For years, Jacksonville Magazine has endeavored to find the best restaurants, attractions, boutiques and assorted services in our namesake city. But we were curious to discover the things and places that cause Jaxons to jump into their cars to spend some time in our adjacent sister cities, which is why last year we put out the call for input on the best of Amelia and St. Augustine. Of course, we took input from those communities’ residents, too—because who knows the best spots better than locals? Foodie finds, points of interest, historic sites, shopping destinations, picnic spots—all these and more are explored in our second annual list of St. Augustine’s & Amelia Island’s Best.
Special Occasion Restaurant
For the second year in a row, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and its signature restaurant Salt (4750 Amelia Island Pkwy.) earns the nod of approval for best restaurant to visit for a special occasion. Diners love the posh atmosphere, including views of the Atlantic Ocean from practically every table. The menu changes regularly with the seasons but for a truly special night, the Chef’s Adventure Tasting Menu, showcasing seasonal fish, meats and produce in five courses with wine, may be in order.
First Date Eatery
You are never too old for first-date jitters. España Restaurant & Tapas (22 S. 4th St.) is an island favorite ready and waiting to soothe those nerves. The menu features an extensive wine list and traditional Spanish fare such as seafood tapas and large servings of paella. Diners may choose between sitting outdoors surrounded by greenery or indoors.
Amelia Island isn’t known for having a hard partying atmosphere but The Surf Restaurant & Bar (3199 S. Fletcher Ave.) offers the best spot on the island to belly up to the bar. Located a block from the beach, this eatery, bar and beach motel provides a casual vibe indoors and party deck outside. Here, drinks are labeled as “concoctions.” Choose wisely or you may end up belting out off-key notes during karaoke.
The Salty Pelican (12 N. Front St.) serves up seafood standards including fried shrimp, seared tuna BLT, broiled oysters and more. Our recommendation? Dine at the upstairs patio bar which provides views of the harbor. Shrimp & Grits Verandah Seafood Restaurant (142 Racquet Park Dr.), located inside the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, offers fresh seafood and Southern-inspired fare. The shrimp and grits earns diners’ stamp of approval—and that’s saying something ‘round here, where you can’t sling a spoon without hitting a dish laden with shrimp.
The smell of homemade fudge and waffle cones pull patrons off the street and into Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge (218 Centre St.). The shop is fairly small, but the options make up for it. Pralines, peanut brittle, chocolate caramel covered popcorn and, of course, fudge are for sale.
Beach Diner (2006 S. 8th St.) is know to have a line that stretches far beyond the door so arrive early. Popular items include eggs on the Bayou, two poached eggs on English muffins topped with bacon, crabmeat, hollandaise sauce, diced tomatoes and green onion and pecan pancakes served with bacon, sausage links and warm maple syrup.
Funky Foodie Find
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen’s (1998 S. Fletcher Ave.) walk-up counter and easygoing vibe is a draw for curious diners. This Southern-inspired menu puts a spin on all of its seasonal dishes. Pulled smoked alligator rib sliders served with dill pickles and jalapeño sweet rolls is a good choice for the adventurous foodie. Order a meat sampler and try one of many sauces that Top Chef alum chef Kenny Gilbert creates.
Take a guided ecotour with Kayak Amelia (13030 Heckscher Dr.) and cruise around the marshes coming face-to-face with native wildlife. Newcomers are welcome on all tours, with tour guides providing instructions on land before entering the water. The guides also make sure everyone in the group has a safe and enjoyable time. Other popular trips include Segway tours, stand-up paddleboard excursions and yoga on stand up paddleboards.
Diners vouch for the waterside views offered by Brett’s Waterway Café (1 S. Front St.), especially at sunset. The restaurant is situated at the end of Downtown Fernandina and Fernandina Harbor Marina on the Amelia River. The menu focuses on seafood dishes and American favorites. Try the Southwest buffalo shrimp salad lunch. For dinner, go for the grilled salmon or the New York strip.
Sandy beaches and live oak trees add character to Fort Clinch State Park (2601 Atlantic Ave.) which offers living-history interpretations and Civil War reenactments, allowing visitors to step back to the year 1864 and experience the life of a soldier at the fort. The park also allows for activities such as fishing, swimming, shelling and wildlife viewing along its three miles of shoreline.
Little Talbot Island (12157 Heckscher Dr.) provides picnic tables, grills, pavilions and trails for the whole family to enjoy. Five miles of beachfront make this state park one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Northeast Florida. While picnicking, watch for the array of wildlife that calls this park home. To secure a spot, reserve a pavilion several weeks in advance. Popular activities include surfing, swimming, camping, hiking and biking.
With a variety of historical and recreational excursions available, Amelia River Cruises (1 N. Front St.) provides vessels with comfortable covered seating and a bathroom on board. Guides entertain passengers by relating information about the history and activities of Amelia and Cumberland islands. When nearing Cumberland, watch for horses and other wildlife on the shore.
Amelia Community Theatre (209 Cedar St.) has presented live stage productions for 36 seasons. The theatre also hosts workshops, classes and fundraisers for the community. The ACT Guild, formed in 2003, is the events arm of the theatre, allowing the public to get involved with volunteering and theatre events planning.
Beach Life Store
Driftwood Surf Shop (31 S. Fletcher Ave.) is a one-stop shop for beachgoers, offering beach products such as surfboards, skateboards and flip-flops from brands including Billabong, Reef, Quicksilver, Roxy and Rainbow. The shop also offers surf lessons, during which water safety, board management and surf technique are discussed.
Slightly Off Centre (218 Ash St.) displays whimsical, sometimes kooky handmade pottery, folk art, paintings, photography and more. Find a gift or a piece of art to bring home. If you don’t see what you need, ask owner Trish to throw something on the potter’s wheel for you.
In its 54th year, Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival (May 5-7) draws visitors from all over the country with live music, streets lined with arts and crafts vendors, a kids’ fun zone, antiques and, of course, shrimp. Don’t go for the first shrimp vendor you see, though. Each year scores of food tents hawking low country boils, fried shrimp, BBQ shrimp and more are found up and down Centre Street.
Twisted Sisters (402 Center St.) features apparel for women, knick-knacks, home décor, accessories and gifts. This brightly colored boutique is a favorite among tourists and locals alike. Oceanside Resort/Hotel The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island (4750 Amelia Island Pkwy) provides guests access to a 72-par golf course, four restaurants, three pools, a full spa and 446 guest rooms with ocean views located mere steps away from the sandy shore. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Bed & Breakfast Inn
The Florida House Inn’s (22 S. 3rd St.) historic charm and convenient location makes it a favorite for visitors. Complimen-tary coffee followed by a homemade breakfast is served every morning in the courtyard. Guests tend to explore the town during the day, but come back to the inn in the evening from 5-7 PM to celebrate happy hour at the Mermaid Bar.
First Date Eatery
Gypsy Cab Co. (828 Anastasia Blvd.) boasts a laid-back atmosphere and a menu full of familiar comfort food. It’s a good place to take a first date when you don’t want to seem too pretentious nor too unrefined. Creative fare like the Gypsy chicken and the portobello burger are popular among regulars. When in doubt, order a salad—diners rave about the house Gypsy dressing.
Special Occasion Restaurant
The Raintree (102 San Marco Ave.) was voted the best place to go for a special occasion. With a Victorian themed interior, indoor and outdoor dining spaces and more than 300 wines available, Raintree is a cozy, romantic spot for an anniversary or birthday dinner. The beef Wellington is a standout, as are the escargot, lobster tails and prime rib.
Located along the Tolomato River in Vilano Beach, Aunt Kate’s (612 Elucid Ave.) was voted the best place to feast on the bounty of the sea. They’ve had enough practice: Kate’s has been serving up local seafood for more than 100 years. Relax on the outdoor patio and try the fried oyster platter or the fish soft tacos. The Menorcan sampler, a cup of clam chowder and a cup of pilau—rice cooked in seasoned broth—is a dish you won’t find anywhere but St. Augustine.
The Blue Hen Cafe (117 Martin Luther King Ave.) serves up the best brunch in the Oldest City, according to Jax Mag readers. Nestled in a neighborhood off the beaten path, locals and the occasional tourist feel right at home in this cozy spot. The bacon and tomato omelet comes highly recommended as well as the corned beef hash. The one-room dining area is small, so arrive early to avoid a wait.
Scarlett O’Hara’s (70 Hypolita St.) features live music, a popular upstairs balcony to relax on, and plenty of mixed drinks to sip. Try the fountain of youth cocktail, made with rum, pineapples, local honey and peach bitters. Or order a draft beer and celebrate happy hour, all day-every day. Fun fact: this building is said to be haunted. After a few frozen drinks, you might start seeing ghosts, too.
The Hyppo (48 Charlotte St.) specializes in unique popsicle flavors, like the Elvis—peanut butter, honey, and banana. Coffee lovers should try the dark roast espresso with a shot of espresso, whole milk, evaporated cane juice and organic tapioca flour. It’s a perfect excuse to get out of the heat during summer in the Oldest City.
Funky Foodie Find
The Floridian Restaurant’s (72 Spanish St.) kitschy gator heads and mermaid decór aren’t the only funky, cool stuff they’ve got. The menu changes with the seasons, but we recommend the fried green tomato bruschetta, biscuits and belly (with hot sauce honey, cheese, mustard and apple butter), pork and waffles and Kentucky Derby pie, a chocolate caramel and pecan confection.
The Colombia (98 St. George) was voted best spot for Spanish eats in a city known for its Spanish heritage. The interior features hundreds of hand-painted tiles and fountains to complement the menu’s century-old family recipes like roast pork "a la Cubana" and the red snapper “a la Rusa.” Don’t miss the 1905 salad, mixed tableside including iceberg lettuce, baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, olives, grated Romano cheese and garlic dressing—and wash it down with a glass of sangria.
The 1927 building was originally an ice factory, where large blocks were chipped and shipped to locals and fishermen. Now The Ice Plant (110 Riberia St.) is a gastropub. The early 1900s, Gatsbyesque atmosphere is achieved with soaring ceilings, exposed brick and bartenders wearing suspenders and vests. Cocktails, like the notorious F.I.G. and Old Fashioned, are served with ice chipped off a large block, bringing old and new together. Hey, Bartender!
Arrive at Cap’s on the Water (4325 Myrtle St.) around 5:30 PM to witness the beauty of a Floridian sunset. Hurricane Matthew knocked Cap’s down but not out. Relax with a glass of wine on the large deck under the trees and listen to the lapping of the Intracoastal. For dinner, try the sesame seared tuna—teriyaki glazed, seared rare over fried spinach with plantains. For a comfy Southern go-to, order the mildly spiced jambalaya served with corn bread.
Opened in 1948, the Lightner Museum’s (75 King St.) current mission is to preserve, maintain, research and interpret the collections for the general public’s educational benefit. The eclectic treasures found within include shrunken heads, Tiffany glass, furniture and fine art displayed in the formerly Henry M. Flagler-owned Alcazar Hotel—a work of art in its own right. The hotel’s former indoor pool now hosts the Café Alcazar, where readers enjoy bites to eat after touring the museum.
Old Town Trolley Tours (167 San Marco Ave.) provides memorable introductions to Old City guests who want to learn more about the town. Incorporating history, fun facts and interesting anecdotes, the trolley tour offers many different stops including the Old Jail, Potter’s Wax Museum and the Old Drug Store. Book your tour ahead of time to secure a spot.
Anastasia State Park (300 Anastasia Park Rd.) features three popular picnic areas for visitors to reserve. The Hilltop, close to the marsh and ocean, Windsurf pavilion, by the marsh, and Sea Turtle pavilion, close to the ocean. For a more casual picnic, drop your blanket down on the shoreline to soak up some sun right by the water. The park also offers a campground and hiking trails to complete your afternoon.
Established in 1998, Cutter & Cutter Fine Art (25 King St.) is tops among art galleries in St. Augustine, at least according to our readers. The gallery, situated right on the Plaza de la Constitución, has featured fine art from Salvador Dalí, Anne Packard, Stephen Shortridge, Royo and more. Numerous artist appearances and events are held throughout the year. Exhibitions are always changing, so you’ll never see the same painting twice.
Beachcombers and shark tooth hunters love Vilano Beach. Sunrises here are popular among tourists, as summertime sun worshipers fill up the sandy beach. Cars are allowed to drive and park on the shore, and pets are welcome on-leash. Regardless of all the hustle and bustle, this is still a great spot to drop a towel, close your eyes and forget about life for a while.
St. George Street is always a favorite visitor magnet. The pedestrian-only lane is lined with old buildings turned into stores such as Gypsy Moon, Go Fish Clothing & Jewelry Co., St. Augustine Textiles, and Kind Walking. Food shops like City Perk’s Coffee Co., The Spanish Bakery & Café, and Tedi’s Olds Tyme Ice Cream offer treats on-the-go. On weekends the cobblestones see their share of traffic, so arrive early to enjoy the sights of the city without the crowds.
Inspired by the Spanish tradition of displaying a white candle in the window during Christmas holidays, the current version of St. Augustine’s nights of Lights (November-January) is a little flashier. With over three million twinkling lights, this fest gets more popular each year. Visitors enjoy dining, shopping, walking and celebrating the romantic atmosphere each winter season surrounded by beautiful holiday-inspired illuminations.
Bed & Breakfast Inn
The historic allure of Old City House (115 Cordova St.) captures tourists’ attention and includes all the important amenities: queen sized beds, en suite bathrooms, complimentary breakfast and a glass of wine in the evening. The inn, opened in 1873, offers seven rooms to choose from, all with unique identities. Located only a block away from St. George street, Old City House is a quaint, charming and cozy place for a staycation.
Castillo de San Marcos (1 S. Castillo Dr.) is the oldest masonry fort in the U.S., and one of the only two forts in the world made of coquina. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Castillo provides tourists with a trip back in time through cannon firing demonstrations and informative exhibits. While some of the history surrounding this fort is bleak, it now serves as a reminder and educational tool for generations to come.
More than 30 galleries participate in St. Aug’s First Friday Art Walk (historic Downtown & Anastasia Island), presented by Art Galleries of St. Augustine. During the first Friday of every month, galleries open their doors and offer appetizers and refreshments for art lovers to enjoy as they walk from gallery to gallery, soaking in the inspiration for free. Many of the featured artists are on location to answer any questions and talk to potential buyers.