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St. Augustine: America's Oldest City

The quaint city of St. Augustine in Florida served as a popular winter vacation spot for wealthy New England families in Victorian times and today provides a charming respite from modern inconveniences. The city is the oldest European settlement in the United States, founded by Spanish soldiers in 1565, and boasts a number of attractions that date from the Renaissance through the Edwardian period. The venerable architecture of the city recalls an era when Spain wielded a mighty hand in the New World. Although the exotic Spanish influence prominent along the city's cobbled streets, there is the surprisingly harmonious inclusion of British and colonial design elements from the Georgian and Victorian periods in particular, which only enhances St. Augustine's enduring charm.

For example, the impressive Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, built in 1672, offers visitors an awe-inspiring glimpse into military life in early America. The fort served primarily as an outpost of the Spanish Empire, also protecting the sea route for treasure ships returning to Spain. During the 18th century, the Castillo was transferred from Spanish control to the British, and later back to the Spanish, who remained in power in Florida until the area was purchased by the United States in 1821. Called Fort Marion at this time, the Castillo was made a National Monument in 1924 and became part of the National Park system in 1933. The park consists of the original historic Castillo fortress itself with its attendant grounds comprising over twenty five acres. Today, visitors can enjoy living history displays, torchlight tours and cannon firing demonstrations here.

The Lightner Museum displays the grandeur of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. It is located in the former Hotel Alcazar, which was built in 1887 in the Spanish Renaissance style. The hotel was owned by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, who commissioned architects Carrere and Hastings (who later designed the New York Public Library and the U.S. Senate office building) for the project. Today, it houses treasured relics of America's Gilded Age, such as costumes, furnishings, mechanical musical instruments and other artifacts. The Lightner collection includes beautiful examples of cut glass, Victorian art glass and the stained glass work of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

St. Augustine also offers visitors a glimpse into many old houses and historic sites. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House (also known as the "Oldest House" in America) is one of the country's best-documented and studied old houses in America. The Ximenez-Fatio House was built about 1798 by Andres Ximenez, a Spanish storekeeper, and reflects both Spanish and English design principles. The Llambia's House is another of St. Augustine's oldest restored original buildings. It dates back to the final year of the first Spanish occupation, circa 1763. In addition, history enthusiasts can visit The Oldest Store Museum. Once the town's general store, it now boasts over 100,000 items from the original store during the turn-of-the-century. The Oldest Wooden School House in America, built prior to 1763, likewise remains as it was over two centuries ago.

At the Mission de Nombre de Dios, Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in 1565 and proclaimed site for Spain and the Church. Tourists can also visit the Museum of Weapons & Early American History, which boasts a plethora of authentic military weapons from 1500 through 1900, as well as documents from the colonial period. The Old Florida Museum offers guests the unique opportunity to participate in daily living activities from pre-European times to 1926, while the Spanish Quarter Village recreates life in mid-18th century St. Augustine. The Government House Museum provides the complete history of St. Augustine through archeological artifacts excavated in St. Augustine and from shipwrecks off the coast of Florida. Additionally, the Ponce De Leon's Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park offers the fabled Fountain of Youth discovered in 1513. The park today contains foundations and artifacts of the first St. Augustine mission and colony.

The city boasts a plethora of quaint bed and breakfast inns, antique shops, galleries, boutiques, and romantic restaurants, as well as recreational diversions such as parasailing, jet-skiing, and golf. In particular, the surrounding forty-two miles of pristine beaches beckon families, couples and water sports enthusiasts, offering secluded dunes, ocean front parks and charter sailing. In the evenings, enjoy moonlit carriage rides, English country dances, walking tours, and outdoor concerts. St. Augustine truly is a historic place that the whole family can enjoy.

Castillo de San Marcos

Casa Rodriguez

Old St. Augustine Village

Spanish Quarter Museum

Photos courtesy of J. Simpson