According to the sloganeers at the local chamber of commerce, Jacksonville is "where Florida begins." While that's not exactly true (Amelia Island to the north lays claim to that honor), Jacksonville is the first real sign of life that drivers spot upon entering the state, an actual urban cityscape against that pale blue Florida sky.
For gay travelers en route to the State's more traditional destinations -- Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Key West and even Tampa -- Jacksonville has been little more than a weigh station along the road, a place to fill up one tank and empty another.
But in 2008, Jacksonville received a welcome shred of recognition when it was included in a list of burgeoning gay meccas. Its 80,000 acres of parkland, beautiful beaches, interesting museums and business opportunities were credited with attracting a healthy population of gay residents and visitors. It's no Key West, to be sure; in fact, locals would probably agree it more closely resembles South Georgia than South Florida in its physical and political landscapes.
Jacksonville's small-town feel tends to belie its size -- in fact, it's the largest city, in terms of landmass, in the continental United States. The key to navigating Jacksonville, like any big city, is knowing where to look for culture, sophistication and fun. In and around the downtown area, the several gay-friendly neighborhoods -- including Riverside, San Marco and Springfield -- happen also to be the most historic, the most culturally significant and the most pedestrian-friendly areas of the city. These neighborhoods are where you'll find museums, galleries, gay bars and the best restaurants.
River City Pride, is the city's gay festival at the Riverside Artist Square in October.
Jacksonville International Airport is located on the outskirts of the city, about a dozen miles north of downtown. Shuttles and taxis are available, but renting a car is probably your best bet.
Jacksonville is spread out, and public transportation -- no light rail or subways, just buses -- is yucky and unreliable. Individually, the city's gay-friendly neighborhoods are pedestrian friendly, but connectivity can be a pain. Definitely rent a car. Taxis are available on-call, but you'll wind up spending as much on fares -- especially if you want to head from downtown to the beach or vice versa -- as you would on a rental car that will be at your disposal.
Jacksonville is enormous, and there are plenty of areas that are worth ignoring. The historic neighborhoods in and around downtown Jacksonville tend to be the most gay-friendly, diverse and culturally compelling.
Riverside/Avondale: Five Points forms the hub of what is, without question, the most gay-friendly area of Jacksonville. Full of gorgeous oak-canopied public spaces, adorable Craftsman-style bungalows, riverfront mansions and a number of distinct shopping districts, Riverside and Avondale have the highest concentration of Prairie School-style homes outside the Midwest. Incidentally, Riverside also has Jacksonville's highest concentration of gay bars.
San Marco: An upscale riverfront community, San Marco is slightly less gay-centric than Riverside or Avondale, but it's got plenty of quaint, if pricey, shops and some of the best restaurants in the entire city. It's also home to Club Jacksonville, the city's only gay bathhouse.
Springfield: Jacksonville's first and oldest subdivision, Springfield deteriorated during the '70s and '80s when the upper and middle classes fled to the suburbs. It's been revitalized in recent years thanks to handy investors -- many gay -- who have purchased many of the area's massive Victorian homes for a song and restored them to their former glory. The neighborhood is, by and large, still improving and remains a little rough around the edges -- particularly its eastern and northern edges.
Back to nature. Guana Tolomato Reserve, a 73,000-acre aquatic preserve, is home to one of the area's most popular gay beaches.
Letting it all hang out
With 1,200 miles of coastline -- more than two dozen in the Jacksonville area alone -- no one visits Florida without going to the beach. Even in winter, when the temperature averages 45 degrees, it's not uncommon to find the odd northerner strapping on a banana hammock to enjoy our comparatively balmy coastal climate.
Jacksonville's beaches are perfectly lovely. But if you're looking to get more than just sun, sand and salt water out of a Floridian beach excursion, drive a few miles south, down A1A, to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Home, most famously, to the Players Championship golf course -- not to mention scads of very, very wealthy people -- Ponte Vedra Beach is also where you'll find the northernmost portion of the Guana Tolomato Reserve, a 73,000-acre aquatic preserve, wildlife management area and estuarine research center. Sure, Guana is attractive to tourists, with its old-Florida landscape and appeal, but the real draw for gay travelers is what's become an unofficial gay meet-up at Guana's first beach access point.
A boardwalk winds down the 40-foot-tall dune system to a pristine stretch of sand that feels more than just a few miles away from the noise and crowds at Jacksonville's beaches. Locals describe it as "secluded" and advise that if nudity offends, go elsewhere (also, it would be wise to keep in mind that nudity isn't exactly legal on North Florida's public beaches). Contributing to the beach's unparalleled privacy is a lack of lifeguards, so it's up to beachgoers to mind the conditions if they're not strong swimmers.
Of course, there's plenty to do at Guana besides getting freaky on the beach. There are trails for hiking and bicycling, marshland for canoeing and kayaking, campsites, picnic areas, and even land designated for horseback riding. It's a true North Florida outdoor experience, with a twist.
Since local gay pride organization Merge Jacksonville, halted publication of its monthly rag, Out in the City, the area has been without a dedicated gay newspaper. MyGayJacksonville is an online source for local gay info.
The local alternative publication, Folio Weekly, is gay-friendly and is the best local resource for arts and entertainment listings.
Bars, Riverside & West
Much of Jacksonville gay social life is centered in the area just south of where highway I-10 cuts west from I-95.
The 616 (616 Park St) neighborhood bar is popular with Gator and Jaguar team fans. Wednesday karaoke and daily happy-hours bring in a good crowd, as do their theme parties and a monthly t-dance with strippers on last Sundays.
The Boot Rack Saloon (4751 Lenox Ave) men's cruise bar has a country-western theme, outdoor patio games, pool table, and all-day Sunday Happy Hours.
In Cahoots (711 Edison Ave), open Wednesdays through Sundays, has Thursday and Saturday Urban Nights with hip-hop, R&B and house music. Thursday and Sunday nights see drag shows, and male go-go dancers appear each Friday, joined by go-go girls 1st and 3rd Fridays. A late, last-stop crowd comes here.
Metro (2929 Plum St; by College at Willowbranch), the largest gay entertainment complex between Atlanta and Orlando, is busiest late, but has daily happy hours 2-8pm. The crowd is mostly young, gay, 18+, but all are welcome. A variety of clubs within the complex to suit your preference or mood include:
The Disco, state-of-the-art dance club, largest of all, where plays, live acts and other special events also take place; the Rainbow Room piano bar with live vocalists and music, frozen drinks and martinis; the Game Room with TV sports, pool tables, video and pinball games. At the adjacent Tiki Bar, open-air monthly T-Dances take place on third Sundays.
Downstairs the Boiler Room men's bar opens Friday and Saturdays with sexy male dancers to raise the testosterone levels. A renowned house cast performs at Club Shadows, Wednesdays through Saturdays, and top national female impersonators make guest appearances. Sappho's is a women's bar with female dancers. Metro also has a package store for snacks, cigarettes and bottled liquor plus a store for rainbow and gift items.
Norm (2952 Roosevelt Blvd) is a women's beer and wine bar.
A good place to begin a night out, and for visitors to meet locals and get oriented, Park Place Lounge (931 King St) neighborhood bar has a full-liquor license and hot bartenders. Sports fans will enjoy games, pool tables and video machines. Open noon to 2am, they have the longest happy hours in Jax, plus Thursday night All You Can Drink specials. Their package liquor store has a drive-up window.
Bars, East & Beach
On the way from the city to Jacksonville Beach there's AJ's Bar & Grill (10244 Atlantic Blvd) has pulled in a broad mix of folk for years. Open from 4pm daily, they have Tuesday amateur talent shows, Wednesday darts tournaments, and Thursday karaoke. On Fridays and Saturdays they have live entertainment, DJs and special parties Food here includes BBQ burgers, steaks, salmon, sandwiches and salads -even a veggie burger -- served till 1:30am.
Duval County's first gay bar, Bo's Coral Reef (201 N 5th Ave), the only gay bar on Jacksonville Beach, opens daily 2pm to 2am, with evening entertainment and dancing Thursdays through Sundays. On Wednesdays there's karaoke and free pool. Wings, burgers and fries are available until closing. Just a block away at the wide sand beach and Atlantic ocean waves, the local surfers do their thing just north of the pier.
The Five Points district in Riverside has an cluster of stylish restaurants, stores and cafes.
Several interesting restaurants and stores are also clustered around San Marco Square, not far from Club Jacksonville. Park when you see the lions statue.
Bistro AIX (1440 San Marco Blvd) is located at the latter of these, serving a lusty mix of regional French and Mediterannean fare, with California wines.
Just below downtown, Chew (117 W Adams St) is a full-service restaurant with a passion for good fresh food; wide ranging and imaginative lunch or dinner fare, and specialty wine dinners.
Back in Riverside, the European Street Cafe (2753 Park St) is a popular lunch spot for sandwiches, gourmet soups, wine and beer. Their custom-built gift baskets contain fine cheeses, cookies and chocolates.
At gay-friendly Kickbacks (910 King St), wings, burgers and a Jax cheese-steak sandwich are among the favorites. Open 7am to 3am, this funky sports bar cum "gastro-pub" offers breakfast at both ends of their day, with outdoor seating and live bands in the same block as Park Place.
Head west on Park from Riverside to find Orsay (3630 Park St) a traditional French bistro with contempory twists. They have a raw bar, extensive wine and fine whiskey lists, and food that ranges from sandwiches (hamburgers to Duck Confit Tarine), to full and elegant dinners; plus a very elaborate brunch.
Just off Atlantic Avenue behind the big Baptist church you'll find Club Jacksonville (1939 Hendricks Ave). This 24 hour, superlatively clean bathhouse has a whirlpool, steam room, large heated indoor pool, a complete exercise facility, snacks, a TV lounge and secluded sun deck.
Inn at Oak Street (2114 Oak St) luxury B&B has a great location just two miles from downtown, with beautiful spacious rooms in historic Riverside. They offer full gourmet breakfast, full amenities and a relaxed atmosphere.
Riverdale Inn (1521 Riverside Ave) is another gay-friendly establishment in Riverside, a comfortable Victorian-style house, handy to the bars and Five Points shopping area. The Row Restaurant here serves award-winning cuisine, with dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5pm and afternoon tea (with reservation) on Fridays and Saturdays. Their Gum Bunch Pub offers fine spirits and Southern hospitality.
For a list of the area's bars, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses, along with locations and web links, see our map & listings tab.
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