St. Augustine’s history far exceeds that of any other European settlement in what is now the United States. In fact, when the cold and nearly exhausted Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving dinner they undoubtedly thought of what they had recently left behind in England. At that same time, the residents of St. Augustine were warm and comfortable in a city that was the only home they had known for three generations.
St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles as a staging area for a military operation that successfully eliminated a French colony that had been unwisely established in Spanish Florida. For much of the next 250 years, the people of St. Augustine successfully battled against hurricanes, pirates, English raiders, plagues, and Indian uprisings to defend a city that served as the last rest stop for the Spanish fleets before they began the long crossing of the Atlantic bearing the treasures of the New World to Spain.
After the glories of the Spanish Empire faded, St. Augustine became an American frontier town serving as the gateway to the strange and exotic land known as Florida. Rivaled only by Key West as the most important town in the newly created State of Florida, St. Augustine languished in the sun and served as a stepping off point from the civility of the Southern United States into an ominous, unsettled land populated predominately by alligators and other dangerous reptiles.
In the late 1880’s, the arrival in town of millionaire Henry Flagler changed St. Augustine forever. A man of vision with the wealth to convert his dreams into reality, Flagler transformed sleepy St. Augustine into the ultimate winter escape for America’s “swells”—the folks with unlimited money and impeccable social credentials. To accommodate his guests, Flagler built a series of hotels in St.. Augustine that was unrivaled anywhere in terms of opulence and amenities.
For modern visitors, Flagler’s hotels, churches and innovations serve as a Spanish Renaissance backdrop to an area where art galleries, distinctive restaurants and antique shops blend seamlessly with more than 60 historic sites and attractions that both entertain and educate. Whether it’s exploring the massive 17th century Castillo de San Marcos or enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride down an ancient street, St. Augustine provides a unique, living-history look at Florida’s colorful past.
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park preserves the memory of the Spanish explorer who not only named the Sunshine State “La Florida”, but also came ashore in a quest for the fabled waters that offered eternal youth. Today, visitors can hear the story of Ponce’s quest, and – of course—sample water from the fountain of youth. In the city’s historic district, visitors can step back in time to 1740 within the walled confines of the Colonial Spanish Quarter where authentically attired townsfolk go about their daily lives in the year 1740. At the Oldest House, the stories of the families who occupied the home for centuries are brought to life while just up the street at the Dow Museum of Historic Homes, visitors can experience 200 years of history within the walls of nine original and painstakingly restored homes.