Your Guide to St. Augustine's 450th Anniversary

Your Guide to St. Augustine’s 450th Anniversary

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(courtesy of wheretraveler.com)

This year is a special one for St. Augustine, as the city celebrates the 450th anniversary of its founding and plans a big birthday bash, complete with a visit from the pope, the king and queen of Spain, a wine festival, tall-ship visits, re-enactments, a lecture series and special tours. There’s never been a better time to visit this historic city than 2015.

“We were recently in Malaga and had the chance to meet the king at a state dinner,” says Dana Ste. Claire, who’s heading up the city’s year-long celebration. “The king actually included our 450th commemoration in his remarks. The Spanish are excited about it. Now finally someone is recognizing that the Spanish founded America, not England.”

The highlight of the year will come in September, when the city expects a visit from Pope Francis along with King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia. Week-long events will include a free outdoor music festival, fireworks and a Spanish wine festival featuring receptions, private dinners and a grand tasting along with historical reenactments of the landing and first mass.

While the year includes plenty of celebrations and fanfare, the city also wants to educate visitors about its unique history. Many, for instance, can tell you about Christopher Columbus and the pilgrims, but few know that St. Augustine was actually the first permanent European settlement in the United States. With the city’s 450th anniversary, everyone from historians to local officials to shopkeepers and chefs are ready to set the record straight.

“We’re home to the first settlement, the first free-black settlement, the first school system, the first library, the first port,” says Davis Walker, president of Florida Living History, which performs historical reenactments around the state. “Florida has the most unique, most interesting and the longest history in the nation, yet it’s also the least known. U.S. history has been consciously distorted. The country was settled from South to North and not from North to South.”

In April 1513 explorer Ponce de León landed near St. Augustine, staking a claim for the Spanish crown. While he did not establish a settlement, he sent word back that Florida was an ideal place for a colony. Fifty-two years later, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés left Spain under the direction of the king to establish St. Augustine in 1565.

Schedule of Events

Now Through July

Visitors have a special opportunity to come aboard El Galeón, the authentic replica of a ship that traveled around Florida 500 years ago. The impressive vessel is 170 feet long, weighs 495 tons and requires a crew of 28 to maneuver the massive sails. The tall ship is docked at the St. Augustine Marina (111 Avenida Menendez) and is open daily for tours. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for children ages 5 to 12 and free for children under 5.

Feb. 28: Noche de Gala Processional

It’s the birthday of city founder Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, and everyone’s invited. The Noche de Gala, designed after processions in Spain, will start at the Visitor Information Center (10 W. Castillo Drive) and will proceed down St. George Street to the Plaza de la Constitución. Parade participants will be wearing giant paper mache heads, called los cabuzedos, to playfully depict certain characters and politicians around town. Other participants will be dressed as 16th-century soldiers, musicians and performers.

April 4-Oct. 4: “Tapestry”

Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America is a special exhibit on display at the Visitor Information Center (10 W. Castillo Drive) to showcase the diversity of cultures in St. Augustine, including Hispanics, Africans and Native Americans. Visitors are invited to learn about this America’s first melting pot through art, authentic objects, original documents and interactive elements. Docent-led tours are provided between 11 am and 2 pm. Admission is free.

Sept. 4-6: Music & Street Festival

The festival includes national, regional and local music and historical and cultural performances on multiple downtown stages. Sunday’s lineup features performances by the St. Augustine Orchestra, St. Augustine Community Chorus, First Coast Opera & Limelight Theatre. At 7 pm, the Ensemble Español will perform all styles of Spanish dance including Flamenco, Classical Spanish Dance “Estilizatión, Folklore, 18th Century Dances, Ballet (Classical Dance) and Castanets. The weekend ends with a spectacular fireworks show over the Matanzas River.

Sept. 7: Cake Cutting & Proclamation Reading

The public is invited to a cake cutting featuring local music and a proclamation reading in the Plaza de la Constitución.

Sept. 8: Countdown Clock Ceremony, Menéndez Landing Re-Enactment, Procession & Commemorative Mass

450 years to the day of St. Augustine’s founding is an authentic, historical re-enactment of Pedro Menéndez’s landing at the Mission Nombre de Dios. A procession takes spectators to The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine for a Commemorative Mass.

Sept. 9-12: Spanish Wine Festival

This four-day event is for everyone from casual wine drinkers wanting to learn more to experienced wine connoisseurs. The event includes a wine luncheon, Cava reception and dinner (the king and queen of Spain are invited), and a grand tasting. The festival is designed to celebrate Spain’s rich heritage of wine making and to help make St. Augustine the Spanish Wine Capital of America.