In 1607, a small band of settlers founded the first permanent English outpost in the Americas, Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. But did you know that another town already had existed since 1565 in a different part of the Continent?
St. Augustine, Florida, which traces its roots to a 16th-century settlement, celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2015, reminding everyone of its reputation as the oldest continuously occupied community in the country (not counting tribal settlements).
St. Augustine offers visitors a setting that captures not just the stories, but also an authentic atmosphere of its colorful past, especially in the city’s 144-square-block historic district.
The Colonial Quarter is a good place to begin exploring this coastal city of 15,000. The neighborhood is a living history museum: A blacksmith, carpenter and other costumed historic interpreters combine facts with fun as they help onlookers relive the way things were over the centuries.
They recall the expedition led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Spanish admiral, who arrived in 1565 and set up an encampment near a Timucuan Indian village. That tribe was one of a number of Native American groups that began occupying the area some 10,000 years ago.
Menendez wasn’t the first Spanish explorer to come ashore in the region, which lies today about an hour’s drive from modern-day Jacksonville.
In 1513, Ponce de Leon led an expedition seeking to find — and claim — uncolonized islands, a journey that landed him here and gave birth to the legend of the Fountain of Youth. A fable about vitality-restoring waters was familiar on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but there’s no credible evidence that de Leon was searching for the potion.
Somehow accounts of his supposed quest found their way into history books after his death. And the story stuck.
The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park occupies the place where Menendez encountered the friendly Timucua people and established the settlement, which evolved into present-day St. Augustine. Attractions include a reconstructed portion of the Indian village, ship building and other exhibits, and cannon and weapons demonstrations.
Other than a brief interlude (1763–1784) when Great Britain gained control of Florida, St. Augustine remained under Spain’s rule. That accounts for the Mediterranean architecture and other reminders of Spanish influence. By the time the U.S. took possession of the city by treaty in 1821, it already was 256 years old.
Reminders of those early years abound. The Gonzalez-Alvarez house, aka The Oldest House, was constructed in the early 18th century in the Spanish Colonial style, with touches of Britain’s Colonial architecture, added when the English controlled the city.
Records date the Oldest Wooden School House back to 1716. Speaking animatronic figures of the schoolmaster and pupils introduce themselves and describe a typical day of classes. One boy wears a dunce cap, the penalty for not knowing his lesson.
Among places in St. Augustine where visitors may encounter ghosts, or at least tales about them, is the Old Jail. This historic Victorian-style building housed criminals from 1891 to 1953. The gallows in back were used to administer capital punishment, and explain why the property is one among many in town said to be haunted by spirits.
Because of its role at a time of exploration and conflict in the New World, St. Augustine boasts its share of forts. Most imposing is the Castillo de San Marcos, a massive 17th-century stronghold built by the Spanish to defend the Florida coastline. Some rooms surrounding the central courtyard are furnished to reflect garrison life, while others contain exhibits about military history.
A different story comes to light at Fort Mose, hidden away in marshes north of St. Augustine. There, in 1738, a group of slaves who had escaped from British colonies built a log fortress and founded the first free community of ex-slaves. While the original structure is long gone, a small museum describes the events with videos, interactive exhibits and objects found during digs.
Given the age of St. Augustine, it’s no surprise that the city is an archaeologist’s dream location. Many artifacts have been uncovered over the years and much more remains buried beneath the streets, buildings and even in backyards.
Some 100,000 artifacts were unearthed at the Fountain of Youth Park, including American Indian pottery, carved beads, shell tools and three dog-burial sites. Evidence of the 16th-century Spanish settlement ranges from religious amulets to olive jars. At Fort Mose such objects have shed light on social, religious and military life. In St. Augustine, there’s often a dig underway somewhere in the city, and interested visitors are invited to observe.
Although the region’s 60 historic sites and attractions are the main reason why most people visit St. Augustine, this city also manages to keep one foot planted firmly in the present.
Sun worshippers can find a choice of inviting beaches all along the coast, each with its own appeal.
The two-mile long beach at Anastasia State Park consists of gleaming white quartz sand.
The aptly named Crescent Beach is one of the most scenic and unspoiled in the area.
A statue of Ponce de Leon guards the towering dunes and shell-laden shore of Ponte Vedra Beach, just southeast of Jacksonville (about 40 miles north of St. Augustine). The explorer spotted the beach during his 1513 journey and stands as a fitting symbol for what awaits visitors in St. Augustine and beyond.
St. Augustine, Florida
Where is it? St. Augustine is about an hour’s drive south of Jacksonville. Delta offers nonstop MSP-JAX flights to get you there.
When should you go? According to U.S. News and World Report’s online travel guides, the best time to visit St. Augustine is between March and May, when you’ll find fewer people, comfortable temperatures (highs from 74–85) and lower hotel and airfare rates.
Despite the high humidity and heat in June, July, August, that’s when it’s the most crowded.
The downside of December, January and February is that temps can dip into the 40s.
Hotel rooms and flights are cheaper from September to November, but those months fall within the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs June through November. Learn more at travel.usnews.com.
Who can tell me more? Contact the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau
at 800-653-2489 or floridashistoriccoast.com.
Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous publications nationwide.