St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continually occupied European city in the United States. Founded by the Spanish in September of 1565, the city actually predates the country by more than 200 years. Visiting St. Augustine is like peering into two worlds simultaneously. Traverse the modern city with cars bustling by with people on their way to the beach or work. At the same time, step back in time and explore the sections carved out of the modern city that are preserved from when this was the Spanish capital of Florida. With this guide to the best of St Augustine, you can fully explore this historic place.
The Best of St Augustine
- Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
- Plaza de la Constitución
- Castillo de San Marcos
- St. George Street
- Bridge of Lions
- Old Spanish Trail Mile Zero
- The Lightner Museum
- Anastasia State Park
- St. Augustine Lighthouse
1) Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
There are many beautiful churches in the downtown area that beacon exploration when visiting the best of St Augustine, Florida. However, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine stands out above the rest. The modern basilica was constructed between 1793 and 1797. However, the church’s congregation was established the same year as the city in 1565—making it the oldest church body in the United States. The building itself is a gorgeous piece of architecture covered on the inside and outside with beautiful works of art. Tapestries, statues, and stained glass tell the story of Christ and the cities namesake, Saint Augustine.
Augustine of Hippo
It is appropriate that this city’s namesake is much older than this ancient city. Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Roman Catholic theologian who lived and ministered in the city of Hippo (modern-day Algeria) during the 4th and 5th centuries. He was a prolific writer who, according to Britannica, has more than five million words that have survived to this day. Many of his ideas are credited with shaping Spanish and western culture. So much so that many of his writings are still considered to be relevant to this day. A great man inspired the naming of this great city. A statue of the Saint stands in front of the Cathedral Basilica that should be found when exploring the best of St Augustine.
2) Plaza de la Constitución
The Plaza de la Constitución is a small park in the heart of this modern city. The old government house that looks more akin to a tavern stands on one side of the rectangular plaza. The government house was the seat of Spanish rule in Florida and although it has been rebuilt many times it dates back to the earliest days of Spanish rule. On the other side of the plaza stands a monument to the iconic explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, who discovered and claimed Florida for the Spanish empire in 1513. The small park has a pavilion that has been used as a central market since the early days of the plaza which was built in 1573.
The park was renamed in 1812 along with the construction of an obelisk to celebrate the Spanish Constitution. In 1814 the monarch of Spain once again rose to power abolishing the short-lived constitution and destroying all monuments to it. Amazingly, this city that is now located on foreign soil is the only place in the world with a monument celebrating the 1812 Spanish Constitution that was built during the era.
3) Castillo de San Marcos
Today the Castillo de San Marcos has been set aside as a National Monument. According to the Parks Service, it is the oldest masonry fortification in the continental United States. Original construction on the present-day fort began in 1672 which replaced a Spanish wooden fort that was damaged when the city was attacked by the British. Although Spain built the fort it has also been inhabited and altered by the British and the United States over the course of six different occupations.
After 251 years of continuous military service, the fort was decommissioned and turned over to the Parks Service in 1933. This was nine years after being declared a National Monument. Today the fort stands mard not only by the tides of war but the relentless onslaught of nearly 350 years of weather. This fort is a national relic that predates the country by more than 100 years and must be explored when seeking out the best of St Augustine.
4) St. George Street
St. George Street cuts across the historic area of St. Augustine from the Old City Gate to the Plaza de la Consitución. It is a pedestrian-only street with tons of modern shops and eateries housed in the old buildings. This ancient street is a bustling place that often has live music filling the air. While exploring the shops, make some time to explore the historic places found along St. George Street. The Old City Gate dates back to 1808, and the street houses the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the country that according to their website dates to between 1800 and 1810. The Medieval Torture Museum is also a very interesting exhibit but it is not suitable for children. Exploring all the nooks and crannies of St. George Street should be on your itinerary when seeking out the best of St Augustine.
5) Bridge of Lions
The picturesque Bridge of Lions is the main thoroughfare to beautiful Anastasia Island and really cannot be missed when visiting St. Augustine. Most visitors will simply drive across the bridge on a visit to Anastasia State Park or the St. Augustine Lighthouse. But walking the bridge in the early morning is a tranquil experience. The bridge is usually very busy which is why I suggest walking it at sunrise so that fewer cars will disturb your traverse. The bridge derives its name for the four marble lion statues that grace the four corners of the bridge. Completed in 1927 the draw bridge was constructed for the primary purpose of automobile traffic but harkens back to a time when infrastructure of this type was mandated to have beautiful architecture not just industrial purpose.
6) Old Spanish Trail Mile Zero
Just to the north of the Old City Gate past the Huguenot Cemetery lies a large concrete orb with a plaque commemorating Mile Zero on the Old Spanish Trail. The Old Spanish Trail was an early paved highway that was a contemporary of the more famous Route 66. According to Atlas Obscura, the road was officially opened in 1929. It traversed the entirety of the southern United States running from St. Augustine to San Diego, California. Much of the old road has been absorbed into US Highway 90 in the south and Highway 80 in the southwest. This moss-covered monument memorializes something not yet 100 years old but that is now all but forgotten. I think it is a reminder of how fleeting things are in our modern world. It stands here in stark contrast to such an old and lasting city.
7) The Lightner Museum
The Lightner Museum houses an eccentric collection of art from the late 19th century. Otto Lightner was the Chicago publisher & editor for Hobbies Magazine. As a precursor to the modern-day American Pickers, he curated what others collected. The museum is beautiful but the building itself has a story to tell. It was originally the Alcazar Hotel, built by the industrialist Henry M. Flagler in 1888. The massive sprawling estate was designed to accommodate the wealthy in opulence. According to the Lightner Museum, the hotel’s indoor swimming pool was the largest in the world and is today a café that can be enjoyed by those exploring the best of St Augustine.
Henry M. Flagler
Henry M. Flagler made his fortune alongside Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company. He used his wealth to revitalize St. Augustine and developed some of Florida’s most iconic infrastructure, including the railroad that linked Key West to the mainland. This task was thought folly at the time but today the path of the railroad has morphed into the World-renowned Overseas Highway. Flagler built the Alcazar Hotel, dreamed of and became the namesake of St. Augustine’s Flagler College, and was a benefactor of the beautiful St Augustine Memorial Presbyterian Church. The architecture of the church is gorgeous and is where Flagler was laid to rest in May of 1913.
8) Anastasia State Park
St. Augustine Beach is a typical Florida beach with modern amenities, trendy shops, and tasty restaurants. It is a place to tan and people-watch. But if you are looking for a natural Florida beach while exploring the best of St. Augustine check out Anatasia State Park. The park is home to a beautiful stretch of beach where the sounds of the waves crashing and birds chirping are often louder than the roar of the human race. There are several boardwalks over the coastal dunes. I also suggest hiking the park’s Ancient Dunes Natural Trail. It is a slice of old Florida that traverses ancient sand dunes now covered in foliage and teeming with wildlife. While St. Augustine is a historic city, Anastasia is a window into the natural world those early explorers would have found themselves surrounded by.
9) St. Augustine Lighthouse
There is something undeniably beautiful about a lighthouse and the 165′ tall St. Augustine Lighthouse is no exception. With a black and white swirl topped with a bright red top, this maritime structure stands out above the surrounding terrain. There are no other lighthouses in America with such a long history.
According to the St. Augustine lighthouse website, this land was originally used as a watchtower for the ancient city and there are historical records that date that structure to as early as 1589. Adjacent to the present-day lighthouse location but now residing at the bottom of the ocean was Florida’s first lighthouse—initially lit in 1824. In 1874 the present-day lighthouse cast its first light over the waves. An illumination that could be seen up to 24-nautical miles away. Today, the St. Augustine lighthouse is operated and maintained as a maritime museum. Paying visitors can climb to the lighthouse’s observation deck 150′ above the ground and tour the museum.
Logistics for Visiting the Best of St Augustine
December – February: Winter can be a nice time for visiting St. Augustine with cooler days making exploration of the historic city more enjoyable. The cooler temperatures are less ideal for spending time in the water.
March – May: Spring is a great time to visit St. Augustine. High temperatures usually range from the low 70s to the low 80s making the weather perfect for exploration.
June – September: Summers in Florida are often very hot a muggy. These are also the wettest months of the year and are often subject to distructive hurricanes.
October & November: Cooler weather with less precipitation arrive in the autumn season making this a great season for visiting St. Augustine.
The Anastasia State Park Campground is a great place to stay. Camping in the park allows you to experience one of the best of St Augustine locations before and after the gates are opened to the public. The campground has many amenities that make it a great option for those looking to camp near the city.
If you prefer a comfy room to a campground check out the St. George Inn. This inn is a great option for those who want to be close to all the food and nightlife in the heart of St. Augustine. For those looking for some time on the beach check out the Embassy Suites by Hilton in St. Augustine Beach. Experience epic sunrises while still being close enough to explore the ancient city.
When exploring the best of St. Augustine there is no shortage of great food options. Check out the Maple Street Biscuit Company for breakfast, The Kookaburra Coffee for a cup of joe, Pizza Time for lunch, and finish off the day at Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grill. If you like creole food Harry’s the best we have found outside of New Orleans.
The Best of St Augustine
Visiting St. Augustine is a must for those who love history. No other city in the United States can lay claim to so much history that predates the country itself by more than 200 years. This city even predates the ill-fated English settlement of Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks by twenty-three years. St. Augustine is a modern city teeming with history. It is an odd dichotomy that achieves a good balance. Alongside the historical buildings and monuments there is plenty of great food, modern luxuries, and amazing beaches to enjoy. This amazing city has something for everyone to enjoy and should not be missed when exploring the sunshine state.