For me, Jacksonville was a place to drive through on I-95 on our way out of or into Florida.
We recently discovered, however, that visiting Jacksonville can be a great choice for an overnight stop along the way because of the charming, historic Riverside Avondale neighborhood.
Five minutes off I-95, Riverside Avondale is part of downtown Jacksonville, but it is another world — a walkable, bike-friendly residential area lined with old live oaks providing shade, magnificent mansions from the early 20th Century, views of the St. Johns River and lively business districts with restaurants and bars.
It was the perfect stop over for our drive down I-95 from Washington D.C. — convenient to I-95 and full of local flavor and activities.
Where to stay in historic Riverside Avondale
With its location downtown, there are plenty of hotel chains represented nearby. We were thrilled to discover, however, a place to stay that was full of history and ambiance. It is now one of our favorite bed and breakfasts in Florida — The Riverdale Inn.
Built in 1901, it is one of only two mansions left on Riverside Drive were there once was a row of 50 of them. It is a beauty! (Rates are $155 to $225.)
With tall ceilings, wainscoting, crown moldings, heart of pine floors, a winding stair case (no elevator) and full of beautiful antiques, it has 11 rooms, each with a bath. Ours on the third floor was spacious with king-size bed and a twin bed.
Visiting Jacksonville: Interior scenes at Riverdale Inn. The gracious lobby and dining room; delicious pecan waffles for breakfast. (Photos: Bonnie Gross.)
The exterior of the building is festooned with gables, balconies and extensive decorative details. The mansion is in terrific condition – now. It is obviously a labor of love for the family that bought it in 2002 after it sat empty and decaying for 15 years. They spent two years refurbishing it.
It’s a family operation: The owners, Eric and Mary-Mychael Waln, check you in and serve you breakfast and provide hospitality as well as local information and advice.
In addition to its physical beauty, the Riverdale Inn is wonderfully situated. We were able to walk to everything during our short visit – to Cummer Museum, to River and Post for dinner and drinks and over to Memorial Park for a big view of the St. Johns River.
Things to do when visiting Jacksonville and Riverside Avondale: Cummer Museum and Gardens
Visiting Jacksonville: Scenes from the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, including the gardens overlooking the St. Johns River and a vibrant painting by Jacksonville native Mildred Thompson. Photos: Bonnie Gross.
We visited in summer and thus were looking for some air-conditioned activities. The perfect stop in this neighborhood is the Cummer Museum and Gardens — just a block from the Riverside Inn.
We started with the gardens because the weather was threatening rain. The museum is set up, however, so that you can go back and forth from the galleries to the gardens, which is the ideal way to do it.
The gardens have spectacular views of the wide St. Johns River. There are three distinctly different gardens — an English garden, an Italian garden, and a garden designed by the Olmstead brothers (famous for designing Central Park, the grounds of the US Capitol and nearby Memorial Park, among many other things.)
The manicured gardens are not enormous but even in summer, they were full of color and interest. These gardens were begging to be photographed.
An enormous sprawling live oak tree that is 200+ years old is a centerpiece in the garden.
The museum has a wide range of art from Europe and the United States over many eras. They don’t own famous paintings, but they do own some works by artists you will recognize — Andy Warhols’ prints of Chairman Mao; an etching by Rembrandt.
But the works by artists you may not know are excellent and the labels provide interesting background to make them easier to appreciate. Even those with only a casual interest in art will find something to like here.
There is also an excellent interactive area for children and a café that gets great reviews.
Touring the splendid houses of Riverside Avondale in Jacksonville
We love to walk and we love historic buildings and neighborhoods, so we thoroughly enjoyed several hours of self-guided touring here.
Downtown Jacksonville was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901. Between the fire and the Great Depression, this neighborhood along the St. Johns River was THE place to build a grand home, and many are still here, cherished by current owners.
Visit Jacksonville produces a guide to 11 especially spectacular mansions in Riverdale Avondale built before the Great Depression. (Three are pictured here.)
The castle-like Witschen Residence at 1822 Edgewood Ave., the eclectic Stringfellow House at 1541 Riverside Ave. and the Marble House (Bryson Residence) at 1704 Avondale Ave. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)
We systematically visited all 11 houses on this tour, doing the first four houses one day and then numbers five to 11 on the second day. If you were to walk the whole route, it would be about three miles roundtrip.
You can do this historic home tour a lot of different ways. You can obviously walk, as we did, using our page of info and map and your phone to find your way to the next house.
You could drive or bicycle through the neighborhood and seek out these 11 houses, discovering along the way all the many other beautiful structures from that era. (These 11 houses just scratch the surface.)
If you don’t need a lot of history/architectural detail and you don’t want to be tied to a route, you can just wander a few blocks on either side of Riverside Avenue and you will encounter lovely views and homes everywhere you walk.
The innkeeper at our bed-and-breakfast recommended tours by www.gotukn.com, which offers three-hour tours of the residential architecture in Riverside Avondale for $55 per person. (9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday.)
We loved walking it because that’s how you discover the small things that often bring the most delight.
There were many other pleasures of this walk: Admiring the carefully tended gardens, the hexagonal pavers that still comprise the sidewalks after a hundred years, the old Spanish-moss draped oak trees and the little neighborhood parks (like the Yacht Basin Park and Willowbranch Park.)
Restaurants and bars in historic Jacksonville
I love a place where I can park my car and walk to many of the things I want to do. We were happy therefore to discover several good choices for dinner and drinks near the Riverdale Inn.
But we were thrilled with our choice, which was to go to the roof deck bar at River and Post restaurant and bar. We fully intended to have dinner at the first-floor of this seafood restaurant, but after getting a table with a spectacular view on the roof deck overlooking of the St. Johns River and the Jacksonville bridges and skyline, we just didn’t want to leave.
We loved the fish dip, a cocktail and a local beer (I-10 from Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville) so much that we decided to stay on the roof deck and order salads and flatbreads for dinner. (The menu is different and limited on the roof deck.)
There are plenty of other good options for dining. On our walk of historic homes, we strolled through the Shoppes of Avondale, where there are also good dining options, including appealing breakfast and lunch spots.
More things to do when visiting Jacksonville
We spent 24 hours in Jacksonville — a perfect way to break up a long drive and just long enough to feel like we experienced this beautiful neighborhood. But if you come for a getaway weekend, you will have time for a few more activities.
If you visit during the summer, Friday nights are free at the Cummer Museum and there is live music in the gardens.
Then, on Saturdays year around, the Riverside Arts Market fills the shaded areas under the I-95 bridge adjacent to the neighborhood with artists, makers, produce, food booths and more from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In a few months, a pedestrian bridge adjacent to I-95 will be completed that links Riverside Avondale to the historic neighborhood on the other side of the St. Johns River.
Walking or bicycling over that bridge is going to be a scenic treat. One destination on the east side of the St. Johns would be the Treaty Oak, which we drove over to see. (I’m a sucker for a good tree.) The huge oak with branches the size of tree trunks occupies a place of honor in a square, surrounded by boardwalks and landscaping.
I love the fact that it became known as the Treaty Oak because a journalist trying to save it from development actually made up a story about how Native Americans and the Spanish signed a treaty under this Oak. It was total fiction, but the name stuck and the tree was saved. (By the way, right now parking isn’t easy for a casual visitor here.)
Other cool places when visiting Jacksonville
Jacksonville is a good base for day trips to some great outdoor places to explore in northeast Florida.
The beaches along Jacksonville are wide, hard-packed and as beautiful as any along the Atlantic coast.
The Talbot Islands are an awesome collection of state parks and wildlife preserves with striking beaches that stretch for miles, excellent back-country kayaking, off-road trails for hiking, biking and equestrians, picnicking, shelling, surfing, swimming and sunbathing.
We loved exploring the nearby Timucuan Preserve, a national park you’ve probably never heard of. We were particularly impressed with the history recounted at the beautiful site of the Kingsley Plantation there.
A bit farther north (about an hour from Riverside Avondale) is Fort Clinch State Park, with terrific beaches and a well-preserved Civil War era fort with living history activities.
The Jacksonville Museum of Science and History is right downtown, across the I-95 bridge from Riverside. It’s a good choice if you visit in the summer and want more indoor activities.
The Jacksonville Zoo is 73 acres with about 2,000 animals. It’s 15 minutes north of Riverside Avondale.
Catty Shack Ranch is a wildlife sanctuary for big cats. It’s a half-hour north of Riverside Avondale.
Resources for visiting Jacksonville and Riverside Avondale
The Riverdale Inn, 1521 Riverside Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32204, 904-354-5080.
Cummer Museum and Gardens, 829 Riverside Ave, Jacksonville, FL 32204, (904) 356-6857. Admission costs $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and students; children ages 5 and younger can enter for free. There are regular free days.
Riverside Arts Market, free every Saturday, 715 Riverside, Jacksonville, FL 32204
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.