Jacksonville and Orlando aren’t far apart—in fact, they’re only about a two-hour drive from each other. But, if you’re going to be driving down Florida’s eastern coastline, why not do a little exploring while you’re at it? From golf and state parks to beaches and historic sites, there are plenty of exciting stops that you’ll come across as you make your way from Jacksonville to Orlando. Keep reading for a closer look at some of our top picks!
Florida has more golf courses than any other state in the country, so it’s not a huge surprise that the Sunshine State is home to the World Golf Hall of Fame. That’s right—just about 30 minutes outside of Jacksonville, you can explore the legacies of the greatest golfers of all time, including iconic names like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and many, many more. The Golf Hall of Fame is a unique sports institution in that it includes both male and female players, and golfers from all walks of life will appreciate the homage it plays to their favorite sport.
Though it’s been located in St. Augustine since 1998, the World Golf Hall of Fame was originally opened in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in 1974. In addition to showcasing its members and their accomplishments, the Golf Hall of Fame also features a number of special exhibits that explore the sport’s history and examine the careers of some of its most influential players at a greater depth. And if touring the Hall of Fame puts you in the mood to play a few holes yourself, the surrounding World Golf Village has two award-winning, championship golf courses where you can play in style on greens designed by Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, and Gene Sarazen.
Aside from its prominent role in golf history, St. Augustine, Florida, is a city that’s brimming with history. Widely considered to be the oldest city in America, St. Augustine boasts a long list of historical sites and museums. Among the most popular of these attractions is Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument that was constructed by Spanish settlers in 1672, making it the oldest structure in St. Augustine and the first masonry fort in the Continental United States.
Castillo de San Marcos covers a little over 20 acres, and tours of the site are self-guided. Entrance to Castillo is $15 for visitors 16 years and older but is free for those 15 years and under. Admission is from 9 am to 5 pm, and the site is open every day, excluding major holidays. In addition to its informative displays and colonial architecture, the site is also praised for its stunning landscapes and picturesque scenery.
The city of Palm Coast is about an hour’s drive from Jacksonville and around an hour and ten minutes from Orlando. Having only been incorporated in 1999, this beach town might one of the newest cities in Florida, but it’s becoming increasingly visited travel destination, thanks to its assortment of canals (both saltwater and freshwater) and close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. While Palm Coast has several parks and dozens of trails, perhaps the most notable is Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.
Though the entirety of the park is a natural wonderland, Washington Oaks Gardens State Park considers its centerpiece to be its formal gardens that feature exotic and domestic plants, as well as footpaths and reflecting ponds. The beach portion of the park is also beloved by visitors, especially because of the coquina rock formations that dot the shoreline. Photography, hiking, biking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing can all be enjoyed at Washington Oaks, which is open from 8 am to sundown.
You can’t travel to Florida without spending a day at the beach! Founded in 1870, Daytona Beach gained popularity in the early 1900s for its wide, sturdy beaches that were used for high-speed automobile testing and later, car racing. This resulted in the coastal city becoming known as “The World’s Most Famous Beach,” an epithet that’s still in use. (You can find Daytona’s “World's Most Famous Beach” sign on International Speedway Boulevard leading up to the boardwalk.)
Daytona Beach Boardwalk is comprised of local shops, arcades, and restaurants, plus amusement park rides in the summer. Nearby, you can also find the Ocean Walk Shoppes on North Atlantic Avenue, and the Daytona Beach Bandshell in Oceanfront Park. The focal point of the boardwalk, however, is undoubted Daytona Beach Pier, also called the Main Street Pier. The pier, which was originally built in 1926, stretched one thousand feet into the Atlantic Ocean and is usually open daily for free fishing.
Only about 10 miles south of Daytona, this towering National Historic Landmark is truly a sight to be seen. The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse was constructed in 1887, and at 175 feet, it’s the tallest lighthouse in Florida. Climb through history as you make the winding journey up the lighthouse stairs, and learn more about the luminous landmark when you check out its accompanying museum, which has been deemed by many one of the most comprehensive lighthouse museums in the entire world.
Whether you wander around the lighthouse by yourself or book a volunteer-guided tour in advance, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum is sure to make you appreciate the area’s extensive maritime history—and, if you’re willing to trek to the top, you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular coastal views. (Plus, admission rates to the lighthouse are extremely low at $6.95 for adults—ages 12 and over—and $1.95 for children!)
At the northern tip of New Smyrna Beach, you’ll find 73 acres of sprawling sand dunes, as well as an ocean shoreline, riverbanks, scrublands, and saltwater marshes. Smyrna Dunes Park’s unique position on the peninsula renders it as versatile as it is gorgeous, and visitors can partake in a variety of outdoor activities, both on land and in the water.
The park features picnic areas, pavilions, an observation tower, a riverside pier, and two miles of boardwalk trails. Go for a peaceful walk on the beach, snap a few photos of the adjacent Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, or cast a line into the ocean or river—whatever you do at Smyrna Dunes Park, it’s sure to be a relaxing time further enhanced by the diverse natural surroundings.
As you make your way inland toward Orlando, take a short detour to Orange City, about 45 minutes north. Named for the miles and miles of orange groves that once flourished in and around the area, Orange City is a homey town in Volusia County with a history that dates back to the mid-1800s. Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts are sure to fall in love with Orange City right away, as the area is bursting with parks and greenspace, the crown jewel of which is undoubtedly the 26-thousand-acre Blue Spring State Park on the western edge of the city.
Seated alongside the St. Johns River, Blue Spring State Park is the perfect place to camp, hike, fish, canoe or kayak, picnic, swim, snorkel, boat, and even scuba dive. Park amenities include cabins, campgrounds, a canoe and kayak launch, nature trails, pavilions, a playground, and just about everything else you need to have a good time. But as a designated manatee refuge, Blue Spring’s real claim to fame is the herds of migrating sea cows that come through the waters in during the colder months. Over the years, the park’s conservation efforts have attracted increasing numbers of wintering manatees, which can be seen from mid-November to March.
With a mission that’s rooted in conservation, education, and engagement, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is an institution that’s committed to protecting wildlife and creating a community space where visitors can see and learn about different kinds of animals. With close to 400 animals from over 300 species, the Central Florida Zoo is filled with outdoor family fun and education opportunities. Leopards, cougars, giraffes, bears, cheetahs, monkeys, and rhinos are just a few of the inhabitants that reside at the zoo, which also features several botanical gardens.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, the Central Florida Zoo offers free parking and same-day re-entry (with receipt) as part of its one-day admission. In addition to its animals and gardens, the zoo also has a few special attractions like giraffe feeding, private zoo experiences, and even an aerial adventure course.
Lake Mary is about 30 minutes outside of Orlando, but if you’re craving a couple of hours of unconventional fitness fun, then you’ll definitely want to stop at Planet Obstacle: The World’s Largest Indoor Obstacle Park. This dynamic indoor play center is the brainchild of two former Cirque du Soleil performers and offers visitors a chance to tackle physical activity in creative ways.
Some of the park’s main attractions include a two-level aerial ropes course, rock-climbing walls, trampolines, bumper cars, foam pits, a dodgeball area, and a 26-foot vertical slide. Visitors of all ages will have a blast at Planet Obstacle, and there are courses designed for both kids and adults so that everyone can get a workout in. And what better way to burn energy after sitting in the car for a while? Plus, you can even grab a bite to eat at Sky Café, the park’s onsite dining option, if you (or the kids) get hungry.
Orlando might be known for its theme parks and ample tourist attractions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start having fun before you get to the city. And sure, you could drive nonstop from Jacksonville to Orlando, but, as you can see, you’d be passing up a ton of cool destinations if you did. Take some time to enjoy the Sunshine State, and add a few detours to your drive to Orlando. Trust us—you won’t regret it!