Many towns and cities claim to have roots in the earliest days of the United States, even as colonies. But few cities can claim the impressively long lineage of St. Augustine, Florida; the oldest, continuously occupied European founded settlement within the borders of the continental United States. This distinction, while special, is but one of many aspects of the city that make it unique and eclectic enough to be a major tourist and vacation spot.
Pirates, ghosts, gators, golfers, oddities and sunbathers all call St. Augustine home and enrich the experiences of visitors from the world over.
An Impressive Lineage
St. Augustine, Florida was founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish admiral and first governor of Florida Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. For nearly 200 years, St. Augustine was the capital of Spanish Florida. It was sacked and burned over a half dozen times by Native American bands, pirates, privateers and English militia and military forces.
It wasn’t until the end of the Seven Years War that Florida briefly became a British possession, and soon after became a haven for British loyalists during the American Revolutionary War. After the establishment of the U.S.A, Florida returned to Spain only to be ceded back to the Americans shortly after the Napoleonic wars.
St. Augustine ceased being the capital in 1824 in favor of Tallahassee, then Florida became a state in 1845. After Florida joined the Confederacy in the Civil War, St. Augustine was blockaded, attacked and occupied by Union naval forces, marking yet another destruction of the city.
After the war, St. Augustine became a favorite vacation spot for wealthy northerners looking to winter in warmer climes. The city flourished but caught the eye of the nation during the civil rights movement. Violent clashes between protesters, authorities and the KKK in St. Augustine drew national coverage after Dr. Martin Luther King got involved. The civil rights battles broadcasted from St. Augustine were pivotal in turning public opinion toward constitutional equality.
Geography and Climate
Located on the eastern coast of Florida, St. Augustine is characteristically flat and marshy. The swamplands stretch out for miles, and the beautiful southern trees hang lazily in the sunshine. Closer to the coast you will find the exquisite beaches and dunes that are so popular with visitors and locals alike.
St. Augustine weather is about as you would expect for a coastal region near to the tropics. Hot summers and breezy springs and winters keep the tourists coming throughout most of the year. The only concern is Hurricane season in the fall. With so many high profile storms as of late, it would be prudent to check the forecast thoroughly before visiting in the Autumn.
Seeing the Sights
These days, a trip to St. Augustine, Florida means a journey down not only one of America’s longest memory lanes, but also an introduction to the odd and interesting. With a long history and strong desire to differentiate itself from other popular Floridian vacation destinations, St. Augustine has cultivated a culture unlike any other in the state.
Locations Steeped in History
It should come as no surprise that a city with as rich a history as St. Augustine has many museums and heritage sites to display that history. There are too many to list them all, but here are some of the more popular and interesting things to do in St. Augustine.
Castillo de San Marcos: This old Spanish fort is an original defensive structure that is hundreds of years old. It is small as castles go, but such is to be expected in the New World. The fort has an abundance of knowledgeable staff, artifacts, displays and even demonstrations of things like muskets and cannons.
Mission of Nombre de Dios: An original Spanish Mission, this chapel has both a museum and gardens that attract many visitors. The site is free to visit but also accepts donations. Here you can experience St. Augustine’s religious past and culture. Don’t forget to take a stroll through the graveyard; the headstones are quite interesting!
Fort Matanzas National Monument: This is another, smaller Spanish defensive structure in addition to the Castillo. While not physically as impressive, this fort has the added benefit of being secluded on an island with nature trails and picnic areas around. It is a remarkable monument despite its seeming loneliness. There was a ferry bringing visitors to the fort, but Hurricane Irma knocked it out, and it is not certain when it will be running again. Despite this it is still possible to reach the monument, it will just be more difficult.
Living History: Many historical sites in St. Augustine are “living history” attractions with live demonstrations and recreations of old American and colonial American life. Places like the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St Augustine Old Village, Colonial Quarter and St. Augustine Old Jail all offer unique experiences and opportunities to immerse yourself in history.
Beaches and Wildlife
St. Augustine is home to several spots of interest for nature lovers whether its animals or beachfront landscapes they are interested in. Not only does the city have the expected Florida beach life experience, but there are also opportunities to see rare and exotic animals in safe and humane environments.
St. Augustine Beach: The crown jewel of St. Augustine’s coast, the St. Augustine Beach has been catering to vacationers for hundreds of years. The clean, white and soft sand is inviting for both serious revelers and relaxing leisure seekers. The beach is also lined with eateries, gift shops and other attractions to keep you busy the whole day. It can get crowded, but the beach is designed with high capacity in mind, so it is rarely too much of a problem.
St. Augustine Wild Reserve: This wildlife refuge is not a zoo. Rather, it is a sanctuary for big cats and other exotic animals that were surrendered, confiscated or otherwise rescued. They live in comfortable habitats designed with their needs, not the visitors’, in mind. Educational and beautiful, the St. Augustine Wild Reserve is sure to delight visitors of all ages.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park: A more traditional but no less impressive zoo, this park has animals native to Florida on display as well as animals from around the world. They have a wide variety of reptiles including every type of crocodilian in the world. Feeding time is an especially exciting display, and you can even buy some pellets to toss to the gators and crocs yourself.
Outliers and Oddities
Some of the attractions in St. Augustine defy categorization. Some of them just have to be seen to be believed, sometimes literally.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium: This is the original Ripley’s display location built in 1950 that spawned books and a TV show. A mecca for those who love the weird and incredible, the Odditorium houses more than 13,000 square feet of exhibits. Famous oddities, illusions, artifacts and art fill all three stories of this unique attraction.
World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum: For fans and players of golf, this attraction is not to be missed. As the name implies, the hall of fame honors legendary golfers past and present and the museum houses many artifacts and memorabilia from around the world related the history of the sport.
Ghost and Pirate Tours: For many reasons, including the sacking and massacring in the city’s past, St. Augustine is considered by many to be an exceptionally haunted city. Couple that with the rich pirate history of the region, and you have a recipe for some interesting ghost and pirate tours. You don’t have to be a believer in the supernatural to enjoy these exciting and strange insights into the city of St. Augustine.
Fun Facts about St. Augustine, Florida
Here are some odd snippets of knowledge about America’s oldest city.
- St. Augustine got its name because it was spotted by its founders on the day of St. Augustine’s feat.
- St. Augustine is one of the many places where Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested.
- During the civil rights movement, protesters jumped into a “whites only pool,” causing the manager to dump caustic chemicals into it to force them out. The incident was televised and drew the ire of the American public.
- Ponce De Leon believed the actual fountain of youth was in St. Augustine. You can see and drink from it at the archaeological park that bears its name.
- Treasury Street in St. Augustine, Florida is the narrowest street in the U.S.A. at only seven feet wide!
Unique Even by Floridian Standards
With its unequaled historical depth and downright strange attractions, St. Augustine separates itself from the other cities in Florida by providing more than just the standard gators and beaches. But make no mistake, St. Augustine has those covered too, and quite well. If you or your party is split between the new and interesting, the old and venerable, and the comfortable and relaxing, give St. Augustine a shot. You might just satisfy all of those needs