Unique Experiences in St. Augustine
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Overview: The United States' Oldest European City
St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United States, is a sight to behold. It is located along the central section of the Atlantic coastline in Florida and about 40 miles south of Jacksonville. The historical charm of the city attracts a bounty of visitors each year wishing to see where the permanent settlement of the United States began.
A Lighthouse, fort, university, cathedral, museum, and many other architectural wonders dot the landscape of this celebrated town with a reminiscence of a Spanish colonial past. St. Augustine offers visitors a vantage point into the colonial era with a plethora of attractions, great food, and an educational experience all within a beautiful and historical ambiance.
History of St. Augustine
The Timucua peoples inhabited the area of what is now St. Augustine. Reaching from southern Georgia to Central Florida, the 35 chiefdoms of the Timucua people consisted of a population of about 200,000. After the discovery of America by colonial powers in the late 15th century, expeditions were sent from Europe to Asia to explore these new lands. Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European Conquistador to set sights on Florida and is believed to have sailed near the area of modern-day St. Augustine.
After a succession of failed settlements in the central Florida region, the Spanish Crown sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to maintain control over the territory. Established August 28, 1565, St. Augustine was the first successful European colony on what is now the United States. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés became the first Governor of Florida and presided over the early years of the colony which was 21 years before the first English attempt at a colony at Roanoke. The city faced numerous attacks by both Native Americans and the French in its early years which required it to relocate to its modern-day position.
America Begins Here
St. Augustine served as the Spanish Capital of Florida for over 200 years before the territory’s transfer to the British Crown after the Seven Years’ War. Known as the Colony of East Florida, St. Augustine remained the capital city throughout these years and after as the territory changed hands back to the Spanish and then to the United States. Many historical buildings and forts located in the modern-day city are a mesh of the Spanish, British, American, and Mediterranean cultural influences that were forced upon the city through its many transfers of dominion.
The Adams-Onis treaty granted Florida to the United States. During the American colonial period, many issues with surrounding Native American tribes escalated and resulted in the Seminole Wars. Seminole leader Osceola was held captive at Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, and it is there where he made his famed escape. In 1845, Florida was given statehood and St. Augustine was lifted in status to state capital.
If you visit St. Augustine, one name will stand out above all others in the creation of this magnificent city, Henry Flagler. Standard Oil Company was one of the largest companies in the world, producing vast amounts of oil and was headed by John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler. With his vast fortune, Flagler decided to transform the historic city of St. Augustine into a winter resort for the rich. He created the East Florida Railway and headquartered it in St. Augustine to increase accessibility for passengers as well as cargo.
Three incredibly momentous and noteworthy sites in the city were built during this era the Ponce de Leon Hotel, Alcazar Hotel, and Casa Monica Hotel. Ponce de Leon Hotel is now the central icon of Flagler College while Alcazar Hotel is currently the Lightner Museum filled with Gilded Age artifacts. These three buildings formed a renaissance of Spanish and Moorish architectural beauty in St. Augustine and all over Florida.
As transportation investments created easier accessibility to southern Florida, the wealthy elite tourist dwindled in favor of the warmer areas to the south. However, tourism to the area was revived by the middle class with the boom of the automobile culture and the interstate and highway systems were developed.
Struggles of the Modern Era
During the civil rights era, St. Augustine, another wave of transformation swept over the city. Refusal of local school districts to integrate ten years after the supreme court case Brown v. The Board of Education spurred hostilities and racial tensions inflamed. Lunch counter sit-ins, local college strikes, marches, and picket lines aimed at integrating public accommodations were met with mass arrests and attacks by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
One of the major occurrences during this period was the Monson Motor Lodge protests of 1964. St. Augustine was chosen as the perfect location for a civil rights protest as the city was heavily racist but relied deeply on northern tourism. Martin Luther King Jr. was a key player in the protests here and was arrested for trespassing after attempting to eat lunch at the Monson Motor Lodge. In jail, he wrote to a leading Jewish reformer who sent 17 rabbis to St. Augustine to join the protest, all of which were arrested in what was the largest mass incarceration of rabbis in the United States. Another significant demonstration at the Monson Motor Lodge occurred when an interracial group jumped in the swimming pool. The owner of the hotel was photographed pouring muriatic acid into the pool to burn the demonstrators and police were seen jumping in the pool to arrest them.
Contemporary St. Augustine is a treasure trove of tourism destinations from Civil Rights Era monuments to Spanish forts and gorgeous beaches. In its over 450 years of history, St. Augustine has seen remarkable changes and each has left a mark on the city’s landscape.
The Destination: St. Augustine
How do you get to St. Augustine?
St. Augustine is a city filled with an astounding number of historical and colonial buildings that you will feel as if you have been transported back 400 years ago. If you wish to take a trip back to colonial Florida, there are a few methods of transit. Interstate 95 traverses the western portion of St. Augustine and offers rapid road connections north to Jacksonville and south to Daytona Beach. Highway 1 follows roughly parallel to Interstate 95 just further east and closer to the city of St. Augustine.
Bus routes connect the main thoroughfares of the city and the downtown areas with shopping and entertainment facilities further away. There are a few intercity buses, one of which connects to Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Airport. The bus connections facilitate much easier access to the historic core of the city via flying into the Jacksonville airport and connecting by bus to St. Augustine.
The Northeast Florida Regional Airport is only 4 miles from the city of St. Augustine and may provide charter and private flights into the city. As of 2020, there are no commercially scheduled flights to or from the airport. In addition to air transport, tourists to the area also have the opportunity to travel via the Intracoastal Waterway into the city.
The Oldest City in the United States
There exist a wide swath of activities in the vicinity of St. Augustine for those of every age. History is abundant in the city and you cannot walk more than 5 feet without spotting a reminder of times past. From the opulent hotels of the Flagler era to the Spanish forts of the colonial era, St. Augustine is truly a magnificent sight.
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is another unique thing to do in St. Augustine. Believed by some, although there is no evidence, to be the location of the first landing of Juan Ponce de Leon in Florida, this archeological park offers a plethora of activities for explorers. The Fountain of Youth is believed to have healing powers. In the Spring House, you can try some water from the very same spring believed to have been visited by Ponce de Leon over 450 years ago.
The Intracoastal Waterway passes through the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park and makes for a pleasant riverfront park to walk through. There is a 600-foot observation dock over the marshes where you can see unobstructed views of wildlife. Additionally, there is a first settlement site where you can see how the first colonists lived who arrived from Europe on the newly discovered continent with archeological sites from this era. There is also a Native American program where you can see how the native peoples of the region lived and their cultures before the arrival of Europeans. There are even live peacocks in the park! All kinds of adventures can be had at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park located about half-a-mile north of the city center.
Opening hours of the archaeological park are as followed:
Daily, 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.
Admissions fees into the archaeological park are as followed:
Adults entrance is $18.00
Children (6-12) entrance is $10.00
Children (5 and below) entrance is Free
Seniors (60+) entrance is $17.00
Castillo de San Marcos
The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is likely the most prominent landmark of St. Augustine and a must see for visitors to the city. Completed in 1695 by the Spanish, this fort is the oldest stone fortress in the contiguous United States and boasts significant historical relevance. For 251 years of active military use, the Castillo de San Marcos Fort has been property of the Spanish, British, and American governments and has been attacked and besieged numerous times, but has never lost a battle. The castillo was also used as a prison for Native Americans in the period of wars and forced relocation of native peoples from the peninsula of Florida.
The site is now a part of the National Park Service and is a tourism magnet for St. Augustine. Visitors can walk amongst the ghosts of militaries past to the roof of the fort where cannons lay protecting the city from attack by sea. The rooftop also provides gorgeous views of the ocean and city below which creates a perfect location for photos.
Outside of the top of the fort, there are a large number of signs with descriptions of the castle’s history and what each section was used for in previous eras. There are rangers located throughout the facility for visitor’s ease of access to information. They will tell you fascinating stories about former inhabitants and events in the fort and will also help guide you to anything you need along the way. Additionally, cannon firing and weapon demonstrations are other unique events at the fort. Cannons are fired from the gundeck every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10:30 and 11:30 A.M. and 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 P.M.
Opening hours of the park are as followed:
The fort is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. First admission is at 9:00 A.M. and last admission is at 5:00 P.M.
Admissions fees into the park are as followed:
Adults (Age 16+) entrance is $15.00 - valid for 7 consecutive days.
Children (age 15 and under) are admitted free of charge but must be accompanied by an adult.
National Parks Pass Holders are admitted free of charge
St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum
In the colonial history of St. Augustine, Spanish treasure fleets coming from the Caribbean and Central America colonies used the east Floridian coast as a launching point for a return to Europe. This technique attracted pirates to the area who attempted to loot and overtake the Spanish galleon fleets filled with precious metals and treasures. One of the reasons the Castillo de San Marcos was built was for the protection of St. Augustine from pirates who plundered the coastline.
The St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum is located across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos. This museum holds the world’s largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts and is another unique location in the oldest city in the United States. With over 800 artifacts, there are hundreds of stories to be heard about pirate influence on the city of St. Augustine and the surrounding areas. The only known true pirate chest, one of three extant Jolly Rogers flags, various ship logbooks, and numerous other artifacts are on display in the museum.
There are also interactive exhibits in the museum. Visitors to the museum may have the opportunity to fire cannons as if they were on the pirate ships themselves and search for treasure on their own treasure hunt.
Opening hours of the museum are as followed:
Daily, 10:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M.
Admissions fees into the Pirate and Treasure Museum are as followed:
Adults entrance is $14.99
Children entrance is $7.99
Seniors and Military entrance is $11.99
Old General Store Museum
The Old General Store Museum is focused on a historical supply store that existed at the beginning of the Henry Flagler era of St. Augustine. Opening in 1875, the general store provided local residents with food, clothing, necessities, apothecary items, farming equipment, wagons, and anything else that a 19th century resident might need.
The Museum allows you to take a tour of life in St. Augustine in the 1800’s before modernization came to the south. All of the items in the museum are authentic and have been preserved since the death of the original owner, Mr. Hamblen. Tour guides in the museum act as salespeople who demonstrate the latest technology and show you the wonders of contemporary society.
Opening hours of the museum are as followed:
Daily, 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Admissions fees into the Pirate and Treasure Museum are as followed:
Adults entrance is $12.77
Children (6-12) entrance is $7.44
Children (5 and under) entrance is Free
The Lightner Museum showcases a swath of collections of collections. Located within the ostentatious former Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Flagler, the Lightner Museum holds collections of things. From glassware to salt and pepper shakers to stamps to coins to fine arts, the Lightner museum is a unique piece of Saint Augustine history. Primary focusing on 19th-century decorative arts and all things collectibles, there is no doubt that this museum displays something you are interested in viewing. Anything you could think to collect in the late 1800s is on display in this museum with a focus on the beginnings of material culture in the United States.
Opening hours of the museum are as followed:
Daily, 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Admissions fees into the Lightner Museum are as followed:
Adults entrance is $15.00
Children (12-17) entrance is $8.00
Children (11 and under) entrance is Free
Seniors (65+), College Students, and Military entrance is $12.00
The Colonial Quarter of St. Augustine is the center of Spanish colonial life in the city with buildings as far back as the beginning of the 18th century. After a large renovation of the area in the early 2010s, the colonial quarter was reopened and now contains a live music venue with local bands playing most days. The Colonial Quarter was intended to once again become the highlight of daily life and engagement in the city.
At the Colonial Quarter, you can dine, shop, and enjoy the sights of America’s first European city. There is a watch tower on the premises of the district where you can climb up and see the picturesque city from above. You can dine at one of three restaurants located in historic buildings as well as shop at the Explorers outpost.
Opening hours of the Colonial Quarter are as followed:
Daily, 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Other Notable Sites
Flagler College now occupies another one of Henry Flagler’s hotels for the elite, the Ponce de Leon Hotel. You can take a tour of this magnificent building and learn about its history. Now a college, the building contains a magnificent rotunda and a large ornate dining hall that are highlights of the tour. Even simply standing outside of the building is a sight to behold. The Spanish revival architecture of the Flagler era buildings creates a distinctive architectural character.
St. Augustine Beach is located roughly 3 miles south of St. Augustine city center. Here, you can take a swim in the ocean for a break from the educational and historical experiences downtown. The beach is drivable by car and is a relatively quiet coast with not nearly the built environment of other Floridian coastal areas. Other notable qualities of St. Augustine Beach include a wooden pier and dog beach access.
The St. Augustine Light is the first lighthouse in Florida, having been built in 1874. Located on the northern portion of Anastasia Island, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum are noteworthy things to do in St. Augustine. Climb to the top of this historic lighthouse for wonderful views of the landscape below. You can visit the Maritime Museum connected to the lighthouse which houses a collection of boats and information about the nautical history of St. Augustine. Likely only second in Florida to the Lighthouse at Ponce de Leon, the St. Augustine Light is a must see when you are in the area.
The Bridge of Lions is another distinct location just outside the historic core of St. Augustine. Crossing the Intracoastal Waterway, The Bridge of Lions connects St. Augustine to Anastasia Island. As the name suggests, the bridge is flanked by two stone Medici Lions who guard the bridge.
What is the Weather?
St. Augustine has a humid subtropical climate which is similar to other locations in Florida. There are a high number of warm sunny days. Even in the winter period, the average high stays above 65°F. St. Augustine is a wonderful place to visit all year round. The summer months are generally the wettest with brief but intense thunderstorms. Hurricanes are also a rare but possible occurrence in late summer so it is recommended that you remain aware of inclement weather.
The World Golf Hall of Fame is located just outside of St. Augustine and honor the achievements of both men and women in the gold world. There is a museum located on the premises which displays intricate exhibits on the history of golf, golf course design, prominent players and organizations, golfing techniques, golf equipment, and dress wear. The World Golf Hall of Fame is a fantastic day trip from St. Augustine for anyone with an eye for golf.
If you have some extra time in St. Augustine, relaxing with a kayak adventure through the Intracoastal Waterway may be the perfect activity. On this excursion, you may encounter a wide variety of wildlife that exists in central Florida including sea birds, turtles, manatees, ospreys, bald eagles, or possibly even a dolphin.
The Night of Lights is a holiday light celebration taking place in St. Augustine during the winter holiday months of November through January. Listed by National Geographic as one of the 10 best holiday light displays in the world. During this event, the entire city is a spectacle of luminescence and a sight to behold for any visitor to America’s oldest European city. The most spectacularly lit locations in the city are The Plaza de la Constitution and the Bridge of Lions. This event is free for the public to enjoy.