Is St. Augustine a tourist trap? Scrolling reviews on Trip Advisor you’ll see that “Tourist Trap” is often used to describe the city. Visiting St. Augustine feels a bit like the World Showcase at Disney World’s Epcot–part cultural site and part theme park. The city has long been criticized as being a tourist trap because of its high prices and “liberal interpretation” of history with sites like the Fountain of Youth archeological park.
St. Augustine’s tourist scene revolves around its historical past, steeped in exploration, pirate lore, and Spanish-style architecture, but looks to be more entertaining than truly historically accurate. However, for history buffs willing to sort through the flashiness, St. Augustine offers plenty of true historic sites and a lot of fun. In a way, this is what makes it the perfect place for a weekend getaway for just about anyone, from history nerds to party goers. Keep reading to learn what to see and do in this unique city.
St. Augustine sits on the northeast coast of Florida, on an inlet with ocean views. It claims to be the oldest permanent European settlement in the continental United States (that’s a mouthful!), founded in 1565 by the Spanish. St. Augustine has a colonial quarter with refurbished period buildings in the town center. Newer buildings in the town center, including the massive parking complex, are built in this style.
The historical spots
The Government House
The Government House occupies a plot of land that has been home to government buildings since 1598. It is currently home to documents and photos of the original government in St. Augustine and is worth a visit just to see the architecture (plus it’s free and has air conditioning!). It hosts various museum exhibits and the detailed First Colony: Our Spanish Origins exhibit, the best historical explanation of St. Augustine that I saw in the whole town.
Castillo de San Marcos
With threats of British and pirate attacks, the Spanish in St. Augustine starting building the Castillo de San Marcos fort in 1672. Indeed, the British would lay siege to the fort many times, and it would end up under British rule for 20 years when Florida was ceded to Great Britain from 1763-1783. You can learn about this interesting history by visiting the Castillo, which is now a national monument. Read the specifics of visiting in my post.
You can take a guided tour, but if you are lucky enough to be there on a day when re-enactors are present, you’ll get quite a show without a tour guide. These volunteers love to tell you about their “lives” at the fort and add a lot of fun to your visit. I happened to visit on a day when the reenactment was the time of British rule, so you’ll see the British flag and gear in the photos. Additionally, there is a staged cannon firing over the water and it is worth trying to time your visit to coincide with this event.
If you enjoy Castillo de San Marcos, there are two other forts nearby that are historically connected to St. Augustine. Fort Matanzas National Monument is a 30-minute drive south and Fort Caroline National Memorial, which was a French settlement that the Spanish destroyed, is just North of Jacksonville.
Now a small liberal-arts college, Flagler college boasts one of the most beautiful college campuses on earth. The namesake, Henry Flagler, was an industrialist and one of the founders of Standard Oil. When he traveled to St. Augustine to enjoy the beaches, he found that the hotels and infrastructure were inadequate, and set out to build a railroad and hotels to draw in wealthy tourists. He built the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler college) and the Alcazar Hotel across the street.
You can walk through the courtyards and into the lobby, but the former Ponce de Leon Hotel building is a college dorm, so tourists are not allowed to go further unless you sign up for a tour.
The former Alcazar Hotel is now owned by the city of St. Augustine. In addition to a beautiful courtyard it is home to the Lightner Museum. Visiting the museum gives tourists a glimpse at the gilded age by touring the inside of the building adorned with a collection of 19th century art.
The touristy spots
There are multiple companies that run tram tours around the city. Old Town Trolley Tours runs a hop-on-hop-off service to 22 stops around town at 15 minute intervals. Ripley’s Red Train Tours has a hour-long tour. They both also run ghost tours at night. A major perk of doing a tour is that you get to park for free. Parking is next to impossible to find in downtown St. Augustine, and even the main parking garage charges $15.
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not
Tour the “Odditorium” museum at Ripley’s to see a strange collection of the bizarre, mysterious and weird. St. Augustine actually boasts the original Ripley’s, opened in 1950. The building was originally a castle-shaped hotel that is rumored to be haunted.
Black Raven Pirate Cruise
There’s nothing historical about these ships, but no one will mind because it’s all about fun. The Black Raven offers two types of cruises and you definitely DON’T want to book the wrong one. Both offer costumed actors, face painting, entertaining songs and skits, but the day cruises are aimed at families and the night Rum Runner cruises are bawdy, R-rated adult-only affairs that will make anyone who’s not a true pirate blush. If you want lots of booze and adult games go for the night cruise. On the other hand, if you don’t mind lots of excited kids, the day cruise offers clearer views of the city skyline, a fight between pirate ships and, of course, there is still booze available.
City Gate Spirits
This distillery is conveniently located in the colonial quarter where signs for their free tastings will draw you in. There isn’t much of the actual distillery to see, but the tastings are very generous. City Gate has original “easy-sipping” spirits like Apple Pie Moonshine and Sweet Tea Vodka, and it’s a great place to pick up a gift to bring home.
If you are the type of traveler that likes to have everything planned out in advance, you can book day trips and many city tours through the Viator website.
The spots where history blurs with tourism
The Colonial Quarter
The Colonial Quarter is an area of the historic district not unlike Colonial Williamsburg. There are some historic buildings here, like the oldest wooden schoolhouse in America, but many of them are newer but made to look old. You’ll find no shortage of souvenir shops, with everything from collector’s weapons to cigars to Panama hats.
While most of the buildings and restaurants are open to the public, The Colonial Experience is a guided tour in a private area that requires tickets. Here visitors can see blacksmiths at work, watch a musket firing demonstration, and stroll the boardwalk of flags that have flown over St. Augustine.
The Pirate and Treasure Museum
The Pirate Museum provides a hands-on experience of the golden age of piracy. Some authentic artifacts are on display including Jack Sparrow’s “authentic” Hollywood sword. Let’s be honest, no one can go to a pirate museum without imagining walking the plank and saying a few ARRRRs. If you are traveling with kids, this is a must.
The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park
If anything, this site represents the puzzling mix of real and imagined that embodies all of St. Augustine. Part archaeological site, part theme park, it’s a bit of an enigma.
Here’s a bit of the history: Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León gave Florida its name in 1513, but he is probably better known for his search for the mythical Fountain of Youth, a spring whose water would keep a person young. However, nothing in any historical documents of the time mention that Ponce de León found this spring or was even searching for it. The rumors and legend started after his death. Nevertheless, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park supposedly contains the said Fountain of Youth. But don’t get too excited–tourists can drink from the Fountain of Youth out of plastic cups surrounded by figures of conquistadores and Native Americans that look like they haven’t been updated since the opening of the park.
If you can get over the outdated exhibits and the ridiculousness of the actual Fountain of Youth (which is hard, because that is the reason for coming, right?) there are actually a number of other exhibits worth exploring. The grounds are huge and beautifully landscaped. There are replicas of the indigenous Timucua villages, hands-on exhibits about life in the 16th century, and shows and demonstrations of things like shooting and blacksmithing.
One of the highlights here was actually the peacocks. Yes, peacocks! Just to make things a bit more crazy, the grounds have numerous peacocks walking around and visitors can feed them with food from machines. Don’t get too close though, they have a nasty bite!
Where to stay in St. Augustine
There are three main choices for accommodation in St. Augustine: Chain hotels on the outskirts of town, bed and breakfasts in the historic area, and trendy hotels right downtown. Keep in mind that parking is expensive and hard to find, so you may want to splurge for a place downtown. If you can afford it, the place to be is the historic Casa Monica. Casa Monica was also built by Henry Flagler, and opened in 1888. If the $400+ price of a night’s stay is a bit hefty for you, it’s still worth walking through the lobby or trying to go for dinner at the restaurant here.
Where to eat and drink
St. Augustine is a tourist town, so there is no shortage of places to eat and drink downtown. In high season restaurants can be very crowded, so call ahead for dinner reservations. Cheaper chain restaurants are north and south of the city center, but the best places are right in the historic district.
Pizza Time has won awards for having some of the best pizza in America. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to check them out–both times I went by the line was out the door! They sell interesting pizzas by the slice, great garlic knots and a variety of beer and wine in a no-frills atmosphere.
Meehan’s Irish Pub & Seafood House
Meehan’s is a favorite for its multilevel dining room and bar serving typical Irish pub food and fresh seafood. If you have to wait for a table you can get a drink out back at the attached Island Cafe and Tropical Bar which is also a fun place to meet for drinks.
O.C. Whites Seafood and Spirits
O.C. White’s is one of the best places for outdoor dining. While it’s not exactly on the water (almost nothing in St. Augustine is) it has great beach views and lots of outdoor seating on the patio. The building is also historical and dates to 1790. Grab a seafood sandwich for lunch, an afternoon drink or a fancier fish entrée for dinner.
Maple Street Biscuit Company
If you’re not someone who regularly eats biscuits (ie. this midwesterner), this place will delight you. A cute atmosphere and outdoor patio, Maple Street sells biscuit sandwiches and other Southern breakfast items. Plus, when you order at the counter they ask for your theme song instead of your name–how fun is that?
Colonial Oak Music Park
For night life, the Colonial Oak Music Park is a unique venue for live music and shows. The picnic tables evoke beer garden vibes but the wooden structures have a more colonial feel. Add twinkling lanterns and you have a perfect spot to enjoy some live music!
The tourist trap verdict
Although in the end I have to admit that St. Augustine is a bit of an eccentric tourist trap, I still got my history fix and had a lot of fun there. Plus the eclectic mix of things to do made for a great long weekend getaway in the winter!
If you’re interested in visiting other historic sites and National Monuments, read Tips for Traveling to National Parks During the Pandemic.
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