There really is no other place in America with a story like this.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and Matanzas Bay
Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States. Previously, Juan Ponce de Leon had came ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and Jacksonville back in 1513. He declared “La Florida” for the Spanish, but never established a permanent settlement. In 1562, French Huguenots first arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in present-day Jacksonville. Two years later, they set up what is now known as Fort Caroline as a base camp, bringing Protestant Christianity into the New World, and honing in on Spain’s territorial claim. Of course, this angered Spain (the Inquisition was going on at this time as well), so in 1565, Spain sent Pedro Menendez to establish St. Augustine to the south. After some bloody battles, the Spanish massacred the French, allowing Florida to remain Spanish during most of its Colonial period.
St. Augustine skyline from Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Over the years, St. Augustine has weathered an amazing history that includes not only the bad blood between Spain and France, but also the contributions of pirates, Native Americans, and slaves. Even two of the most prominent figures in African-American history–slave-born abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.–have walked the streets of this town.
St. Augustine skyline through the ropes of a touring replica Spanish Galleon
Today, this fascinating and eclectic old city is invaded every day by a different group of people: tourists. While St. Augustine has been around for a little over four and a half centuries, it has never grown into a large city (in fact, it is part of the metropolitan area of Jacksonville, an exponentially larger city located where France’s ill-fated foray into Florida occurred shortly before St. Augustine’s founding). Nevertheless, the city welcomes droves of visitors on any given day whom are in search of authentic and recreated historic sites, romantic bed and breakfast inns, nearby beaches, and, yes, even kitschy “attractions.”
Statue of Pedro Menendez, the city’s founder
My own personal history is also quite intertwined with this historic city. As a child, I visited St. Augustine from time to time on both family day-trips and school field trips. When I first met my wife, she was attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, so the city then served as the setting for many of our dates. We eventually spent the tail end of our honeymoon here too, at the Casablanca Inn. After getting laid off during the post 9-11 economy, I even took a job in St. Augustine, making the 45-minute commute (each way) from Jacksonville for approximately a year and a half. In other words, I know this city pretty well.
A cannon-firing demonstration at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
My favorite place to explore in St. Augustine is the city’s waterfront historic district. Many points of interest, large and small, can be found here, but I will just mention my favorites. St. Augustine’s most recognizable icon, the Castillo de San Marcos, is a massive old Spanish fort made of coquina stone that was at one time the primary defense for St. Augustine against pirates and other invaders. (Coquina is a shell/rock combination that was a popular building material in the early days of this region). It looms majestically along the Matanzas Bay bulkhead. Here, visitors can tour the various chambers, decks, and watchtowers of the fort, watch live cannon-firing demonstrations performed by “soldiers” in period costume, and enjoy sweeping views of a scenic Caribbean-esque harbor bookended by barrier islands and traversed by sailing ships.
St. Augustine’s Historic District
Across the street from the old Castillo, one of St. Augustine’s youngest attractions also ranks as one of my favorites. The St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum is a very informative and entertaining place to browse. Numerous artifacts from pirates like Captain Kidd, interactive exhibits, an animatronic Blackbeard, an authentic Jolly Roger, and a library of information about pirates with local significance make this museum a must-see.
Original Jolly Roger flag, St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
About a block west of the pirate museum is pedestrian-only St. George Street. Lined with shops, restaurants, and attractions that occupy ages-old buildings, St. George Street is the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district. Many narrow, old, brick and cobblestone streets also intersect St. George Street, leading past charming bed and breakfast inns and restaurants with tucked-away porches and patios under shady canopies of foliage. Dotting the periphery of the central historic district are several architecturally interesting structures, like the spires of the Gatsby-era hotel-turned-university dorms at Flagler College, the tall Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the domed Memorial Presbyterian Church, and castle-like Casa Monica Hotel. A gigantic cross also towers over the city, several blocks north of the Castillo at the Mission of Nombre de Dios.
The Bridge of Lions
Across the Bridge of Lions from the historic district, the city of St. Augustine also occupies the northern portion of Anastasia Island. Here, visitors will find two more of my favorite attractions, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. My wife and I climbed up and down the spiraling steps of the lighthouse a couple of years ago in celebration of one of our anniversaries. At the top is a 360-degree view of the St. Augustine skyline and harbor, Atlantic Ocean beaches, and Intracoastal Waterway marshes.
Top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse
A few blocks to the south, the alligator farm is a zoo that gives visitors the opportunity to safely get close to a large pen of alligators and crocodiles, watch feeding demonstrations, walk through a bird rookery, and, for those who are daring enough (and willing to pay the extra expense), even zip-line over the alligators.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
Venturing outside the city limits, visitors can also enjoy the beaches of Vilano Beach to the north of the inlet or head farther down Anastasia Island to visit Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine Beach, and Crescent Beach. Many people love these beaches, but while Crescent Beach is quite attractive and Vilano offers some “Old Florida” flair, I have never really liked St. Augustine Beach. Its focal point area, at the entrance to a rather short fishing pier, has always seemed a bit run-down. There may be some hope though. A great two-story Salt Life restaurant opened across the street from the pier a few years ago, and now an oceanfront Embassy Suites is slated to open next to the pier in 2018.
Anastasia Island and the Atlantic Ocean from the St. Augustine Lighthouse
South of Crescent Beach, near the southern tip of Anastasia Island, stands Fort Matanzas National Monument. It’s actually situated in the Intracoastal Waterway amidst the marshes of Rattlesnake Island. The visitor center for Fort Matanzas is located on Anastasia Island, where visitors can catch a free boat taxi to the fort itself. Built by the Spaniards, Fort Matanzas was used to protect the southern approach to St. Augustine from attacks. It is a lot smaller than the Castillo, but the boat ride and views from up top make Fort Matanzas worth checking out.
Crescent Beach is the nicest of St. Augustine’s Beaches
Continuing south, about a half an hour away from the St. Augustine historic district, coastal highway A1A crosses into Flagler County at the town of Marineland, which I will be featuring in a separate blog post later on. Thank you for reading!