The fact that St. Augustine can be visited on a tight budget might not be enough of an attractant for many Florida-bound tourists. For many, it is not on the list of top-tier Florida destinations. Places such as Orlando, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Key West, and Tampa Bay often make the cut.
But to miss St. Augustine is to deprive yourself of a delightful walk through North American history. Like Boston, Philadelphia, or Montreal, the story of St. Augustine helps explain how the rest of the New World developed and prospered.
The history of this place goes back into the 1500s, but it was not until an ambitious tycoon named Henry Flagler arrived here that the city became widely known as a vacation destination. It was here that Flagler would build a world-famous resort and coastal railroad that traveled all the way to Miami.
Jacksonville International is the largest major airport in the vicinity, but St. Augustine's small commercial airport hosts Frontier flights, and at times the fares are extremely reasonable. For example, budget travelers can find an occasional round-trip fare under $100 for non-stop service between St. Augustine and Philadelphia on Frontier. ViaAir connects the area with Charlotte.
Take a look at some of Flagler's preserved architectural treasures, and why you might want to make St. Augustine an additional stop in your Florida travel plans.
St. Augustine: Ponce de Leon Hotel
Henry Flagler loved St. Augustine at first sight, but he noted at least one glaring deficiency. No accommodations existed to satisfy the lofty expectations of his upper-class colleagues. He developed the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which required a full winter's stay of its guests at rates that, in today's dollars, would exceed $200,000 per room.
The place has an incredible history. It played host to notables such as Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Babe Ruth. It served as a training facility for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and was the site of historic sit-ins during the Civil Rights era.
In 1968, it became part of Flagler College. But the school still pays tribute to the historic nature of the place. Two daily tours of the former Ponce de Leon hotel are conducted, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. The adult rate for the one hour guided tour is $12.
St. Augustine: Colonial Quarter
Spain and England both colonized St. Augustine, and some of the preserved structures are now housed in the Colonial Quarter. Allow at least an hour for the guided tour and for browsing the displays.
You will see blacksmithing, rifle demonstrations, and a close look at daily life during the period. It is a tour even younger children will enjoy, and as with so many other St. Augustine attractions, the admission costs are affordable.
St. Augustine: Castillo de San Marcos
The Castillo de San Marcos was preceded by forts of wooden construction that did not survive. But this fort, constructed mostly of coquina limestone, never was taken in battle. The consistency of the coquina material enabled bullets and cannon balls to sink in but not fully penetrate.
According to the National Park Service, the Castillo represents the only "17th-century military construction in the country, and it also ranks as the oldest masonry fortress in the United States."
Again, admission fees are modest: children under the age of 16 are admitted at no cost, and adults pay a National Park Service fee of $15, which allows return visits for up to seven days.
St. Augustine Shuttles
The historic district of St. Augustine is easily seen by foot. But during the warmer months, when the sun is its strongest, you might want to take the trolley services that runs in a loop through the city sights.
The largest is Old Town Trolley, which makes 23 stops that the company links to 100 points of interest. The entire loop takes about an hour to navigate, but most people take advantage of on-and-off privileges. Stop No. 1 is at the Old Jail/Oldest Store complex on San Marco Ave.
Adults pay about $25 for one day or $35 for two days of unlimited travel, while children are charged about $10 above the age of six. It is an outlay of money, but it gets you around town quite economically to all the major points of interest from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. If you have your own car, keep in mind that parking in the city can be difficult to find and is expensive. The trolley pass is also good for buses that run to the beaches from stop No. 16 on St. George St. The trolley itself runs outside of the historic district to show passengers some attractions further afield.
St. Augustine Beaches
The Atlantic beaches are several miles removed from the center of the city so you will need a car rental or a trolley pass to spend a day in the sand or book a room with an ocean view.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm & Zoological Park are within a half-mile of the Bridge of the Lions that connects Anastasia Island and the downtown area.
The lighthouse has a colorful history and you can climb 221 steps to an observation deck for commanding views of the area. Admission to the lighthouse and museum runs $11 to $13.
The alligator farm also features a variety of reptile and bird species and fossil exhibits. Admission costs are on the high side by local standards: $26 for adults and $15 for children ages 3 to 11.
Anastasia State Park offers a variety of fine recreational activities and the quarry from which the coquina limestone was mined to build the Castillo de San Marcos. It is a great place to hike and enjoy the four miles of undeveloped beachfront within the park. Admission is $8 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians.
St. Augustine: Free Attractions
St. Augustine admission prices are generally moderate, but visiting a number of sites on the same day can strain a budget, especially for families. The area offers a number of free attractions that will quiet your cost concerns.
You can visit a working winery and distillery operations at no cost, and free samples are provided to those of drinking age.
Free tours of historic churches such as Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Mission Nombre de Dios, and the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica are available. The mission church sits on the site where explorers first landed in the 16th century.
A tour of Fort Matanzas is free, as is the ferry ride to get to the site. You will need to register at the visitor center and remember that tickets are first-come, first served. The ferry boat's capacity is 35 passengers.
Always remember that one of the most rewarding experiences, a walk on the beach, is free. Public access points abound, so shed your shoes and enjoy a stroll in the surf.
St. Augustine Accommodations
St. Augustine accommodations are grouped in three areas: the western fringe near I-95 that's adjacent to the outlet mall, the downtown historic district, and the beach.
Chain hotels can be found in all three areas, but are most common along U.S. 1, State Road A-1-A and I-95. In the historic district, you can choose from a nice collection of bed-and-breakfast inns that offer proximity to most of the sights by foot. Keep in mind many of these establishments offer only a few rooms, and they may be booked out weeks in advance.
The same is true of favored vacation homes on the beach. Be sure you reserve early. Airbnb.com lists nearly 200 St. Augustine area homes, rooms, or shared rooms for rent.
St. Augustine Dining
For a relatively small city, St. Augustine offers many affordable restaurants. Some are within walking distance of the historic district.
One budget favorite is the Spanish Bakery & Cafe on St. George Street in the historic district. Patrons frequently eat under the shade of a large cedar tree on the property. Empanadas, homemade soups, and Cuban sandwiches are favorites, and a filling lunch usually totals less than $10.
Cuban specialties are also available at The Columbia and La Herencia Cafe, where prices are a bit higher but the value is superb.
Just north of the historic district, Raintree is nice for a budget splurge. Patio dining and ample indoor seating augment excellent service. Menu entree prices range from $13 to $30.