St. Augustine was never really on my radar as a travel destination in Florida until my niece went there on a school field trip. When most people think of places to visit in the Sunshine State it usually involves sunscreen and a beautiful beach. I did a bit of investigating on Trip Advisor and discovered that St. Augustine is not only teeming with history but there was so much to do that I had to narrow down my list to the top-rated attractions and pick and choose what I wanted to see most on our weekend trip.
First, a brief yet very important timeline of St. Augustine, the Nation's Oldest City.
1513: Ponce de Leon explores Florida and names it "La Florida"
1565: Pedro Menendez establishes St. Augustine
1586: Sir Francis Drake raids St. Augustine
1620: Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock
1668: Pirates sack St. Augustine
1672: Construction begins on the Castillo
1695: Construction completed on the Castillo
1702: English siege of St. Augustine
1740: English bombard St. Augustine
1763: Treaty of Paris-Florida to England
1776: American Revolution
1783: Florida returned to Spanish control
1821: Spain cedes Florida to the United States
1835-42: Seminole Indian war in Florida
1845: Florida is 27th State of the Union
1861: Confederacy occupies the Castillo
1888: Flagler opens Ponce de Leon Hotel
1927: Original Bridge of Lions completed
Spain's Queen Regent Mariana realized that St. Augustine was the keystone in the defense of the Florida coast so in 1672 the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos was begun. For many years it was Spain's northernmost outpost of it's vast New World empire. It's the oldest masonry fort and the best-preserved example of Spanish colonial fortification in the continental United States. It protected St. Augustine from pirate raids and from Spain's major rival, Great Britain during the time when the coastline was an explosive international battleground.
The Castillo offers guided tours or you can do a self-guided tour of the entire Castillo and most of its rooms which contain exhibit panels and displays to help tell you the story of this National Monument.
You can't visit St. Augustine without taking a trip to Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth archaeological park. It's the oldest successful European settlement in the U.S. located in the area first explored by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and settled by Pedro Melendez de Aviles in 1565. St. Augustine was founded right in this spot, 55 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, and 42 years before Jamestown was colonized. The 1565 Melendez Settlement of St. Augustine was founded on its grounds. The 1587 Mission of Nombre de Dios Church was the first Christian church built in the continental U.S.-constructed right on its property. Even the first documented Thanksgiving feast between Europeans and native Americans occurred here.
Located in the Spring House is the Fountain of Youth (which tasted very much like sulfur and was quite disgusting) I will let you know in the future if it actually worked! However, there's much more to do in the park than just drink from the Spring of Eternal Hope. There's the planetarium where you can learn celestial navigation techniques used by early European explorers. Then there's the discovery globe which slowly rotates to reveal early Spanish explorer's routes to and from the new world.
Other exhibits on the grounds are: The Timucua Burials, Caravel Down Shipwreck, Timucua Village of Seloy, Historical Weapons Exhibit, Melendez Settlement Field, Archaeological exhibit, Chalupa shipyard, Maritime Traditions exhibit, the Cannon firing, Spanish watchtower, Timucuan dugout canoe, 600' founders' riverwalk, 1513 Ponce Landing Memorial, and the Ponce de Leon Statue.
The next main attraction we chose to go to was the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. In addition to climbing up to the top of the 140 ft lighthouse to enjoy the view you can also look into the lens room where the lighthouses's original 1st order Fresnel lens is still rotating. The Fresnel lens magnifies a 1000 watt lightbulb into a signal visible from 25 miles away.
The grounds also include the oil house, the boat building area, artifact conservation, a 19th century herb garden, a shipyard play area for kids, the Keeper's house exhibits and a room filled with recovered artifacts from the 1764 wreck of the sloop Industry.
There was loads more of museums and historical sites that we didn't have time to see but aside from that, you should take time to walk or drive around the city to appreciate the beautiful architecture of the churches and Flagler college. St. George street, located in the downtown historic district, is closed to vehicles so it's the perfect place to stroll charming little cafe's and shops. You can stop and view the Colonial Quarter, Old St. Augustine Village and the Oldest Wooden schoolhouse but you'll have to dodge the pirates roaming the street to get to the fudge shops and restaurants.
I rarely comment on the food I eat on my trips but every restaurant we chose had fantastic food. I would recommend Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille if you want to taste some mind blowing seafood gumbo and A1A Ale Works for (in my opinion) the best shrimp tacos in the world.
Although St. Augustine is a vast contrast to the rest of Florida, it's still Florida so we had to make a mandatory trip out to Vilano Beach. What makes this beach unique from any other is that you can park your car right on the sand. Back your car up facing the ocean and there's no need to lug chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. Just open the back of your truck or car trunk and you have everything you need right there.
I would definitely love to go back to St. Augustine and visit all the places we didn't get a chance to see the first time. There's so much to see and do, you could easily spend a week in this great city and never get bored.