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Nowhere in Florida is history as celebrated as it is in St. Augustine, America’s oldest city where you’ll find a charming mix of centuries-old buildings, horse-drawn carriages and a brick-lined pedestrian thoroughfare. Boasting more than 450 years of rich history, St. Augustine’s European flavor and the quaint collection of shops, restaurants and historic landmarks lures travelers in time and time again. From the Oldest Wooden School House to an archaeological park and the coquina walls of its forts, here are some of the most popular historic sites in St. Augustine.
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Located in historic Downtown St. Augustine, the Colonial Quarter is a delight for the senses. Capturing the city’s rich heritage and storied past, here you can walk the streets and get a glimpse of what life was like in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. There are four area’s to explore, the 16th Century Spanish First City, the 17th Century Spanish Fortified Town, the 18th Century Spanish Garrison Town and the 18th Century British The 14th Colony. You’ll see the construction of a ship, cannon firing demonstrations and musket drills.
A 60-year-old coquina building that encompasses Ponce de Leon’s Spring of Eternal Hope, the Fountain of Youth archeological park was first explored in 1513. The guestbooks here stretch back to 1868, and its 15 waterfront acres offers an array of attractions to explore, including a park, planetarium, a blacksmith shop and replica Timucua village. Admire the local peacock residents, watch the cannon firings, and make sure to sample some of the special water, as it’s believed that it has anti-aging properties for anyone who drinks it.
Currently the oldest masonry structure of its kind in the United States, Castillo de San Marcos is a fun place to explore. This masonry fort in St. Augustine was constructed in 1672 by a Spanish engineer when Florida was a part of the Spanish Empire. Declared a National Monument in 1924, this fort was once used as a military prison for Native American tribes. Take some time to wander around the magnificent structure and soak up the views that overlook the sea on the St. Augustine coast.
Housed in the former Alcazar Hotel that dates back to 1888, the Lightner Museum showcases an impressive collection of 19th-century art that includes Tiffany & Co. glass and Victorian-era antiques. The museum also features unconventional items, as you can walk through this architectural masterpiece to discover an eccentric collection of shrunken heads, salt and pepper shakers and cigar labels. Like taking a step back in time, you can admire costumes, furnishings, mechanical musical instruments and paintings from around the world.
Both kids and adults will enjoy an afternoon exploring the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, as it’s home to fascinating shipwreck artifacts, a wooden boat building exhibit and a 165-foot-tall lighthouse that you can climb. Built between 1871 and 1874, it is the oldest surviving brick structure in St. Augustine. Said to be haunted by former lighthouse keepers, brave adventurers can climb 219 steps and admire the sights, as you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Salt Run lagoon and St. Augustine.
Made completely by hand, the Oldest Wooden School House is a fascinating historic structure and architectural feat. It was the first co-ed school that educated both boys and girls in 1788. This 200-year-old building offers a glimpse of what life was like in that time period, as it originally had no electricity, running water or even a bathroom. Built when Florida was under the rule of Imperial Spain, it is made of cedar and cypress, put together by handmade nails. You can listen to the animated schoolmaster and purchase handmade souvenirs in the on-site gift shop.
Opened in 1891, the Old Jail served as the St. Johns County Jail until 1953. Financed by Henry Flagler, this iconic landmark was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Now a museum that showcases fascinating artifacts, come here to browse a collection of weaponry and a pictorial history of the hangings that were carried out at the jail. Its Romanesque Revival-style architecture will capture your attention, while tour guides in period costumes paint the picture of the conditions prisoners encountered in the jail.
Built in 1742, the iconic Fort Matanzas National Monument can only be reached by ferry. Used to defend the city of St. Augustine from British attack, it is a remnant of Florida’s Spanish past. Made of coquina, it is composed of shell fragments that are cemented together by the pounding surf upon the beach. You’ll regularly find reenactments that living history demonstrations here, detailing the history of the fort to visitors.
An architectural masterpiece built as a winter residence for Franklin Smith in 1883, the Villa Zorayda Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It began the Moorish Spanish revival of architecture you see in St. Augustine today, as this grand Gilded Age home is built 1/10th the scale of the Moorish castle, the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Featuring a colorful collection of fine art, you’ll find paintings, 17th-century furniture and a 2,400-year-old rug that was taken from one of the pyramids in Egypt.
A unique glimpse of historic medical practices and procedures, the Spanish Military Hospital Museum gives visitors a chance to feel like they’ve traveled back to the Colonial Spanish Period of St. Augustine. You can watch “cutting edge” colonial surgery techniques performed by the museum staff, while the Apothecary displays herbs that were used as medicine. You’ll see what life was like as a doctor or patient in 1791 and browse a collection of antique surgical instruments.
Built by Henry Flagler, the Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine dates back to 1889. He built the church to honor his late daughter, Jenny, and its Venetian Renaissance-style architecture is a sight to behold. You’ll discover an array of ornate details, including a collection of intricate terracotta friezes built by Italian artists. Sit back and admire the massive copper dome and hand-carved Santo Domino mahogany, as this beautiful landmark has been referred to as one the religious wonders of the United States.