Visualize strolling through the streets of an ancient city, where the territory was once ruled by natives, and subsequently English, Spanish and French explorers. Where once upon a time pirates pillaged and with the help of providence and a hurricane, the English routed and destroyed not only a French fort but their formidable sailing fleet as well. Where would you be? St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest European established, and for many, the most fascinating city in North America.
As you can imagine, a city with this kind of history naturally has a charm and unique blend of the old and new unlike any other place in North America. St. Augustine is a magnet for historians, artists, sun seekers, families, honeymooning couples and water enthusiasts alike. Situated on the eastern coast of Florida about 40 miles south of the Florida capital of Jacksonville, the Old City as it is known, is a delightful blend of romance and activity.
To start your exploration, you might begin in Old Town; a unique historical district covering 144 square blocks which includes 29 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. You can stroll through over four centuries of history comprised of boutiques, museums, charming specialty shops and restaurants and walk through the Plaza de la Constitucion, which was established by Spanish Royal ordinances in 1573, thirty-four years before the English settlers of Jamestown sloshed ashore in Virginia, and is the oldest public park in the United States.
“Modern” St. Augustine traces its roots back to Henry Flagler, an early railroad pioneer who in the 1880’s developed the city into a destination for wealthy leisure travelers. One of his developments, the former Hotel Alcazar, is now home to the Lightner Museum. Built in 1887 in the Spanish Renaissance style, architects Carrere and Hastings were commissioned by Flagler to design the Alcazar and the Ponce de Leon Hotel (across the street). The two young architects later designed the New York Public Library and the U.S. Senate office building. An architectural treasure worth visiting for its historical significance, the Lightner houses an impressive collection of Gilded Era treasures.
Another historical marvel is the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum which houses the largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts in the world, including a real pirate treasure chest and flags bearing the Jolly Roger. For more nautical enlightenment, visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum built in 1874.
Although St. Augustine is filled with history and a wealth of shopping and dining diversions, don’t forget to bring your towel and sunscreen. Although you’ll find the surf a little rougher on the east coast of Florida than on the Gulf of Mexico side, there is plenty to do beachside. You can sail, scuba, kayak, wind sail, swim, jet ski or take a pleasure cruise up and down the coast. Or, when you dry off you may want to try one of several world class golf courses in the area.
For a little excitement you might want to visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, one of oldest continuously running attractions in Florida. First open on May 20, 1893, the park now houses over 20 species of crocs and features numerous reptiles, birds and mammals. There are daily animal performances and educational demonstrations. For the bizarre you might want to check out Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, famous for its oddities and unusual displays of all kinds.
To compliment the history of your visit, consider a stay at one of the many historical bed and breakfast inns located throughout the city, some of which lie in the heart of the historical district. Plan your activities in advance as there are so many things to do in St. Augustine, Florida, you won’t find it difficult to easily fill a week with exciting (or relaxing) new experiences.