ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — For a city of fewer than 15,000 residents, St. Augustine has an amazing array of activities. As the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, it’s a mix of old and new, modern and traditional, urban and rustic, and it has enough history, culture, cuisine, outdoor recreation, and natural beauty to rival the state’s other top destinations. In each of the last three years, the city has celebrated milestones, including the 500th anniversary of the first expedition to Florida and St. Augustine, the 50th anniversary of St. Augustine’s role in the civil rights movement, and, this year, the 450th anniversary of the city’s founding. There are many ways to join the celebration.
It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in European colonization, the Civil War, or civil rights; this city has enough museums, landmarks, and artifacts to satisfy any history buff. Start at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest masonry military fort in the United States. It’s one of only two forts in the world constructed of coquina, a limestone native to the area; the other 14 miles south, the Fort Matanzas National Monument. The symmetrical structure dates to the 17th century. The fort has great views of Old City, the Bridge of Lions, and Matanzas Bay. Adjacent to the fort is Old City, a shrine to the city’s history of British and Spanish rule.
Old City has a lot of originals, including The Oldest House, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, the oldest Roman Catholic parish, and the oldest public street in the country. There are tours by train, trolley, and carriage, but touring Old City by foot might be the best way to take in the sights, sounds, and smells. The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse at 14 St. George St. was once a guardhouse. It’s built of red cedar, cypress, wooden pegs and hand-made nails and has stood for more than 200 years. Walk about a half-mile south on St. George Street past shops, cafes, and boutiques and you’ll discover the Government House Museum on the corner of King Street. Admission is free and an exhibit explaining the history of the house is in the recently renovated lobby. The Museum Gallery features the “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins” exhibit, and charges a nominal fee. A block away on Cathedral Street is the Cathedral Basillica of St. Augustine. The first Catholic church in the nation retained its structural integrity despite a fire in 1887. A quick stroll west on King Street to the corner of Cordova Street is the Lightner Museum, the former Hotel Alcazar. With beautiful gardens and displays of art, antiques, and natural history items on the inside, the museum is a fitting tribute to its creator, railroad magnate Henry Flagler. Speaking of Flagler, across the street from the museum is his former luxury Ponce de Leon Hotel, which now houses Flagler College. A National Historic Landmark, the lush gardens and sparkling stained-glass Tiffany windows and chandeliers are reason enough to tour this magnificent structure. Retracing your steps down King Street toward the water, you’ll reach the corner of Aviles Street, the oldest public street in the country. The street may be old, but it’s hip and modern, lined with antiques shops, art galleries, boutiques, museums, and restaurants. To finish your tour, The Oldest House is a short walk down St. Francis Street at the end of the sea wall. It is the oldest documented Spanish colonial residence in Florida. Occupied since the 16th century, the house and museum complex have a gallery with changing historical exhibits, an ornamental garden, and a museum store.
The city has beautiful beaches, and St. Augustine Beach and Anastasia State Park are at the top of the list. Anastasia State Park has more than four miles of white sand beach, camping facilities, and a large tidal salt marsh. Recently named one of the country’s top 25 beaches by TripAdvisor, St. Augustine Beach is relatively unspoiled by the high-rise buildings that hover over other beaches in Florida. If you are looking to view the area from above, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is the place to do it. Climb the 219 steps and take in the views. The lighthouse was completely restored after a fire in 1970.
St. Augustine is a golfer’s paradise that includes the World Golf Hall of Fame. The majority of the Hall’s exhibits are indoors, but it also includes the World Golf Village, which contains two championship courses designed by four Hall of Fame members, three residential accommodations, and two full-service resorts. There are also five restaurants on site and more than 100 outlet stores within a quick drive. Hall of Fame exhibits include a golf simulator, which one can use to play the Old Course at St. Andrews, the Firestone Country Club course in Ohio, or the Plantation Course at Kapalua on Maui. The Wall of Fame displays every inducted member, and the Trophy Tower features a 360-degree view of the village.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s signature attraction is Crocodile Crossing, a zipline through the park that allows participants to soar with native birds and hover above a pool full of alligators and crocodiles. The park also has its share of exotic animals, including lemurs, Komodo dragons, and albino alligators. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve is a hidden gem and serves as a rescue center for unwanted exotic animals. White tigers, orange tigers, leopards, lynxes, and arctic wolves are just a few of the animals that call these seven acres home. Tours are by appointment only. Photography is not allowed.
With almost 500 restaurants in St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach alone, there are enough choices to satisfy any appetite. The Old City area retains its authenticity without a single chain restaurant. The Bunnery Bakery and Cafe on St. George Street offers delicious breakfasts, including eggs with sausage gravy on top of a Bunnery biscuit. The real draw is the aroma of fresh-made cinnamon rolls and pecan sticky buns. Seafood reigns supreme in St. Augustine, and the A1A Ale Works serves up waterfront views and local favorites like grouper Oscar and grilled seafood paella to go with its award-winning craft beers. Harry’s Seafood features New Orleans style favorites like jambalaya, fried green tomatoes, and Bourbon Street salmon.
Chain restaurants may be hard to find, but chain hotels are plentiful. If you are looking for some Southern hospitality and more intimate accommodations, the Carriage Way Bed and Breakfast is the place to stay.
Matt Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.