Last Updated on November 22, 2023
My love of history has taken me to many places and no doubt will entice me to many more. As you can imagine, St. Augustine, FL being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States lends its hand to centuries of treasure. These treasures are abundant to visitors, controlled only by the time you spend exploring this fascinating area.
I had just a few short days for this trip, and I did my utmost to see and do as much as I could fit in that timeframe. Let me take you on a brief journey to share just a handful of the amazing stories I discovered about St. Augustine’s history.
It seems only fitting to begin my narrative of St. Augustine at the Oldest House Museum Complex. The complex consists of multiple buildings, each housing exhibits taking visitors through the history of this Southern gem.
Admittedly, my favorite part of the complex was the tour of the main building. Technically speaking, it is the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, commonly known as The Oldest House. Proven through archaeology to have had a continuous occupancy from the 1650s, it’s a true testament to time.
Initially built by Spanish settlers, The Oldest House is a simple wooden structure with a thatched roof. It succumbed to fire in 1702, and the settlers rebuilt it using coquina stone. What is that? Well, in St. Augustine, you can see it almost everywhere in the historic center of town.
Coquina stone is tiny seashells compressed into limestone over thousands of years. It is locally quarried in the area, easy to cut, and withstands just about anything, even cannon fire.
The coquina walls in this house are the beginning of what you see today. The Gonzalez family were the first documented residents of the home when it eventually made its way into the hands of Geronimo Alvarez, a former mayor of St. Augustine.
Walking through the house, I felt a sense of wonder. It was amazing to view the simple living quarters and remnants of everyday living, knowing the families in this house were leaders in their community.
Walking into the gardens and courtyard of The Oldest House brought a new perspective. The simplicity of the home. Its serenity. The oak trees in the yard, dripping with Spanish moss, stunning against the clear blue Florida sky. Flowers bloomed with their sweet scents wafting through the air.
In the back of the yard, a family coat of arms was carved into a massive coquina stone. Evidence of their pride in the home they had built centuries ago.
Castillo de San Marcos
No visit to St. Augustine would be complete without a visit to the sentry, whose primary purpose was to protect the city from all who threatened to overtake it. Many nations wanted to conquer the New World – Spain, France, and Great Britain.
Over time, all would have their hand in overtaking their predecessor in controlling St. Augustine, but the Spanish were the first to lay successful claim. The Spanish constructed Castillo de San Marcos over 23 years – using coquina stone. Though many tried, once its massive walls were completed, it never fell in battle.
I remember walking up the path and entering the fort, thinking that while large and imposing, it would somehow be like others I had visited. Only when you reach the Castillo’s summit do you realize how massive the structure really is.
Surrounded by a moat, the fortress must be accessed via a drawbridge. Once inside, you realize how imposing the fort is. Visitors walk through various rooms where both soldiers and prisoners lived. As I strolled through the fortress’ multiple rooms and chambers, I was fascinated and curious about those who were here years ago.
Returning to the courtyard, a walk up a set of giant stone steps leads to the gun deck. It is here you realize the significance of the fort’s strategic location, perched atop Matanzas Bay and overlooking the bay and the city itself.
On the gun deck visitors can explore sentry boxes at each corner of the fort. The sentry sat within the small tower, guarding the fort during their watch. While artillery and cannons are on the courtyard level, most of the ones on display are on the gun deck. These allow visitors to get up close and personal with the weapons used when the fort was under siege, fulfilling its duty of protecting the city.
I was fortunate enough to see the fort during the day and additionally on an evening ghost tour. Castillo de San Marcos has over 300 years of history and is considered one of the most haunted places within St. Augustine. Walking through the fort after dark feels like it’s just ‘dying’ to tell you all the stories those coquina walls have seen.
Flagler College and Hotel Ponce de Leon
Since 1968, Flagler College has been a private four-year liberal arts college offering over 30 undergraduate and graduate programs. Its main structure is on the site of an original masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
Traveling back in time to 1887, the college was once the opulent Hotel Ponce de Leon, built by Henry M. Flagler as one of America’s most notable resorts of its time. Henry Flagler was the railroad and Standard Oil tycoon said to have helped mark the beginning of Florida’s burgeoning tourism industry. This fabulous structure was built in only two years, with between 300 and 400 men working 24 hours a day.
Opening in January 1888, the hotel catered to the wealthy wanting to relax and be entertained in the warm Florida sunshine. During the heyday of the hotel’s popularity, presidents, dignitaries, and royalty joined the uber-rich to enjoy its opulent grandeur.
From January through Easter, guests could stay in this magnificent resort for a mere $4,000 (in 1888). With over 400 rooms, Flagler set the stage for an impressive and bustling tourism business.
Touring the college left me in total awe. Tour guides are college students the pride they hold in the history of their college shines through. Simply walking through the front grounds with their manicured walkway is fantastic.
You’ll see the architectural genius of the building, and when there, don’t forget to look up. My next jaw-dropping moment came while walking up the stairs to the rotunda, with its gilded dome, mosaic floors, impressively painted murals by George Maynard, and beautifully carved oak columns.
From the rotunda, you can head to either the ladies’ or men’s parlor or up another set of stairs to the dining hall. The beauty is everywhere you turn.
Display boards tastefully placed within the rotunda provide facts and history of the property. I highly recommend taking the time to read through all the information provided – it adds to the intrigue of the building.
One fun fact is the first-ever Thomas Edison clock used in a public place. Another is the most extensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany-stained glass windows here. Seventy-nine of these magnificent pieces are in the dining hall.
Afterward, because I remember when I toured colleges with my children, I asked my guides – Hannah and Caitlin – what it was like to be a student at Flagler. Their responses assured me that Flagler does indeed offer quality programs and schooling for these wonderful young people, and does so in a manner honoring the beauty and history that surrounds them.
The Alcazar Hotel and Lightner Museum
Directly across the street from the Hotel Ponce de Leon was another of Henry Flagler’s resort hotels – The Alcazar Hotel, also opening in 1888.
This hotel was built with a different demographic in mind, those who couldn’t afford the steep price of his flagship property, but still wanted to stay in a luxury hotel.
While not quite as lavish, The Alcazar was remarkably ornate. It housed one amenity that had never been seen in a hotel before: an indoor swimming pool. Today, a lovely boutique restaurant is located in this once swimming pool space. It’s a fabulous view from the upper floors of the museum.
After the building had been vacant for several years, it was purchased in 1946 by a Chicago entrepreneur, collector, and hobbyist, Otto Lightner, considered the “King of Hobbies.”
This remarkable building houses his collections of fine arts, ceramics, musical instruments, and one of the most eclectic and curious collections of items – some of which I’d never even heard mentioned. It is a fascinating trek through three floors of a gorgeous, unique, and sometimes bizarre collection of objects.
The Lightner Museum also offers rotating exhibitions from other museums, private collections, and contemporary local and regional artists. When I visited, a large portion of the third floor had a temporary exhibit of all manners, shapes, and sizes of bicycles. It was truly delightful.
There were hundreds of different items on display, so it’s nearly impossible to describe everything. You need to experience it on your own to believe it.
One item I found stunning was an oil on canvas painting named Maid at the Door, circa 1870, by French artist Leon Francois Comerre.
I admit I had no idea who this artist was, but his work is breathtaking. Looking at this painting hanging on the museum wall, I was drawn to this piece, curious to know what secret she was listening to and who she would share it with next. I would likely never have seen see this exquisite work of art had it not been for my visit to the Lightner Museum.
Another display that drew me in was the Egyptian Mummy in the Burial Mask. The owner of an antique store who’d acquired the piece heard of Mr. Lightner’s museum and donated it to his collection to be displayed in a special case.
St. Augustine is more than just rich in history. You’ll find historic accommodations like the St. Francis Inn where I was lucky enough to lay my head each night. In addition, the city offers shopping, entertainment, music and restaurants galore.
As much as I experienced, St. Augustine offers so much more! A return is definitely in my plans.
NOTE: Visitors to St. Augustine from outside of Florida should be aware that the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for the state noting, and warning, that under its current governor, Ron DeSantis, Florida has “engaged in an all-out attack on Black Americans, accurate Black history, voting rights, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, and free speech, while simultaneously embracing a culture of fear, bullying, and intimidation by public officials.”