By Katie Moosbrugger
If you’re looking to sneak in one more trip before the end of the summer, a weekend in St. Augustine is the perfect get away. Not only is it a beautiful Florida beach destination, but it’s also an easy drive (just under 6.5 hours from the Triad). St. Augustine is a historical city situated on the beach just 30 minutes south of Jacksonville. As the oldest city in the US, St. Augustine has been the quintessential melting pot for many cultures (Spanish, French, British, to name a few) for over 450 years. From the architecture to the food to the arts, you’ll experience the kind of culture, diversity and history you’d expect from an old world European city.
And that’s what I love so much about St. Augustine. It has a beach (my favorite kind of destination) but it also has so much more which makes it a great location to visit any time of year, really. My parents live 30 minutes south of St. Augustine, so it’s always been a favorite place to head for day trips with the kids, fancy dinner and shopping trips, and even for a family reunion. (The nightlife in the historical downtown is so much fun – but that’s a topic for another blog!).
You can literally find a million articles about things to do in St. Augustine online. Great places to start your search include www.FloridasHistoricCoast.com or www.CityStAug.com. From the handful of times I’ve visited St. Augustine, I listed my favorite must-see-and-do items below, plus a few other places I have heard should be on any visitor’s To Do list.
Oh where to start…in no particular order, here are some highlights….
The beaches of St. Augustine span for more than 20 miles. The northern most beach is Vilano Beach, just over Usina Bridge about five minutes from historic downtown St. Augustine. Locals call this beach a “best kept secret” because of its serene beaches, parks, ocean front restaurants and fishing pier. A little further south (approximately one mile from the Bridge of Lions on Anastasia Island), is Anastasia State Recreation Park, a protected bird sanctuary with five miles of beautiful beaches. Here you’ll find swimming, lifeguards, playgrounds, and camping. The park usually closes at sundown unless you are there to camp overnight. St. Augustine Beach is also located on Anastasia Island and is less than five minutes from downtown St. Augustine. St. John’s County Pier is located at this beach along with restaurants and shops. If you travel about 15 minutes further south on A1A, you’ll arrive at Crescent Beach which is considered one of the most scenic, unspoiled beaches in Florida. Very close to Crescent Beach is the Ft. Matanzas area, my absolute favorite beach area and one that I included in our Favorite Family Beaches Directory HERE.
The history is my favorite part of this city. Take time to stroll down the cobbled stoned streets, admire all the souvenir shops (there are some really random and interesting stores), and tour the beautiful camps of Flagler University. It’s a lot of walking, but the best way to see and learn the history is to simply hop on one of the trolley rides (Red Train Tours or Old Town Trolley Tours). You’ll discover everything from the oldest wooden schoolhouse, to the oldest house, to the Authentic Old Jail, as well as amazing stories about Henry Flagler and Martin Luther King Jr. There is even a stop at Ponce de Leon’s notorious Fountain of Youth. Yes, it really does exist and it’s probably not what you envisioned (that’s all I am going to say without giving it away). If you can, make time to also tour Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest fort in the US and the only standing 17th century military construction (the kids would love it!).
~ If you are OK with a lot of walking, consider booking a self-guided tour though St. Augustine Scavenger Hunts. This is a fun outing or kids (they suggest 8-years or older) to see the historical sites up close. There is a cost to join the hunt, but none of the clues take you to places that require additional admission fees. The tour takes 3-5 hours, and you can choose to do it all in one day or spread it out.
~ If you are OK with ghosts, consider a spin on the Ghosts & Graveyards trolley tour. On this tour, you’ll visit Potter’s Wax Museum to hear the legendary execution about a famous pirate, as well as an up close and personal tour of the “Old Jail.”
~ Visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Set in a historical house, this Ripley’s features over 800 really bizarre exhibits and some of Ripley’s original collection. My kids loved it! This is also where you catch the Red Train tours mentioned above.
~ Set sail on The Pirate Ship Black Raven for a unique pirate adventure, where everyone on board is a member of the crew, and every kid gets special pirate training.
~ Check out Old Florida Museum where you can meet characters from Florida’s past, and take part in interactive adventures. Great for kids!
~ Climb atop St. Augustine Lighthouse to see breathtaking views of northern Florida, and visit the Maritime Museum. Children must be 44 inches tall to climb the tower (you are not allowed to carry children to the top).
~ A friend recently told me she took her kids (ages 11 and 9) on the St. Augustine Distillery Tour, and they loved it. They got to watch them mix small batches and learn about distilling. It’s science, right?
~ If you’re in St. Augustine, you have to take the kids to the Alligator Farm Zoological Park! It’s the only facility in the world to offer exhibits of every recognized crocodilian species. They offer wildlife shows, gator feedings, exotic birds, and a python cage, among other natural wonders. It’s a must see visit!
~ The arts scene in St. Augustine is a vibrant mix of art galleries, theatres, orchestras, plays, ballets and more. Every Friday is First Friday Art Walk, one of St. Augustine’s most popular cultural events that visits over 20 art galleries. Be sure to visit this site before you plan your trip in case a special show or event is on the calendar!
Of all the things in St. Augustine to write about, this is the one topic I don’t know much about. Since my parents live close, we usually drive in and out in one day. The one hotel I am familiar with is the Casa Monica Resort & Spa. I highly recommend it if you are looking for something fancy (although I hear it’s haunted), but there are so many other fabulous options for half the price – both downtown and on the beach. If you want more of the hustle and bustle of a city (including carriage rides and last minute dinner options) I’d go with a downtown hotel. Or if you want peace and quiet and the option to walk to the beach, then search for an oceanfront. You can’t go wrong in either location. I would start your search on a site like TripAdvisor.
You’d be amazed to know the number one rated restaurant in St. Augustine on Trip Advisor is a food truck. It’s called Crave and apparently all the rave. A friend recently went and said the line was ridiculous but so worth the wait. The last time we took the kids, we visited O.C. White’s Seafood & Spirits which is downtown and overlooks the water. It was a little fancier than what we were looking for, but the food was great as well as the outdoor patio. I reached out to my mom (who dines in St. Augustine often) for other favorites and she highly recommends Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille (New Orleans-style seafood overlooking the Bridge of Lyons), The Raintree (situated in a restored 1879 Victorian home in downtown featuring excellent food, patio and gazebos) and Saltwater Cowboys (fantastic seafood and BBQ with a beautiful view of the marshland off of A1A).
Short Drives from St. Augustine
If you plan to stay longer than a weekend, there are two places you should consider adding to your trip. The first is World Golf Village, about 20 miles north, which features shopping, restaurants (including the famous Caddyshack Restaurant of Bill Murray), an IMAX theatre, museum, virtual golf (at any course in the world), mini golf, and a lot of fun for the whole family. The second trip, about 30 minutes south of St. Augustine, is Marineland Dolphin Adventure. Marineland originally opened in 1938 as a facility for Hollywood film makers to create underwater footage for movies. Today, it’s a place you can go visit dolphins – whether you’re swimming in the tank with them or feeding and watching them from the dock. We’ve been several times with the kids and every visit is a treat!
Like many vacation posts, I feel like this only skims the surface. There are so many different ways to enjoy St. Augustine and I’d love for you to chime in if you’ve been here. What are your favorite things to do here as a family? What other tips and locations (including restaurants and lodging) can you suggest?
*Some photo were provided with permission from FloridasHistoricCoast.com.