I’m a Californian who visited Jacksonville Beach for the first time. I preferred the Florida spot over Santa Monica for a laid-back vacation.

    Florida and California both have great beach destinations.

    Molly O’Brien

    I’m a Californian who visited Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for a spring getaway.
    Everything was generally more low-key in Jacksonville, and the beach was less crowded.
    Both cities are family-friendly and walkable, but finding parking in Florida was less stressful.

    I’ve lived in Los Angeles for five years, so I’m about 30 minutes inland from Santa Monica. It’s a beautiful, classic Southern California destination with a beach, a pier, and an abundance of classy shopping and dining spots.  

    But I decided to visit Jacksonville Beach, Florida, (or “Jax Beach” as I heard it referred to by many locals) for a spring trip. I liked that it’s still on the “up and coming” end of the tourism spectrum. It felt like an unpretentious surfers’ paradise.

    Jacksonville Beach felt similar to Santa Monica, but there were also a few distinct differences between the beach towns on either coast. 

    The ocean is actually warm enough for me to swim in at Jacksonville Beach.I think the Atlantic Ocean tends to feel a little warmer than the Pacific.

    Molly O’Brien

    I signed up for a surf lesson with Thompson Surf School in Jacksonville Beach, and I didn’t even need a wet suit (which is usually customary for surfers in the chilly SoCal water).

    I love swimming in the Atlantic Ocean on the East Coast because, to me, it feels warmer than the Pacific Ocean in California. 

    Santa Monica’s public transportation is much better than Jacksonville Beach’s options.I found it a little hard to get around in the Florida city.

    Molly O’Brien

    Santa Monica has a Metro line that connects right to downtown LA and throughout the city.

    Jacksonville Beach was honestly pretty walkable for most of what I needed during my stay, so I didn’t have to drive many places. But there weren’t any easy public-transit options.

    Jacksonville Beach felt easier and less overwhelming to navigate on foot.I could walk around Jacksonville Beach pretty easily.

    Molly O’Brien

    Jacksonville Beach itself is roughly 22 square miles, but most tourist spots are within walking distance of the pier. 

    Santa Monica is only about 8 square miles. But it’s densely populated and feels a little chaotic in most of the touristy areas, which is more stressful to me. 

    The restaurant and bar scene is more polished (and pricier) in Santa Monica.I liked the casual dining options in Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    If you’re looking for the hottest new restaurant or the chicest rooftop bar, Santa Monica is your place. The culinary scene is undeniably world-class. 

    But if you’re just looking for a burger, burrito, and beer, you’ll be perfectly happy in Jacksonville Beach. You’ll also probably save more than a few dollars while eating out. 

    Santa Monica’s Pacific Pier offers fun games, but it can feel a bit chaotic in the busier season.The pier in Santa Monica is bigger than the one in Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    Jacksonville’s pier is smaller. But it just went through an 11 million dollar, multiyear upgrade. It’s also a good option if you’re looking to just chill out and have a laid-back day going fishing or admiring the coastal scenery.

    If you’re looking for a day of games, rides, and treats along the water though, Santa Monica’s Pacific Pier is probably more up your alley.

    Jacksonville Beach’s weather is less predictable.Florida can be stormy.

    Molly O’Brien

    In Jacksonville, you could have sunny skies in the morning and get stuck in an afternoon thunderstorm. The Florida city is also more humid. 

    In Santa Monica, and Southern California in general, the weather is known for being pretty consistently sunny and warm. But many tourists aren’t prepared for the “June Gloom” weather that’s actually pretty cold and foggy for some or most of the day.

    Either way, you should definitely bust out the sunblock in both spots. 

    Jacksonville Beach still has plenty of room to develop new hotels and restaurants.I stayed in a relatively new hotel in Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    The SpringHill Suites in Jacksonville Beach just opened in April 2023. And from what I could tell, it seemed like there was plenty of room to build more accommodations along the city’s coast in the future

    Santa Monica’s coastline looks pretty maxed out in terms of development. I’m not sure how many brand-new buildings or hotels will be popping up there anytime soon.

    But if you’re going for opulence and elegance, you’ll most likely prefer the lodging options in Santa Monica because there are multiple convenient, upscale hotels like Shutters on the Beach or Viceroy Santa Monica. 

    In Jacksonville Beach, my time at the Springhill Suites was lovely and clean with oceanfront views. But it wasn’t overly showy in any way. 

    Santa Monica is more accommodating of dietary restrictions.Santa Monica has plenty of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free dining options.

    Molly O’Brien

    The Los Angeles area is known for accommodating all kinds of diners — especially on the west side, where Santa Monica is located. 

    Although there were ample options for milk alternatives at the coffee shop I frequented during my trip to Jacksonville Beach, I don’t think the city offered the same dietary variety. 

    It was easier to find parking in Jacksonville Beach — and it cost less, too.When I drove in the Florida city, I didn’t have trouble parking.

    Molly O’Brien

    I love spending a day in Santa Monica on the beach during the summer. But I know I have to be prepared to spend at least $15 on parking if I want to hang out for more than a couple of hours.

    Plus it can be hard to find a spot due to the volume of people coming from seemingly everywhere to visit the iconic beach town.

    In Jacksonville Beach, I didn’t have a problem finding parking — even on the weekend — and the lot prices maxed out at $7. Registered Jacksonville Beach residents even get to park for free. 

    Both destinations are pretty family-friendly.I saw lots of multigenerational families enjoying their time in Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    As someone who spends a fair amount of time out and about exploring Santa Monica, the Southern California city seems to have a much younger population than Jacksonville Beach.

    In addition to the beach, Santa Monica offers plenty of family-friendly activities. There’s Pacific Park, an amusement park on the pier, and the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only shopping street, among other spots.

    You can also rent bikes and explore the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (frequently referred to by locals as “The Strand”), which is a 22-mile paved beach path that travels from Santa Monica all the way down to Torrance Beach. 

    Jacksonville Beach also has a safe, wide, and sandy beach. When I went, the pier was filled with groups of people fishing (including some families).

    Adventure Landing Jacksonville Beach, a water park, also offers mini golf, go-karts, batting cages, and an arcade. There’s even places to rent bikes and take surfing lessons nearby.

    It’s easier to bring your pups to the beach in the Florida city.Dogs aren’t allowed on Santa Monica State Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    Jacksonville Beach is a little more pet-friendly than Santa Monica since dogs are actually allowed on the sands of the beach. There are just certain time restrictions depending on the season, and the dogs have to be leashed. 

    When I went out to eat at a brewery one evening in Florida, I was also surrounded by pups on the outdoor patio.

    Santa Monica is pretty dog-friendly, too, even though pets aren’t allowed on the public state beach. The website has a pretty extensive guide to where you can and can’t bring your pets along in town. 

    The destinations are about the same distance from the nearest commercial airport.I didn’t have any trouble flying into Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to drive from Los Angeles International Airport to Santa Monica. That’s about the same amount of time it took me to get to the beach from Jacksonville International Airport.

    Both cities also happen to be within a couple of hours of the Disney parks. Santa Monica is about two hours northwest of Disneyland, and Jacksonville Beach is about 2 1/2 hours from Disney World.

    There are some beautiful outdoor parks and green spaces on both coasts.Palisades Park has great ocean views.

    Molly O’Brien

    There are some beautiful parks in Santa Monica. My personal favorite is Palisades Park because it features gorgeous views of the ocean. 

    In Jacksonville Beach, I really enjoyed spending time at Oceanfront Park, which also offers beautiful waterfront views.

    I’d prefer a laid-back vacation in Jacksonville Beach over a trip to Santa Monica.I loved the vibes in Jacksonville Beach.

    Molly O’Brien

    Overall, I enjoy both cities. But the vacation vibes I personally go for are more relaxed and low-key, so I’d recommend Jacksonville Beach over Santa Monica.

    Jacksonville Beach felt less crowded, and it was easier to find parking, which can be a challenge in any beach city during the busy season. 

    It felt overall more casual of a vacation destination to me — from how people dressed to the atmosphere at the local restaurants to the cost of food, lodging, and goodies at the low-key local boutiques. 

    This story was originally published in June 2023 and most recently updated on June 27, 2024. 

    Read the original article on Business Insider


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