Saint Augustine – America’s Oldest City Offers History, Family Fun and Outdoor Adventure

You can climb to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Photo: Mira Temkin
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Florida has always been known as a popular vacation destination. But there’s a lot more to this great state with plenty of historic sites, outdoor recreation, and family-friendly activities to enjoy. Consider Saint Augustine, a part of Florida’s Historic Coast, for your next destination. 

Explore America’s Oldest City

Founded in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, St. Augustine also owes its roots to the Native American tribes, African American community as well as the Greeks and the English.

The influence of these communities can be seen and experienced throughout the city in its architecture, cuisine, and even shopping.

St. Augustine is a very walkable city. I parked my car at my hotel and didn’t use it again until I left.

Museums around every corner, a warm, welcoming vibe and history come to life await you here.

There are several ways to get to St. Augustine from the Jacksonville Airport, but the most beautiful route is the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway that takes you by rolling sand dunes, pristine beaches and expansive ocean as far as you can see.

Start at Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth Archeological Park.” 

Drinking from the Fountain of Youth. Photo: Mira Temkin

The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is more than just a National Historic Landmark. America’s First Colony offers so many activities, you can literally spend the day there. Highlights include Ponce de Leon’s “Spring of Eternal Hope” natural spring waterfall. Be sure to take a drink from it. It’s cool and refreshing and who knows, maybe you’ll turn back 20 years younger!

Check out the living history village of Timucuan, a Native American village, live cannon firing, Founders Riverwalk, and watch a demonstration at a blacksmith shop. Admire the colorful peacocks from India strutting through the grounds. When you’re hungry, head to the Smoked Southern BBQ Café for burgers, sandwiches, salads and enjoy the beautiful views as you dine outdoors.

Castillo de San Marcos – This is Where America Begins

Castillo de San Marcos. Photo by Visit St. Augustine.

Built by the Spanish to defend Florida in the late 17th century, this fort is the oldest masonry fort built in the U.S.  Today, it represents a historic icon for the city of Saint Augustine. Here are some of the things you can do there:

Walk through the self-guided tour of the casements through the park’s app. Talk to the rangers and volunteers who are dressed as costumed interpreters. Ask them about the colonists who lived here. Check out the musket and cannon demonstrations. Kids can work to become a Junior Ranger.

The Center of Everything in Saint Augustine

The Plaza de la Constitucion has been a meeting place for locals since 1573. It contains the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Trinity Episcopal Church, and the Government House, and today is also used for live entertainment, public markets, and historical statues. Kids will also enjoy seeing all of the cannons. The Civil Rights Movement held significant events in St. Augustine, and you can see monuments to the “Foot Soldiers” and the Andrew Young Crossing. Walk in his footsteps marking the path where this civil rights leader attempted to march peacefully but was beaten up.

Andrew Young Crossing honors the Civil Rights Worker who was beaten here in 1964. Photo: Mira Temkin

The Bridge of Lions is just a few blocks away, connecting the city with Anastasia Island.  Completed in 1927, it has become an iconic symbol for the city. Do take a walk in the morning or evening and see St. Augustine from a totally different perspective.

Kids will love checking out the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in downtown, built in the late 1700s and learning about school life in the 1800s.

Oldest schoolhouse in the U.S. Photo Mira Temkin

And of course, there are also 42 miles of a Atlantic Beaches with kayaking and other water recreation.

Take the Old Time Trolley Tour and See it All!

The easiest way to see the the sites is to hop on one of the orange and green buses aboard the Old Town Trolley Tour with more than 20 stops along the way. Stops include the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine Village, plus my favorites, admission to the Old Jail and St. Augustine History Museum.

Oldest Store Museum on the Old Town Trolley Tours. Photo by Mira Temkin.
Great fun in the Old Jail on the Old Town Trolley Tour. But you wouldn’t want to stay there! Photo by Mira Temkin.

Other Historic Sites and Museums

Don’t miss the opulent mansion of Villa Zoradya . Photo by Mira Temkin.

Other historic sites include Villa Zorayda, which resembles the Alhambra in Granada, Spain in both Moorish style architecture and interior décor. Admire the art and antique collection in this 1883 Gilded Age home. For a look at a lovely collection of St. Augustine art, stop by the Governor’s House Cultural Center, while the Lightner Museum offers art, architecture and history.

Where to Stay

Casa de Suenos has the perfect location for exploring St. Augustine. Photo: Mira Temkin

St. Augustine offers a range of accommodations from quaint B and B’s to Hyatt, Hilton and Doubletree brands. I stayed at Casa de Suenos in the historic district, a Mediterranean bed & breakfast which was comfortable and homey with a warm vibe.  It offered a great location for walking to all the sites and the personalized breakfast was scrumptious. Additional amenities include free wireless Internet and complimentary use of a nearby fitness facility. They also offer social events to meet the other guests. It made for a perfect two-night stay.

The Palace on the Island

The famous Ponce de Leon Hotel is the Flagler College campus. Photo credit: Flagler College.
The tiled inlaid dome at Flagler College. Photo by Mira Temkin.

The piece de resistance in St. Augustine is the Hotel Ponce de Leon, a luxurious hotel built for the rich and famous. I took a tour and found out how this hotel, built in 1888 by industrialist Henry Flagler in Spanish Renaissance architecture operated. The hotel catered to an upscale audience, but only from January to Easter.  Amazingly, you made a reservation but had no idea what kind of room you’d be getting until you arrived. With approximately 450 hotel rooms, the cost was $4,000 for the entire season, whether you stayed that long or not. 

The dining room is filled with 40 Louis Comfort Tiffany-stained glass windows. The dining room is used by the students now, but I did get a glimpse of its opulence and grandeur on the tour.

The Flagler College Rotunda is gorgeous with inlaid colored mosaics and ceilings, highlighted by statues and the octagonal dome. Don’t miss the beautiful fountain outside.

Since 1968, it has served as the campus of Flagler College, a small liberal arts college. A fitting tribute to the man who built an empire.

Where to Dine

With an abundance of fresh fish available and new chefs in town with innovative ideas, foodies will soak up this amazing dining experience.

The Floridian

The Floridian is a St. Augustine classic that serves up down-home Southern comfort foods along with lighter vegetarian options. Dining outside on the front porch elevated our dining experience as we started out with Fried Green Tomatoes and Company’s Coming, a collection of house-pickled vegetables served with pimento cheese. Who could go wrong with a Southeast Fried Chicken Sandwich and the Beef Brisket Ragout slow braised and served with fall squash and pumpkin seeds?  Just awesome.

A Southern favorite — Fried green tomatoes at The Floridian.

Columbia Restaurant

Columbia Restaurant has been a favorite in St. Augustine since 1967. It’s no wonder diners are enthralled with their award-winning Spanish/Cuban cuisine for lunch and dinner. It’s not only the delectable cuisine, but the décor of the restaurant, once a historic mansion lavishly decorated with hand-painted tiles, artwork and a Spanish-style fountain. The whole menu is like a taste of history from their flagship restaurant in Ybor’s Latin City in Tampa. I started with the Cuban Black Bean Soup, which was rich and savory. Don’t miss Columbia’s “1905 Salad” named the year the restaurant got started. It’s served lots of ways for your preference with ham, turkey or shrimp, and always with their signature iceberg lettuce and garlic dressing. Go for the Tapas, their most popular Cuban sandwich and end with their Chocolate Bread Pudding, not to be missed.

1905 Salad prepared tableside. Photo by Mira Temkin.

Pesca Vilano

Where else in St. Augustine can you get exquisite views of the city with globally inspired coastal cuisine? Helmed by Chef Michael Lugo, Pesca features bold Latin flavors and fresh Florida ingredients. The word “Pesca”, derived from the Spanish word for fishing, was inspired from Michael’s late father’s favorite restaurant in his native Puerto Rico. Start with a cocktail on the rooftop bar and be awed by the vistas. Then move downstairs and indulge in a feast of epic proportions. We dined on a fresh Mediterranean Salad and guava lacquered salmon, topped off by a hard-shell dessert.  Check out their other menu specialties: jerk mushroom gyoza, lobster bao buns and lobster paella. 

Exquisite salmon dish at Pesca Vilano. Photo by Mira Temkin.

Visit St. Augustine along Florida’s Historic Coast and enjoy it all!


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