Follow this authentic guide for your next epic St. Augustine heritage vacation while walking through centuries of living history, historical monuments, museums and galleries
Castillo de San Marcos Fort overlooking Matanzas Bay
It’s early morning. The royal blue sky meets the calm reflective waters of Matanzas Bay. A group of guided kayakers quietly paddle along a seawall peering at a massive fort high above. To the south, traffic has stopped as the famous Bridge of Lions opens for boats to pass through.
Across the moat within the Castillo de San Marcos, one of the country’s oldest fortresses, a Spanish soldier guards his post as another fires a musket during a demonstration. Climbing upstairs to the fort’s gun deck rewards visitors with a mesmerizing 360-degree view. Families pose for “selfies” against the panoramic background, next to centuries-old cannons and inside turrets where sentries once stood guard.
Flagler College, once known as the Hotel Ponce de Leon
To the south, Flagler College rises as a magnificent example of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Once known as the Hotel Ponce De Leon built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler, it is where he and his Gilded Age guests enjoyed the opulence of the times, escaping cold northern winters and basking in warm Florida sunshine.
St. Augustine’s iconic Bridge of Lions
Midway between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville is St. Augustine, the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States. Embraced by a community that celebrates its historical roots, St. Augustine welcomes visitors to experience Florida’s (and America’s) fascinating past.
The Timucua were the first to inhabit St. Augustine, artist Mickey Summers
The indigenous Timucua, the Spanish, French, British, Africans and Mincorcans – all left their mark in St. Augustine. With such history it is easy to see why the area is called Florida’s Historic Coast. And as a visitor you can walk through a well-preserved and vibrant mélange of living history.
Re-enactors create St. Augustine’s living history, photo courtesy Kathe O’Donnelly
St. Augustine’s rich history is well chronicled by the landmarks that bear witness to six historical occupations, from the 1565 First Spanish Period to the 1861 Confederate Period. The Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Matanzas and the fabled Fountain of Youth are a few of many historical attractions that bring history to life and illuminate the city’s captivating, richly layered past.
St. George Street in historic downtown St. Augustine, courtesy Florida’s Historic Coast
It’s easy to become absorbed by St. Augustine – whether visiting an historic landmark or walking the narrow stone streets of the historical downtown. No matter whom you encounter – a tour guide, restaurant server, historian or even a character re-enacting the past -virtually everyone knows their local history and will gladly share their version.
Of course there is also a touristy vibe. Trams circle blocks of historical landmarks while drivers point out buildings and regale visitors with facts. But this is an area that takes pride in its place in history and even the tram operators undergo thorough training.
Castillo de San Marcos exhibit displays the nations that controlled St. Augustine
Explore Living History
First, here is a short and simple history lesson: Florida was a major area of conflict as European nations fought to control the New World. The Spanish, French, and British battled for the right to control the sea channels that carried treasures and precious cargo along the Gulf Stream past the Florida shores.
Fountain of Youth exhibit displays the 1513 Ponce de Leon landing
But it began with Ponce de Leon, who came ashore in 1513 making him the first European to visit the area of what would become the United States. He named it “La Florida” while staking claim for Spain.
But even before the Spanish arrived, native people called the Timucua had lived in the area for at least 500 years. They used an intricate network of waterways and marshes for transportation and food as they hunted, fished, and gathered shellfish, oysters and clams. They left their archeological footprints throughout the region, providing a beginning to the town’s multi-cultural past.
The Fountain of Youth
Fountain of Youth entrance, courtesy, Florida’s Historic Coast
To experience St. Augustine history, consider starting at the Fountain of Youth. While the name refers to a place of legend, the park itself yields a glimpse into the real St. Augustine. Not far from Old Town, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, one of Florida’s oldest attractions, is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood. With a shady “old Florida” arched entrance, this 15-acre waterfront property is the original location of St. Augustine’s first settlement.
Fountain of Youth Archeology Park depicts the earliest settlement in St. Augustine
Following the 1513 landing of Juan Ponce de Leon In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles was charged with creating the first Spanish settlement in Florida. Archeologists continue to excavate the property to discover more about this first colony. The property includes the original “spring” or mythical “fountain of youth,” and a mix of reconstructed settings that bring St. Augustine’s history to life.
Costumed re-enactors, St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth
Costumed re-enactors -a Franciscan friar priest, Timucuan interpreters, and weapons demonstrators – share stories and tales of the period. Walk through a Tumucua family compound representing life in the Tumucuan’s capital of Seloy including the “anoti,” an authentic thatched family home.
Reconstructed Mission Nombre de Dios, Fountain of Youth
Next, enter the reconstructed Mission Nombre de Dios, built in 1587 as the first Catholic parish in the U.S. Then, wander down to the waterfront to view the replica of Chalupa Astillero, a 16th century utility boat and stroll out to the salt marshes overlooking Matanzas Bay. Visitors can also witness a cannon fire and climb the watchtower designed for impeding enemy attacks.
Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos is the most popular attraction in St. Augustine, Florida Cultural Coast
Soon you’ll want to make your way to the Castillo de San Marcos, undoubtedly the most popular attraction in St. Augustine. This is the oldest masonry fort in the United States, completed in 1695, to protect treasure fleets, the harbor and local inhabitants from pirate invasions. Its strategic position on the west bank of Matanzas Bay protected the harbor entrance as well as land attacks from the north.
Courtyard, Castillo de San Marcos where live demonstrations take place
A self-guided or ranger led tour will provide insight into the fort’s history and design. On the gun deck, sentry towers anchor the diamond-shaped bastions extending out from a square structure with a courtyard in the middle. Thick coquina walls (12-17 feet in some areas), created from sedimentary rock of shell and limestone protected the fort absorbing the fiery hot cannon balls. The fort played a pivotal role in protecting Spanish St. Augustine from the 1700s to the late 1800s.
Castillo de San Marcos costumed re-enactors
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the fort will have extended hours and candlelight tours leading up to the August 25th anniversary when admission will be free to the public.
Fort Matanzas Monument
Fort Matanzas was built to protect invaders through the Matanzas Inlet
Fourteen miles south of the Castillo de San Marcos, on the Intracoastal Waterway, is another national park treasure, Fort Matanzas. Also built by the Spanish, after the Castillo de San Marcos, this fort was designed to protect the city from invaders sailing through the Matanzas Inlet. Built by convicts, slaves and soldiers, the fort towers 50-feet high with a 30-foot tower and coquina walls. It was a remote outpost where men served duty one month at a time.
A short ferry ride transports passengers to Fort Matanzas
To get there, take a ferry across the inlet to the fort where you can climb up the stairs for another blue water view. Peer into the room where the men slept, admire the canons and climb up further to the lookout tower. Walking trails and small tidal beaches provide plenty of natural areas for wildlife to thrive.
Climb around Fort Matanzas past the canons and enjoy the view
Discover five centuries of architecture and its deep heritage in St. Augustine’s historic district. Stroll along narrow St. Augustine streets past gardens, government and religious buildings that form an early model of urban city planning.
The Colonial Quarter depicts the 16th, 17th, 18th outpost of the Spanish Empire
The Colonial Quarter provides a glimpse of St. Augustine when it was a remote outpost of the Spanish Empire. Throughout the Quarter costumed interpreters recreate St. Augustine’s past illustrating the life of soldiers and their families in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries through a soldier’s eyes. You will see a home, blacksmith and leatherwork shops, musket drills, and can climb a watchtower overlooking the city.
The oldest wooden school house dates back to the 1700’s
On St. George Street in Old Town you’ll find the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the U.S., dating to the 1700’s. Nearby restaurants and cafes add old-time flavor and a chance to sit and relax amidst the engaging history. The Oldest House is another historic landmark, also dated in the 1700’s and located south of King Street near the Marina area.
Xemeniz-Fatio house kitchen
And stop by the Xemeniz-Fatio House, built as a merchant’s home, later becoming “Miss Fatio’s,” a fashionable boarding house with an authentic detached kitchen and washhouse.
Flagler College, Hotel Ponce de Leon
St. Augustine’s Flagler College once known as the Hotel Ponce de Leon
Henry Flagler visited St. Augustine in 1883 and recognized the need for a luxurious hotel. Here he built two hotels becoming one of the earliest Florida tourism promoters. And of course it was his railroad that brought them there. He also was a major patron of the arts, and encouraged artists to stay at the lavish hotel, providing them with art studios and access to wealthy patrons. Louis Tiffany, famed for his stained glass windows, stayed at the hotel, along with other renowned painters. Flagler College’s Legacy Tour highlights its architectural heritage and is considered one of the best in St. Augustine.
The Lightner Museum
Across from Flagler College, visit the Lightner Museum
Across the street from the College, Flagler also built the Hotel Alcazar as an extension of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. Here guests could enjoy Turkish baths and an indoor swimming pool. Now known as the Lightner Museum, it showcases fine and decorative 19th century art, furnishings, and relics of the Gilded Age. Enjoy a meal at a local favorite, the Café Alcazar, once the location of the indoor pool.
The Lightner Museum will showcase the American Parks Encore Exhibit from June 10th through August 31st exhibiting 50 images from America’s Parks including works from the Find Your Park Plein Air. Selected artist renderings of the area and landmarks such as the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas will be included.
St. Augustine galleries showcase the area’s vibrant art scene
St. Augustine has been a haven for artists ever since Flagler’s day. When the 1920’s-depression era slowed tourism, the local art association rallied to promote the town’s European charm to both artists and tourists. The city remains an arts town, with visual, performing and literary arts evidenced in its wide range of museums, performances and festivals.
Aviles Street is lined with boutique galleries and restaurants, Florida’s Historical Coast
And you may want to visit the boutique galleries lining the streets, especially on Aviles and St. George Streets. Stop in at the St. Augustine Art Association featuring selected member works and a new outdoor Touch Garden.
The St. Augustine Distillery & Ice Plant Restaurant
St. Augustine Distillery is housed in a 1917 renovated ice plant
St. Augustine’s Distillery and Ice Plant, housed in a 1917 renovated ice manufacturing plant, specializes in crafting small batch spirits using local ingredients to produce bourbon, rum, vodka and gin. There are free tours of the working distillery with tastings of premium grade spirits. Next door, the Ice Plant restaurant is memorable with its fun “speak-easy” theme, authentic restoration and décor, and servers dressed in 1920’s attire.
The Ice Plant restaurant specializes old-fashioned hand cut ice cold drinks
Dining choices in St. Augustine range from fine restaurants to old Florida eateries, sidewalk cafés and eclectic bistros. Considering the area’s cultural diversity, many of the area’s restaurants feature culturally influenced selections, fresh caught seafood and locally grown produce. The destination’s signature dishes often include the local and distinctive datil pepper. Its heat and intense flavor are evident in chowders and stews, and various Spanish tapas.
More things to do in St. Augustine:
Anastasia State Park
Bike Anastasia State Park with its four miles of flat uninterrupted beach riding accessed by wooden walkways extending across towering sand dunes and tidal marshes.
Historic St. Augustine Lighthouse
Hike up the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse, a 165-foot tower of spiraling black and white stripes. The payoff is a spectacular 360-degree view of the blue Atlantic Ocean and surrounding area.
St. Augustine Eco offers tours offer a natural perspective from the water
St. Augustine Eco Tours offers excursions that pass St. Augustine’s historical monuments providing a unique perspective of the city from the water. Travel deep into the marshes and remote creeks, where you may encounter a dolphin or manatee while enjoying Florida’s birdlife.
And one last thing:
Minorcan Clam Chowder, a St. Augustine classic
Minorcan Clam Chowder is one of St. Augustine’s signature dishes. Its deep red color comes from tomato and the little kick is from the key ingredient, the datil pepper.
St. Augustine has many good restaurants but for an authentic Florida meal, especially seafood, try:
Saltwater Cowboys restaurant
Saltwater Cowboys (local fresh food in a “real Florida” setting, overlooking a salt marsh)
Osteens (local diner where crowds line up for the fried shrimp)
Barnacle Bills (local favorite for seafood and Minorcan Chowder)
Schooners Seafood House (shrimp divine)
Catch 27 (intimate, 20-seat restaurant)
La Pentola (fine dining, courtyard seating)
No Name Bar, (local hangout, with a view of the Castillo de San Marcos)
The town is filled with historic inns. The elegant Victorian Cedar House Inn is within walking distance to most everything. Relax with a glass of wine while lounging on the southern style verandah. And don’t miss the blueberry cheesecake french toast. Another favorite is St. Augustine’s oldest inn, the charming St. Francis Inn.
Books to help you with your travel to St. Augustine:
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If You Go
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