The Glories and Grandeur of America’s Oldest City: St. Augustine
By Ruth J. Katz
Botox is on my mind.
I imbibed the “magical” waters at the celebrated Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. But, sadly, I did not get the “as-advertised” (OK, to be honest, the “as-hoped-for”) miraculous facial transformation that I thought this elixir was guaranteed to deliver. But, let me quickly add, that this Fountain of Youth is, without a doubt, the only thing that disappoints in picturesque, moss-draped St. Augustine. (And truth to tell, Ponce de Leon’s park grounds offer other, diverting activities—and is, also, home to a dazzle of sartorial peacocks, which roam around freely.)
Part of Florida’s Historic Coast, St. Augustine, a city of 15,000, is a treasure, indeed. And, yes, of course, there are 42 miles of pristine beach (including two destination surfing beaches) and the usual sun and fun activities to bask in, but if you are considering going to St. Augustine for a long weekend, just for that tropical get-away, let me encourage you to think again: You will want at least five days or even a week here.
Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles from Spain, it is the oldest, continually-inhabited, European-founded city in the country (simply referred to as America’s oldest city), and, as such, its 450-year existence offers an embarrassment of rich—and oft surprising–history, art, and culture, all of which will captivate.
It was, not surprisingly, the vacation destination for the wealthy Yanks of the Gilded Age, and as a result, there is a plethora of 19th-century art and architecture, including the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass (79 windows) in the world, that has remained in its original location.
This is thanks to the illustrious industrialist Henry Flagler, who built two stunning hotels here: the Hotel Ponce de León (1888, housing said Tiffany glass), now a residence hall and the central heartbeat of Flagler College; and the Hotel Alcazar, an 1888 Gilded Age resort hotel, now home to the must-see Lightner Museum, steward of 15,000 decorative objects. (NB: You can dine in the former hotel’s now-empty swimming pool, which at the time of its construction, was the largest, grandest indoor swimming “hole” in the country.)[2. photo of Lightner dining room, former swimming pool]
And a propos dining—exploration of the dining scene is yet another reason to linger in St. Augustine. Rated number one in Southern Living magazine’s discerning rundown of the South’s Best Food Towns in 2019, it offers a smorgasbord of tantalizing cuisine—from the fine (Michael’s and Preserved, for example) to the fun and flavorful (Casa Reina), to the funky (Crave and The Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops). The latter is a veritable mecca, serving up more than 250 flavors of ice pops—think of fantasy flavors like avocado-mint. (Psst: the company ships all over the US.)
For history buffs, there are many “firsts” and “oldests” here and you’d be wise to save at least two days for touring some of them: Combine history and shopping on America’s oldest street, Aviles Street, with its ancient brick walkways (archaeologists actually discovered pottery shards from the early 1600s when they dug down a few layers), charming boutiques, and artists’ galleries; for the sheer graceful serenity of its Spanish Moss cathedral-like canopy, have a look-see at Magnolia Avenue; St. George Street in the Historic District offers sights that include the old city gates, the Oldest Wooden School House; the Peña-Peck House (with its handsomely preserved and restored rooms), built in 1750.
Put on your sightseeing list a plethora of amazing—both architecturally and historically—churches, notable homes, and historic landmarks. Among them, St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine, a veritable gem, replete with stunning mosaics, a domed chapel, exquisite painting.
Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, arguably America’s first mission and site of the first mass; the Father Miguel O’Reilly House Museum (1691), home to the Catholic Diocese archives and the oldest collection of Colonial-period documents; Gonzalez Alvarez House, the oldest surviving Spanish colonial dwelling in St. Augustine, and a National Historic Landmark. [6. photo of Downtown Historic Home]
Not surprisingly, military history figures significantly in St. Augustine’s past: Extraordinary forts include the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United State; Fort Matanzas, built in 1742 by the Spanish, and, also, a National Historic Monument; Fort Mose Historic State Park is the site of the first legally sanctioned, free African settlement, established in 1738.
It is worth noting that there is—most likely, it is an astonishing fact to discover—a great deal of Black and civil rights history entrenched in the area, so put on your itinerary both the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center and the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum. The museum showcases exhibits, articles, stories, and artifacts that recount the personal histories of the unsung heroes of the local 1960s’ civil rights movement, including artifacts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, stay in St. Augustine.
If I have not convinced you that St. Augustine needs to be on your bucket list, here are a few more inducements: The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, a working, black-and-white-candy-cane-striped lighthouse, built between 1871 and 1874). And if water is your playground, then know that the Atlantic is not your only choice for watersports—if you seek out kayaking or canoeing, try the Matanzas River and the Matanzas Bay. You’ll not want for parks, either—Anastasia State Park offers more than 1,600 acres of beaches, tidal marches, and ancient sand dunes for hiking and exploration and Alpine Groves Park, overlooking the St. Johns River, is a designated destination on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Let me also underscore that there are countless local festivals that dot the 2023 calendar, including Sing Out Loud; Whiskey, Wine & Wildlife, a four-day celebration; and the St. Augustine Music Festival, among the many that you can rely on as an anchor for your visit.
Regardless of when you come, set aside a little time to just lazily loaf in the city’s glorious central artery—The Plaza de la Constitución.
Additional info: historiccoastculture.com
All photos courtesy of the St. Johns Cultural Council
Where to Stay: The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens (adults only) is well-situated and features 30 appealing rooms—all different—in a delightful enclave off the main drag. Located on the site of the former Dow Museum of Historic Houses, the one-acre plot is home to nine guesthouses, dating from 1790 to 1910. General Manager Charles Robles could not have been more accommodating—he even brought out a 20″-long wire-cutter to disengage my jammed TSA-approved lock from my suitcase. Seriously.
© 2023 Ruth J. Katz All Rights Reserved
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate. She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).