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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in St. Augustine, FL

Written by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers

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 traveling with children, and tourists will find plenty of unique things to do here. Begin with our list of the top attractions in St. Augustine.

Read more: Top-Rated Resorts in St. Augustine

1. Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos

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. This is one of the cheap things to do in St. Augustine. 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

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

3. Colonial Quarter

St. Augustine Colonial Quarter

St. Augustine Colonial Quarter | Dan Lundberg / photo modified

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

Official site: www.colonialquarter.com

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

The 15-acre park along the Matanzas River is named for the explorer's famed freshwater spring. It is a working archaeological site, which 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

Official site: www.fountainofyouthflorida.com

5. St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

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

Official site: http://www.staugustinelighthouse.com

6. Ximenez-Fatio House Museum

The kitchen at the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum

The kitchen at the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum | Dan Lundberg / photo modified

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 who explain the details of daily life in the 1800s.

Address: 20 Aviles Street, St. Augustine, Florida

Official site: http://ximenezfatiohouse.org

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

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 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

Official site: www.ripleys.com/staugustine

8. St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

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

Official site: http://thepiratemuseum.com

9. Spanish Military Hospital Museum

Spanish Military Hospital Museum

Spanish Military Hospital Museum | Doug Kerr / photo modified

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

Official site: http://spanishmilitaryhospitalmuseum.com

10. Schooner Freedom and El Galeón

Schooner Freedom and El Galeón

Schooner Freedom and El Galeón

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, if you're looking for things to do at night, it 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

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.

12. St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park | C Watts / photo modified

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is one of the most exciting things to do in St. Augustine with kids — including teenagers — and is always a big hit with the whole family. The park prides itself in being the only one of its kind with all living crocodile species in residence, and here tourists can admire more than just native Florida reptiles. The Nile crocodile exhibit is Egyptian-themed with real and replica artifacts, and has a variety of viewing spots, which make it an ideal place for interesting crocodile photo-ops. There is also a "saltie" area, which is home to Australian salt-water crocodiles, featuring the park's largest resident, Maximo. Weighing in at 1,250 pounds and spanning a length of more than 15 feet, Maximo can be seen in his habitat through an underwater viewing area.

The park is also home to a variety of other animals, including exotic birds, several types of snakes, and five species of monkeys. Among its most popular residents are the red-ruffed lemur and ring-tailed lemurs, both of which are endangered species. Visitors can see the animals in their habitats and also enjoy a variety of wildlife shows, which provide entertaining and fascinating background on the animals and their care. More adventurous tourists will love the park's zipline course, which spans several of the habitats, from alligators to tropical birds.

Address: 999 Anastasia Blvd. St. Augustine, Florida

Official site: www.alligatorfarm.com

Where to Stay in St. Augustine

The downtown area, which is also St. Augustine's historic district, is the ideal area for tourists who would like to be within walking distance of the city's most popular attractions. Those wanting to spend more time enjoying the sun and sand will find plenty of options near St. Augustine Beach, while those looking for a more relaxed pace will enjoy Anastasia Island, adjacent to Anastasia State Park on Conch Island.

  • Luxury Hotels: Located just two blocks from the Matanzas River in St. Augustine's historic district, The Collector - Luxury Inn & Gardens offers pet-friendly accommodations in a lovely setting while providing a wide range of amenities and services, including an on-site spa and complimentary breakfast. Also in this neighborhood, the romantic Casa Monica Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection is housed in a beautiful historic building adjacent to the Plaza de la Constitución and provides guests with access to a private members-only beach club on Vilano Beach.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: The waterfront Marker 8 Hotel & Marina sits at the eastern end of the iconic Bridge of Lions on Anastasia Island, offering guests a luxury-level experience at mid-range prices. Guests will benefit from the added value of complimentary made-to-order breakfasts, free parking, and self-service laundry facilities. Those looking for a quieter neighborhood will enjoy the TRYP by Wyndham Sebastian St. Augustine, which has exceptionally large guest rooms equipped with a kitchenette and Keurig coffee maker.
  • Budget Hotels: Although there are plenty of good budget hotels near St. Augustine, the Americas Best Value Inn St. Augustine Beach has the advantage of being close to the water and is an affordable option that is ideal for families thanks to its pool, free breakfast and parking, on-site laundry, and in-room fridge and microwaves. The Sleep Inn St. Augustine is another excellent budget option with good amenities, located on Anastasia Island near the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to St. Augustine

  • Getting Around Town: the St. Augustine Hop-On Hop-off Trolley Tour is a convenient way for visitors to reach the city's top tourist attractions while getting an informative, narrated overview of the city, conducted by an expert guide. A one-day pass includes 19 stops, which bring you to main attractions like the Colonial Quarter, Castillo de San Marcos, the Pirate and Treasure Museum, and Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, among others, many of which are convenient to the area's most popular hotels. The ticket also includes the use of the Beach Bus, which provides transportation between downtown St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, and Anastasia Island, as well as admission to the Florida Heritage Museum.
  • Vacation Pass: Those staying in town more than just a night or two should consider the three-day Hop-on Hop-off trolley ticket with a St. Augustine Attractions Pass. In addition to three consecutive days use of the Old Town Trolley and the Beach Bus, this option also includes admission to three St. Augustine museums: the Oldest Store Museum Experience, the Old Jail, and the St. Augustine History Museum.
  • The Spookier Side of St. Augustine: The Secrets of St. Augustine Ghost Tour combines history with storytelling to create a spine-tingling evening walking tour of one of the nation's oldest colonial cities. In a small group limited to 15 people, tourists will visit cemeteries and other sites of heightened paranormal activity while hearing about the chilling events that took place here long ago.
  • Nature Adventures: Tourists can get an up-close look at some of the area's most interesting wildlife on a 90-minute high-speed Airboat Safari Tour of the St. Johns River. An expert guide will narrate the tour through personal headsets to ensure you hear all of the interesting facts and stories as you speed down the shallow freshwater tributaries, which are home to manatees, birds, and the ever-present Florida alligators. An especially popular thing to do with kids, this tour offers a variety of departure times to fit your St. Augustine family vacation itinerary.
  • Ultimate Romance: By far the most romantic thing to do in St. Augustine, the Sunset Helicopter Tour is perfect for couples who want to make their vacation or honeymoon truly memorable. The flight takes off just before dusk, rising over Castle Otttis and then flying over the coast, Anastasia State Park, and St. Augustine Beach, then turning in time to view the sunset over the historic city.

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