On Florida's northeast coast, St. Augustine is the nation's oldest permanently occupied European settlement, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Its name is forever associated with the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon and his fabled search for the Fountain of Youth. Tourists today can visit attractions from various periods of the city's history, from archaeological digs that have unearthed Native American artifacts to a well-preserved Spanish fort to the museum collections displayed in a late 19th-century grand hotel.
ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN St. Augustine
1. Explore Castillo de San Marcos
The massive defense structure took the Spanish 23 years to build, from 1672 to 1595. They used native beach stone, called coquina, to construct thick fireproof and impenetrable walls that were able to withstand multiple attacks from British troops, including the massive fire in 1702 that wiped out the rest of the city.
During the American Revolution, it was used as a prison by the military, and in the late 19th century, it was used as a prison for Native Americans until its closure in 1900. In 1924, it was recognized as a National Monument and is considered the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. There are impressive views of the water and the city from the gun decks, and special events are often held in the interior courtyard.
2. Lightner Museum
One of the country's best collections of 19th-century decorative and fine arts is displayed in the four floors of the former Alcazar Hotel built in 1888 by Henry Flagler. The collections are eccentric, and although they include Tiffany glass, fine furniture and porcelains, sculpture, and paintings, they also include shrunken heads, mechanical musical instruments, a mummy, cigar labels, and curiosities such as human hair art.
Flagler's hotel was the marvel of its era, the 1890s, filled with fashionable guests who danced in its grand ballroom and swam in the world's largest indoor swimming pool.
3. St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
The tall spiral-striped lighthouse is St. Augustine's oldest standing brick structure, built in 1871-1874 to replace the original wooden watchtower. During World War II, the Coast Guard used it to keep watch over the shore, and it is considered the first permanent navigational aid in North America.
After being vandalized, the lighthouse and its original Fresnel lens, made of 370 glass prisms cut by hand, were restored, and the museum's proceeds make its upkeep possible. Atop the 219 steps, standing at 165 feet above sea level, the beacon light is still in operation and uses the original beehive-shaped prism, which stands at 12 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.
4. Go to the Beach
St. Augustine's 42 miles of beautiful beaches are an irresistible draw for tourists, whether it's to bask in the Florida sunshine, revel in the lively surf, or explore the natural wonders and wildlife of the shore and tidal wetlands. You'll find waters perfect for surfing, fishing, kayaking, sailing, and boogie boarding, and plenty of beachside facilities.
One of the most popular places to visit is the 1,600-acre Anastasia State Park across Matanzas Bay from downtown St. Augustine. In addition to miles of beach, you'll find the Old Spanish Coquina Quarries, where the coquina stone used to build Castillo de San Marcos, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was mined.
5. St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is one of the most exciting things to do in St. Augustine with kids - including teenagers - and is always a big hit with the whole family.
The park prides itself in being the only one of its kind with all living crocodile species in residence, and here tourists can admire more than just native Florida reptiles. The Nile crocodile exhibit is Egyptian-themed with real and replica artifacts, and has a variety of viewing spots, which make it an ideal place for interesting crocodile photo-ops. There is also a "saltie" area, which is home to Australian salt-water crocodiles, featuring the park's largest resident, Maximo. Weighing in at 1,250 pounds and spanning a length of more than 15 feet, Maximo can be seen in his habitat through an underwater viewing area.
The park is also home to a variety of other animals, including exotic birds, several types of snakes, and five species of monkeys. Among its most popular residents are the red-ruffed lemur and ring-tailed lemurs, both of which are endangered species. Visitors can see the animals in their habitats and also enjoy a variety of wildlife shows, which provide entertaining and fascinating background on the animals and their care.
6. Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
The 15-acre park along the Matanzas River is named for the explorer's famed freshwater spring. It is a working archaeological site, which focuses not only on the first Spanish settlers but also on the native Timucuans. Parts of a replica village were constructed on the original site, including a home and a meeting house.
Artifacts from excavations are on display, and reenactments depict native life and traditional crafts. There are beautiful views from the watchtower, as well as along the Riverwalk, and throughout the park, you can feed the beautiful peacocks.
7. Colonial Quarter
In the Historic District, the Colonial Quarter is a living history museum that lets visitors step back in time and see what St. Augustine was like from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The "First City" is home to a shipbuilding project, where they are constructing a replica of a 16th-century caravel, the kind used by Juan Ponce de Leon and other explorers of his time.
The Spanish-fortified town depicts 17th-century life, complete with a blacksmith shop and hourly musket drills. For a good view of the town, climb the replica of an early watchtower. The 18th-century Garrison town features a typical home of a Spanish soldier and a leatherwork shop with hands-on interactive exhibits.
8. St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum
The pirate museum encourages guests to let out their inner pirate by transporting them back more than three centuries to the hub of Caribbean pirate activity in Port Royal, Jamaica. Among the exhibits are the world's oldest pirate treasure chest and the oldest known "wanted" poster.
The Red Sea Pirates exhibit contains a 17th-century Khanjarli dagger and the artifacts from shipwrecks of these notorious bandits. Visitors can learn to tie nautical knots and even steer the ship from the main deck. In the Hollywood Pirates exhibit, you can even see Captain Jack Sparrow's sword.
9. Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum
The former Castle Warden Hotel, in the historic district, now houses 800 exhibits of Robert Ripley's collection of curiosities. Since 1950, the "Odditorium" has mystified, shocked, and amused guests with its eclectic displays of the strange and unusual. Here, you will find anything from historical artifacts to the bizarre and grotesque, including real shrunken heads and a motorcycle made of actual bones.
The "Space Oddities" gallery displays items as small as a set of crayons carved into Star Wars characters and as big as a giant replica of the international space station made entirely of matchsticks. If all this isn't strange enough, keep an eye or ear out for the ghosts of two women who purportedly died in a fire while staying at the hotel.
10. Ximenez-Fatio House Museum
This fully restored original structure was built with native coquina in 1798, for a merchant named Ximenez. It was later purchased and turned into one of the first businesses owned and operated entirely by a woman - Miss Fatio's Boarding House.
It was a stop for St. Augustine's first tourists and was known for its high standards and "reputable clientele." It still houses the original beehive oven, where meals were prepared for travelers and military officers on leave from the nearby fort. This meticulously authentic site is staffed with guides who explain the details of daily life in the 1800s.