Saint Augustine is known as the oldest city in the United States—which it is, of course, having been settled by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. Thus it’s also thought of as the first city of Florida but not as often as a Southern city—although indeed it is. Saint Augustine remained Florida’s capital not only under the long Spanish rule of the region but up to 1824 when the capital of America’s Florida Territory was moved to Tallahassee in order to be more equidistant between Saint Augustine and Pensacola, Florida’s two most important cities at the time. Certainly, there is a lot of history here, and it has become a favorite with tourists interested in history, just as have Savannah and Charleston—two cities with which it shares much in common despite its Spanish rather than British roots. The fact that Saint Augustine boasts great beaches, pretty good surfing, and a leading private college—Flagler College—doesn’t hurt its appeal, either.
Though I grew up in Florida and have visited Saint Augustine since childhood, its depth of historical and cultural attraction escaped me until, as a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I began working on a research project examining both Savannah and Saint Augustine for their historic architecture and planning. It was then that the long history and very tangible impact of that history became clear: a visit to Saint Augustine is not only one to a living, working community but also to a city in which you can see everything from the oldest house in the state to the Plaza de Constitución, the oldest public park in the nation, founded in 1573.
Today there is a lot to do in Saint Augustine that revolves around the city’s vast history, with the downtown historic district, the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, and ghost tours its leading draws. The Castillo de San Marcos is a must for anyone visiting the city: the well-preserved Spanish fortress is key to understanding the way the city was designed and what life in early times here would have been like under the Spanish crown. But the city has in recent years evolved markedly in the areas of innovative cuisine and diverse activities such as surfing lessons and kayaking—which only makes sense given the abundant beaches, waterways, and nearby state parks to explore.
The downtown historic district, though catering to history and tourism, is still a functional and vital part of the city with Flagler College’s campus located there as well as various businesses. Many fine homes fill the streets surrounding the campus and historic district, and a stroll through these streets is in many ways as illuminating as a guided tour of the more renowned sights. Saint Augustine never grew into a huge city like Jacksonville or Orlando and kept its small-town charm, but all the same it has enjoyed throughout its long life a high level of success, and its numerous stately churches, well-tended homes, and languid streets display its affluence and contentment alike.
The Floridian Restaurant lives up to its name: located in an old house that embodies the spirit of mid-century “old” Florida, this restaurant serves new Southern cuisine with an emphasis on locally-sourced foodstuffs, which is not limited to seafood as the region directly southwest of Saint Augustine around Hastings is one of the state’s leading areas for vegetable production.
While the Floridian is located in the heart of the historic district, a bit further out, yet still in walking distance, is the Ice Plant, a classy restaurant and bar in a renovated ice plant where ice was stored and shipped out to ice-box customers in the early twentieth century. The attention-to-detail in the restoration of this historic property is amazing, as is the food they serve. The Chocolate Turtle, a business that just opened, is a dessert and wine bar offering amazing cakes, cheesecakes, and pies—also in the heart of downtown and located in a renovated historic home.
Innovation is not limited to restaurants, however, in Saint Augustine, with the Red Pineapple boutique offering home items and women’s clothing inclusive of many items you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Further out by the beach is the Surf Station, a surf shop that sells the largest selection of the renowned Channel Island surfboards on the east coast—proof of the longstanding and dedicated surf culture here.
Another downtown sight not to be missed is the architecture of Flagler College and the Casa Monica Hotel, both of which display the legacy of oil- and rail-tycoon Henry Flagler. The Casa Monica, while often thought of for Flagler’s ownership of it, was built by Franklin Smith, another early pioneer of industry in Florida, and sold to Flagler, who already owned two other hotels in the city, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. (The Ponce de Leon now is a key part of the campus of Flagler College, while the Alcazar houses Saint Augustine’s City Hall and the Lightner Museum). In 1968, the Casa Monica was renovated for use as the county courthouse, a function it served into the 1990’s when it was bought and renovated once more for the purpose of functioning as a grand hotel. While the ornate Moorish Revival architecture of the building is rare in America, another example of the same design can be found in the Villa Zorayda, Franklin Smith’s own home and a remarkable feat of both exotic architectural style and technology, as Smith applied new techniques that his friend Flagler was exploring in industrial structures to allow concrete to be used as a cheap and sturdy material for the construction of such large buildings. Also renovated and restored to its original beauty, the Villa Zorayda now is open as a museum.
The atmosphere downtown—especially after dark—is almost always festive and filled with infectious energy, mainly because of the combination of visiting tourists and local college students, plus the fact that the city often has free concerts and other events taking place. Like Charleston and Savannah before it, Saint Augustine is now seeing the logic in courting a diversity of tourists—from retired folks interested in history to families with young kids to young adults—and the mixture of restaurants, bars, and shops open late at night indicates the great success this approach has found. So to fully appreciate the city, Saint Augustine needs to be experienced at night as well as during the day. A walking ghost tour is recommended, but also a bit of looking around on your own. You won’t regret it in a city that has been incredible for far longer than most American cities have even existed.