St. Augustine, Florida, is a fascinating city with a rich history and welcomes visitors from all over the world. For a first time visitor with only a couple of days to visit, it can be overwhelming to try to see everything the city offers.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St Augustine, Florida, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement within the contiguous United States. San Juan, Puerto Rico, was established in 1521.
The city of St Augustine has something to offer everyone, from solo travelers, couples, families, those interested in history, and foodies.
St. Augustine is a walking city. Parking is hard to come by in the historic district. With trolleys and rideshares (Uber and Lyft), there isn’t a point to use your vehicle unless you are venturing out of the historic area or going to the beaches.
There is so much to see and do in St. Augustine that you would need a week or two to experience everything the city has to offer. Most people don’t have that luxury and will spend the weekend or two to three days during the week.
One of the best ways to start your visit is with a trolley ride around the city. Old Town Trolley Tours are a convenient way to get a good glimpse of what the city has to offer, the various parts of the city, and gives you a good starting point for when you strike out on your own walking the town.
The trolley offers hop-on, hop-off service and makes stops at various locations about every 15 minutes. You can buy a day pass and use it to get around to the places you want to visit.
Things to See in St. Augustine
Most of these St. Augustine attractions can be accessed by the trolley rides and make for a great visit.
Pirate and Treasure Museum
The St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum showcases the world’s most extensive collection of authentic pirate artifacts. Owner Pat Croce has been collecting pirate treasure since he was a kid. His collection has artifacts such as the world’s only surviving pirate chest and one of only two existing 17th-century Jolly Rogers. The interactive museum gives visitors a glimpse into piracy’s golden age and those that sailed the seas in search of pirate treasure.
Castillo San Marcos
The Castillo San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and sits prominently overlooking the harbor on the historic district’s edge. Construction began in 1672 when Florida was part of the Spanish empire, and over the years, has served as a fort for the Spanish, British, the Confederate Army, and the US Military. The fort was also used as a prison to hold various Native American tribes and others over the years.
After 251 years of continuous military occupation, the fort was deactivated in 1933 and was turned over to the US Park Service. Today visitors can tour the fort and walk the same paths as Spanish conquistadors.
Imagine attending college built initially as a hotel in Spanish Renaissance style. Flagler College, built by Henry Flagler in 1888, was a luxury hotel named the Ponce de Leon Hotel. It was one of the first buildings in America wired for electricity. Its DC generators were installed by Thomas Edison, a personal friend of Flagler.
The 540 room hotel was the first of its kind constructed entirely of poured concrete and boasted Tiffany stained glass in the dining room. It is still the world’s largest collection of Tiffany stained glass at one location. Notable guests at the Ponce de Leon Hotel included Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and baseball great Babe Ruth. It closed in 1967 and a year later became Flagler College. Today it is still an imposing structure in St Augustine.
Fountain of Youth
Most historians agree that Ponce de Leon was never searching for the mystical Fountain of Youth, but there is evidence he occupied the land where the Fountain of Youth in St Augustine is. Sometime during the late 1800s or early 1900s, the spring’s location was touted as Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth and has been a tourist attraction ever since.
Whether you believe it or not, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park is a fascinating place to visit and learn about the history of the early people that lived there and early Spanish colonization of the area. While you are there, go ahead and take a drink from the fountain; who knows, it might help shave off a few years.
Lightner Museum is across the street from Flagler College. It also started as a Henry Flagler-built hotel, the Hotel Alcazar, with a steam room, massage parlor, sulfur baths, and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. Hotel Alcazar closed in 1932. In 1947, it was purchased by Otto Lightner and turned into a hobby museum to house his extensive collection, namely Victorian Art. Lightner shortly turned it over to the city.
The Villa Zorayda was built in 1883 by Bostonian Franklin Smith as his Winter home. Inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Spain, it was also used as a restaurant and club. In 1913 the building was sold to Abraham Mussallem, a Lebanese immigrant, an authority on oriental rugs and Egyptian artifacts. Musallem used the Villa Zorayda as a casino and speakeasy in the 1920s and, in 1933, turned it into a museum. Still owned by the Musallem family, the museum has an extensive antique collection, including a 2,400-year-old rug made from cat hair.
Other Things of Interest Include:
Lighthouse and Museum
This working lighthouse, circa 1874, also has a Maritime Museum. Visitors can learn about the area’s 500-year maritime history and climb to the lighthouse’s top for a spectacular view of the city.
Oldest House in St Augustine
Dating to 1723, the Gonzalez-Alvarez House was the home of Tomás González y Hernández, an artilleryman at the Castillo de San Marcos, and his family.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not
Built as a private home in 1887, it became a hotel in 1941. Robert Ripley visited it several times and attempted to purchase it on a few occasions. In 1950, a year after Ripley’s death, his estate purchased the hotel and turned it into the first permanent Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium. Today, there are over 800 exhibits, many from Ripley’s collection.
St. George Street
St. George Street is a famous pedestrian street in the historic district of St. Augustine. It is lined with shops and great restaurants.
Walk the Oldest Street in the United States
Aviles Street is touted as the oldest street in the United States. Archeologists have discovered pottery dating to the early 1600s here, and it is where you can find the art district, excellent museums, and old buildings, such as the Spanish Military Hospital.
Eating in St. Augustine
When it comes to food and the restaurants in St Augustine, you won’t be disappointed. From delicious seafood at St Augustine Fish Camp and Catch 27 to Spanish and Cuban cuisine at the historic Columbia Restaurant and the many other places, big and small, the food is fantastic.
St Augustine is an excellent destination for families, couples, and even singles. The oldest city in the United States offers a bit of everything from historical sites, great dining, distillery, brewery, wine tours, fun family activities, and romantic getaways.
As the last suggestion, I would recommend planning at least a three-day visit, and even then, you will want to return and see even more.
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Article written by Destination Expert Bob Bales of The Traveling Fool
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