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.
Media & Resources
The area has been without a dedicated gay newspaper for the past couple of years. The LGBT/ JAX Directory is now the best local listings resource.
The local alternative publication, Folio Weekly, is gay-friendly and is the best local resource for arts and entertainment listings.
For map locations and website links to the businesses below, and more, see our gay Jacksonville listings pages.
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 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), Wednesday through Sunday club, Urban Nights hip-hop, R&B and house music, drag shows, go-go dancers. Late, last-stop crowd.
Garage Pub (2692 Post St), mixed crowd neighborhood pub in Riverside, open 4pm-3am daily, local brews, food menu.
Metro (2929 Plum St; by College at Willowbranch), largest gay entertainment complex between Atlanta and Orlando, busiest late, daily happy hours 2-8pm. Mostly young, gay, 18+ crowd, all are welcome. Clubs within the complex include:
The Disco state-of-the-art dance club with plays, live acts, special events; the Rainbow Room piano bar with weekend live vocalists and music, frozen drinks and martinis; the Game Room TV sports, pool tables, video and pinball games. Adjacent Tiki Bar has open-air T-Dances. Downstairs Boiler Room men's bar with sexy male dancers to raise testosterone levels. Renowned house cast performs at Club Shadows, Thursdays through Saturdays, with top national female impersonator guest appearances. Sappho's women's bar features female pole dancers. Also: package store snacks, cigarettes and bottled liquor plus rainbow and gift store.
Norm (2952 Roosevelt Blvd), women's beer and wine bar, shows.
Park Place Lounge (931 King St) neighborhood bar, good place to begin night out, and for visitors to meet locals. Full-liquor license, hot bartenders, TV sports, pool tables and video machines. Their package liquor store has a drive-up window.
Bars, East & Beach
Duval County's first gay bar, Bo's (201 N 5th Ave), the only gay bar on Jacksonville Beach, opens daily 2pm to 2am, with evening entertainment, karaoke, pool games and weekend dancing. Wings, burgers and fries served until closing. A block away at the beach 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.
Riverdale Inn (1521 Riverside Ave), a gay-friendly establishment in Riverside, a comfortable Victorian-style house, handy to the bars and Five Points shopping area. Enjoy an English afternoon tea with sandwiches and scones here too - reservations required.