If the Spanish had written U.S. history books, you would know all about St. Augustine and its founder, Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
But here we are, coming up on the 450th birthday of the founding of St. Augustine, and many folks think Jamestown or even Plymouth colony came first.
¡No! St. Augustine was founded Sept. 8, 1565, late-comer Jamestown in 1607. The Pilgrims didn’t arrive until 1620.
The people of St. Augustine plan to set the record straight by making their city’s 450th birthday as big a bash as they can, with a music and street festival, a reenactment of the Menendez landing, and a Spanish wine festival.
Free concerts on the waterfront will include performances by Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and more than 60 entertainers from Sept. 4 to 6.
The city also expects a visit by the king and queen of Spain, Felipe VI and Letizia.
St. Augustine sees the celebration as a sort of Fourth of July. “We’re not just celebrating an anniversary of St. Augustine,” said Dana Ste. Claire, the director of the 450th for the city. “We’re celebrating the very founding of America.”
The ship brought both Europeans and Africans, and they were immediately helped by the Calusa Indians, Ste. Clair said. “This was an epic moment in world history. Our multicultural society was born.”
Many associate St. Augustine with Ponce de Leon, and, indeed, it was this first Spanish explorer who claimed Florida for Spain in 1513, landing near present St. Augustine. He didn’t stay, however. It was 52 years later that Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived with 800 Spaniards, including soldiers, sailors, tradesmen, women and children. They settled near a large Native American village and established St. Augustine, which has been occupied ever since.
A good place to start an exploration of the history of the oldest city is the Visitors Information Center at 10 S. Castillo Dr. You can get maps and brochures here, but also spend a few minutes in a special anniversary exhibit (through Oct. 4), Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America. It’s free and explains how the history of St. Augustine melds so many cultures.
Another good way to get an overview of the city is the Old Town Trolley Tours. Tickets for the narrated tour with 23 hop-on-hop-off stops are good for three consecutive days, so you can use the trolley as a primary mode of transportation, as well as for information. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not operates the similar Red Trolley tours.
FREE THINGS TO DO
One dilemma you face in planning a St. Augustine visit is that it offers appealing attractions, museums and historic sites, but most charge admission, and the cost adds up quickly.
But there are several free activities that may end up being the highlight of your visit.
For example, make time just to stroll the historic district, where narrow brick streets are lined with buildings, some of which are centuries old. Some are museums, others are cafes, galleries and shops. The historic district extends in both directions off the main drag, King Street, and the oldest street in America is here, Aviles Street, one block from the waterfront. You can get a free walking-tour guide at the visitor’s center.
About a mile north of the bustle of the historic district are the free and serene gardens of the Mission Nombre de Dios. This is where it is believed Menendez stepped ashore in 1565. Here, the ship’s chaplain celebrated Mass and founded America’s first mission. The site is marked with a 204-foot cross that towers over the waterfront. Shaded by large trees and benefiting from a breeze off the water, the grounds are pleasant to stroll, with a historic cemetery, statues and shrines. (This park is where the Menendez landing will be reenacted Sept. 8.)
Another important era in St. Augustine history began when Henry Flagler brought his Florida East Coast Railway here and built his first grand Florida resort for rich Northerners in 1888. Flagler spurred the building of new churches, paved streets and electric lights as St. Augustine became a vacationland for the elite.
His Ponce de Leon Hotel is now a women’s dorm for Flagler College, and the beautiful Spanish Renaissance building is being refurbished to sparkle for the birthday party. You are free to walk into its stunning courtyard and view the entryway and dazzling rotunda. (For a peek at the 70 Tiffany windows in the dining room, you need to take the very interesting hour-long student guided tour for $10.)
Across King Street is a second former Flagler hotel, the Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum. Even if you don’t pay to enter this amusing and eclectic museum, be sure to walk into the courtyard tropical gardens, where palm trees tower over koi ponds crossed by a stone footbridge. You also can walk into what was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world. This huge yet graceful space at the rear of the Lightner Museum is now home to a restaurant open for lunch, called the Alcazar.
SEE FOR A FEE
When you start sorting through attractions that you’ll pay to enter, your list should start with the Spanish fort operated by the National Park Service, the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a winner in so many categories — from its monumental size to its spectacular views of wide Matanzas Bay to the dramatic and entertaining firing of cannons on weekends.
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the United States, built from 1672 to 1695, a century after St. Augustine was founded. It’s located next to the Old Town area and has adjacent parking.
Tips for your visit: Volunteers and rangers in accurate period garb demonstrate how to fire a cannon throughout the day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There are historic reenactors on site every day.
Your next priority will depend on your interests and the makeup of your group.
Want to soak up history while being entertained? Consider Colonial Quarter Living History Museum and/or the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. These adjacent attractions near the fort are both owned by entrepreneur Pat Croce, whose personal pirate collection forms the impressive basis for the museum. The Pirate Museum has rare artifacts such as one of two existing skull-and-crossbones pirate flags, but it also has a treasure hunt game that takes kids through the interactive galleries, which inject a touch of Disney.
Colonial Quarter employs guides who are talented actors to make their history lessons lively and amusing.
For a change from historical attractions, consider seeing the area from the water. At the city’s marina, there is a wide range of boat trips from eco-tours to pirate cruises to a traditional scenic tour that has been operated by the same family for four generations.
The St. Augustine marina is also home port to El Galeon, a full-size reconstructed Spanish tall ship like those used in early colonial times. When it’s in port (as it will be for the 450th) the ship can be toured.
If you have time, consider squeezing in:
▪ The St. Augustine Lighthouse, the second-highest in the state, which you can climb for spectacular views. There’s a history museum in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
▪ The Alligator Farm, founded in 1893 as one of Florida’s original tourist attractions. Today, it’s an impressive zoo with a mind-boggling array of gators, crocs and exotic birds. Photographers and nature lovers visit for the natural bird rookery, which attracts thousands of native birds to nest March to July. The Alligator Farm also has a zipline ride over the crocodile pens.
▪ The St. Augustine Distillery, a recent addition to the city, is an example of a growing interest in small-batch craft liquor. It offers free tours and samples of vodka and gin made from local produce.
▪ Sites important to the civil rights movement, in which St. Augustine played a key role. These include a monument called Andrew Young Crossing, where civil rights leaders was beaten by a white mob, and a Woolworth’s lunch counter where a sit-in resulted in four college students being jailed for six months. The lunch counter is displayed in the original building, now a Wells Fargo bank.
Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at FloridaRambler.com.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the spirits currently available at the St. Augustine Distillery. The bourbon is still aging and won’t be available until fall of 2016.
Going to St. Augustine
Here are some highlights of the city’s birthday celebration. For a complete schedule of anniversary events, visit staugustine-450.com.
Sept. 4-6: Celebrate 450, a free music and street festival with national, regional and local music and historical and cultural performances on multiple stages throughout the city.
Sept. 6: Spanish Music and Dance performance at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
Sept. 8: Historical reenactment of Pedro Menéndez’s landing (10 a.m.) at the Mission Nombre de Dios. A procession takes spectators to The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine for a Commemorative Mass (11 a.m.).
Sept. 9-12: St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival.
Check tourist brochures for discount coupons to many attractions.
Castillo de San Marcos, 1 S. Castillo Dr. Admission $10 adults; children 15 and under free. nps.gov/casa.
Nombre de Dios mission, 27 Ocean Ave.; missionandshrine.org. Free.
Ponce de Leon Hotel/Flagler College, 74 King St.; legacy.flagler.edu. Free to admire rotunda. Tours are $10 per person. Pick up a brochure in advance for $1 off per person.
Lightner Museum, 75 King St.; lightnermuseum.org. Admission $10 adults; $5 ages 12 to 18. Visit the courtyard for free.
Colonial Quarter Living History Museum, 33 St. George St., St.; colonialquarter.com. Admission $12.99 adults; $6.99 ages 5 to 12. You can buy a combo ticket with the Pirate Museum.
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, 12 S. Castillo Dr.; thepiratemuseum.com. Admission $12.99 adults; $6.99 ages 5 to 12.
El Galeon is moored in the city marina at the base of the Bridge of Lions; elgaleon.org. Adult tickets $13.78; children 5 to 12 $6.36. The boat is on tour this summer, returning for the birthday.
St. Augustine Lighthouse, staugustinelighthouse.com. Adults $9.95; children 12 or under $7.95.
St. Augustine Distillery, 112 Riberia St.; staugustinedistillery.com. Tours are free.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, 999 Anastasia Blvd.; alligatorfarm.com. Adults $22.95; children 3 to 11, $11.95.
Andrew Young Crossing, the intersection of King Street and St. George Street at the west end of Constitution Plaza. Across the street is the Woolworth’s lunch counter, now inside Wells Fargo Bank, 33 King St.; free and open to visitors.