This January, downtown Jacksonville changed right before my eyes.
After getting off the free Skyway monorail at Hemming Park, I watched Charlie’s Cafe open beneath lovely shade trees. Diners took falafels from Fusion Food Truck to new tables; workers set up super-sized chess and checker pieces. From now on, the park’s daily menu would include musicians, espresso from Vagabond Coffee’s blue-and-white trailer and fare from mobile chefs.
A short walk east, River City Tattoo showed off its brand-new parlor, body-art designs and Skully, the Boston Terrier mascot. Hourglass Pub, a new hangout featuring a one-man jam band and drag shows, debuted its Time Warp Arcade.
Downtown Jax has changed dramatically over the past three years as spots to eat, shop and party sprout in the heart of northeast Florida’s sprawling metropolis. Like a wallflower turned hottie, the city core has gone from drab to dynamite.
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What happened? Local entrepreneurs, artists and artisans teamed up with forward-thinking investors and developers to reinvent downtown. Long-vacant historic buildings have shuddered to life, their vital signs of aromas, songs and color luring you inside. Exuberant occupants serve up savory and sweet eats, craft beer, fresh-roast coffee, cosmetics with garden-grown ingredients and unique fashions, art and music. Frequent markets and festivals add free outdoor concerts, inventive vendors and street performers to the mix.
Downtown’s no longer just a place to work, but a place to play. And unlike many hipster hotspots, it’s affordable, attitude-free and can be enjoyed on foot, from Hemming Park to breezy St. Johns River.
EDGY, FRIENDLY VIBE
For maximum indulgence, visit during monthly Art Walks and Jaxsons Night Markets or spring flings like GastroFest, One Spark and Jazz Festival. But there’s always something fresh happening within blocks of Hemming Park. Even on Sundays, when The Volstead offers free swing lessons.
Before dancing, stop in Grease Rags Clothing Co. for vintage hot-rod and pin-up apparel. Owner Cindy Platt opened here about a year ago to be part of the artsy-edgy change she wanted to see in her city. New Jax merchants collaborate instead of compete; Platt talks up neighbors instead of pushing her wowza merchandise. She supports local crafters, displaying Christy Ramsey’s comic book-motif totebags and NicoleMadeThis organic bubble-bath, mustache cream and Beer Lotion.
Next door at 44 Monroe Art Studio, Jami Childers exhibits colleagues’ multi-media works. The painter/barber relocated here in October because “the rent was right!”
News-flash flurries became torrents in December. Regional and Yankee chefs and Vagabond Coffee’s barista announced plans for dining spaces in grand buildings erected after the Great Fire of 1901. Market favorite FreshJax has placed its maple-mesquite almonds, sriracha pumpkin and sweet chile lime snacks in grocery stores and will soon open a cafe/yoga studio. Following in the tracks of other Jax mobile units, Super Food Truck’s opening a restaurant come spring. Fashion trucks Belle of the Boulevard and Sally Ann were taped for a new reality TV series.
Tastiest of all: Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails and local legend Sweet Pete’s opened fantasy spaces in a century-old former men’s club. The gourmet candy-maker, once jammed in a 2,000-square-foot house, now fills 22,000 square feet with its treat boutique, dessert bar and confection kitchen. Don’t resist the salted caramels and dark chocolates.
New urban bazaars include the third-Thursday Jaxsons Night Market (produce, crafts, music), random Food Fun(d) fairs (the $1 admission helps crowdfund start-ups) and pop-ups like Vagabond Flea. Just south of downtown under a bridge, every-Saturday Riverside Arts Market offers more wares than ever.
Downtown’s first-Wednesday Art Walk has become a sprawling carnival with nearly 50 venues walkable from Hemming Park. As festival-central, the park is packed with booths displaying artwork, fine craft and artisan foods from Evil Seed hot sauces to Backyard Pops farm-fresh ice pops. Musicians, dancers and martial arts troupes perform on stages and walkways.
A glowing robotic triceratops zips around gawkers at dusk; “I made him from a wheelchair motor,” says Victor Toribio, a Foundation Academy science whiz.
Trucks ringing the plaza indulge all senses. Inside Tin Can Photo Lounge’s teardrop camper, five festively attired First Coast Sisters, a community outreach group, strike poses as the camera snaps. A block away, I don 3-D glasses to view Noell Schofield’s fluorescent mixed-media clocks. “There’s a huge groundswell of artists here now,” he says, crediting the support of growing crowds of culture-seekers.
DJs spin pulsing tracks on sidewalk turntables. Hip hop dancers recruit spectators for flash line-dances. Cissa Jackson gives AstroTarot readings by Burro Bar, a smoky dive hosting rowdy bands. Costumed members of Infernal Doll Factory Savage Burlesque, whose circuit spans Miami to Manhattan, flow like a glittering river down the street.
Art Walk’s four-hour marathon of merriment gives way to free, everyone’s-invited after-parties. In the nightclub district dubbed the Elbow, bands play in the alley behind Burrito Gallery and beneath Underbelly’s dazzling laser lights. Underbelly relocated from the quaint Five Points district last year, says Olivia Fore, a Candy Apple manager who’s fiercely local-loyal.
1904 Music Hall’s a five-ring circus with singer-songwriters on the front stage, DJs in the courtyard, live painting inside, spraycan tagging out back and cozy tables topped with wares like wild-gathered glow-in-the-dark “Third Eye” pine-cone pendants.
At Dos Gatos, regulars sip Lost Traveler craft cocktails and tell me to come back for rock ’n’ roll karaoke, blackjack and lively trivia contests. Nearby, lines queue out the door past sidewalk tables at Chomp Chomp, a hole-in-the-wall that quickly gained fame for gourmet street eats. Fans include the bicycling chef of food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar Corner Taco.
The next morning’s perfect for jogging the immaculate Riverwalk along St. Johns River, which seems to sparkle brighter than ever. I cross Main Street Bridge to downtown’s south bank, where rebuilt Riverwalk sections should open by March, then return over the Acosta Bridge.
Back at Hemming Park, the grounds are crowded again — it’s a mass wedding for 60 same-sex couples.
Downtown keeps on changing before my eyes.
An earlier version of this article wrongly identified the business selling ice pops at Art Walk. Backyard Pops sells ice pops at Art Walk; Bold City Pops sells ice pops at the Jaxsons Night Market.
Going to Jacksonville
Getting there: USAirways and American fly nonstop from Miami; a trip of an hour and 20 minues, with round-trip fares from $275 in mid-March. Silver and JetBlue fly nonstop from Fort Lauderdale; round-trip from $96.
Getting around: Transit options with Hemming Park stops include the now-free Skyway monorail (weekdays and special events; trains arrive every 3-6 minutes) and $1 Riverside Trolley (Monday-Saturday). www.jtafla.com. There’s also a water taxi that crosses the St. Johns River, $7 round-trip (except for football games and special events); www.jaxrivertaxi.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Omni Jacksonville: 245 Water St., 904-355-6664, www.omnihotels.com/hotels/jacksonville. Newly renovated, river and skyline views; rooms from $155.
Hyatt Regency Jacksonville: 225 E. Coastline Dr., 904-588-1234, www.jacksonville.hyatt.com. Riverfront by Jacksonville Landing; rooms from $164.
Riverdale Inn: 1521 Riverside Ave., 866-808-3400, www.riverdaleinn.com. Near Riverwalk just south of downtown; rooms from $190.
WHERE TO EAT
Chomp Chomp: 106 E. Adams St., 904-762-4667, www.facebook.com/pages/Chomp-Chomp/198507713547963. Street-inspired fare such as grilled-pineapple jerk sandwiches and reels of handmade potato chips. Lunch to late night from $7.50.
Indochine: 21 E. Adams St., 904-598-5303, www.indochinejax.com. Exposed-brick loft serving spiced-to-order Asian dishes such as gingery peanut curry. Lunch and dinner from $7.
Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails: 400 N. Hogan St., 904-353-9717, www.candyapplecafeandcocktails.com. Creative lunch, dinner, drinks and deluxe candy apples in cheerful big-windowed rooms. From $4.99.
WHAT TO DO
Attractions, events and new free app (Google Play and iTunes): www.facebook.com/DowntownIsOnFire.
Art Walk: www.jacksonvilleartwalk.com. First Wednesdays, attractions span Hemming Park to Jacksonville Landing. Free.
Jaxsons Night Market: www.facebook.com/JaxsonsNightMarket. Third Thursdays, local crafters, growers, artisans and performers fill Hemming Park. Free.
GastroFest: www.gastrofest.com. Sample Jax cuisine from food trucks to chic bistros. March 21. Free.
One Spark: www.onespark.com. Bigger-than-ever crowdfunding festival showcasing 650 creator projects in art, music, education, health, science, tech and social good. April 7-12. Free.
Jacksonville Jazz Festival: www.jaxjazzfest.com. Huge event takes over downtown; Jazz Fest After Dark showcases local bands. May 21-24. Free.
Hemming Park events: www.hemmingpark.org.