For all those who thought the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia was the first settlement in the United States, the city of St. Augustine will prove you wrong. Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1565, 42 years before Jamestown, the city of St. Augustine is rich with history. It is the oldest city in the United States and home to some of the most beautiful colonial Spanish architecture in the country. Located on Florida’s northeastern coast, St. Augustine is part of the State’s First Coast region and Jacksonville’s metro area. The city where old meets new, St. Augustine, is a great vacation destination for all ages and budgets.
Explore the Old City
You can’t visit St. Augustine without spending time in the historic Old City district. The main drag, St. George Street, is available for pedestrians to stroll without worry—there are no cars or bikes allowed through the area. Explore eateries, boutiques, and galleries that are all housed in original Spanish colonial architecture of the time. Weave in and out of the Old City’s streets, making sure to stop at the Oldest House Museum on St. Francis Street. Built in 1723, it is believed to be the oldest surviving house in St. Augustine. Learn about blacksmithing, and watch a live musket shooting demonstration on one of the many tours available in the area.
Located along the Intercoastal Waterway, The Fountain of Youth Agricultural Park is touted as the 1513 landing site of the famous Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon. Today, the park is full of fun and historical attractions, including the popular Fountain of Youth, where visitors can come and take a sip of the spring’s magical waters. There is also a small Spanish colonial village that is meant to be a replica of the original settlement of St. Augustine. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Relax at the Beach
With over 42 miles of beautiful, white sandy beaches, you can’t go wrong spending a day under the sun. St. Johns County Ocean Pier Beach is centrally located and frequented by tourists and residents alike. It’s the best beach for families looking to spend the day. Beachside shops and restaurants are all within walking distance. For a quieter beach experience, try Vilano Beach just north of the historic district. Surfers, head to Crescent Beach for wide sands and a peaceful atmosphere.
Completed in 1695, the Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest standing fortress in the continental United States. It was constructed as a reminder of the Spanish conquistadors who once ruled the city. Today, the fortress is a museum visited by history buffs and vacationers alike. Tour the hundreds of rooms that once housed soldiers and dungeons that held prisoners, or explore the large central courtyard and gun deck, which offers incredible views of the city. Tours and daily programs, like cannon firings and weapon demonstrations, are included in the cost of general admission.
Take a Trolley Tour
Offered in many cities across the country, trolley tours are a great way to get a good feel for where you are and enjoy a pleasant afternoon. Old Town Trolley Tours in St. Augustine offers all types of trolley tours from nighttime ghost tours to daily package tours that include all the most popular sites. Tours start at around $24 per person, depending on your time of day and tour length. Package tours can start at around $35 per person.
Experience a piece of Spanish colonial life with a visit to the Old Wooden School House. Located on St. George St. by the City Gate, the school will transport visitors back in time over 200 years ago. At the school house, copies of textbooks the students used and school supplies from the eighteenth century are all on display. The second floor of the school house was where the school’s headmaster, Juan Genoply, lived with his family. A detached kitchen, which was very common back in those days, is also available to tour. While there, pay attention to the 250-year-old pecan tree in the school’s back garden, which is still fruitful.
Home to St. Augustine’s most violent criminals from 1891 to 1953, the Old Jail is rich in unique and fascinating stories. Built in 1891 by Henry Flagler, the jail was purposefully constructed not to look like a jail, as Flagler didn’t want the building to disrupt the atmosphere of the city. After undergoing a major renovation in 1993, the Old Jail has since given visitors a glimpse into the daily life of prisoners with tours given by guides in period dress. Ghost nighttime tours are available as well.
Tour the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
Standing 165 feet above sea level, the St. Augustine Lighthouse overlooks Mantanzas Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can climb the 219 steps to the top of the lighthouse to enjoy the views. Visitors can also explore the Keeper’s House, right next door, for an inside look into life at a light station. Guided tours are included with admission. The coolest part of visiting this lighthouse is that it is still active today.
Home to every living species of crocodilian and a variety of other reptiles, mammals, and birds, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, is a great family-friendly day trip. The alligator farm is also Florida’s oldest continuously run exhibit, having been open in 1893. Aside from touring the zoo area of the park and seeing all the animals, visitors can also hop on the zoo’s Crocodile Crossing zip line that stretches over seven acres. General admission is $26 for adults and $15 for children ages 3 to 11. The zip line is not included in the general admission.
Once you’ve had your fill of Spanish explorers and fortresses, head over to the Pirate and Treasure Museum to experience the Golden Age of Piracy. Visitors are transported back 300 years to a time when Sir Francis Drake and Robert Searles sailed the seas hunting for plunder. Groups of all ages will enjoy learning about this fascinating and little know time in history. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and tickets are $14 for adults and $7 for children ages 5 to 12. Children under 4 are free.
St. Augustine is a city of first, and Potter’s Wax Museum doesn’t disappoint. Before Madame Tussauds took over the wax museum scene in the United States, there was Potter’s. Founded by George Potter, who was inspired by the famous London museum, he brought the art of wax figures to the United States and opened his collection in 1948 in St. Augustine. Today, the museum boasts over 160 wax figures of famous people throughout history, including Princess Diana, Albert Einstein, and Harry Potter. The museum is open every day but Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The St. Augustine Wildlife reserve was established in order to care for abandoned or abused exotic animals. They are not open to the public, however they do offer tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at 2 P.M. by appointment only. Tours can be booked online and are about two hours long. All tours are guided by an experienced wildlife professional and are $30 per person. It is probably the closest any visitor will get to some of these animals. The reserve’s mission is to be a haven for forgotten exotic animals and to date has saved hundreds. There are 50 large mammals at the reserve currently, including lions, tigers, and wolves. Thirty smaller mammals, exotic squirrels, white-tailed deer, and various other barn animals are also housed here.
Located in St. Augustine’s historic district, the distillery is housed in an old ice plant that has been completely restored and now helps create some of the most unique vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey around. Free tours of the distillery are available and include a free tasting of some of the batch spirits. Tours are every 30 minutes, and no reservations are necessary, but they are on a first-come first-serve basis. The distillery is open Monday thru Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A self-guided museum and retail store are also open daily.
Explore the freaky and crazy at the St. Augustine Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum. The Odditorium houses some of the weirdest exhibits around, including a shrunken head, a motorcycle made of bones, and a scale model of The International Space Station made out of matchsticks. This is a great place to spend an afternoon and will entertain everyone in your group, no matter the age. Ripley’s also offers ghost tours around the city and trolley tours with over 20 historic stops along the ways. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.