Who says that Southern towns have to be all moonlight and magnolias? Here in St. Augustine, deeply set Spanish roots blend beautifully with that sweet, Southern spark we love, culminating in a cultural smorgasbord unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. Check out the list below to see for yourself:
- El Galeón
St. Augustine serves as the home port of the Spanish galleon, El Galeón (photo courtesy of Floridashistoriccoast.com)
As the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine has a wealth of attractions for visitors to enjoy on dry land, but one of its most exceptional offerings is anchored offshore. Bobbing anachronistically among the modern sailing sloops and yachts in the city’s municipal marina, El Galeón—a built-to-spec, wooden replica of a sixteenth-century Spanish galleon—sits as a 170-foot, 495-ton testament to St. Augustine’s origins. With a twenty-eight man (and woman) crew that runs the ship as Spanish sailors would have five hundred years ago, and breathtakingly wrought detail both above deck and in the quarters down below, El Galeón doesn’t just offer visitors a one-dimensional homage to history, but hands-on, multi-sensory immersion in it.
- St. Augustine Lighthouse
With its predecessor a Spanish watchtower built in the late 1500’s, the St. Augustine Lighthouse stands as the oldest, permanent aid to navigation in North America (photo courtesy of Floridashistoriccoast.com)
Not many cities can boast a twelve-foot-tall, 1000-watt porch light, but St. Augustine can! With a honeycomb of 370 hand-cut glass prisms in the original Fresnel lens, and an exterior that has been meticulously restored to its original 1888 colors and materials, the St. Augustine Lighthouse is not only beautiful, it represents the oldest, permanent aid to navigation in North America. There is more to the lighthouse than nostalgic charm, however; those who climb the 219 steps to the top will be rewarded with sweeping views of America’s oldest city, and especially intrepid visitors can return at night for a hair-raising, moonlight tour of what locals believe to be the most haunted place in St. Augustine.
- Fort Mose
Slaves that escaped British colonies could find sanctuary in the Spanish maroon community of Fort Mose (photo courtesy of Floridashistoriccoast.com)
Believe it or not, the first Underground Railroad in the United States did not lead north, but pointed due south, straight towards St. Augustine. One hundred years before the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves who escaped the British Colonies could find sanctuary in the Spanish maroon community of Fort Mose, free for the comparatively small price of declaring allegiance to the Spanish king and Catholic Church. Though today nothing remains of the community that once served as a safe-haven for over one hundred Africans, the forty acres of water-front park—rich with local wildlife and steeped in local history—is still well worth the trip.
- The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park
The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park fires an authentic replica of a 1500’s Spanish six-pound cannon daily (photo courtesy of John Stavely)
On April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de León alighted from his ship, setting foot for the first time on the uncharted land that would become Florida. The conquistador was in hot pursuit of a fabled fountain that would ensure everlasting life, and though his subsequent death may discredit theories that he found this mythical spring on Florida’s shores, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park marks the spot—and natural spring—where he landed. Complete with feisty musters of peacocks, a planetarium that imparts the secrets of celestial navigation, a replica of a sixteenth-century, six-pound cannon (fired daily), and the famous fountain itself, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park may not offer visitors the secrets to eternal life, but it will most certainly keep them entertained.
- Old Wooden Schoolhouse
Everything used to build St. Augustine’s Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse—from nails to wooden pegs—is handmade (photo courtesy of Floridashistoriccoast.com)
There may be more than one city in the United States that claims bragging rights to the oldest schoolhouse, but St. Augustine certainly holds the title for the most creative way to make sure it stays put. When one of the area’s legendary hurricanes threatened the delicate frame of the schoolhouse in 1937, some of St. Augustine’s more innovative citizens wrapped a massive iron chain around the building, secured it with an anchor, and bore the storm with crossed fingers. Though perhaps not entirely thanks to St. Augustinians’ imaginative efforts, the eighteenth-century schoolhouse—complete with chain and anchor—remains standing today.
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park
Brave souls can tour St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park by zip-line (photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park)
Not all historic attractions have to be formal and staid, and those in search of something a little more lively need look no further than the century-old St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park: seven acres of birds, monkeys, lemurs, lizards, and a fifteen-foot, 1250-pound Australian saltwater croc that answers to the name of Maximo. Wander around the park on foot, or try your hand at one of the new self-guided zip-line tours, featuring over fifty formidable, aerial obstacles—not the least of which is dangling anywhere from sixty to twenty feet above the toothy grins of the park’s impressive collection of gators and crocs.
- The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
The rich interiors of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine include rich tapestries, stained glass, and stunning murals (photo courtesy of Matthew Paulsen)
Not only is the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica the oldest church in Florida, it is also one of the most beautiful. The church has existed in a number of architectural incarnations, persisting through siege, fire, and the best efforts of Florida’s unforgiving weather since the church was established in 1565. Complete with a distinctive four-bell tower (one of which is reputed to have survived from the church’s original structure), a 204-foot tall cross dubbed the “Beacon of Faith,” and the trademark interior opulence of the Catholic Church, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is a breathtaking monument to the city’s past.
- Fort Matanzas
Constructed of coquina, shell fragments cemented together by the pummeling of the Florida surf, Fort Matanzas is representative of both St. Augustine’s natural and military history
Some lessons are hard learned. Such is the case in the genesis of Fort Matanzas, the stone sentinel that has stood guard over the “back door” to St. Augustine since 1740. Though Spanish colonists might have easily anticipated an attack through the Matanzas River (it’s the entrance they used themselves to take the marshy inlet from the French Huguenots who originally inhabited the area), it wasn’t until British General Oglethorpe used the backwater entrance to lay a thirty-nine day siege to the city that the fort was constructed. Though Fort Matanzas may no longer be used for military defense, it still protects the area’s valuable resources, serving as a one-hundred-acre safe-haven for a diverse population of the Florida marsh’s delicate wildlife.
More “Gators, Galeons, and Fountain of Youth” Photos Here