Exploring St. Augustine

Author: Alecia Pirulis

A Weekend in the Nation’s First City

I recently returned from a long weekend in St. Augustine, Florida. If you haven’t visited this great little historic city, you should definitely give it a try. Surrounded by majestic live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, this amazing location dates back to the 1500s. Ponce de Leon thought he found the Fountain of Youth here, and the Spanish built a fort from coquina rock that still stands today. Some of the buildings in the old town date back to the 1600s.

St. Augustine was settled 200 years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, making it the oldest city in the country. It is also reportedly the most haunted. The St. Augustine lighthouse was even featured on an episode of the Ghost Hunters television show. Everyone I know who has visited has a St. Augustine story, and I have to say, after a visit there I am much less skeptical. There are several ghost tours that take place at night. The one I was most interested in was the night tour of the lighthouse – according to the lady working there it is “very creepy.” When she added that she wouldn’t do it, we decided to pass – but it is on the list for next time.

We visited the Old Senator, a 600-year-old live oak tree with a massive trunk and long, spidery limbs stretched low to the ground. My kids wanted to know how a tree could be so old. Instead of telling my gullible offspring that live oaks can live 1,000 years or more (just see the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park in Texas) I told them the roots were probably tapping in to the Fountain of Youth. (I know … but their amazement was worth it.)

My kids were equally impressed by the Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort built in 1672. There’s a small room in the fort with an even smaller opening you have to crawl through – it leads to the oldest room in the fort. Although damp and a little musty, it is an inspiring little room that speaks to the ingenuity of those who built something that could last over 300 years. By far the most impressive thing for my kids was the firing of the cannon – something you can hear miles away, every hour on the hour. Up close, it’s impressive … just be sure to plug your ears.

We visited a quiet little beach called Vilano Beach, one of north Florida’s best-kept secrets. There are no garish surf shops, grandiose hotels, or crowded piers here, just miles of ocean and amazing shells. If you prefer a more touristy location, Jacksonville Beach is about 25 miles north.

The walkable old town is a smattering of old buildings containing gift shops, boutiques, and art galleries. The narrow roads are perfect for walking – be sure to wear comfortable shoes because once you start exploring, it will be hours before you stop! The Old Schoolhouse is a wooden structure built well over 200 years ago, while the Gonzalez-Alvarez House is the oldest house, originally built in the 1600s. The present house was built in the early 1700s.

Since we were only there for a long weekend, we missed quite a bit that we hope to get to next year. On our to-do list: Lightner Museum, in the former Alcazar Hotel; Marineland, where you can swim with dolphins; the Father O’Reilly House Museum, built in the 1760s; and the Old Jail, built in 1891. My kids also want to hit the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Potter’s Wax Museum, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Everyone I met in St. Augustine, from waitresses to store owners to buggy drivers, said they loved living there – the history, the weather, the beaches, and the strong sense of community pride. With so much to do, this north Florida location is quite a draw. If you’ve been considering moving to the Sunshine State, take a look at St. Augustine! It’s an amazing little town.