I enjoy affordable, warm-weather destinations with plenty of family-friendly outdoor attractions. With that in mind, Jacksonville, Florida’s “Kids Free November” promotion that I stumbled upon last fall really caught my attention.
For the past several years, our normal go-to spot to escape the cold has been Miami, and aside from Miami and Orlando, I hadn’t explored much of Florida with my kids yet.
Last month, I redeemed JetBlue points during a fare sale for nonstop flights between JFK and JAX for a little family getaway for my daughter’s 3rd birthday.
With an average age of 36, I discovered that Jacksonville is a great destination for young families. Unlike pricey and party-centric South Beach, Jacksonville offers 21 miles of uncrowded beaches, affordable lodging, surprisingly good food, southern hospitality, and plenty of family activities for less than $10.
On our trip, we rented a car and spent 4 days and 3 nights checking out some kid-friendly attractions and restaurants in downtown Jacksonville and all the surrounding beaches.
Here’s how we spent our days:
Museum of Science & History (MOSH) – (Downtown).
Unfortunately, it was raining on the day we arrived, so we spent our first afternoon inside at Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History, which makes learning science, history, and innovation fun for kids of all ages.
There are many interactive exhibits, including the Florida Naturist’s Center which houses animals that are native to Northeast Florida, and even a small indoor play area for young ones. Daily adult admission is offered at $10 or less, and there are also some special free admission days.
Jax Surf & Paddle Surf Lessons
I’ve never stood up on a surf board in my entire 31 years, so I was both eager and nervous to take my first surf lesson at Jax Surf & Paddle in Neptune Beach.
Luckily, my instructor took us to a secluded area of beach, so there weren’t many witnesses to my many tumbles in the beginning. The private surf lessons are great for those who are just starting out like me or for those that want to take their surfing to the next level with all of the personal attention you need.
My instructor promised to have me standing very shortly into the lesson, and to my surprise, I was able to catch a few good waves. If I can do it, anyone can! The water was pretty cold, but I got over it quickly once the wetsuit kicked in and did its job of keeping me warm.
Adventure Landing and Shipwreck Island Waterpark in Jacksonville Beach is the largest family entertainment center in northeast Florida. There’s a large indoor arcade and many great outdoor activities such as miniature golfing, laser tag, go karts, and batting cages.
Unfortunately, it was a bit chilly, and Shipwreck Island Waterpark was not open during our visit, but the kids really enjoyed spending time at the arcade and all of the outdoor attractions – especially the go carts. You can enjoy a 3-attraction pass for just $17.99
The Jacksonville zoo is a great place to spend the day and is named one of the top 20 zoos in the nation. The zoo packed with your traditional zoo animals like tigers, giraffes and penguins, along with unique exhibits like the Stingray Bay, a petting zoo, giraffe feeding, and a splash park for small children.
This locally owned and operated candy factory is located in a restored building dating back to 1903 in downtown Jacksonville. Sweet Pete’s is a massive multi-level candy store that offers virtually any treat you imagine (gluten free and vegan candies, too).
Admission is free, and there’s an option to take a factory tour with a chance to make your own custom candy bar for $5 per person. Factory tours begin at 12:30pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm daily.
Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier
For breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and Jacksonville’s expansive shoreline, take time to enjoy a stroll along the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier, which extends nearly a quarter mile into the ocean. Pedestrians are $1, and children six and under are free.
Before our visit, I researched some of the best restaurants and asked for recommendations. We had a chance to try several kid-friendly spots.
Here were some of my absolute favorites:
If you love gourmet, made-to-order burgers and delicious shakes in a local and casual setting, you will love MShack. There are several locations (in Riverside close to Downtown, inside the St. Johns Town Center, and in Atlantic Beach). We had an amazing lunch at the Atlantic Beach MShack, just steps from our hotel and the beach as soon as we arrived in town and checked into our hotel.
Maple Street Biscuits was my favorite breakfast spot in Jacksonville. It was so delicious that we dined here consecutively. It’s not just about a fresh, homemade, flaky buttermilk biscuit, it’s what’s inside of it.
Aside from traditional breakfast options, there are dozens of creative and unique biscuit breakfasts to choose from, and everything is made from scratch in house using quality ingredients. My favorite dish was called “The Squawking Goat”, which is pictured below.
As an Italian who grew up eating some of the best pizza in the NYC area, I’ll admit that I was skeptical about trying what’s considered “authentic” pizza in Florida, but the reviews of V Pizza were gleaming, so I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.
You’ll find V Pizza conveniently located right across from the iconic Jacksonville fishing pier. The menu offers made-to-order, wood-fired pizza with the quality and authenticity of Naples, Italy (truly) at reasonable prices. You can choose from a variety of pies like Margherita, Bolognese, Napoli and more.
Adjacent to Adventure Landing, TacoLu holds the title of the best tacos in Jax according to many of the locals I spoke with. Using local ingredients and fresh seafood, this fun tex-mex restaurant is one of the favorites at the beaches. We enjoyed a cheap and delicious dinner here after a fun day out, including $4 sangrias during happy hour.
There’s another fantastic tex-mex spot located downtown, Burrito Gallery, which serves what locals consider the best burritos, tacos, and quesadillas in town. Service here lacked a bit, but the food made up for it. This restaurant is a great place to grab a bite before checking out Sweet Pete’s or a visit to The MOSH.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Jacksonville. With plenty of nonstop flights to Jacksonville from the NYC area, I’d definitely return to enjoy the casual and welcoming vibe, along with some quality Florida sunshine.
Have you visited Jacksonville or any of these participating attractions with your family?Full Disclosure: After my excitement about “Kids Free November”, Visit Jacksonville invited me for a visit with my kids. Three nights at the Hotel Palms, a locally own restored boutique motor court hotel, and general admission to some activities were provided. Flights, rental car, meals, and all other expenses were paid for by me.