When many think of Florida, alligators, the sunny beaches, and world-famous theme parks tend to come to mind. Many people aren’t aware of St Augustine, which is home to the ancient city. While this town still has stunning beaches, alligators, and countless fun activities and parks, the history of St. Augustine is richly fascinating as it spans periods.
Beginning with when it was founded in 1565, which was 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown, the Spanish established themselves in St Augustine, making it the oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the entire United States. The Spanish influence can see everywhere, from the colorful tiles to the narrow cobbled streets, to the unique architecture dotted about.
Suppose the Spanish colonial period is something you are interested in. In that case, you’ll want to take a trip to the Fort Matanzas National Monument. This fortified watchtower was completed in 1742 to defend the Spanish military settlement and still sits there very much the same today. This is also not a monument where you will take a short walk around and feel like you have seen all there is to see, although you are welcome to do that. As well as the available guided tours, there are heaps of fun events such as cannon firing day, bullet making, and close-ups of what Spanish soldiers used to look and dress like. It is worth making a day, or at least afternoon, out of Fort Matanzas since the watchtower is surrounded by dunes, maritime forest, marsh, and rare fauna species. The Nature Trail would be my recommendation to walk through the oldest part of the barrier island covered with a hammock forest, providing gorgeous views of the tree canopy and chances to spot some wildlife.
The Matanzas inlet is located in the southern part of St John’s county, only 8 miles from St Augustine. Matanzas means ‘killing’ or ‘slaughter’ in Spanish, reflecting this location's gory history. In the 1500s, the French had landed on Fort Caroline nearby, which the Spanish considered an encroachment on their territory. Not only did they successfully attack the fort, but they executed any survivors of a shipwreck that the French had been caught in while trying to retaliate. This critical event in Florida’s history meant that the Spanish controlled the state for 235 years.
Suppose you fancy heading to this part of St Augustine. In that case, plenty of activities will allow you to explore this historic area. There are fantastic hikes, sailing, fishing, boat tours, and more. One smart way to explore these waters where famous battles were held is to rent a paddleboard and head out. This allows you to explore the town and water in your own time, without feeling tied down to any particular times or ticket prices. Renting a paddleboard is also a great way to get to know the locals in the area and hear about any exciting history that they may be able to share with you.
While exploring these waters may also intrigue you to learn that many famous pirates once ruled this area way back in the 1600s. Sir Francis Drake, Robert Searles, and others patrolled these seas, waiting for a Spanish ship full of gold and silver to sail past to pounce on or else simply invade the town to raid its valuables. One year, Sir Francis Drake invaded with 23 ships and 2000 raiders, forcing the Spanish defenders and townsfolk to flee to the swamps and marshes. This event became so famous in St Augustine that a re-enactment is staged each June. If you’re interested in pirates, I would definitely check that out!
In fact, St Augustine holds such a wealth of pirate history that its Pirate and Treasure Museum features the most extensive collection of authentic pirate and treasure artifacts. The museum invites visitors to relive the Golden Age of Piracy in an immersive journey filled with interactive experiences, such as a treasure hunt for children to explore the museum, performances from pirate actors, a replica of the Black Raven Pirate Ship, and the chance to have a drink with a “real pirate.” This experience is so unique and fun-filled that it can convince anybody that they love local history.
Continuing with the Spanish architecture mentioned earlier, the Castillo de San Marcos is another must-see. This is the oldest nation fort in the United States, built-in 1672. It is located on the Western shore of Matanzas Bay, not far from the Fort Matanzas Monument. What is interesting about the Castillo de San Marcos is that one of the chambers inside was only recently discovered in 1932. The chamber is long and narrow, with a small door. Rumour has it that the room was filled with skeletons when this door was finally opened. While this is yet to be proven, many ghost hunters have paid famous visits to the site and reported unusual activity in this room, so who knows what could be lurking in its shadows.
Similarly, the St Augustine Lighthouse Park’s paranormal activity attracted the attention of the popular television show ‘Ghost Hunters’ to pay a visit. Built back in the 1600s by Spanish settlers, this lighthouse would guide sailors home. It has tennis courts, picnic tables, and a playground, meaning many visitors would overlook its spooky history. While ‘Ghost Hunters’ were filming, they caught a ghostly apparition on camera, which many say closely resembles one of the old keepers who fell to his death from the top of the lighthouse. Safe to say, the ancient city and its old buildings certainly have enough creepy history to make a visit.