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11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in St. Augustine

On Florida's northeast coast, St. Augustine is the nation's oldest permanently occupied European settlement, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Its name is forever associated with the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon and his fabled search for the Fountain of Youth. Tourists today can visit attractions from various periods of the city's history, from archaeological digs that have unearthed Native American artifacts to a well-preserved Spanish fort to the museum collections displayed in a late 19th-century grand hotel. Throughout these historic sites, costumed interpreters bring their eras to life with demonstrations of everything from colonial cooking to musket firing and early surgery. These make St. Augustine especially appealing to families with children.

1 Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos
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The massive defense structure took the Spanish 23 years to build, from 1672 to 1595. They used native beach stone, called coquina, to construct thick fireproof and impenetrable walls that were able to withstand multiple attacks from British troops, including the massive fire in 1702 that wiped out the rest of the city. During the American Revolution it was used as a prison by the military, and in the late 19th century, it was used as a prison for Native Americans until its closure in 1900. In 1924, it was recognized as a National Monument and is considered the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. There are impressive views of the water and the city from the gun decks, and special events are often held in the interior courtyard.

Fort Matanzas, now cared for by the National Park Service, was constructed in 1742, also from coquina. Both the site and the ferry to reach it are free of charge, and it is a beautiful place to picnic, hike the nature trails, or skim the beach for shells. Back at the fort, visitors can enjoy musket demonstrations in the afternoon along with educational tours led by the Park Service.

Address: 1 South Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, Florida

2 Lightner Museum

Lightner Museum
Lightner Museum
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One of the country's best collections of 19th-century decorative and fine arts is displayed in the four floors of the former Alcazar Hotel built in 1888 by Henry Flagler. The collections are eccentric, and although they include Tiffany glass, fine furniture and porcelains, sculpture, and paintings, they also include shrunken heads, mechanical musical instruments, a mummy, cigar labels, and curiosities such as human hair art. Flagler's hotel was the marvel of its era, the 1890s, filled with fashionable guests who danced in its grand ballroom and swam in the world's largest indoor swimming pool.

Address: 75 King Street, St. Augustine, Florida

Official site: http://lightnermuseum.org

3 Colonial Quarter

In the Historic District, the Colonial Quarter is a living history museum that lets visitors step back in time and see what St. Augustine was like from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The "First City" is home to a shipbuilding project, where they are constructing a replica of a 16th-century caravel, the kind used by Juan Ponce de Leon and other explorers of his time. The Spanish fortified town depicts 17th-century life, complete with a blacksmith shop and hourly musket drills. For a good view of the town, climb the replica of an early watchtower. The 18th-century Garrison town features a typical home of a Spanish soldier and a leatherwork shop with hands-on interactive exhibits. The last area, referred to as the 14th Colony, has a print shop and fully restored British colonial home from the 1740s, the De Mesa-Sanchez House. For those traveling with a canine friend, the Colonial Quarter welcomes polite pets.

Address: 33 St. George Street, St. Augustine, Florida

4 Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

Chapel at the Mission of Nombre de Dios
Chapel at the Mission of Nombre de Dios
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The 15-acre park along the Matanzas River is named for the explorer's famed freshwater spring. It is a working archaeological site that focuses not only on the first Spanish settlers but also on the native Timucuans. Parts of a replica village were constructed on the original site, including a home and a meeting house. Artifacts from excavations are on display, and reenactments depict native life and traditional crafts. There are beautiful views from the watchtower as well as along the Riverwalk, and throughout the park you can feed the beautiful peacocks.

This site is also home to the First Mission of Nombre de Dios, originally built in 1587 by Franciscan Friars. The original building was lost, however the replica was carefully built using authentic materials and methods. The Navigator's Planetarium has hourly shows that describe the navigation methods used by the first European explorers, and even show guests exactly what the sky looked like the night before Ponce de Leon and his crew arrived here. If you get sleepy from the stargazing, the cannon demonstration will surely wake you in a hurry.

Address: 11 Magnolia Ave, St. Augustine, Florida

5 St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
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The tall spiral-striped lighthouse is St. Augustine's oldest standing brick structure, built in 1871-1874 to replace the original wooden watchtower. During World War II, the Coast Guard used it to keep watch over the shore, and it is considered the first permanent navigational aid in North America. After being vandalized, the lighthouse and its original Fresnel lens, made of 370 glass prisms cut by hand, were restored, and the museum's proceeds make its upkeep possible. Atop the 219 steps, standing at 165 feet above sea level, the beacon light is still in operation and uses the original beehive-shaped prism, which stands at 12 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.

The site is also home to one of the only field schools for underwater archaeology. Students of all ages come here to learn by exploring an actual shipwreck in the water below.

Address: 100 Red Cox Road, St. Augustine, Florida

6 Ximenez-Fatio House Museum

Ximenez-Fatio House Museum
Ximenez-Fatio House Museum Doug Kerr / photo modified
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This fully restored original structure was built with native coquina in 1798, for a merchant named Ximenez. It was later purchased and turned into one of the first businesses owned and operated entirely by a woman - Miss Fatio's Boarding House. It was a stop for St. Augustine's first tourists and was known for its high standards and "reputable clientele." It still houses the original beehive oven where meals were prepared for travelers and military officers on leave from the nearby fort. This meticulously authentic site is staffed with guides that explain the details of daily life in the 1800s.

Address: 20 Aviles Street, St. Augustine, Florida

7 Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum

Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum
Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum Jim Moore / photo modified
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The former Castle Warden Hotel, in the historic district, now houses 800 exhibits of Robert Ripley's collection of curiosities. Since 1950, the "Odditorium" has mystified, shocked, and amused guests with its eclectic displays of the strange and unusual. Here, you will find anything from historical artifacts to the bizarre and grotesque, including real shrunken heads and a motorcycle made of actual bones. The "Space Oddities" gallery displays items as small as a set of crayons carved into Star Wars characters and as big as a giant replica of the international space station made entirely of matchsticks. If all of this isn't strange enough, keep an eye or ear out for the ghosts of two women who purportedly died in a fire while staying at the hotel.

Ripley's also operates the Red Train Tours, guided open-air tours of the city with 22 stops where you can hop on and off on your own schedule to visit some of the city's major sites. For those interested in the paranormal, hop aboard the Ghost Train Adventure, an 80-minute interactive tour of two sites that are well known for their otherworldly activity. Guests are equipped with their own Electromagnetic Field meters, and many go home with photos containing curious images.

Address: 19 San Marco Avenue, St. Augustine, Florida

8 St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

The pirate museum encourages guests to let out their inner pirate by transporting them back more than three centuries to the hub of Caribbean pirate activity in Port Royal, Jamaica. Among the exhibits are the world's oldest pirate treasure chest and the oldest known "wanted" poster. The Red Sea Pirates exhibit contains a 17th-century Khanjarli dagger and the artifacts from shipwrecks of these notorious bandits. Visitors can learn to tie nautical knots and even steer the ship from the main deck. In the Hollywood Pirates exhibit, you can even see Captain Jack Sparrow's sword.

Address: 12 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, Florida

9 Spanish Military Hospital Museum

Spanish Military Hospital Museum
Spanish Military Hospital Museum Doug Kerr / photo modified
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The original structure was built during the Spanish Colonial period, and the authentically reconstructed building is on the same site, re-creating the hospital as it would have been in 1791. Guided tours introduce visitors to displays of antique medical equipment and surgical instruments, and one lucky guest from each group gets to be the "patient" in a demonstration of surgical procedures. There is also a garden and apothecary where visitors learn about traditional medicines and the herbal origins of modern medications.

Address: 3 Aviles Street, St. Augustine, Florida

10 Schooner Freedom and El Galeón

Schooner Freedom and El Galeón
Schooner Freedom and El Galeón
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The Freedom offers guests the opportunity to hoist sails and help out on deck while sailing the coast on this authentic replica of a two-masted 1900s blockade runner. It sails in the summer and has moonlight cruises three nights a week. The entire family will love watching the dolphins and other marine life, as well as many types of birds native to the area. If you time it right, you may be lucky enough to see the 495-ton El Galeón while it is docked at the municipal marina. Ships like this one carried the first Spanish colonists to the region, and El Galeón is operated exactly as it would have been in the 16th century by its full-time crew of 28. It is an authentic replica and a breathtaking sight, complete with three masts and seven sails.

Address: 111 Avenida Menendez, St. Augustine, Florida

11 Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse

Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse
Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse
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Built soon after the fire set by the British raid in 1702, of cypress and red cedar wood held together by hand-made nails and wooden pegs, this is the oldest surviving wooden structure in the city. In 1788, it was made into a co-ed schoolhouse, and today displays some of the original books and supplies used by students nearly three centuries ago and through the early 1900s. Animatronic students and the schoolmaster describe a typical day, then visitors can tour the detached kitchen and the garden, where there is a 250-year-old pecan tree. The schoolhouse is in the Minorcan quarter near the Old City gates.

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