Last Updated on July 16, 2023
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited European-founded city in America, and consequently, has a vast selection of museums and attractions. With so much to see, it wasn’t easy trimming my list of best things to do in St. Augustine down even to 20! I tried picking the most historically important sites. Once you step through St. Augustine’s massive city gates, the ancient city will captivate you.
- Fort Matanzas
- Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
- Mission de Nombre de Dios
- Pirate and Treasure Museum
- Castillo de San Marco
- Colonial Quarter
- The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
- St. George Street
- St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine
- Oldest House
- Medieval Torture Museum
- Fort Mose
- Flagler College
- Lightner Museum
- St. Augustine's Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum
- Villa Zorayda
- Old Jail
- St. Augustine Distillery
- St. Augustine Lighthouse
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm
- Parking in St. Augustine
- Where to Stay in St. Augustine
This is where it all began. Fort Matanzas is St. Augustine’s back door, located 14 miles south near the Flagler County line. It’s the windswept estuary where the Matanzas River touches the Atlantic Ocean and is often overlooked by visitors.
In 1565, the place where this small fort now stands changed Floridian history forever and guaranteed the Spanish control of colonial Florida with the murder of 245 French soldiers.
The story of how the inlet earned its name, Matanzas, Spanish for slaughter, is an interesting tale. The French colonists from Fort Caroline, now Jacksonville, under Jean Ribault, were trying to prevent the Spanish, under Pedro Menendez, from establishing St. Augustine. The French ships were blown off course by a hurricane and Menendez caught and killed almost all of them. The fort was later built at that spot by the Spanish to insure the same never happened to them.
You can ride the free ferry over to Rattlesnake Island and tour the fort. It is a national monument and an interesting free attraction for visitors.
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
Even before Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine, Ponce de Leon landed here in his search for the Fountain of Youth. He never found it, but today you can visit the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
You may not find rejuvenating waters, but you will get entertainment and education. Some of the exhibits on site are the Spring House, site of the supposed magical water, replicas of the Indigenous Timucuan Village, the Mission of Nombre De Dios, and the Menendez Settlement. There is also a planetarium which explains how ancient sailors navigated unknown seas.
Sometimes there are reenactment scenes with actors in period costume.
Firing the ancient Spanish weapons is another demonstration everyone enjoys. One demonstrator explained how the gun was usually loaded: “At that time, soldiers would put three pounds of gunpowder to fire the round cannon ball. That’s equivalent to three sticks of dynamite. We only use a few ounces.”
I’ll pass on a good bit of camera trivia one demonstrator offered. Before his partner touched off the cannon, he told us, “Best way to get a good picture is to get it framed then hold your finger over the shoot button. When it goes off, you’ll flinch and shoot.”
Mission de Nombre de Dios
A giant cross, chapel, and more mark the site of Menendez’s landing. In spite of their ruthless battle practices, the Spanish were a religious nation. One of the first things Menendez ordered upon landing was to have a Mass offered by the ship’s chaplain, Father Lopez.
This Mass was celebrated at the site where the Great Cross is located today. The stainless steel cross rising 208 feet was erected in 1965 to commemorate the city’s 400th anniversary.
At the front of the grounds stands the Prince of Peace Church. It’s the newest of the shrines and altars on this ancient site. Built in 1965, it commemorates 400 years of the Catholic faith in the New World and was dedicated to world peace.
Pirate and Treasure Museum
Pirate raids were dreaded occurrences in St. Augustine’s early history, and Sir Francis Drake was the living nightmare of every resident. He sacked and burned the town in 1586, returned to England with his loot, and was considered a hero there. The Pirate and Treasure Museum tells this story.
Another English pirate, Captain Robert Searle, attacked St. Augustine in 1668. He sacked and burned the city again searching for treasure and killed 60 people.
These stories are shown in lifelike and animated exhibits, like the head of Blackbeard and a simulated ride in a ship. You will see the only authentic pirate treasure chest in existence.
The museum moves into modern times with a room dedicated to movies about pirates. If you have a choice of guides pick Captain William Mayhem. He looks the part and does a fantastic job.
Castillo de San Marco
When the Spanish government finally realized wooden forts were no deterrent to the pirates they issued the money to build Castillo de San Marcos on Matanzas Bay to protect the city. The fort’s unique building material, coquina, a type of shell-stone quarried from nearby Anastasia Island, absorbed cannon blasts rather than crumbling as stone would.
That is the reason that the fort has never been conquered. It changed hands many times, but always by treaty. Although it has belonged to the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Confederacy during the Civil War, it is the original Spanish construction and influence that remains strongest.
A tour of the fort first takes you across the drawbridge; during pirate attacks, the bridge would be raised and local folks would shelter inside. The passages are filled with the furnishings that would have been in place in its earliest days, such as officers’ quarters, enlisted men’s barracks, a chapel, munitions and supplies, and more. Cannons sit atop its walls where you can gaze out over the bay. Reenactors are usually present drilling or performing tasks that would have been normal in the 1700s.
The Colonial Quarter tells St. Augustine’s earliest history with costumed docents and reenactments. It sits between St. George Street and the Bayfront. The highpoint is a 35-foot wooden tower that preceded the fort, but it’s just one part of viewing life in St. Augustine’s 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
You can tour an early Spanish home and view the Quarter’s several military compounds, a 16th-century Spanish military outpost, and an 18th-century British garrison. You can also glimpse how ordinary people lived. You can follow a costumed docent to watch a blacksmith work metal, learn about firing a musket, and much more.
Too often people forget there were 15 colonies, not 13. The colony of East Florida, including St. Augustine, and West Florida, remained loyal to the King, and are often overlooked in the American Revolutionary story.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
This magnificent church is the fourth of a series of cathedrals built on St. Augustine’s historic Plaza de la Constitución. The earlier three were all destroyed by fire. The present church, a cross between the Spanish Mission and Neoclassical styles, was completed in August 1797. It too suffered a fire in 1887, but was not destroyed due to the coquina used in the exterior construction.
Inside there are multiple altars, lots of gold work, a decorated exposed beam ceiling, and murals of Florida’s Catholic history. The iconic bell tower has four bells, one of which is thought to be the oldest bell in the United States. It was salvaged from an earlier church.
While here, take a little time to explore the Plaza de la Constitución and Governor’s House Cultural Center and Museum located on the corner. All of these are free.
St. George Street
St. George Street is the heart of the old city. Many of its buildings date back to the Spanish period. Today they are unique shops, restaurants, art galleries, and museums. You will find places unique to St. Augustine like Whetstone Chocolate Kitchen, opened by locals in 1967. There is the Spanish Bakery that will transport you to Colonial Spanish San Augustin.
There are lots of “old” here. For example, what is believed to be the oldest schoolhouse in the country. It was built soon after the British took possession of Florida between 1800 and 1810. Juan Genopol, a Minorcan settler who was a carpenter, built it as a home. He later opened it as a school.
Just across from the school there’s an old gristmill circa 1880 that is now the Mill Top Tavern. It’s a good lunch spot.
Then there’s the Pena-Peck House, built in 1750 for the King of Spain’s Colonial Treasurer and later home to two British governors. You can step off the street into the Spanish Quarter and experience life in the 1600s. You could spend all day just wandering this ancient street. The nicest thing is there is no traffic on St. George Street. It’s for pedestrians only. You just walk and enjoy life at a slower pace as the early settlers did.
St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine
Located midway down St. George Street, St. Photios Greek Orthodox Church tells a lot about the Minorcan culture. St Augustine’s history is intertwined with the early Minorcans who brought their religion here in 1777.
They were brought to Florida by Andrew Turnbull to work as indentured servants on his indigo plantation in New Smyrna, but were treated more like slaves. When the plantation failed, the starving Minorcans rebelled, and led by Francisco Pellicer, they walked north to St. Augustine. The Spanish governor granted them asylum.
St. Photios is a beautiful example of a Greek Orthodox Church. Besides the Minorcan history, it is filled with exquisite Byzantine-style frescoes of apostles and shrines dedicated to various saints. Many are decorated in 22-carat gold.
The González-Alvarez House is a must-visit destination to see how the earliest settlers lived. The first story was built out of coquina by a Spanish soldier, Tomas González, for his family around 1702 during the First Spanish Period.
When the British took over Florida in 1763, an Englishman bought it and added the second story. Each section of the house represents the period it was added to and used as a residence.
During the brief British period, one of the residents was Mary “Maria” Evans. Her somewhat fictionalized story is told in Eugenia Price’s book Maria, the first book in the Florida Trilogy.
It had been continuously occupied from its construction into the 20th century.
Admission for the house additionally gives access to the Manucy Museum, the gallery which displays historical exhibits, an ornamental garden, and the museum store.
Medieval Torture Museum
Saint Augustine’s newest museum is painful. Not a good place to take a budding serial killer, but for inquisitive visitors, The Medieval Torture Museum is fascinating. The museum is filled with cruel devices once used for punishment. One look at the Spanish Boot and you’ll stop complaining about your shoes being too tight. Those who told tales about their neighbors got to tangle with the Gossipers Violin.
The exhibits are interactive, you can touch and handle the instruments – you just can’t use them on your nemeses.
In the other half of the building there’s a partner museum, Micro Masterpieces Art Gallery. It’s filled with tiny art you can barely see with the naked eye. There are microscopic portraits of castles, buildings, famous people, and a train engine. Look at them with the naked eye and you see a tiny blur, but peep into the microscopes and the amazing details jump out at you.
Before the days of the Underground Railroad, escaping slaves headed south to the welcoming Spanish colony of San Agustín. Here, in 1738, the first free community of former slaves, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose), was established.
The settlement was the northernmost defense line of St. Augustine. Any runaway who agreed to become a Catholic was accepted, and all able-bodied males were conscripted to the militia. Today, it’s Fort Mose State Park.
There are detailed signs and a museum that explains the history of the park as well as hiking, kayaking, and picnicking opportunities.
Throughout the year there are reenactments of events that happened here. In June, there’s the reenactment of the Battle of Bloody Mose. The battle occurred during the War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain and proved the worth of the colony to the Spaniards.
In the fall, Harvest Time at Fort Mose celebrates the first harvest. You can sample various foods cooked here in that first year.
The college was once Hotel Ponce de Leon, Henry Flagler’s first, and many say most magnificent, St. Augustine hotel. This imposing Spanish Renaissance building was built in 1888; it was one of the grandest resorts of its time. Its wealthy guests include three U.S. Presidents.
Today, it is Flagler College. The college offers tours during normal college semesters. Do not miss a chance to see the architectural splendor. It offers a glimpse of how a wealthy traveler lived in the late 19th century.
At the same time, Flagler built another hotel across the street: The Alcazar. The Alcazar sported a casino, Turkish and Russian baths, a gymnasium, a grand ball room, and other amenities the super-rich appreciate like an indoor swimming pool.
Otto Lightner purchased the building and filled it with his collection of rare and unusual things. Today it is Lightner Museum and is still filled with the rare and unusual. It’s filled with fantastic treasures from glassware to a huge stuffed lion. The glassware collection is literally priceless.
St. Augustine’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum
This was once called Castle Warden and owned by William G. Warden who wanted to see Flagler go bust. He was one of Flagler’s robber baron rivals. Today it is the Believe it or Not Museum.
Be sure to visit the “Tree House’ camper out front and the full-sized replica of Michelangelo’s David behind the boxwood hedge.
This architectural gem was built by another of Flagler’s contemporaries and sometimes partner, Franklin Smith. This was Smith’s winter home. Smith also built the Casa Monica Hotel just down the street.
If you ever wanted to visit the Alhambra in Spain, you can save the airfare and come here instead. Smith modeled his home on the famed palace. Since it only had one other owner after Smith, much of the contents are original to the home. Imagine what good taste and unlimited money could do and you get an idea of the scope of Villa Zorayda.
There’s a reason it’s pink, outside the city, and has a nice Victorian porch. When Flagler was building his hotels, there was one important thing he failed to notice: the city jail was directly across the street. Flagler knew it was not good publicity to have a jail right in front of all those wealthy tourists.
Deputy Clyde, who “took us into custody” after we got our Old Jail tickets and were transported back to the late 1800s, explained: “This here jail used to be downtown across from Mr. Henry Flagler’s hotel. He didn’t want it there and went to the city council to ask them to move it. They explained to Mr. Flagler, ’We don’t have the money to do that.’ Mr. Flagler promptly wrote them out a check for $10,000 and said, ‘Will this help?’ They replied ‘Sure, Mr. Flagler. Where do you want it and how do you want it to look?’”
When you visit, Deputy Clyde or one of the other “deputies” will “book” you into the jail and show you your cell. Looming over the cell block on the second floor there is a life-size mannequin of Sheriff Perry who was 6’6″ and weighed about 300 pounds. I would never have relapsed if I had to serve a day in that jail.
The jail contains a display of weapons and a pictorial history of the hangings carried out here. You also get to tour The Sheriff’s Home in the front section of the jail. It’s a big contrast to the cells. The sheriff lived in the height of style for 1891.
Admission includes the Oldest Store Museum and a gift shop along with the jail. Old Town Trolley’s Ghost and Gravestones tour offer visitors a chance to visit the jail by night and do a Ghost Tour.
St. Augustine Distillery
Here, new whisky-making methods blend with a historic building. The distillery is housed in a 1905 ice and power plant. The original building’s exterior and much of the interior have been maintained.
The exterior entrances are steel factory doors from the 1930s. The steel windows are similar to the ice plant’s original ones. The tap room bar top is the 1880s reuse. So much had been reused that even the floors are wood from historic 1860s Georgia homes, as is the bar’s grand entrance staircase. Wherever reused and restored material could be used, it was.
There is a small museum with a theater where a movie about the distillery shows. The corn, cane, and citrus used to create the distillery’s bourbon, gin, vodka, and rum come from local farmers. The used mash goes back to the farmers to feed cattle.
The stills all have names. There’s Becky, the cooking still, named for one owner’s grandmother. There’s also Ella, the refining still, named for Ella Fitzgerald.
In Florida, bourbon develops color and flavor much faster due to the high heat and humidity. On September 9, 2016, St. Augustine Distillery released its first bourbon.
The last stop is the tasting bar where you are given samples of the different spirits. The free tours and tastings begin every half hour until 5 p.m. The Ice Plant Bar that adjourns the distillery is a great place for dining and cocktails.
St. Augustine Lighthouse
It’s worth the drive to the beach for the history and the ghost tales. You can climb the 219 steps to the observation tower and see far beyond. Besides the lighthouse itself, you can visit the Keepers Home, a small museum telling the story of the Harn family. William Harn was the keeper from 1875 to 1889.
There are exhibits about the shrimping industry, shipwrecks, and the families that kept the light going all these years.
There’s an ongoing boat building exhibit, a WWII building showing how the Coast Guard worked with the keepers housing men to keep a watch for German U-boats and protect U.S. cargo ships.
Come back at night and take the historic ghost tour. Trolly ghost tours around town are also available.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm
You can zip over alligators and watch exotic birds. Native birds including egrets, spoonbills, herons, and cranes roost here temporarily as they do their flyovers. Visit in the spring and you’ll be greeted by a raucous cacophony of squawking birds and hatchlings. Nests are an arm’s reach from the boardwalk and photos from your smartphone are better than what you’d take with a huge telephoto lens anywhere else.
Exhibits include Gomek the Crocodile who was 17 feet, 9.5 inches and weighed almost 2000 pounds. He is stuffed, but there are many live crocodiles, Komodo dragons, alligators, giant tortoises, and other reptiles. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is the only institution in the world housing every species of alligator and crocodile. It is also an important research and science center, active in captive breeding programs for endangered species.
There are keeper shows throughout the day about birds and reptiles and don’t miss the alligator feeding. It is amazing how close the keeper gets to the animals.
Parking in St. Augustine
Parking has become difficult and expensive in St. Augustine due to the narrow, historic streets, preserved districts and massive crowds of tourists. Instead of driving around the city, it is easier to take either the Red or Green Trolleys. They are hop-on, hop-off and offer free parking in their main parking lots. There are stops near most of the attractions, and the drivers are knowledgeable and give a good overview of the places along the route.
Where to Stay in St. Augustine
As a popular tourist destination, St. Augustine has a wide variety of hotel options to choose from. If you want to stay downtown in the historic district, expect not to find surface street parking – or pay a huge premium if you do – and be forewarned it can be noisy. Use the map below to help you find the right place.