An introduction to St. Augustine and some tips…
St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States and there is so much history here. If you go, you are going to want to divide and conquer to see the city so I’m going to divide it into: 1) Historic Downtown St. Augustine; 2) Up-town Historic St. Augustine; 3) West End; and 4) Across the Bridge (east end and St. Augustine Beach).
Stop at the Visitor’s Center when you first arrive which is at 85 Riberia St, St. Augustine, FL 32084. Grab some visitor’s guides as we found them chock full of coupons for a bunch of places (food and historical).
Right across from the visitor’s center is a place that rents bikes, golf carts, and scooters. Our advice is don’t bother. The city is very walkable downtown and you don’t need any of that. If you were to rent a bike, scooter, or golf cart, you now have to find a place to park it or lock your bike up and that is a problem in the historic downtown district. Plus, the area around St. George street gets quite congested with pedestrians and we feel your mode of transportation will feel like a worthless waste of money.
The next thing you will see is a lot of advertising for the Old Town Trolley Tours. It is basically a hop-on, hop-off trolley thing and honestly, if you’ve done your research and you know where you are going, this would be a waste of time in our opinion. We’ve done hop-on, hop-off tours before in the past and they failed miserably for us. First, you have to wait for your trolley and you waste valuable time just standing there waiting and waiting. Second of all, if the trolley is full at your stop, you have to wait for the next one. It just makes no sense. In our blog, we will let you know of every place the trolley stops at so save your money. Old Town Trolley Tours also swears they are the #1 ghost tour in America and Harry started to fall asleep on the tour so again…it’s not worth the money in our personal opinion. Some people love the trolley tours and if you aren’t doing much research into the area and making a game plan then yes…this is the way to go.
We did, however, take the trolley during Christmas though as the City of St. Augustine has one of the 10 best lighting displays in the world (according to National Geographic) and we did enjoy that one. The city only allows businesses to use the white lights so everything is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the result is amazing! I highly recommend going in late November, December, or early January to catch that amazing display (plus you will get a break from the cold weather if you are in the northern states).
The final thing we should mention is lodging. There are some hotels and bed and breakfasts which are actually quite nice, however, much of the real estate in this area has been swiped up for VRBO’s and Airbnb’s so the competition can get a little fierce at times with these owners. Check both sites out and if you find a place you like on one site, be sure to check out the other site as it may be cheaper there. In our mind, there really is only two areas to stay though and that is by the beach or by the historic downtown area. It just depends on what your focus is.
1. Historic Downtown St. Augustine
Parking – The biggest headache you are going to encounter in trying to visit this area of St. Augustine is parking. The weekdays may not be too much better than weekends depending on when you go (albeit slightly better). Here are our tips for parking based on our observations:
- Castillo de san Marcos: They have a public lot at the fort and it is super busy at that lot. For convenience though, it puts you right between the fort and the historic downtown area. We personally would avoid unless you go in the morning (but that’s just us).
- Parking ramp on West Castillo Drive: There is a large parking ramp which is labeled on your Google Maps as “Historic Downtown Parking Facility”. We haven’t parked there so we don’t know how busy it is but we know it exists and when you exit out the back, that puts you in the historic district so it is convenient.
- The corner of Cordova and Carrera Streets: There is a fairly mid-sized parking lot for public parking which doesn’t even show on Google Maps. We noticed not many people knew about it either, however, it was usually full by the mid afternoon.
- If that one is full, go a half a block west of that lot on Carrera Street and there’s another small parking lot which is tucked in there and not many people know about that one either.
- You can also try to park on the residential streets but that looked painfully slim. The best thing we can say is have a game plan and get there somewhat early if possible (before 10:00 a.m.). Try to avoid just aimlessly driving around looking for a spot. Driving on Cathedral and King Street during the height of day and trying to dodge the throngs of pedestrians and stop lights is a definite mood killer.
Once you are parked, the worst is over and now you have places to go and things to see:
The Castillo de san Marcos fort is a huge focal point for St. Augustine and is a must see. This fort was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers and the original fort still stands. It was built from coquina which is basically small shellfish. You’ll see a lot of coquina in St. Augustine in many old historic buildings so look closely for all the tiny shells imbedded in the walls and foundations. The fort was finished in 1695 and the possession of the fort has changed six times among four different governments (Spain, Great Britain, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America). After 251 years of continuous military possession, it was relinquished to the United States National Park Service in 1933 and it’s original name of Castillo de San Marcos was restored. They fire off the cannons hourly, staff are dressed in period garb, and there are hourly tours as well (although we just went on a self-guided tour).
After some research, we decided to do the “The Tasting Tours” as they came in as highly recommended. We did the walking Corks and Forks Tour (but they do have others as well). While you are walking to the different restaurants, your tour guide will narrate the history of the city and it just really is a fun way to get some samples of local food while still getting a history lesson and while making friends with new people.
Here is a list of places where we went for our tour (note that every tour is not the same as they have a whole list of restaurants to go to and it is at the whim of the tour guide on where to go and if he/she can get reservations):
Athena – A little Greek restaurant where the highlight was the flaming cheese! We also had gyro’s which were really good!
Ancient Olive – They gave us olive oil samples and a discount if we wanted to come back later to buy some. The kicker was that there was nothing to dip them in (like small bread chunks because of covid) so we had to drink the small oil sample which Lisa wasn’t able to do.
Cafe Alcazar – This is in the Lightner Museum where the swimming pool used to be. Apparently we were seated in the deep end. That was a unique experience and although we’ve tried and hated escargot before, we agreed that this was actually really good.
Old City House – This was across from the Lightner Museum and they had a beautiful courtyard in the back for dining. The food was wonderful!
Casa de Vino – This was a wine bar with outdoor seating in the back. They had an ample selection of wines to choose from.
Chocolattes – We ended our tour here for dessert (and we got a little birthday celebration since it was Lisa’s birthday the day before).
It honestly is just fun to walk around and look at all the historic buildings. The last time we went was during Covid so many of these places had tours but weren’t conducting at all of them.
Villa Zorayda Museum – The Villa Zorayda Museum started as a private residence in 1883 (by a millionaire obsessed with a particular palace in Spain) but over time it became a club, a speakeasy, a casino, and eventually a museum. The most interesting things in here are a 2,400 year old mummy’s foot and an Egyptian Sacred Cat Rug made all out of cat hair. It is self-guided so they give you headphones and a digital recording device that you can use to skip ahead if something doesn’t interest you.
Old City Gates – These are on the north end of St. George Street (across from the fort) and were once the only entrance into St. Augustine. If you park in the city parking lot at the fort, you can cross the old gates and you’ll be in the heart of the historic downtown district.
Memorial Presbyterian Church – Henry Flagler was a key figure in the development of the entire Florida Atlantic Coast and the Florida Railway. Henry, his daughter, and her stillborn child lie in the mausoleum at this church.
Flagler College – This used to be a luxury hotel built in the 1880’s by Flagler and is now the world’s most beautiful dormitory. The dining hall is iconic with million dollar Tiffany stained glass windows. If you can’t get on a tour, try to view the lobby at the very least (which is free).
The Lightner Museum – This was also a former hotel of Henry Flagler (called the Hotel Alcazar) dating back to 1887. It has a little bit of everything inside but the building alone is a must-see. In the center courtyard, there is a little stone bridge with lots of koi swimming around and this is a busy spot for weddings. You don’t have to pay to go into the courtyard.
Plaza De La Constitucion – This is right in the heart of downtown and is the oldest public park in the United States. It has monuments to Confederate Veterans and the Civil Rights movement. The park had numerous rallies which lead up to the Civil War and this is the place where Union officers reclaimed the city from the Confederacy in 1862. This was once the location of a slave market as well. During the Civil Rights Movement, this was where the first protest was held in 1963 and Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested there in 1964 when he led another march.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine – This is the country’s first Catholic Church location and is a focal point of the historic downtown area.
Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse – This gives you a glimpse into 18th-century life and education and is a great place to take the kids. It’s right on St. George street (by the old City Gates) and admission is only $5.00 (plus there is a coupon in the guide you can pick up at the Visitor’s Center).
Shopping and Restaurants in the heart of historic downtown St. Augustine
Go shopping in the heart of downtown and you’ll find so many shops and restaurants nestled in the tiny narrow/cobblestone streets most all housed in old, historic buildings (11 blocks worth). St. George Street is center of all of the action. You could spend hours here alone if you like to shop, eat and drink!
Other places in the historic downtown area you may want to check out (these are all within easy walking distance of the downtown area):
Ximenez-Fatio House Museum – This is the oldest Spanish-era home in Florida which dates back to the early 1700’s and contains some gardens as well. They gear a lot towards school tours for kids.
Spanish Military Hospital Museum – It’s not for the faint of heart I’m told but they also do a lot of educational opportunities for kids.
Government House Museum – This has a great educational museum with some hand’s on stuff for the kids and it’s free so take advantage of the great displays they have here (not to mention they have the cleanest public restrooms in all of St. Augustine).
Potter’s Wax Museum – This is housed in the oldest pharmacy in the United States and is also the oldest wax museum in the country.
Tolomato Cemetery – This is one of Florida’s oldest cemeteries and is the final resting place of many confederate soldiers. Before that, it was the site of a Christian Indian Village.
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum – This is another good one for kids with animatronic pirates, cannons, and a kid-friendly treasure hunt.
Colonial Quarter – This is basically a living-history museum which include replica’s of buildings from the 1700’s. They have costumed reenactors, a watchtower to climb up and things for the kids to do like dig for artifacts, create a medallion, take part in a musket drill, watch an old ship being built, etc.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! – This is yet another place geared towards the kids but still interesting for adults as well (in Ripley’s fashion) with shrunken heads, a drum made from skulls and pirate displays (which are just some examples).
2. Up-town Historic St. Augustine
You’ll have to drive here so point your GPS to 167 San Marco Ave, St. Augustine. This area feels like a really super, touristy, kitschy place to us. This is where the trolley tours take off from and if you don’t get here somewhat early in the morning, you’ll have to park in lots that are much further away. We came here to do the Old Jail tour and it was interesting, but again, a bit touristy. There is a ticket booth when you first enter to get tickets for what you want to see and they also sell packages with discounts. So, we were on our final day and told them the only places left we wanted to see were the Old Jail, Alligator Farm, and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth and her response was, “We have that package too!” She claimed that the discount was even better than the AAA discount but I think it was just by $1.00 if I remember right, however, money is money and if you are going to a bunch of places, maybe you might want to do a package.
We got there for the first tour of the morning at the Old Jail and by the time we got done with our tour, the parking lot was jam packed with people circling like buzzards. The lines went out both ends of the ticket booth and were very, very long at that point. I honestly think many people were there for the trolley as well. Our advice is to go first thing in the morning if you are going to attempt this.
The Gift Shop in this area is pretty big and covers most souvenirs you might want to pick up in St. Augustine. You might prefer though to go to the historic downtown area first to shop. If you’re not a shopper (like us), this was kind of a one-stop shop to cover whatever potential souvenirs we wanted to get before we left town.
Right in this little area, you can see:
The Old Jail – This is the original former town prison built in 1891 (it is also purported to be the most haunted place in the city). The tour they did was entertaining and really quite interesting so we enjoyed it.
St. Augustine History Museum – This museum apparently goes in depth about Henry Flagler and the rise of St. Augustine as well.
Oldest Store Museum Experience – It is supposed to be a step-back in time to the miracle time-saving inventions of the 1900’s.
Once you are done there, drive down the road to:
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park – I thought this might be just as touristy but we actually really enjoyed ourselves here! Plus you get to drink from the fountain of youth itself (we are pretty sure it isn’t working though). The grounds are expansive with lots of places to see and explore and delve into history. If you have kids, I would say to bring them here as it is fun for adults and kids!
Other places in this general area you could see:
Old Senator Tree – This tree is the nation’s oldest tree at 600 years old. Don’t trust Google Maps to take you here though. It got us all turned around and we missed it in the end.
Mission Nombre de Dios Museum – This was the site of an early Spanish settlement. Now it’s a memorial with an altar, a tiny ivy-shrouded chapel and a small museum. You’ll also see this giant cross (which can be seen from the Fountain of Youth park as well as it stands so high).
3. West End
This is the area somewhat around the Visitor’s Center (which caters more to the adults).
Whetstones Chocolate Store and Tasting Tour – This place started out in St. Augustine and eventually became a giant in the chocolate industry. This location caters more to the tourist experience and they will teach you all about the different kinds of chocolate, how they are made, how to taste it, etc. You’ll have to get your reservation in for your tour in advance as they fill up quickly. I don’t recommend this for younger kids as the presentations might be long for them (when they were probably excited about the prospect of candy). I would just visit the gift store if you have smaller children. P.S. If you’re wondering how Lisa got all her hair in one hair net…that actually didn’t happen…it took three of them.
Saint Augustine Distillery – This small batch, craft distillery makes New World gin and Florida Cane vodka using ingredients sourced from local farms. They have a free self-guided tour with drink samples and then you can get free shot samples at the end of the tour at the bar which is in the middle of the gift shop.
San Sebastian Winery – This place can get extremely busy on the weekends so plan accordingly. They have self-guided tours where you go from station to station and try a different assortment of wines. The lines can get exasperating though on a busy day.
Dog Rose Brewing Company – They had a good selection of beers but nothing stood out for us in being truly unique.
Bog Brewing Company – We have really enjoyed this place and they have now expanded their back patio area in light of covid. They now often have food trucks as well. Word of warning though…some of their beers are quite strong in alcohol content.
4. East End (across the Bridge of Lions) and St. Augustine Beach
St Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum – This is a must see if you are going to St. Augustine as it is just such an icon. You can climb the old lighthouse for amazing views and then you could spend an hour or two touring all of the historical buildings on site there. This is a good place for adults and kids!
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park – I thought this place might be too touristy for us but I was wrong. We thoroughly enjoyed this place. Who knew there were so many species of alligators and crocodiles?! It is the only place on the planet with every species of crocodile in residence!! They even have albino alligators plus lots and lots of other reptiles and birds. The alligator feeding show is always truly entertaining as well.
Hint: The feeding station is across the pedestrian bridge on a platform that sticks out a little (and this area is right by the entrance). Start waiting around that area at feeding time (especially if you have kids) as that is the prime spot and if the railings get deep with people, at least your kids will have a good view. Do not hang out where you see a lot of bird excrement though (as we watched several people get bombed during the show…including a small baby). I highly recommend this place for kids and adults!
Old Coast Ales – We had some pretty good brews here and they have a fire pit out back (plenty of seating indoors and out). We came back a second time just so we could pick up a freshly tapped barrel aged brew that the bartender let us know about.
Sunset Grille – Some will tell you that the chowder here is the best in St. Augustine so we had to come and check it out. It’s so good that they will even pour it over french fries as an appetizer. Their food was amazing in general so try it out if you get a chance.
Have you been to St. Augustine? If so, drop us a note below and let us know what some of your favorite places are!