Days before Mississippi State beat Arkansas in Fayetteville back in November, the coldest and windiest game of the year for the Bulldogs, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said he was hoping for a win for many reasons, but chief among them was the dream of “a warmer bowl game.”
Three weeks later, he got his wish when it was announced his team is headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the Taxslayer Bowl on December 30. Sunshine, water, food and fun … and that’s just on gameday, thanks to the pool party inside the stadium. Not that Fitzgerald will be able to watch the game from the pool, of course, but anyone else can. More info on that here: https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/pool-party/
However, the game itself is only four hours, and if you’re making the trip all the way down to Florida over the holidays, you might as well make the most of it and enjoy some extra time in the area. Jacksonville is a fairly spread out city as it is, and when factoring in the nearby beaches, the swath of land in which vacationers will spend their time gets even larger. For that reason, I put together a quick travel guide based on my time there and recommendations from experts to help those who are looking for things to do, places to eat and ways to enjoy the warmth of the Sunshine State.
With the vast amount of hotels, AirBNB’s, beach rentals and the like available in the area, I didn’t list any lodging recommendations. But for those who would like it all taken care of in one neat, easy package, I’d recommend looking at the PrimeSport travel package MSU has available for the Taxslayer Bowl. Check that out here: https://www.primesport.com/d/mississippi-state-bulldogs?utm_source=hailstate.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=universities_mississippi_state_bowl_packages&utm_content=twitter_post_2_1232017
THINGS TO DO, DAYLIGHT AND NIGHTLIFE
Whether it’s an activity for the family, for adults or for the solo traveler, Jacksonville has plenty to offer. Beaches, of course, are a hot spot for travelers, and they have their own section later on. For a more detailed guide with extensive information, links and directions to museums, shows, etc., the Taxslayer Bowl has a helpful listing on its website https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/
The Jacksonville Zoo – What easier way to enjoy the good weather than to stroll through a zoo? From jaguars to giraffes to frogs and birds, the zoo has over 2,000 rare and exotic animals. http://www.jacksonvillezoo.org
Dave and Buster’s, Top Golf – You likely already know what these are, and now you know you can visit them both in Jacksonville. MSU’s football team will actually be making a visit of its own to Top Golf, and it won’t be a surprise if a player or two make their way to Dave and Buster’s. Arcade games, golfing, food – all good things, good for all ages.
Adventure Landing – A good choice for the family, Adventure Landing has locations in Jacksonville proper as well as Jacksonville Beach. They’ve got arcades, laser tag, go karts and mini golf. https://jacksonville-blanding.adventurelanding.com/things-to-do/
The Elbow – The Elbow is Jacksonville’s main entertainment district, where the burgeoning arts scene has flourished, and restaurants, shops and bars with live music line the streets. Some of the food recommendations below can be found here, but honestly, you can wander around and just poke your head inside whatever looks good to you and you’ll be just fine. More information here: https://theelbowjax.com
Jacksonville Landing – The home of MSU’s pep rally the night before the game – Friday, December 29 at 6:30 – The Landing is an easy and scenic one-stop choice for a full evening of entertainment. In what amounts to an outdoor mall and food court on the riverfront, the landing has a variety of shops and restaurants to suit most budgets. Pizza, tacos, steaks – whatever you like, you can find it here. http://www.jacksonvillelanding.com
PLACES TO EAT
When I travel, this is always the most important and most enjoyable part of my trip. This list comes from a combination of personal experience, online research and recs from locals. For a lengthier list, the Taxslayer Bowl has a full section of its website dedicated to partner restaurants – https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/fan-zone/eat/
Maple Street Biscuit Company – Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, this is one of Jax’s most popular and highest-rated spots. Sweet or savory, standard or adventurous, the menu is much more than just biscuits. I’d recommend The Sticky Maple – “Flaky biscuit, all natural fried chicken breast, pecan wood smoked bacon all topped with Bissell Family Farm real maple syrup” – but that’s just me. Check out the menu and see what you like https://maplestreetbiscuits.com/menu/
BB’s Restaurant – Better for the adults traveling with more dollars than babies, BB’s is an upscale option that is a regular award-winner and must-visit-list topper. Seafood, salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza lead off the menu, and if you’re staying in town after the game, their New Year’s Eve dinner would be a fine choice. http://bbsrestaurant.com
TacoLu Baja Mexicana – A local staple in a historic building, this is where you’ll find me all week in Jacksonville. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but TacoLu is worth the effort. Excellent Mexican food, Taco Lu has a cheeseburger quesadilla, beef brisket enchiladas and even a filet mignon taco on its menu of a dozen specialty tacos. Check it out. http://www.tacolu.com
Singleton’s Seafood Shack – If you’re in the mood for seafood – fresh or fried – with a view of the water, Singleton’s is the place to go. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Singleton’s is worth the drive from the city to the beach. https://www.facebook.com/singletonsmayport/menu/
Metro Diner – Southern, hearty and highly-rated, Metro Diner is where you’ll find Jacksonville’s locals, and with good reason. They serve breakfast all day, but it’s the sandwiches and lunch-and-dinner plates that keep people coming back for more. There’s nothing fancy here, just good food the way we appreciate it in Mississippi. https://metrodiner.com/menus/lunch-menu/
Al’s Pizza – A local chain of, you guessed it, pizza parlors, Al’s has locations spread throughout Jacksonville. A family-friendly joint, Al’s has regularly been voted Jacksonville’s best pizza and has an enjoyably large menu of options not just limited to pizza. https://alspizza.com/menu/jacksonville-menu/
13 Gypsies – Jacksonville has plenty of international flair among its many restaurants, and 13 Gypsies comes highly recommended as a place for adults to spend an evening in the riverfront area. A Spanish-style tapas restaurants also featuring cured meats and cheeses, 13 Gypsies offers one of the areas most extensive drink lists for adults, as well. http://13gypsies.com/menu.html
River City Brewing Company – Another option for the riverfront area, River City Brewing features some of the best views of the water and the surrounding area, while also offering a nice selection of food and local craft beverages. The regular menu isn’t overly pricy anyway, but the happy hour deals on the brew house lounge and deck make for an even more enjoyable and cost-effective way to spend an afternoon of snacking and enjoying the sunshine. http://www.rivercitybrew.com/brew-house
Right, here we are, arriving at perhaps the best thing about winter in Florida – you can go to the beach. Beyond sunbathing and swimming, the area beaches have surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, paddleboarding and fishing among the many available activities, so don’t feel pressured to just spend your time building sandcastles. For links to any of those activities – as well as several more – I will once again direct you to a quite convenient listing on the Taxslayer Bowl website. Shout out to whoever put that site together. You’ve been helpful. https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/
In fact, I am going to borrow even more extensively from them and share their breakdown of the four areas to choose from in Jacksonville’s 20 miles of white sand beaches.
“Farthest north, the quaint, historic village of Mayport is home to casino boats and seafood restaurants, offering their freshest catch. Head over to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, providing what many consider to be Jacksonville’s favorite biking and hiking trails. The park also offers camping and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding wilderness.
South of Mayport are the communities of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. The intersection of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach is a hot spot that seems to keep getting hotter. Enjoy casual and upscale dining, diverse shopping options and most of all a very happening nightlife scene.
Rounding things out is Jacksonville Beach. The Sea Walk Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, hosts concerts, movies and festivals year round. Get a tan, catch a wave on a boogie board or have a picnic on the beach. Nightlife is also hot in Jacksonville Beach with oceanfront clubs and intimate pubs. For a good, wholesome time, try water slides, go-cart racing and laser tag at nearby Adventure Landing.”
So, you drove or flew or sailed all this way, and while you’re in Jacksonville, you also want to check out some of the nearby cities. There are plenty more options than just these, but here are three of my favorites, all within two hours of your hotel in Jacksonville.
St. Augustine – The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine is an easy 45-minute drive from Jacksonville. The scenic city is slow, historic and charmingly upscale with a multitude of museums, a wealth of fine dining, and also an excellent outlet mall where those on a budget like me can look like a rich person from two years ago. https://www.visitstaugustine.com
Orlando – Yeah, I know – duh. But if you’ve never been, it’s only a two-hour drive to reach the No. 1 place on planet earth for theme parks. Disney World and Universal Studios – now featuring two massive areas dedicated to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – are the headliners in a city that is packed to the gills not just with tourists, but ways for those tourists to have an absolute ball. Pro-tip learned from a college internship working at Disney World: the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one of the busiest weeks of the years for all parks. They’re prepared for it, of course, but I offer two recommendations here. 1. Arrive early if you’re going these days. 2. If you can swing it, wait and make your trip after New Year’s Day when the massive crowds have gone back home and the short lines are just you, a few other smart people and the South Americans visiting during their summer break.
Savannah, Georgia – Most people don’t seem to realize how far south this very southern city is, but just a two-hour straight shot north from Jacksonville is one of my favorite cities. Savannah is considered the most haunted city in America, but beyond that, its historic downtown is also one of the most walkable and its culinary scene is quietly becoming one of the most respected in southern cuisine. You’ll enjoy yourself just fine if you want to go to Paula Deen’s restaurant with the other tourists, but locals know that the best family-style southern dining is at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, where you better arrive early to get in line. My highest of recommendations also go to the funky Treylor Park on Bay Street and to The Grey, the James Beard Award-winning upscale restaurant in a converted old Greyhound Bus station.
The first planned city in America, Savannah’s two-dozen squares are lined with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, and with the Savannah College of Art and Design spread throughout the historic district, the beauty and charm are not just limited to the plants and parks. If you go to Savannah – and really, I hope that you do – tweet or email me and I can share some more good spots. https://www.visitsavannah.com