Our tourism – Best Bets


Residents and visitors alike have must-see lists of landmarks and sights in St. Augustine and St. Johns County. From the fort to the lighthouse, and beaches to historic sites, here’s a list of our Top 10 favorites.

Castillo de San Marcos

The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. Construction began in 1672 while under Spanish control as a way to protect the city after the 1668 attack by English pirate Robert Seale (Searle’s Raid), who destroyed one of the previously built wooden forts.

The Castillo is a masonry star fort (four star points) made of coquina, a Spanish word that means “small shells.” The stone is naturally formed — a mixture of fine sea sand and crushed shells.

It was mined from a quarry on Anastasia Island, where Anastasia State Park stands today.

The Spanish designed Castillo de San Marcos to withstand the impact of a cannonball, using the bastion system developed by Italians in the 17th century. Resembling a castle, or castillo, the bastion design lowered the castle walls and placed mounds of earth around the exterior to reinforce the walls.

The Castillo is a National Monument maintained by the National Park Service. Each year, more than 500,000 guests come to have a look at the fort. Cannon demonstrations are offered Friday through Sunday, and tours are available for groups.

Hours are 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily; closed Dec. 25.

Admission is $7 for ages 16 and older; free for 15 and younger. Annual passes also are available, with military and senior discounts.

For information, go to nps.gov/casa or call 904-829-6506.


More than 40 miles of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean can be explored in St. Johns County. Ponte Vedra Beach, Vilano Beach, St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach are popular spots, with Matanzas Inlet as a favored place to take in the sunset.

Some beaches are vehicle-free, while others allow beachgoers to park directly on the sand.

Vilano Beach is known for its patches of coquina, where visitors and residents dig to look for shark teeth.

St. Augustine Beach is home to soft, white sand, a fishing pier and popular splash park.

For information on beach access, passes and beach pavilion rentals, go to sjcfl.us/Beaches or call 904-209-0331.

St. Augustine Beach
Beachgoers occupy St. Augustine Beach, south of St. Johns County Pier.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm, 999 Anastasia Blvd., is a reptile and wildlife preserve that was established in 1893. George Reddington and Felix Fire began collecting alligators on Anastasia Island and founded the St. Augustine Alligator Farm at South Beach.

The Alligator Farm flourished for more than two decades at its original location. Exhibiting hundreds of alligators, numerous species of Florida’s venomous snakes and other wild animals, the Alligator Farm earned a reputation as “the world’s largest alligator farm.”

All recognized crocodilian species from around the world are on exhibit at the farm, as well as American alligators, monkeys, deer, exotic birds, giant tortoises, albino alligators, snakes, lemurs and even a few komodo dragons.

Also included are alligator feedings and reptile shows.

A bird rookery in the alligator lagoon is a popular place in the spring for photographers, with nesting birds and hatchlings on view, which are wild birds who choose this area each year for breeding.

A more recent offering is Crocodile Crossing, a zipline through the treetops that takes participants directly over alligator and crocodile enclosures.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. Admission is $22.95 for adults; $11.95 for ages 3 to 11; $11.47 for adult guests in wheelchairs ($5.97 for children in wheelchairs); and free for ages 2 and younger. Discounts are given for groups, AAA members, military and seniors. Call 904- 824-3337 or go to alligatorfarm.com.

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum

St. Augustine Lighthouse traces its history back to a Spanish watchtower built in the late 1500s. The watchtower became Florida’s first lighthouse in 1824. Threatened by erosion over the years, the current town was completed in 1874. The St. Augustine Lighthouse, 81 Lighthouse Ave., is 165 feet above sea level. Visitors can climb the 219 steps to the top, where a first order Fresnel lens serves as the beacon.

The Keepers’ House and a museum are on site, offering a glimpse of Lighthouse history over the years. Also available are tours, maritime archaeology and sunset/moonrise programs. Go to staugustinelighthouse.com or call 904-829-0745.

St. Augustine lighthouse
A man cleans the stairs that lead to the top of the lighthouse.

Flagler College

Built by millionaire developer and railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in 1888 as the Hotel Ponce de Leon, Flagler College is now a four-year private liberal arts school on King Street in the heart of downtown St. Augustine.

The hotel was designed in the Spanish Renaissance style by architects John Carrere and Thompas Hastings, who also designed the Hotel Alcazar (Lightner Museum), which sits across the street.

The Ponce was built on a former orange grove that belonged to Dr. Andrew Anderson, owner of the Markland House, which was purchased by the college in 1966.

When built, the hotel was wired for electricity at the onset, with the power being supplied by D.C. generators supplied by Flagler’s friend, Thomas Edison.

Fountains, fine art, sculptures and a 8,990-square-feet ballroom surrounded my Tiffany stained glass windows and murals by George W. Maynard are on view.

Visitors also can view the restored solarium, which offers a domed main room that overlooks the college’s courtyard.

Terraces of the solarium give guests views of historic downtown St. Augustine and beyond — Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Plaza de la Constitucion, the Cathedral-Basilica, the bayfront and the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily from January through May 4 and Aug. 12 through Dec. 31; and hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily May 5 through Aug. 11.

Tours are free for St. Johns County residents with ID; and $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and active military; $1 for children ages 4 to 12; and free for children 3 and younger. Call 904-823-3378 or go to legacy.flagler.edu.

Historic streets

St. George Street is the most popular thoroughfare in St. Augustine’s Historic District — with sites, shops, attractions and restaurants and art galleries.

The road begins across from the Castillo at the City Gates and ends in the south part of historic St. Augustine near Maria Sanchez Lake.

Aviles Street, which sits on the other side of the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion, has the distinction of being the oldest public street in the country. The thoroughfare appears on archival maps dating from the early 1570s.

A wooden gateway arch just off King Street indicates the beginning of Aviles Street. The City of St. Augustine redesigned the brick street in 2010 to create a pedestrian-friendly zone with wider sidewalks, additional benches and landscaping.

Historic attractions, restaurants and art galleries also line the sides of Aviles Street, with alleyways that lead to the bayfront on one side and other historic streets and sites.

Memorial Presbyterian Church

Memorial Presbyterian Church, 32 Sevilla St., was built in 1889 by Henry Flagler (as a memorial) to his daughter Jennie Louise Benedict, who died the same year after complications from childbirth.

The building’s architectural style is Venetian Renaissance, with a 120-foot copper dome topped by a Greek cross that can be seen across the St. Augustine skyline.

Upon Flagler’s death in 1913, he was interred in a marble mausoleum within the church beside his daughter and her infant, Marjorie, as well as his first wife, Mary Harkness Flagler.

Guests can tour the church and grounds, and view the Aeolian Skinner Pipe Organ that graces the sanctuary. The church is open for visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Worship services are offered at 8:30 and 11 a.m. each Sunday.

For information, go to memorialpcusa.org or call 904-829-6451.

Mission Nombre de Dios

The Mission Nombre de Dios is a Catholic mission where the first parish mass was said in 1565 by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, the chaplain for the expedition of St. Augustine’s founder, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Pedro Menéndez landed and proclaimed this site for Spain and the church.

The Prince of Peace Votive Church, located at the San Marco Avenue entrance of the Mission, was built in 1965. Mass is held each week in this location. A Catholic museum, which sits next to Prince of Peace, was completed in 2010 and opened its doors during the city’s 445th anniversary celebration.

The grounds contain a chapel that was reconstructed in 1915 and enshrines a replica of the original statue of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto — Our Lady of Le Leche.

The grounds also feature an outdoor altar, a cemetery, religious statues and The Great Cross, a 208-foot-tall stainless steel cross built in 1965 to celebrate St. Augustine’s 400th anniversary.

Hospital Creek is the body of water that flows next to the Mission from the intracoastal waterway. Each year, the landing of Menendez is re-enacted, with a boat carrying re-enactors to the Mission shore.

The Shrine Gift Shop at the Mission, 27 Ocean Ave., offers religious articles of all types, as well as books. Admission is free. For information, call 904-824-2809.

Lightner Museum

Located in the former Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Flagler in 1887, the Lightner Museum sits directly across from Flagler College in downtown St. Augustine.

The museum houses collections of Otis C. Lightner, a legendary hobbyist and antiques collector.

Three floors of exhibits include examples of America’s Gilded Age — Victorian art glass, paintings, costumes, furnishings, mechanical musical instruments, Tiffany glass and lamps, Italian sculptures and more.

A Chicago publisher, Lightner purchased the building in 1946 and opened the museum two years later. He eventually donated the building and its contents to the city of St. Augustine.

The Hotel Alcazar was built in the Spanish Renaissance style and boasted an indoor swimming pool, which now serves as an antique mall and restaurant, Café Alcazar. The eatery is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for lunch, and from 6 to 9 p.m. the first Friday of each month for dinner. For information, call the restaurant at 904-825-9948 or go to thecafealcazar.com.

Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with last admission at 4 p.m. The museum is closed on Christmas day. Admission is free for St. Johns County residents with ID; $10 for adults; $6 for active military; $5 for college students and ages 12-18; and free for 11 and younger. Discounts are given to groups of 10 or more. For information, go to lightnermuseum.org or call 904-824-2874.

Cathedral Basilica

Founded Sept. 8, 1565, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is recognized as the first Catholic parish in the United States.

Located at 38 Cathedral Place, the building was constructed from 1793 to 1797, with much of the structure rebuilt after a fire in 1887. During restorations and enlargement, the Spanish Renaissance Bell Tower was added.

The current building has Classical and European architectural styles, but the original Cathedral Basilica was built in the Spanish Mission style using coquina that was mined from Anastasia Island. The tower also is built with coquina. The cathedral was designated a National Historic landmark in 1960. Twelve stained glass windows depict scenes in the life of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.

Marble and wooden Italian statues, gold décor and life-size murals can be seen inside the building.

Cathedral Bell Tower gift shop hours are 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday; and 10 to 10:45 a.m. and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Mass is held at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday; 5 p.m. each Saturday; and 7, 9 and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday.

For information, go to thefirstparish.org or call 904-824-2806.