By Bridget Jackson
With all the New England states getting the glory of having the oldest cities in the United States, St. Augustine is often neglected as a frontrunner. In 1513 Ponce de Leon landed on this coastline and St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles. St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement. Originally the town was a military base that protected trade and commerce from Spain, and once was a walled city, but was burned down during battle.
St. Augustine is not only a town rich in history but has several attractions the entire family will enjoy. Below are some of my favorite sites that I think you will enjoy as much as I did during my visit to St. Augustine.
The first place that I visited is the heart of St. Augustine; The Castillo de San Marcos, it’s easily visible from the street but I strongly encourage you to visit behind the walls. As I walked toward the fort I was amazed how large this fortress was and how well preserved it was since it has been brutally attacked so many times. As I walked through the heavy drawbridge entrance I was able to envision the many battles that took place in my exact footsteps.
The Castillo de San Marcos was completed in 1695, it is a traditional Spanish star shaped fortress with a hollow square in the middle and diamond shaped bastions at each corner overlooking the Matanzas Bay. The fort is over 300 years old and is constructed of Coquina rock (which is composed of small shells). Can you believe these small shells protected the Florida coastline from pirate raids and attacks from Great Britain? Since the walls are made of coquina it was nearly impossible to penetrate the walls with cannon fire. If you are wondering like me how this is possible, imagine shooting a BB into thick Styrofoam. That’s what it was like for the attackers firing at the Castillo de San Marcos. Their cannon balls got stuck in the walls and made the fort even stronger, thus the reason Castillo has never been conquered by attack!
As I ventured to the lookout post on each corner I enjoyed a beautiful view of the bay as I reflected on the history that took place hundreds of years ago. The exterior grounds of the fort along the grass also provided several amazing photo opportunities of the fort. Castillo de San Marcos has parking for a minimal fee and if you find a spot I advise parking here its close proximity to many other sites in the Historic area in which parking is very limited.
When I was finished touring the fort I walked through a charming neighborhood along Water Street that led me to the back entrance of Mission Nombre de Dios. Once I reached the park I was greeted with a lovely shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. As I followed the path I was amazed to see a 200 foot steel cross overlooking the Bay, with a bronze statue of Father Lopez. Father Lopez celebrated the very first mass at this site. While walking the grounds I found a very small but quaint Spanish chapel; Our Lady of Leche, take a peek inside and light a candle. The Mission Nombre de Dios dates back to 1565 when Pedro Menendez proclaimed this location for the country of Spain and the church. Parking is free at the Mission and is only a short walk to the Historic District so take advantage of the parking available.
Next I made my way back to the Historic District commonly called Old City Walk. The Old City Gates made of coquina were the main entryway into the original walled city of St. Augustine and still stand today.
The coquina entrance is all that remains of the original walled city that leads into today’s St. George Street; the focal point of the Historic District. I enjoyed taking a stroll on this enchanting pedestrian only street, lined with quaint shops, taverns, restaurants, museums, and galleries. While walking along St. George Street I looked closely at the shops for remains of the Walled City. I was able to spot several coquina buildings that are a sure sign they are older structures that hidden among the newer buildings and walls.
Near the entrance of St. George Street was the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in America nestled among the shops in the historic district. This original Colonial House dates back to the early 1700’s. I was surprised when I toured the school house on how small this one room classroom is compared to today’s classrooms. On display are old textbooks and school supplies used during that era. When I walked outside I was intrigued to find a huge chain wrapped around the wooden school house and tied to a large anchor. This was a technique used to hold the house in place in case of a hurricane. Apparently chaining the house to the ground works since the school house is still intact!
When I was finished shopping on the Old City Walk, I found myself on King Street. The Street name is very appropriate since I thought I stumbled upon a castle which is actually Flagler College. I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the Spanish architecture of red terra cotta tile roofs that railroad entrepreneur Henry Flagler built in 1888. The college was once home to the luxury Hotel Ponce de Leon and was a resort for the privileged elite. In 1968 the hotel was converted into Flagler College.
I highly recommend taking a tour of the college, you won’t be disappointed. I was in awe when I walked into the entry way of the grand lobby. My eyes were immediately drawn to a breathtaking 69 foot domed mural ceiling. The painting on the walls and ceiling were spectacular which were surrounded by eight ornate oak carved caryatid columns. The dining room is also impressive with hand painted murals on the wall encircled with Tiffany stained glass windows.
Once I left Flagler College I walked across the street to the Lightner Museum. The Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture was built in 1885 by Henry Flagler and is the former Alcazar Hotel which was referred to as the castle of happy returns. Today it is a museum that is filled with 19th century decorative art and a diverse collection of eclectic artwork. Each floor of the museum has been restored to its original splendor when it was a resort hotel.
Next I headed back across the street to the Cathedral of Basilica, constructed in 1793 with a Spanish architecture. As I walked inside I was welcomed by a magnificent ornate gold alter surrounded by beautiful stained glass windows. The walls are adorned with exquisite murals that depict the history of the Catholic Church in the New World. This is the oldest parish of permanent European settlers in the United States.
The Bridge of Lions connects downtown St. Augustine and crosses over Mantazas Bay. It is a double leaf drawbridge built in 1926 and designed by an Italian sculptor. While making my way to the St. Augustine Lighthouse I was able to cross over the Bridge of Lions and get a closer look at this incredible bridge.
The St. Augustine lighthouse was built in 1870 and has a spiral staircase consisting of 219 stairs. I urge everyone to make the trek up the stairs, when I reached the top of the lighthouse at 140 feet, I was rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the Historic District, Flagler College, Castillo de Marco, Bridge of Lions and Vilano Beach. It was a beautiful day when I climbed the lighthouse and the scenery was absolutely amazing.
There are also many activities to do on the grounds of the lighthouse. The keeper’s house that was built in 1876 is available to tour. The house is filled with many artifacts and displays of how the family lived. Also on the site is a Maritime Museum, shipwreck archaeology, a Children’s Discovery area and playground with picnic area. There are also several nature trails to take walks on too. I urge you not to pass up this historical site. It’s fun and educational for the entire family! Rumor is the lighthouse is haunted, and nighttime ghostly tours are available. If you can get past the haunting stories, you will have an amazing night view of St. Augustine.
Another attraction that I enjoyed was The Fountain of Youth. On this location is where Menedez established a settlement in 1565. This is also where it Ponce de Leon took a drink of the Eternal Hope Spring (Fountain of Youth) so make sure you also take a drink from the fountain of youth. When I had my glass yes, they pour you a cup of water, I instantly felt younger! I also took a drink from one of the many springs bubbling on the grounds. At the Fountain of Youth there is also a 15 acre archaeological park with several exhibits and a Timucuan history village.
If you have a car I advise that you take a leisurely drive along the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway. It was a pleasure venturing along A1A seeing native Florida habitats in addition to 19 miles of uncrowned beaches and state parks where you can see coquina that has formed.
St. Augustine can be seen by horse carriage rides, trolley cars, tour bus, or by foot. I chose to visit St. Augustine by foot; if you do the same make sure you wear comfortable shoes. I had a wonderful time exploring the oldest city in America with its rich historical charm. I know you will have a great time seeing how the Florida coast evolved with a distinct influence from Spain. If you have any questions about this trip ask Bridget! Safe Travels!