St. Augustine has been attracting visitors for 450 years, starting with the arrival on Sept. 8, 1565, of the Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
So while St. Augustine celebrates its 450th birthday this year, it’s a good time to discover what a fun destination the Oldest City has become.
The city’s appeal starts with two key assets:
- The historic district with its shady brick lanes and well-preserved buildings that are older than any others not only in Florida, but also in the nation.
- The natural beauty of a region with wide hard-packed beaches, extensive wildlife and lots of nearby parks that are perfect for hiking, kayaking and camping.
For anyone who likes nature and history, St. Augustine is heaven.
Exploring St. Augustine’s history
Many associate St. Augustine with Ponce de Leon and, indeed, it was this first Spanish explorer who claimed Florida for Spain in 1513, landing near present St. Augustine. He didn’t stay, however. It was 52 years later that Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived with 800 Spaniards, including soldiers, sailors, tradesmen, women and children. They settled near a large Native American village and established St. Augustine, which has been occupied ever since.
A good place to start an exploration of the history of the oldest city is the Visitors Information Center at 10 S. Castillo Drive. You can get maps and brochures here, but also spend a few minutes in a special anniversary exhibit (through Oct. 4) “Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America.” It’s free and explains how the history of St. Augustine melds so many cultures.
Another good way to get an overview of the city is the Old Town Trolley Tours. Tickets for the narrated tour with 23 hop-on-hop-off stops are good for three consecutive days, so you can use the trolley as a primary mode of transportation as well as for information. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not operates the similar Red Trolley tours.
Free things to do in St. Augustine
One dilemma you face in planning a St. Augustine visit is that it’s easy to pay admission to a series of appealing attractions, museums and historic sites, and the cost adds up.
But there are several free activities that may end up being the highlight of your visit.
For example, be sure to make time just to stroll the historic district, where narrow brick streets are lined with buildings, some of which are centuries old. Some are museums, others are cafes, galleries and shops. The historic district extends in both directions off the main drag, King Street, and the oldest street in America is here, Aviles Street, one block from the waterfront. You can get a free walking tour guide at the visitor’s center.
About a mile north of the bustle of the historic district are the free and serene gardens of the Mission Nombre de Dios. This is where it is believed Menendez stepped ashore in 1565. Here the ship’s chaplain celebrated Mass and founded America’s first mission. The site is marked with a 204-foot cross that towers over the waterfront. Shaded by large trees and benefiting from a breeze off the waterfront, the grounds are pleasant to stroll, with a historic cemetery, statues and shrines. (This park is where the Menendez landing will be re-enacted Sept. 8.)
Another important era in St. Augustine history begins when Henry Flagler brought his Florida East Coast railroad here and built his first grand Florida resort for rich Northerners in 1888. Flagler spurred the building of new churches, paved streets and electric lights as St. Augustine became a vacationland for the elite.
His Ponce de Leon Hotel is now a women’s dorm for Flagler College, and the beautiful Spanish Renaissance building is being refurbished to sparkle for the birthday party. You are free to walk into its stunning courtyard and view the entryway and dazzling rotunda. (For a peek at the 70 Tiffany windows in the dining room, you need to take the very interesting hour-long student guided tour for $10.)
Across King Street is a second former Flagler Hotel, the Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum. Even if you don’t pay to enter this amusing and eclectic museum, be sure to walk into the tropical gardens in the building’s courtyard, where palm trees tower over koi ponds crossed by a stone footbridge. You also can walk into what was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world. This huge yet graceful space at the rear of the Lightner Museum is now home to a restaurant open for lunch, called the Alcazar.
More appealing attractions
When you start sorting through attractions where you’ll pay to enter, your list should start with the Spanish fort operated by the National Park Service, the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a winner in so many categories — from its monumental size to the spectacular views of wide Matanzas Bay it offers to the dramatic and entertaining firing of cannons on weekends.
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the United States, built from 1672 to 1695, a century after St. Augustine was founded. It’s located next to the Old Town area and has adjacent parking.
Tips for your visit: Volunteers and rangers in accurate period guard demonstrate how to fire a cannon throughout the day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There are historic re-enactors on site every day.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting the Castillo de San Marcos.
Your next priority will depend on your interests and the makeup of your group.
Want to soak up history while being entertained? Consider Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum: and/or the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. These adjacent attractions near the fort are both owned by entrepreneur Pat Croce, whose personal pirate collection forms the impressive basis for the museum. The Pirate Museum has rare artifacts such as one of two existing skull-and-crossbones pirate flags, but it also has a treasure hunt game that takes kids through the interactive galleries, which inject a touch of Disney.
Colonial Quarter employs guides who are talented actors to make their history lessons lively and amusing.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum.
For a change from historical attractions, consider seeing the area from the water. At the city’s marina, there is a wide range of boat trips from eco-tours to pirate cruises to a traditional scenic tour that has been operated by the same family for four generations.
The St. Augustine marina is also home port to El Galeon, a full-size reconstructed Spanish tall ship like those used in early Colonial times. When it’s in port (as it will Sept. 3 to 21.) the ship can be toured.
Plenty to do for a longer visit
If you have time, consider squeezing in:
- The Augustine Lighthouse, the second highest in the state, which you can climb for spectacular views. There’s a history museum in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
- The Augustine Alligator Farm, founded in 1893, as one of Florida’s original tourist attractions. Today, it’s an impressive zoo with a mind-boggling array of gators, crocs and exotic birds. Photographers and nature lovers visit for the natural bird rookery, which attracts thousands of native birds to nest March to July. The Alligator Farm also has a zipline ride over the crocodile pens. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the bird rookery at the Alligator Farm.
- The Augustine Distillery, a recent addition to the city, an example of a growing interest in small-batch craft liquor. It offers free tours and samples of vodka, gin and bourbon made from local produce. Read more in this Florida Rambler story.
- Sites important to the Civil Rights Movement, in which St. Augustine played a key role. These include a monument called Andrew Young Crossing, where the Civil Rights leaders was beaten by a white mob, and a Woolworth’s lunch counter where a sit-in resulted in four college students being jailed for six months. The lunch counter is displayed in the original building, now a Wells Fargo bank. Read more in this Florida Rambler story.
Exploring the natural beauty in the region
- Anastasia State Park is a coastal treasure for camping and its beaches. It has an archaeological site where coquina was quarried to build the St. Augustine Fort. Anastasia State Park is located off A1A, 1.6 miles south of the Castillo.
- Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south, is a smaller Spanish fort built 50 years after the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a great stop because you take a small boat to the fort past spectacular scenery. And it’s free.
- Princess Place Preserve, a nearby county park with an 1888 hunting lodge once owned by a princess. Good hiking and camping. Free.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park: Historic gardens plus unusual, beautiful coquina-rock beach. It’s 22 miles south of St. Augustine.
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town. It’s 38 miles south of St. Augustine.
- Faver-Dykes State Park for paddling and camping. It’s 19 miles south of St. Augustine.
Resources for visitors to St. Augustine
- Check tourist brochures for discount coupons to many attractions.
- A Florida Rambler story: Five cool things I discovered in St. Augustine
- Old Town Trolley Tours. Tickets are $25.74 for adults; $10.30 for kids. Red Trolley tours are $23.99 adults; $9.99 kids. http://www.ripleys.com/redtrains/
- Castillo de San Marcos, 1 S. Castillo Dr., St. Augustine. Admission is $10 adults; children 15 and under are free.
- Nombre de Dios mission, 27 Ocean Ave., St. Augustine. Free.
- Ponce de Leon Hotel/Flagler College, 74 King St., St. Augustine. Free to admire rotunda. Tours are $10 per person. Pick up a brochure in advance for $1 off per person.
- Lightner Museum, 75 King St., St. Augustine. Admission is $10 adults; $5 12 to 18. Visit the courtyard for free.
- Colonial Quarter Living History Museum, 33 St. George St., St. Augustine. Admission $12.99 adults; $6.99 ages 5 to 12. You can buy a combo ticket with the Pirate Museum.
- Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, 12 S. Castillo Dr., St. Augustine, Admission $12.99 adults; $6.99 ages 5 to 12.
- El Galeon is moored in the city marina at the base of the Bridge of Lions. Adult tickets are $13.78; children 5 to 12 are $6.36.
- Augustine Lighthouse, Adults are $9.95; children 12 or under $7.95.
- Augustine Distillery, 112 Riberia St., St. Augustine. Tours are free.
- Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, 999 Anastasia Blvd, St. Augustine. Adults $22.95; children 3 to 11, $11.95.
- Andrew Young Crossing, the intersection of King Street and St. George Street at the west end of Constitution Plaza. Across the street is the Woolworth’s lunch counter, now inside Wells Fargo Bank, 33 King St., St. Augustine, free and open to visitors.
Note: I visited St. Augustine with complementary accommodations with a group of travel writers, but these opinions are my own.