History may not be the first thing that comes to mind while basking on a Florida beach, but a 500th birthday is good reason to sit up and take notice.
It has been 500 years since Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sighted land in the New World on April 2, 1513, over a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Since it was Easter season, which Spaniards called “Pascua Florida” (Festival of Flowers), he named his find La Florida and claimed the land for Spain.
All of the state is marking the date this year, but nowhere more than St. Augustine, the city just south of the spot where de Leon landed. The oldest permanent settlement in the United States, the city itself was founded a bit later by Pedro Menendez de Aviles who followed Ponce de Leon in 1565. He landed on Aug. 29, the feast day of St. Augustine.
This is a town well worth exploring any year, filled with charm and the legacies of a rich heritage that extended from Colonial times into the grand Victorian Gilded Age. Adding to the attractions is a newly revitalized Colonial Quarter opened in March to mark the state’s 500th anniversary, a chance to experience life in St. Augustine as it was in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
One major historic attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. The Spanish constructed the fort beginning in 1672 to protect against repeated pirate attacks. It took 23 years to complete the massive structure with its moat and an inner drawbridge, watchtower and diamond-shaped bastions at each of the four corners. It has been restored along with the original City Gate and some of the city walls. Walk up to the gun deck to see original cannons and a wonderful view of the city and the bay.
Much of the early town burned in a fire in 1702, but it was quickly rebuilt. A stroll along St. George Street, not far from Castillo de San Marcos, takes you by the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, first appearing on the tax rolls in 1716 and the city’s oldest surviving wood frame building. It may or may not be the nation’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, but for sure is an excellent example of wooden construction in the early 1700s. It is populated with life-size figures of the professor and pupils.
Costumed guides take visitors through the Colonial Quarter to see how soldiers and families lived through the centuries under five flags, with reconstructed homes and demonstrations of blacksmithing, leatherworks, a colonial print shop and musket firing. Climb the 17th century watchtower replica for a peerless view.
Pedestrians-only St. George Street eventually turns into a shopping street crowded with tourists. But beyond the shops it leads to more history at the Central Plaza, laid out in 1598 and filled with monuments and memorials. The Government House off the Plaza was the residence of colonial governors for 200 years. It is now a museum of local history and also houses the city’s information center The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine facing the plaza, originally built in the 1790s, is the seat of the oldest Catholic parish in the nation. Trinity Episcopal Church, dating to 1825, was Florida’s first Episcopal Church and has a Tiffany stained glass window in the chapel.
The Old Market at the end of the Plaza was constructed in 1824 on a site that had been a public market since 1598. Beyond is a statue of Ponce de Leon. Across the road is the Bridge of Lions, leading to the beaches across the bay. The handsome bridge adorned with Mediterranean Revival towers was built in 1926 to replace a wooden bridge.