 5, 2020. Rather, I got to town in a red, four-door car that was packed to the brim and carrying a snoring cat in a dog carrier in the front seat. After leaving college (and most of my furniture) behind in New Jersey, I returned to my native Florida, but was missing having a large city around me to explore. It was time to start a career, and I needed to decide where that would happen. My criteria were: I wanted to stay in the Southeast, where my family is from, have access to arts, events, and entertainment, and be in an area where enjoying nature would never be far away. 

I’d visited friends in Jacksonville over the course of a few years, and remembered fun nights on the town in a place called Avondale, enjoying a trip to a museum on the riverfront, and the novelty of walking along Florida’s share of the Atlantic coast for the first time. Not to mention the excellent vacations I had taken to St. Augustine, which was a short drive away. About three days passed between concept to decision. I was Jacksonville-bound. 

As a new resident, I constantly heard “You know, Jacksonville is the biggest city in America.” from people I met. At first, I admit: I thought this was just a funny comment on how sprawling the city would seem to a Jacksonville-newbie. Now, over two years later, I realize it’s equal parts fact and head’s up:Jacksonville is the largest city, by land mass, in the United States, and, to go with that title are an impressive number of individualized areas and neighborhoods, each with its own unique personality and amenities. 

So, after two years, I’m writing the brief (-est possible) guide to Jacksonville I wish I had been handed on July 5, 2020. Whether you’re visiting or planning a move, this guide will have you navigating like a Jacksonville local in no time.

  1. Orange Park
  2. Murray Hill
  3. Avondale
  4. Riverside/Brooklyn
  5. Downtown
  6. San Marco
  7. The Beaches
  8. Southside
  9. Mandarin
  10. Julington Creek

Orange Park

Okay, it’s not technically in Duval County. It’s in Clay County. I remember laughing the first time I realized that I could see the section of I-295 that officially demarcates Duval and Clay county leaving my first apartment in town. So, I’m counting it in the list, and I think you’ll find most people here do too. Orange Park also contains Argyle Forest to the west and meanders southwest to Middleburg. Orange Park is anchored by major retail shopping centers and the Orange Park mall. Blanding Boulevard and Roosevelt (or 17) run parallel through the area, which carry many, many cars North and South. There are a variety of housing options available in the area, including single family homes in well-established neighborhoods, apartments, and some townhouses. It presents an affordable option, seeing prices elevating more slowly than the surrounding Duval county.

TL;DR: Orange Park (or, “OP”) is a mature town sitting just below Duval county. There are plenty of chain stores in easy reach. It is very easy to commute to almost all parts of Jacksonville from this area.

Murray Hill

Fair warning: I have a huge soft spot for Murray Hill. It is arguably my favorite part of town to spend time in, but who wouldn’t love being greeted by a giant mural of Bill Murray when you arrive? (Get it? Murray?) The area is a cradle of historic houses, and has seen lots of growth recently because of prices rising to the upper end of the spectrum in the surrounding Riverside and Avondale areas. There are still deals to be snapped up in the area, especially for those who have the patience to restore a historic home. Murray Hill has a classic small-town urban design in that it centers around a generous but easily navigable main street, called Edgewood Avenue. Along this strip, there are excellent small businesses, including restaurants, bars, and artisanal shops. Scattered parks and peaceful streets encourage bike rides and walks along shaded sidewalks. Weekends often see pop-up markets with local venders. Plus, with a new apartment building having gone up on Edgewood Avenue, signs indicate that Murray Hill will see much more development going forward. 

TL;DR: Murray Hill is a historic neighborhood with lots of fun, local businesses flourishing in the area. 

Avondale

One of the most expensive neighborhoods in town, Avondale is home to beautiful, elegant architecture and even more historic homes. Homes here tend to be larger than their Murray Hill counterparts, elevating up to luxury listings, but there are plenty of opportunities to find older condos and cottages, as well. In Avondale, the growing proximity to the river and the desirable Avondale and Five Point center raise prices. But that is no surprise: there are a great number of chic boutiques, high-end restaurants that still maintain a laid back attitude, and manicured parks to be enjoyed. From my time in the area, the community seems very warm, inviting, and close-knit. There is a fantastic community garden nestled in one of the neighborhoods, which even has herbs planted outside the gates for the larger community to enjoy. (A belated thank you to whomever planted the dill. Our homemade tzatziki was great.) I have spent many an afternoon coasting down the neighborhood’s streets to enjoy taking in the historic architecture.

TL;DR: Avondale is another historic neighborhood, which tends to be more expensive than the surrounding Murray Hill and Riverside areas. It boasts proximity to the St. John’s River, quiet streets, and plenty of boutiques and restaurants to explore and enjoy.

Riverside/Brooklyn

This is where I started swooning for Jacksonville on my first trip: Riverside. The “5 Points” area is trendy, hip, and, if you ask a lot of people around, the place for nightlife on this side of the Intercoastal. Names like Birdie’s, Hoptinger’s, and Root Down are common language amongst friends who want to go out for a cocktail. But don’t be fooled: you don’t have to wait until the sun is setting to enjoy this locale. Riverside is home to wonderful antique stores, clothing boutiques, and restaurants like Hawker’s asian street food, Biggie’s NY slices, and excellent tacos on the patio of Taqueria Cinco. People love to take their dogs for a walk around Riverside, especially Saturday’s when the Riverside Arts Market opens for business under the overpass next to the Cummer Museum, both of which are on the riverfront. If you turn right out of the Art’s Market instead of left, you will find yourself wandering toward Brooklyn. Brooklyn represents the newest development in the area, with multiple well-done apartment complexes rising out of the ground on the daily. It has its own grocery and restaurants available, for convenience, and will be the site of several new construction projects. For those who enjoy a slice of happening, urban life within reach of amenities (and still only a 35 minute drive to the beach), Riverside and Brooklyn is definitely worth checking out. 

TL;DR: Riverside is another historic area that plays host to an endless array of things to do nestled among beautiful historic homes of many sizes. It has a casual, fun personality that lends itself to an excellent weekend or wonderful home. Brooklyn, right next door, is being newly developed and will perfectly suit those looking for modern apartments and condos (hello, rooftop pools and bars) with easy access to Riverside and Avondale’s happenings.

Downtown

Duuuuuuuvaaaaaal! Sorry, let me translate: downtown is home to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sure, we haven’t made it to the Super Bowl yet, but when the team is in your town, you gotta love ‘em. Right? TIAA Bank Field is a can’t miss attraction during the season. Whether you’re a die-hard fan or just enjoy the atmosphere of a live game, it’s a lot of fun. Downtown is also the spot for Daily’s Place, an open-air amphitheater right next to the stadium that sports tons of excellent shows. But if indoor shows are more your speed, you’ll find yourself at nearby Vystar Memorial Arena, which hosts live shows, arena football, and, my favorite, the Jacksonville Iceman minor league hockey team. Maybe it’s my time spent in the Northeast talking, but I love heading to the arena to watch an ice hockey game and say hello to their awesome mascot, Fang. Apart from ticketed events, Downtown is home to many corporate businesses, some nice coffee shops and restaurants, high-end dining, bars, and concert venues, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art. It also has a few concierge-manned condos, with many more on the way. City developers have lots of plans for Jacksonville’s downtown, and I can’t wait to see how they turn out! 

TL;DR: Downtown is the place to be for big-ticket events in the area. For housing, there are mostly high-rise condos and smaller apartments, and visitors and residents alike can enjoy a selection of bars, restaurants, and shops. The downtown is an area of focus for developers in the coming years. 

San Marco

Relatively smaller than the last few historic areas we’ve discussed, San Marco is the first of these neighborhoods that crosses to the St. John’s east bank. San Marco is an upscale area with small boutiques, shops, and artisanal restaurants. Translation: excellent brunch spot. Similar to Avondale and Riverside, but with a distinct personality, San Marco is especially walkable and has a long stretch of public riverfront to enjoy on a nice day. It sits right next to Baptist Medical Center and allows an easy jump over the bridge to the Riverside area, downtown, or directly to Southside and Mandarin. The iconic Fountain of Lions sitting in the middle of the main square pays homage to the neighborhood’s connection to the business district of Venice, Italy. So, pull up a chair, order a venti cappuccino, and enjoy the good life in San Marco’s beautiful center. 

TL;DR: San Marco is a smaller historic neighborhood, but it is bountiful with things to do, both day and night, and has a relaxed, up-scale personality. 

The Beaches

Welcome to the awesome duality of Jacksonville. We’ve discussed some of the great things to do in the city’s historic districts and downtown, but keep in mind: all of this is happening only thirty minutes from some gorgeous beaches! Jacksonville has multiple different parts of “the beach,” including Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, which meander south towards Ponte Vedra Beach and the St. Augustine beaches. However, when you hear a local say “the beaches”, you can often bet they’re talking about one of two places. One: The spot where Atlantic Boulevard, or 10, ends and curves, turning into a more local road called 3rd Street. Clustered around this crossroads are bars and night life with beautifully decorated settings and wonderfully creative meals. Or, two: a bit further south at Jax Beach. Anchored by the Seawalk Pavilion, where you can hear live music all year round, are even more casual, beach-lifestyle shops, restaurants, and watering holes on a straight-shot up and down 1st Street N. Housing across the Intercoastal do see a jump in price because of the desirability of the area, and though it skews to the upper end of the pricing spectrum, including some luxury listings, there are still $150k condos to be found if you don’t mind a short drive to the sand. 

TL;DR: The Beaches incorporate luxury living with a laid back attitude. Even if you’re not looking to pay top-dollar for sunny living, there’s bound to be something to suit. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along the coast that bring a culinary expertise to a sandals crowd, and that’s just how everyone likes it.

Southside

Coming back inland, we get to one of the biggest areas in town with a single name: Southside. Southside is heavily populated by condos and townhomes catering to the many businesses that exist in the area. Where places like Orange Park is mostly dominated by chain-stores, Southside has a mix of everything from Costco to great locally-run spots for a cup of coffee, a bowl of ramen, or anything in-between. Somehow, despite its density, many parts of Southside, to me, feel, if not quiet, quite peaceful and separate from the hustle and bustle of the main drag and all the residential spaces this area affords. In my mind, and for the sake of simplicity, I think Deerwood and Town Center also deserve to be brought up in our Southside conversation. Deerwood and Towncenter are areas of newer build that tend to go up in price point as they are very desirable. They are located slightly North of the true “Southside,” but when you’re in the area, they really start to blend together. Perhaps a Jax native could argue otherwise, but I’m sticking to my guns. Southside has seen a boom of luxury apartments and condos coming up in recent years, and unlike the Brooklyn and Downtown area: you don’t have to wait a few years for the new ones to pop up: they’re already here! Southside has a unique distinction of really allowing for whatever kind of lifestyle you’re after in one big spot. And, oh, by the way: this is where IKEA is. 

TL;DR: I see Southside as the “jack of all trades,” so to speak. It is densely populated, but doesn’t feel that way too often, thanks in large part to the huge variety of housing for a wide range of price points, and the seemingly endless options for shopping, entertainment, and dining. 

Mandarin

At the time of writing this article, I am living in this part of town: Mandarin. I’ll admit, it’s a bit removed from the clusters of entertainment I’ve mentioned previously in this article, but after about a year of living there, I can honestly say I love it. If you’re looking for a quiet, settled, suburban area in Jacksonville, Mandarin is an excellent spot. But don’t let that trick you into thinking there’s no fun to be had. To my first point,there are some condos and townhouses around, with more going up by the minute, if my daily drive is any indication, but by and large it is dominated by houses in mature neighborhoods that will suit a variety of needs. After living in a condo in OP, we have loved spreading out in a big back yard and a 3 bedroom home overlooked by large trees on a quiet, laid-back street. My experience is that my basic needs on a daily basis can be found in a five minute driving distance, and I think most Mandarin-ites would say the same. The area sports plenty of boat ramps and parks for outdoor activities, and there’s even a brewery nestled on Goodby’s Creek, which feeds into St. John’s. I should also include that I commute to St. Augustine from this location, and, personally, I never find it to be a hassle. But St. Augustine certainly isn’t the only place you could comfortably commute to from Mandarin. Sitting right next to the Buckman bridge and bisected by multiple I-295 exits, navigating anywhere in the city is easy. 

TL;DR: Mandarin represents a cozy suburban feeling in the southern part of Duval County. It has tons of amenities in close range and makes a great spot to work or commute from

Julington Creek

Like the first entry on the list, Orange Park, our last entry, Julington Creek, is not seated in Duval County. Instead, it resides in St. John’s county. But again, with the commute from Mandarin being so minimal, it made the cut. Julington Creek started as one of the first CDD neighborhoods to have ground broken in the area. CDD means Community Development District. Very broadly, that means it started as a planned community, similar to Nocatee, which some of you may be familiar with. Julington Creek can be a very attractive spot for families wanting some space to spread out and to be zoned into St. John’s county schools. It boasts tons of planned recreational spaces like a golf course, pools, tennis courts, and biking trails. Since the unincorporated community has been around since the 90’s, it has settled in and plenty of commercial spaces have developed around it to provide access to shopping and services in easy reach. The homes tend to be above average median price. 

TL;DR: Julington Creek is in St. John’s county, but is a stone’s throw from Jacksonville. It was created as a planned community, and has since expanded and matured into a great area for those who may be looking for well-designed, up-scale housing and amenities, shopping, and zoning into St. John’s schools

Congratulations. . . you made it to the end! Feeling like a local, yet?

As I wrap this article up and read it over, I smile to think about all the great experiences that have led me to be able to write this piece. Coffee and thrifting in Murray Hill, finding my first shark’s tooth at The Beaches, and parking my car for the first time at my new home in Orange Park, wondering what the future here was going to hold. There is a reason Jacksonville is the place that inspired me to become a Realtor. I care about the community I’ve become a part of here, and love taking part in what the city has to offer. 

Whether you’re here for a short trip or here to stay a while, I believe Jacksonville is truly a special place. I fondly call it “the mosaic city” because of how the many different parts of town come together to create a picture of Jacksonville. Maybe that nickname will catch on one day. Until then, maybe I’ll catch you here soon. 

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