Welcome to Jacksonville, Florida!
Best Bars in Atlantic Beach, Jax Beach & Beyond
It's a nightly party in Atlantic Beach at places like the Sun Dog.
The largest metropolitan area in the U.S., where the river that cuts through downtown runs backward and the beaches dominate the social landscape, Jacksonville, FL, is a big city with a small-town heart.
This gives it a bit of an identity crisis, especially within its home state.
Jacksonville is in Florida, though being tucked into the northeast corner more closely identifies it with another state, Georgia. It has an NFL franchise, is home to the PGA Tour, can boast about beaches, sunshine and palm trees, but is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa or even Destin as a prime destination in the Sunshine State.
Yet Jacksonville does have a feather to stick in its cap, besides its down-home feel in the framework of a large city. On Feb. 6, 2005, the Little City That Could hosted the world's biggest sporting event, Super Bowl XXXIX. Wow, was it that long ago!?
And on Saturday, Oct. 29, it is home of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the annual Georgia-Florida game. The game is held at EverBank Field (let's just call it the Gator Bowl for nostalgia's sake) in downtown Jax, Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.
And, much like native sons Lynyrd Skynard, it's no one-hit wonder. So be a free bird and read on to learn about this city, its bars and nightlife and sightseeing activities.
Jacksonville General Information: An Overview
Jacksonville is indeed the USA's largest city, though with a metro population of just 1.2 milltion, it's the size that counts. The city limits start almost at the Florida-Georgia border and continues for some 70 miles to the south.
Downtown Jacksonville is at the intersections of I-10 to the west and I-95 to the north and south. But it's the suburbs and particularly the beaches that contain the most activity. In fact, PubClub recommends staying in Atlantic or Jacksonville beach, which is 20+ minutes from downtown. Other than a nice stroll along that river that runs backward, the St. Johns, there's little to do downtown day or night. Exceptions are concerts at Veterans Memorial Arena and games for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, the AA Dodgers affiliate Jacksonville Sun in a gorgeous new ballpark and the minor league hockey team Barracudas.
To the north is exclusive Amelia Island (home to the annual Women's Tennis Association's Bausch & Lomb tournament, April 3-9) and to the south, the country's oldest city, St. Augustine. Golf is so big the PGA Tour has its headquarters here; the TPC at Sawgrass tournament (March 23-26) with the famed "island green" is in Ponte Vedra, Jacksonville's southernmost beach. The area has 72 courses.
The city also hosts college football's annual Gator Bowl (New Year's Day) and the Georgia-Florida game each October, known by Dawgs and Gators as "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."
Jacksonville International Airport is 12 miles from downtown ($20 cab ride, approximately $40-50 to the beaches).
Lynard Skynard is from here, as is 38 Special. So the place knows how to party.
But so is Slim Whitman.
Nightlife in Jacksonville can definitely be rocking, but for super-clubbers it can also be like a waltz. Most places are casual bars with a blue jeans crowd. The bars have been around seemingly forever and are not going anywhere anytime soon. People know them well and locals are regulars at their regular places.
Closing time is 2 a.m., with "drink 'em if you've got 'em" between 1:30-1:45, depending on the place.
Cabs can be extremely hard to flag down, but any bar will call one for those smart enough not to drink and drive.
Atlantic Beach Bars
There are two main areas of Jacksonville's bar activity, and they are located just two miles from one another: Atlantic Beach (Neptune Beach is, oddly, in the same area) and Jacksonville Beach. Not to be confusing, but Jax Beaches are actually four separate "cities." From north to south it's Atlantic Beach (Ragtime), Neptune Beach (Sun Dog), Jax Beach (the Ritz, Ocean Club), and Ponte Vedra Beach (the snobs). For most people, as George Thoroughgood would say, "That don't confront me."
Atlantic Beach's bars are on a single corner, just in fron the ocean, at First and Atlantic Blvd. Give anyone three steps, and it's off to the next place.
The bars here are just that – bars. Attire other than jeans or shorts is considered high fashion. The going-out crowd is late 20s to 40ish and largely single. A couple of places have live music and never a cover.
Certainly don't expect a cover at our favorite place. It's Pete's Bar, a dive that practically demands drinking PBR. As far as dives go, it's quite large – two rooms with a long bar sandwiching another with pool (for a quarter!), ping-pong and foosball tables. There's no non-smoking laws in Jacksonville and Pete's is as smoky as a barbecue pit. The crowd is a mix of old-time drinkers, spouces escaping their troubled homelife (for a night, anyway) and enthusiastic youths who just love the non-pretentious atmosphere. Pete's is a favorite haunt of novelest John Gresham, who doesn't waste time getting here while in town; he stays right next door at the Sea Trutle Inn. Pete's is better as a last stop than a first stop; it's much more lively after midnight than before, except for those who like to see – or join – those regulars with their heads on the bar.
Elsewhere, it's a dog's life. At least at The Sun Dog, a classic locals' hangout. "The Dog," to use its more commonly referred name, has live bands in an art deco setting and one of the more lively mingling scenes in town. It's an anchor bar of the entire city, a place to go any night, any time. It's also one of the beach area's top dinner destinations.
For those who are barking up the wrong tree at "the Dog," Sunny Caribbee is a small, well-worn joint to stir a bit of one's Caribbean soul. It's a few steps above the other spots (it's on the second level above the Dog).
If anything passes for upscale here, it's Ragtime Tavern. A Cajun restaurant/bar, it brews it's own beer and offers a more casual, sit-down existence than its counterparts across the street. Live bands Wednesday-Sunday.
In the summer, the Sea Horse Inn (located next to the nicer Sea Turtle) jams with a reggae band and a hot crowd on Sunday afternoons.
Jacksonville Beach Bars
Nearly identical in crowd and bar-hopping ease to Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach offers more options than it's sandy neighbor to the north.
A good place to start – or finish - is Lynch's Irish Pub, a friendly establishment with a crowd most likely to be throwing down the local specialty, the Red Snapper (amaretto, raspberry and Crown). Perhaps that's because it's only $3.25 a shot – and just $2.50 on Wednesdays. It's also a good beer-drinking place.
People at LIP tend to hang rather than mingle. For the latter type of activity, The Ritz fulfills all needs. While the name implies a ritzy glamor bar at an upscale hotel, the Ritz is a fairly basic bar with a pair of pool tables and juke box. It's the crowd that makes it go off, which it does on weekends and Wednesdays when beers are as cheap as a buck (arrive before 11). It's mainly a 30s crowd looking for lust, love or, on occasion, simply socializng.
There is a quirk to the Ritz, however. It has such a local crowd that strangers can be singled out and escorted right out the door for no reason, particularly if they are enjoying joyful conversations with the regular talent. Sometimes, the Ritz will be putting you on instead of the other way around.
A younger crowd prefers the dancing at Ocean Club. The hot dance floor gets going with a DJ and the beachfront deck is an ideal conversation break/hangout spot. Some nights, it features live bands. Thursdays is college night with $2 anything until midnight and $3 after midnight.
The Atlantic is another 20s hangout, a bar/club that's popular with locals, especially the patio bar. A DJ or live music provides tunes.
Live music lovers like Freebird Live, and if the name strikes a chord, yes it's taken from the signature song of Jacksonville's own Southern rockers, Lynyrd Skynard. The band started playing in Jax Beach and its gold records are mounted on the brick walls. While the image is of a run-down rock 'n roll joint with bad carpet and smells of beer spills, this is actually a nice place. Live bands and cover varies.
For sports, the mega-bar Sneakers Sports Grille offers it all. Entering it is almost like walking into a Vegas sportsbook, except this place has many more TVs (and no casino, of course). In fact, Sneakers has big screens on steroids, at least a half-dozen of them strategically placed around the bar for maximum viewing. If it's kicked, hit, passed, punted, raced or run, it's shown here. Bonus points for the waitresses being dressed as cheerleaders.
It's down the road in a shopping center (a $5-6 cab ride) and hardly worth bypassing the Main Street action on a hot night, but on Thursdays the otherwise non-descript (other than to say it's a bar in a shopping center) Monkey's Uncle can be quite entertaining on Thursdays when well-fueled amateur singers take the stage for Karaoke.
Other Nightlife Highlights
There is a club scene in Jax and it's at Plush, a former cinema that is now a two-level club on University Ave., near Jacksonville University. Plush is Jacksonville's mega club with a massive dance floor, mirrors, couches, DJ and VIP room. Those who don't like to dance lounge at the Leopard Lounge, which has its own music and mainly a 30s crowd as opposed to Plush's 20s. Open Thursday's-Saturdays.
Bourbon Street Station (ahh, just the name makes us smile) in Jacksonville's Southside jams in the crowds. It has five different rooms featuring 80s music, country, Karaoke and a piano bar. Thursday is its hottest night.
In San Marco, Endo Exo is a bar/club with live music indoors and out in a European atmosphere.
An area known as 5 Points is a funky area near downtown in the historic district. It has vintage clothing stores, coffee houses, etc. Club life includes Club 5 – a Jax club icon and mecca for live bands, Fuel and Starlite Cafe. In the Avoldale district – known more for upscale restaurants and shops – is Casbah Cafe, a middle-eastern "hookah" lounge where you order hookah pipes and listen to middle-eastern pop-rock and watch belly dancers. It's very big right now with the 20's and 30's crowd.
On game days, as well as for concerts, Amsterdam Sky Cafe is conveniently located next to Veteran's Memorial Arena. It's a clean pub with a patio and good food and a DJ at night; after hockey games they often clear out the tables and let the crowd cut loose.
On Sundays, the place to be other than the Sea Horse is the Coach House at the Casablanca Inn in St. Augustine. Right on the water, this is a true Florida bar where people pull up to the dock in their boats and live reggae keeps the large crowds dancing and drinking.
Sightseeing and Tourist Activities
The largest city in the U.S. has the largest urban park system in the United States, providing services at more than 350 locations located on more than 6,000 acres. It includes oceanfront parks, nature parks, neighborhood parks, community centers, special programs, swimming pools and boat ramps.
The Talbot Island State Park is a series of barrier islands with beaches, kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, camping, hiking, nature trails, and picnic pavilions. Free access, open 8 a.m.-sunset. Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve is unspoiled Florida with manatees, dolphins, bald eagles, ospres, blue herons and oyster beds are among the viewing. Canoe, boat or kayak through some of its 46,000 acres. Free access, open 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.
As we've mentioned earlier, St. Augustine is a short drive to the South. Established in 1565 – ots hard to believe anything in this country is that old – St. Augustine has the Fort Castillo de San Marcos, the signature Bridge of Lions, museums, shopping and 100+ restaurants.
The Okefenokee Swam Park, set of 10 major motion pictures, is a famous swamp one hour northwest of Jacksonville in Waycross, GA.
Naturally, with the beaches, there's all the associated activities such as swimming, biking, rollerblading or just tanning.