St. Augustine: Florida’s Gateway to the Past

Walking through the streets of St. Augustine is like stepping back in time. Old fashioned, architectural wonders harking back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century line the streets, giving visitors a glimpse into the past.

 

I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city during spring break with two friends, making the 3 hour drive from Tampa go by quickly as we talked about the historic sites and adventures that awaited us on the opposite coast of Florida.

 

The three of us compiled a list of places in St. Augustine deemed interesting enough to investigate upon arrival. Aside from the main attractions listed on the city’s website, we jotted down more places recommended by friends and relatives who had been there.

 

A good piece of advice to anyone visiting St. Augustine: Be sure to stay in a hotel, motel or bed & breakfast near St. George Street – the main artery of the city where all the major attractions are.

 

Parking is a real challenge within the confining streets of Downtown St. Augustine, so it is better to park in your hotel’s parking lot and just take a stroll.

 

Being the struggling college students we are, and eager for a new, exciting twist on an old fashioned bed & breakfast, we stayed at The Pirate Haus Inn, a pirate themed establishment on the corner of Charlotte and Treasury Streets that offered private rooms in addition to youth hostel-like quarters.

 

Upon entering the Pirate Haus Inn, and walking up the steps decorated in true pirate fashion, featuring the words to “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me,” we checked in at the front desk where “Captain Conrad” showed us to our rooms, providing us with maps of the area and books of coupons we later used at some of the attractions.

 

Our room was called “The Jungle Room,” and we soon learned why. The walls, bedspread, the sink in the bathroom and even the shower curtain were decked out in jungle attire, featuring wall-sized jungle murals designed and painted by Elaine Juzwick and Pat Hitchcock, local painters from St. Augustine who also designed the other rooms in the Inn: The tropical fish room, pirate room, and the map room among other themes.

 

For about $75 a night, we got our own private room, featuring a queen sized bed and a set of bunk beds big enough for any pirate-at-heart.

 

The best part about staying at the Pirate Haus Inn: Free all you can eat breakfast every morning. The catch: You have to wash your own dishes once you’re done. Not too bad.

 

Our first stop to investigate: Castillo de San Marcos, a national park two blocks away that was once a fort for the British and Spanish throughout different points in history, depending on the century.

 

Open from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., the entrance fee is $6 for adults while children are free. Guests are given the chance to have their picture taken on the drawbridge of the old Fort, before taking a self guided tour through the many rooms set up to let visitors have a peek into the everyday lives of the soldiers who lived and died there.

 

The creepiest part of the tour by far was the prison, where guests are only allowed to peer in through the circular window in the door. You feel as if you’re being watched, and given all the stories about the soldiers who haunt the Castillo, you very well might be.

 

We stepped outside just in time for a musketeer demonstration put on by a group of state park volunteers who were decked out in what looked like Revolutionary War outfits. As the guns pop-popped behind us, we ducked back into the downstairs level to crawl through the short, narrow tunnel and check out what had once been a gunpowder storehouse hidden deep inside the building to prevent accidental explosions.

 

After spending about 2 hours exploring the Castillo, we decided to go for a walk down St. George Street to get a better feel of the city.

 

Passing through the gates of the city, we watched as groups of tourists continued down the alleys, shopping at quaint little chocolate shops and stopping to buy souvenirs.

 

We decided to check out the Colonial Spanish Quarter’s Living History Museum, a place where volunteers helped to recreate what life was like in St. Augustine during the 1740s.

 

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., college students who show an I.D. can get in for $4.25, while normal prices for adults are $6.95. Children can get in for $4.25.

 

Inside the old fashioned looking walls of the Museum, we were greeted by the town blacksmith, church scribe, carpenter, soldier’s wife and a man fashioning satchels out of leather by hand, which we later learned were sold in the Museum gift shop.

 

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, taking in the buildings, shops and breathtaking views of the sunset over Matanzas Bay.

 

The next morning, we got up early and drove down San Marcos Blvd. to see the Mission of Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, the oldest Spanish mission founded on September 8th, 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. To be brutally honest, we spotted a creepy old cemetery and were too intrigued to pass it up.

 

We then drove over the Bridge of Lions to Anastasia Island, home of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, our next stop on the map.

 

Be sure to clip a coupon for a 10% discount towards entrance fees, which made it about $10 to get in. After climbing up 219 steps, the panoramic view of the city made it all worthwhile.

 

For our last stop, we drove 15 miles along highway A1A South toward Fort Matanzas, the site where nearly 250 French soldiers were slaughtered by the Spanish as they tried to invade the city. 175 years later, the Spanish used the Fort to prevent the British from taking over their lands.

 

Lucky for us, the entrance to the park was free, as was the 5 minute ferry ride across Matanzas Bay to the actual Fort. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and ferries travel to the Fort every hour on the half hour.

 

St. Augustine is the perfect place to go exploring with your camera, as there are picturesque settings at every turn. Whether you’re a history buff or just like to relax and go for a stroll around town, St. Augustine helps all who visit to get a better understanding of Florida’s past, giving us a better appreciation for where we came from.

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