The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida is one of the oldest forts in North America. Even non-history buffs will find a visit to the Castillo time well spent. The fort provides beautiful views of the bay and city, informative re-enactors, canon and musket firing demonstrations, and some ingenious self-cleaning toilets :).
Planning your visit and parking at Castillo de San Marcos
The Castillo overlooks the bay right in the center of St. Augustine, so parking is limited. If you are lucky enough to be visiting on a day when the fort is not busy, park in the Castillo de San Marcos lot that is right in from of the fort. This and other street parking in St. Augustine is $2.50 an hour, but it is almost impossible to find a spot during busy times. A nearby option that usually has open spots is the Historic Downtown Parking Facility. It will cost you $15 but you can park there all day.
If you are staying in St. Augustine, the best thing to do is walk to the fort and not have to deal with parking.
The fort is surrounded on the other three sides by a low area that used to be a moat. Visitors can ramble over the grass-covered embankments before entering from the south side.
The fort is open from 8:45am to 5:00pm daily except for holidays.
Admission is a hefty $15 for everyone over 16, but children 15 and under are free. If you’re planning on traveling to any other National Parks during the year, I’d highly recommend getting an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80 to save yourself some money.
Want to learn more about St. Augustine? Read and decide if it is a tourist trap or historic city.
History and Design of Castillo San Marcos
The Spanish founded St. Augustine in 1565, making it the oldest permanent European settlement in the U.S. A number of wood versions of the fort were built before multiple pirate and privateer attacks by the British convinced the Spanish to build the permanent Castillo de San Marcos (St. Mark’s Fort).
From a distance, the four-sided Castillo de San Marcos looks like any other stone fort, but if you get up close to the walls, you’ll notice that they are made of seashells! The Spanish took advantage of local materials and built with coquina. They cut out blocks of naturally compressed seashells from around St. Augustine. It was a bit of an experiment, but it turned out to be an excellent choice! When typical stone buildings were hit with canon fire they would explode, but the porous coquina of Castillo de San Marcos would absorb the impact of the blast! This choice of building material is one of the reasons that the fort is in such good shape today.
In addition to taking Instagram-worthy pictures on the bastion walls, you’ll also want to check out the toilets–the old ones, not the modern ones. These pit toilets were pretty ingenious. Soldiers would go to the bathroom and their excrement would fall into the pit below. The pit was built so that when the twice daily tide came in it would wash the pit contents out to sea: self-flushing toilets in the 17th century!!
After the toilets, tour the exhibits. There are various rooms of the fort dedicated to all the different periods, including an American period. There is well-designed information telling about the history of Castillo de San Marcos and in some areas there are weapons and barrels and other items from each period.
Events and Reenactors
There are dozens of reenactors who volunteer their time at Castillo San Marcos. If you can time your visit to coincide with a special reenactment event, you won’t regret it.
Volunteers in period clothing demonstrate the use of goods and weapons in an interactive way. Here is a photo of one the volunteers we met, reenacting the life of a Spanish soldier. These reenactors love to chat with visitors and tell about their lives and clothing, which they have meticulously researched. I got so into learning that I even asked the soldier on the canon firing squad to lift up his pants for me (what was underneath was another pair of culottes 🙂 ). He also had garters to hold up his socks.
The weekend I visited in February had Spanish reenactors on Friday, and then Saturday was focused on the brief British period when the British controlled the fort from 1763-1984 until it was returned to the Spanish after the American Revolution. Watch the video at the end of this post of a British Sargent to learn about life in the army in 1783.
That the fort was under British rule was a complete surprise to me! While I loved learning about the British period, I was more interested in the Spanish history, so plan ahead so you know what will be presented. No matter what period is being featured, you’re sure to have an exciting and informative visit!
Interested in learning more about Spanish history in the United States? You’ll like this post about Spanish class field trips that visit historical sites in the U.S.