Historic St. Augustine, Florida has been one of my all-time favorite vacation destinations. There is so much to do, you can’t possibly do it all in one trip. Between the beach, old town, and other historical sites you’ll find plenty of fun for everyone. Located on the east coast of Florida just south of Jacksonville, St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles on behalf of Spain, it has been continually occupied since that time, allowing it to claim its status as the oldest city in the nation.
I am a beach gal for sure. Anytime I get to go to the beach you can bet I’m going to be happy. I had a wonderful time exploring the beaches around St. Augustine. Some were smooth and soft, others were steeper and covered in broken shells. I enjoyed them all. There are so many attractions and things to do in Historic St. Augustine, it’s hard to choose which ones to visit and which to save for the next vacation. I am certainly ready to go back and explore this fantastic destination again.
For this blog post, I’m only going to focus on the historical sites to see. There is so much to St. Augustine, I felt like it would be better to break it up into sections. If you are looking for historical attractions, you won’t be disappointed. So, without further ado…
Historic St. Augustine Sites to Visit
The Castillo is a national monument that stands just north of the Bridge of Lions. It is the oldest structure in St. Augustine, built by the Spanish to protect the area and prevent invasion by other countries trying to claim the area for themselves. Shows demonstrate cannon fire and weaponry multiple times on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, weather permitting. It is a fun and educational experience that is a must-do when visiting St. Augustine.
Father Miguel O’Reilly was an Irish Priest who purchased the house in St. Augustine to serve as the first rectory. It is the second oldest building in Historic St. Augustine, second only to the Castillo de San Marcos. Father O’Reilly privately tutored Father Felix Varela, currently slated for sainthood by the Catholic Church. The Sisters of St. Joseph operate the museum and have maintained the property since 1866.
The Flagler College building was built as a prominent hotel for the rich and famous friends of Henry Flagler. It is now a private college that was opened in 1968. Originally named the Ponce de Leon Hotel, it was built in 1887 and was host to presidents, royalty, dignitaries, and celebrities of the time. It holds the world’s largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows. The architecture alone makes this site a great stop on any tour of the city.
Fort Matanzas is a national monument built in 1742 intended to defend the city from a British attack. It is located 15 miles south of Historic St. Augustine in the Matanzas inlet. The fort is accessible by boat. Currently the visitor center dock is closed for repairs due to damage sustained from a hurricane, however, the visitors center, park grounds, and boardwalks are open to the public. If you come during the time the docks are closed, be sure to check out this fort on a future trip because it is a great stop on your visit to St. Augustine.
Fort Mose is a historic state park in Florida. Built specifically to provide a legal settlement for free-slaves, this site is historically significant in the civil rights movement. The Spanish governor of Florida built the fort for the people fleeing slavery from the northern colonies in the Carolinas. Although the fort itself is no longer standing, you can still enjoy the grounds and visitors center to learn of the history of this historic location. Now a National Historic Landmark, it has been called the precursor site of the National Underground Railroad Network.
This is the site that lays claim to be the original Fountain of Youth discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. The site has been extensively studied by archaeologists who have found many exciting finds through the years, including a mass gravesite of 90 Native Americans buried in a Christian ceremony. It is the earliest known Christian burial of indigenous people. The large park has many exhibits and interesting activities to enjoy.
Henry Flagler built the Old Jail in 1881. It housed some of St. Augustine’s most violent criminals from 1891-1953. Visitors can tour the jail and see where the prisoners were housed, and see the side of the building that was the home to Sherriff Joe Perry and his family. Out behind the jail, you can see the gallows where executions were carried out. It is one of the few prisons of its kind that is still standing.
The Gonzalez-Alvarez House is the oldest surviving home from the Spanish colonial period. The St. Augustine Historical Society owns and operates this National Historical Landmark. The site claims to be the oldest house in America. The site holds two museums and a changing gallery of exhibits, a museum store, and an ornamental garden. Visitors can learn about life in St. Augustine through 400 years of time.
Juan Genopoly established the schoolhouse in the late 1700s in his own home. Genopoly was a Minorcan refugee who came to Florida as an indentured servant on a plantation near New Smyrna. He and other Minorcan refugees fled to the St. Augustine area after serving for nine years on the plantation. Genopoly decided it was important for the neighborhood children to learn English, and invited them to his classroom where he taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some of his children followed in his footsteps to become teachers at the school. Children attended this school until 1864. In 1931, former students arranged the classroom to look as it did when they attended so that the school could be opened for public viewing.
This site served as a military hospital for the Spanish settlers between 1784 to 1821. The museum now offers guided tours with demonstrations of both surgical and apothecary practices of the time. It offers an authentic fun and educational experience for the second period of Spanish occupation in St. Augustine. The site is a top attraction and has received the Trip Advisor certificate of excellence. And, it’s open every day except Christmas, so there is plenty of opportunity to visit.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse serves to protect the United States’ oldest port, and it is still working to this day. If you want a birds-eye view of the St. Augustine area, simply climb the 219 steps to the top of the lighthouse. For those who aren’t able to make the climb, you can watch the “View from the Top” video in the Maritime Center. Anyone hoping to see a ghost in the “haunted” lighthouse can take advantage of the night-time guided tours. Either way, you’re sure to get a great view from this majestic old lighthouse.
On September 8, 1565, General Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived with five ships to claim the land for Spain. Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales was a passenger with the General and recorded the events of the day in his diary. He held the first official mass service in what was to become the United States of America on that day, the feast day of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the early 1600s, the Spanish built the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, Mary nursing the infant Jesus.
These are only some of the amazing historical sites to visit in St. Augustine. Just to be present and walk the streets where so many have walked before is an enlightening experience. If you allow yourself to envision how it was when the Spanish first settled here, you can be guaranteed a wonderful time. I truly love to spend time in places that can bring history to life. I enjoy learning about how things were, and how much they have changed. To me, these make the best kind of vacation.
What do you think? Do you enjoy visiting historical sites? Or do you prefer to stick with current day entertainment? Have you been to St. Augustine? Or, any of the sites I’ve listed here? Which were your favorites? Or would you recommend a different historical site that I haven’t mentioned? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!