Sunshine, sand, history awaits in St. Augustine
By Sydni Ellis
Magic fills the air in Florida. You can feel it – it’s that warm feeling of pure bliss when crunchy white sand sticks in between your toes, brilliant blue water sparkles nearby and genuine smiles light up every face around you. From the miles and miles of gorgeous coastline to some of the best theme parks in the world, it’s no surprise that the Sunshine State is one of the most popular vacation spots in the country.
But what if you prefer a more unique experience when you travel? One where each building you pass is an architectural marvel, where the entire city is flowing with a rich, European culture and where even the beaches and parks are bursting with history? A trip to St. Augustine is equally educational and relaxing. You can admire the Spanish colonial fortresses and museums, learn about the city through its marine life or hang out on one of the many beaches.
Located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Orlando, St. Augustine offers travelers something most other American cities can’t: landmarks with historical significance. It was founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, making it the earliest permanent European settlement on the continent (for comparison, the first English settlement was founded in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia). New is not better in St. Augustine, where its beauty is found in its history. After all, it’s not called “The Ancient City” for nothing!
St. Augustine is spread out over two sections: one part on Florida’s mainland and the other on Anastasia Island. The first thing you should see is the St. Augustine Lighthouse on Anastasia Island, which has guided visitors to America since a watchtower was first built in the 1500s. It is the oldest surviving brick structure in the city, which has been restored to authentic colors and materials used in the year 1888. Climb the 219 steps to the top, where you can see the original Fresnel lens from 1874 that still serves as the beacon. After taking pictures of the wonderful views, stop by the attached Maritime Museum to learn more about marine life through artifacts discovered from shipwrecked boats.
Head over the charming Bridge of Lions to the mainland, where you can see many other museums to satisfy a variety of interests. Love the idea of sailing the Seven Seas? Bring your mates to the Pirate and Treasure Museum, which has the largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts (more than 800!) in the world, including a real treasure chest and one of the only three existing 17th century Jolly Roger flags. Or tour the delightful Lightner Museum inside the 1888 Alcazar Hotel, home to fine and decorative 19th century art; the Villa Zorayda Museum, a lavish replica of a portion of the Alhambra Palace in Spain decorated with beautiful art; the Governor’s House Cultural Center and Museum, containing more than 10,000 maps, drawings, photographs and documents that tell the story of the city; or the Colonial Quarter, which gives guests a fully immersive experience complete with live musket shootings, a watchtower you can climb up and a blacksmith demonstration.
Although not a museum, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine is another can’t-miss site. As America’s first parish, this stunning church looks like something straight out of Europe with its Spanish architecture, lovely murals, and impressive stained-glass windows that tell the story of the city’s namesake. The basilica isn’t the only “first” in this city: visitors can also travel back in time by seeing the Oldest House, Oldest Wooden School House and Oldest Store, which are all within 2.2 miles of each other.
Also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, the Oldest House is a simple rectangular structure built in the 1700s that reveals the styles of its Spanish, British and American colonial residents throughout the years. Head north to the Oldest Wooden School House, also known as the Genopoly House, which was also built in the 1700s. A professor greets you when you walk through the door, and you will receive your very own diploma after touring the grounds, which includes a classroom and a living area complete with authentic school house artifacts. Complete the settler experience by visiting the Oldest Store Museum, which is a re-creation of the original general store of 1908. As you walk through, clerks and salesmen in period clothing will try to sell you the latest inventions of the day, like miracle tonics, farm equipment and goat-powered washing machine.
If being indoors all day doesn’t interest you – it is Florida, after all! – then check out some of the fascinating ancient landmarks throughout the city. You don’t need to be a military aficionado to appreciate the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the country. The fort was built in the 1670s to defend the primary trade route to Europe and it is currently the only standing 17th century military construction in the U.S.! The square-shaped fort has bastions on each of the four corners that point in each direction, and it is one of only two forts in the world made with coquina, a material made of broken shells that absorbs and deflects enemy fire rather than cracking. At the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park you can drink from a centuries-old Spring of Eternal Hope, tour the re-created Timucuan Village to learn about the Native American tribe who was here long before the Spanish settlers, and see a weapons demonstration.
Take a break from the history lesson to see a more vibrant side of St. Augustine: its wildlife. Swim and play with adorable dolphins at Marineland Dolphin Adventure, the world’s first oceanarium. At the St. Augustine Aquarium, snorkel with colorful sea creatures underwater or admire birds and breathtaking views as you soar over the aquarium on a zip line. Here, you can also get up close and personal with the most feared creatures of the sea by feeding the sharks and sting rays. Speaking of not-so-cuddly creatures, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has plenty! Every living species of crocodilian can be found here, including the rare Albino Alligators. Looking for even more of a thrill? Stop by the Python Cave, home of the 21-foot-long python.
Of course, no visit to Florida is complete without spending time on the beach. Anastasia State Park is home to four miles of perfect white-sand beaches, as well as nature trails and tidal salt marches. Go surfing, collect shells, rent canoes or kayaks, search for the endangered Anastasia Island Beach Mouse and other marine life, visit the Coquina Quarry to see the special coquina rock that makes up the Castillo de San Marcos, or simply spread out with a good book and enjoy a beautiful day. Be sure to stop by the serene Crescent Beach to go horseback riding near the water, and the lively Vilano Beach to walk the busy boardwalk, rent water gear, and check out the many shops, restaurants, hotels and entertainment nearby. With 42 miles of beach to choose from in the city, you will never get bored!
Orlando might be home to “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” but this charming city casts its own spell on travelers – one that will fill every person that passes through with pride in America’s distinct history. Visiting St. Augustine is an experience that makes learning about the past exciting and enjoying the present easy. In fact, it’s even better than magic: it’s real.