With its rip-roaring amusement parks, sun-drenched beaches and kicky spring break scenes, Florida attracts both the young and young at heart. But if it’s the actual Fountain of Youth you’re searching for, set your sights on St Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the US.
This historic city dates back to 1565. (If you’re doing the math, that’s four decades before Jamestown was settled. It also predates the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.) It’s said Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was convinced he would find the fabled Fountain of Youth in the region – and while historians have largely dismissed the story, that hasn’t stopped the city from embracing the legend.
But St Augustine is much more than its kitschy Fountain of Youth industry. If you’re in search of a rich historical city filled with Spanish and Moorish revival architecture as well as quaint Southern charm, you’ve found the right place. Here are a few of the best things to do in St Augustine.
Take a sip from the Fountain of Youth
Bypassing Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park is like visiting New York City for the first time and skipping the Statue of Liberty. The park is located near where the conquistador first landed after spotting “La Florida” (“the Place of Flowers”) on March 27, 1513. Fifteen waterfront acres overlooking the Matanzas River and St Augustine Inlet provide a lush backdrop for an impromptu picnic lunch of brisket and burgers from Smoked Southern BBQ, a deceptively casual on-premises food shack run by a James Beard–nominated chef. After lunch, tour the grounds’ various exhibits, including a Timucua Indian burial ground, a blacksmith shop and the Fountain of Youth Spring House. And don’t forget to swing by the gift shop and snag a bottle of the spring’s fabled waters – while we can’t promise it will add decades to your life, it does make for a fun souvenir.
Explore historic downtown
Located on the National Register of Historic Places, St Augustine’s central historic district is the oldest part of the city. Many of the buildings date back to the 1700s, with plenty of streets having existed from long before that. The area’s layout is fully walkable, which makes you can take in the charming Spanish and Moorish pastiche architecture at your own pace. Highlights include the Lightner Museum (located in the former Hotel Alcazar, built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler); the immaculately preserved Ximenez-Fatio House; and the Colonial Quarter, where actors playing blacksmiths, shopkeepers, musicians and musketeers bring the city’s founding to life on two acres of land modeled after a Spanish colonial village.
Dig into biscuits and belly at The Floridian
While you’re in the Historic Downtown District, pop into The Floridian for a lighter take on Southern comfort fare. Chef Genie McNally sources most of her ingredients from local growers and producers, so expect the menu to shift with the seasons. Pickled veggies, fried green tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits with braised pork belly, and blackened Florida shrimp and grits are palate pleasers whether you choose to dine inside or out. We would lean toward the latter, as the moss-covered Spanish oaks surrounding the patio add mightily to the ambiance.
Take in some art on Aviles Street
Dating back to the 16th century, brick-lined Aviles Street is the oldest thoroughfare in the nation. Walk through the stone archway entrance in Old Town and step into one of the city’s de facto arts districts, with plenty of galleries, antiques, boutiques and jewelry shops to distract you for an afternoon. Grab a sweet snack in the form of an ice cream sandwich at Peace Pies before popping into the Spanish Military Hospital Museum for a look at surgical and medical practices from over 400 years ago.
Storm a Spanish fortress
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort built in the US and was originally used to defend Spain’s claims in Florida after a series of pirate raids in the late 1500s. Free ranger-led tours take you through rooms that once housed soldiers and prisoners, as well as the gun deck (you’ll want your camera for the spectacular city views here – especially at sunset). Take a deeper dive into buccaneer life with a stop at the St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, where over 800 artifacts – like Blackbeard’s blunderbuss and the world’s only surviving pirate chest – highlight the history of piracy from the 1600s to present day.
Tee up on the Players Stadium Course
Just 20 miles north of St Augustine, you’ll find Tournament Players Club (TPC) Sawgrass, one of the top golf courses in the US. Two championship courses are open to the public here: the Players Stadium course (home of the annual Players Championship) and Dye’s Valley course. Master architect Pete Dye designed both golf courses – and while you can’t go wrong teeing up on either one, it’s the Players Stadium fairways (including the notorious par-3 17th hole) that attract golfers looking for a personal best.
Grab a snack at the St Augustine Amphitheater Farmers Market
In St Augustine, the early bird gets the muffin. Every Saturday from 8:30am to 12:30pm, the St Augustine Amphitheater hosts a farmers market with local food, beverage and craft vendors. Walk through a grove of sun-dappled oaks and stock up on freshly baked vegan muffins, bottles of raw local honey and fermented foodstuffs while live bluegrass music fills the venue. If you’re feeling particularly auspicious, have your tarot cards read at the Fairy General Store. You never know: there just might be some doughnuts in your future.
Feed a gator at the St Augustine Alligator Farm
Open 365 days a year, the St Augustine Alligator Farm is the only facility in the world that houses all 24 crocodilian species. It’s also a great place to catch a glimpse of lemurs and birds, fossils and Gomek, too (he’s the zoo’s resident 2000-pound gator). After touring the various reptilian exhibitions around the park, get a sky-high view of all the attractions on the park’s climbing wall or via one of two zip-line courses that will send you soaring in the air some 35ft over the exhibitions.
Stop for a drink at St Augustine Distillery
Housed in a renovated FP&L ice plant built in 1905, St Augustine Distillery distills and bottles everything they sell – no sourcing or blending of any outside whiskies here. Join one of the free tours offered seven days a week between 10:30am and 5:30pm to learn about the distillation process, take a selfie in front of the copper stills and sample four signature cocktails. Before your tour, ask about the “Fill Your Own Bottle” experience for a chance to personalize your own bottle of bourbon.
Savor seafood in a historic Victorian home
Though we can’t find a scientific study to back this up, we think dinner just tastes better on a wraparound balcony. You’ll find a doozy of one at Preserved, a cozy Victorian home-turned-restaurant that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. A James Beard–nominated chef whips up Southern staples with a French touch, including bouillabaisse with Mayport shrimp, mussels frites and braised short rib – all worthy precursors to the s’more bouchon dessert, which comes enrobed in toasted meringue, graham cracker crumble and caramelized white chocolate.
Take a swim at Anastasia State Park
When in Florida, do as the locals do and get your daily dose of vitamin D at a nearby beach. In St Augustine, that means heading to Anastasia State Park for swimming, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding in the Atlantic Ocean. Here, you’ll find four miles of protected white-quartz sand beaches in a 1600-acre wildlife preserve, where you can spend the day shelling or keeping an eye out for the occasional pod of dolphins that visit the area. If you’re feeling adventurous, take to the park’s trails to spot warblers, cardinals and gopher tortoises.
Visit the first free African settlement in the US
Fort Mose Historic State Park was the first legally sanctioned settlement of free Africans in the US. The catch? Escaping enslaved Africans had to declare their allegiance to the king of Spain and convert to Catholicism. While no original settlement structures remain, you can read about the site’s history at an interactive museum, then wander down a boardwalk that overlooks the land where the village once stood. Fort Mose is also a popular site for Geocachers, who hide small treasures around the park in a digital riff on hide-and-seek.
Swirl, then sip at San Sebastian Winery
Situated in one of Henry Flager’s East Coast Railway buildings, San Sebastian Winery has been producing vintages since 1996, with a particular focus on sparkling and dessert varieties using the muscadine grape. You can sample these varietals together with a robust port and a creamy sherry seven days a week during the winery’s free tours and tastings. On weekends, locals know to head up to the wine bar upstairs, where live music, wine and snacks give way to one of the best views of the St Augustine skyline.
Meet a white lion at the St Augustine Wildlife Reserve
It isn’t everyday you get to meet a white lion – or a tiliger, for that matter. At the St Augustine Wildlife Reserve, it’s all in a day’s tour. The seven-acre sanctuary provides a safe, humane space for unwanted or abused exotic animals. Tours are an hour-and-a-half long and offer an introduction to each species, their basic biology and how they arrived at the sanctuary. You’ll have the opportunity to get within just feet of white and orange tigers, a golden tabby tiger, a tiliger (the offspring of a tiger and a ligress), jaguars, wolves and bear. Tours are offered throughout the week, but it’s best to book ahead of time online.
Cool off inside a historic ice plant
Like many spots in St Augustine, Ice Plant has a story. This bar and restaurant has stayed true to its original 1927 design: look above the bar and you’ll see the original bridge crane once used to pick up huge blocks of ice that were broken down and sold to local customers, including shrimpers. Keeping true to its roots, the bar offers three varieties of ice for cocktails, each one incorporating fresh-pressed juices, bitters and house-made syrups. The food menu here features elevated pub fare in the form of hand-cut fries served with aioli and truffle Parmesan, a half-pound burger made with grass-fed Florida Wagyu beef and skillet-fried chicken with hoe cakes.
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