City Guide: St Augustine, Florida

Located in the northern part of Florida, St Augustine has the distinction of being known as the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America. It was founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez and his soldier and colonists, fifty years after Ponce de Leon claimed the area now known as Florida for Spain in the early 1500s. St. Augustine was under Spanish rule until 1763 when Britain took over for 20 years, followed again by Spain until the United States took over in 1821. Florida later became a state in 1845. The St. Augustine area became popular with tourists in the 1820s as a spot to escape cold northern winters, and the popularity grew when Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler founded the Florida East Coast Railway and began building hotels, churches, and a hospital throughout the area. Today, St. Augustine is a popular spot to be immersed in rich history and culture and the city offers plenty of family friendly adventures. 

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Playing “I Spy” at the Flagler Museum on Palm Beach Island, Florida

We recently spent time exploring St. Augustine Florida, a city that Henry Flagler basically built after the start of his 1912 Florida East Coast Railway and subsequent hotels, hospitals, schools, churches, and farms. (Read more about our adventures in St. Augustine in these posts. So, it was fitting when we also traveled to the West Palm Beach area of Florida in the same trip, we spent the morning at Flagler’s “winter cottage” Henry Flagler was successful in the grain and salt mining industries before he helped to found the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews in 1867.  When he married his third wife, Mary Lily Flager, in August 1901, he promised her a “waterfront winter cottage” and had “Whitehall”, as it was named, built in a record 18 months. The Flaglers spent approximately two months there each year until Flagler’s death in 1913. 

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5 Ways to Explore the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida

The oldest masonry fort in the United States, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument was built from 1672 to 1695 (with various interrupted breaks due to disease and conflict) to guard St Augustine, the first permanent European settlement, from both pirates and English troops. The fort was made from local coquina shell stone quarried in the area that is now Anastasia State Park and is up to 19 feet thick in some ocean side walls. The shell-stone walls helped up against cannon firing and helped the Spanish protect the fort.   In 1821, the United States acquired Florida from Spain and renamed the fort Fort Marion, later adding Florida’s first golf course on the grounds in 1895, and then declared a national monument in 1924. After being deactivated in 1933, the 21 acre fort was used as a US Coast Guard training base during World War II. The fort celebrated its centennial in 2016.

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10 Ways to Explore Alligator Park in St. Augustine, Florida

We’re not a huge zoo family, but every guide we read about St Augustine, Florida, as well as a couple of fellow travel writers, all suggested visiting Alligator Farm Zoological Park. So, on our recent visit to St. Augustine, we started one of our mornings at the park and agreed it’s a special place the whole family will enjoy. Established in 1893, Alligator Farm is one of the oldest zoos in the country. Originally opened as an exhibition space of native Florida reptiles at South Beach on Anastasia Island, Alligator Zoo quickly became a popular spot for tourists. After both a storm and fire destroyed much of the area in 1920, the owners moved the animals to the current, nine acre space. The zoo is home to 24 species of crocodilian, 40 species of birds, dozens of reptiles, and many other animals. The park has shaded paths that weave through the exhibits, with plenty of viewing areas and places to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. There’s also a zip lining course, daily animal feedings, and various programs and special events that offer plenty of new things to see with each visit.

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Playing “I Spy” at the Lightner Museum in St Augustine, Florida

One of the surprise hits of our recent trip to St Augustine, Florida was our visit to the Lightner Museum. We had heard it was beautiful, but we were unsure if it would be family friendly. Secret’s out: it is! (Just keep the toddler crew contained in a stroller when exploring the glass rooms). The Lightner Museum is housed in the former Alcazar Hotel, which was commissioned by Henry Flagler, a prominent oil and railroad tycoon who is credited with designing and building much of St Augustine. The hotel was completed in 1888 by the same firm who designed the New York Public Library and was open until the early 1930s. The hotel included a three story ballroom, sulfur baths, and the largest indoor pool in the world (at the time). Many of the remains of these parts of the hotel can still be seen in the museum today.

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10 Ways to Explore the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida

One of the most well known attractions, and the oldest attraction in Florida (the guest book has signatures dating back to 1868) in St Augustine Florida is the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The 15 acre park  is the original site of the oldest European settlement in the United States. In April 1513 Juan Ponce de Leon and his three ship fleet arrived at the area just above St Augustine  (beating out the Plymouth Pilgrims and Jamestown settlers!). Within the next 50 years, the Menendez Settlement and the first Christian Church were both founded. Today, the park has preserved some of the structures and added engaging, hands on exhibits, programs, and opportunities to learn about the first settlement and our country’s origins.

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