Last weekend, I needed to get out of town. So I decided to pay a visit to the coastal town of St. Augustine. The city is the nation’s oldest city, founded in 1565. It’s located on Florida’s east coast between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
What I love about St. Augustine is it’s old European city charm that’s not found anywhere else in the state. It has a lot of history- most notably with the Castillo De San Marco. The Castillo is a fort built by the Spanish and used to protect the city and the treasure trade that Spain was involved in. A vibrant shopping district filled with boutique shops and restaurants is just across the street from the fort.
It’s easy to see the highlights of the area in just a day. For my trip, I got up early and went out to the beach to watch the sun rise over the ocean and feel the sand between my toes. I went early because the rainy season is starting and I wanted to see as much as I could before the afternoon rains set in. After relaxing on the beach for a bit, I headed over to my favorite beachside restaurant- Beachcombers. It’s located right behind the beach dunes and is a great spot to grab some breakfast. By the time I was done, it was time to head off to the fort.
The fort is located right on the water with views of the city, the Bridge of Lions and the lighthouse. Outside the fort is circled with a moat and turrets. Inside there are exhibits explaining what the various rooms of the fort were used for and explanations about what life was like back during the time the Spanish were there. The coolest part is the hourly cannon firings that occur on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (weather permitting).
After the fort, I crossed the street over to the shopping district. I’m a sucker for sidewalk cafes, and the district has one on every other corner. It also has a large number of boutique shops selling everything from clothes to wines to spices to goodies for your four-legged friends. It’s a great spot to go for a casual lunch with friends or a date night with that special someone. Once I finished walking around, I decided to cross over the Bridge of Lions to the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is not as impressive as some of the other lighthouses around the state like the Ponce Inlet lighthouse. The St. Augustine one is smaller in both height and land area. Also, the original lighthouse keeper’s house was nearly completely destroyed by arsonists, so nearly everything in it is a reconstruction. But even with all that, the views from the top of the lighthouse are quite nice. On a clear day it’s possible to see over 20 miles in any direction. One cool moment I had there was when a woman walked up to the lighthouse and just smiled. She was from Rhode Island, and seeing the St. Augustine lighthouse was on her bucket list. It was so wonderful to see someone going out and pursuing their dreams- even if it’s just seeing a lighthouse several hundred miles away.
My goal for the day was to see the fort and the lighthouse, but it was only mid-afternoon after I left the lighthouse. So I decided to drive south on A1A to Fort Matanzas. That fort was also built by the Spanish but is much smaller then the Castillo de San Marcos and can only be reached by boat since it’s located on a very small island. I didn’t even know the fort existed- I found out about it when I went to the Castillo. The fort surprised me. I was there on a special weekend. Normally, the fort is portrayed as being occupied by the Spanish, with a Spanish flag and Spanish recreation actors. But the fort was held briefly by the British, so one weekend of the year, the park makes the fort a British one. They also do cannon firings on that weekend which they don’t normally do. I was quite impressed. The rooms were recreated with all kinds of tools and equipment used during that era and it was wonderful interacting with the actors who were quite knowledgeable. The only disappointment was that my visit there was quite short since bad weather was starting to come in and the park rangers didn’t want to strand people on the island.
After that long day, I decided to head on home. But it would be very easy to spend a weekend in St. Augustine. There’s a number of bed and breakfasts in the area, and even some offbeat options like the Pirate Haus. Other historical areas in the city include the nation’s oldest schoolhouse, Fort Mose (yes, the city is full of forts) and several museums. More modern-day venues include touring the local winery or taking a cruise around the area.
If you want to come see St. Augustine for yourself, there’s a couple of ways to get here. The easiest would be by car via I-95 or A1A. The city has its own airport, but is not served by any of the major airlines. The nearest major airports are Jacksonville International to the north, Daytona Beach International to the south and Orlando International about two hours west. There’s no mass transit in the city, but it’s very walkable and there’s plenty of tourist trolleys that run around the major attractions. Parking-wise, there is a large parking garage near the Castillo and a lot of metered spaces around. However, free parking is scarce.
If a visit to Florida is on your agenda, St. Augustine is well-worth the time and effort to come and visit.
All photos were taken by the author.