The oldest city in North America fits snugly in a confluence of salt-water waterways from the north, south and west, and is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier islands on the east. There are many ways to explore the salt water waterways and estuaries snaking through tidal salt marshes, conservation areas, state parks, and aquatic preserves which protect the unique, fragile ecosystem of “Old Florida.” On the Atlantic Ocean side, long stretches of white sandy beaches offer choices for everyone.
GO NATURAL – BOATING, BEACHES, PRESERVES & PARKS
Nature lovers – this one’s a must! Anastasia State Park has it all: 4 miles of gorgeous beach for swimming and shelling; a tidal salt marsh for nature walks, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and bird watching. There are ancient dunes to see and Coquina Stone Quarry archaeological site to visit. The park has great amenities too: showers, a restaurant, plus bikes, kayaks, paddleboards to rent.
For many, St. Augustine’s beautiful beaches are reason alone to visit the city. Although beaches stretching for miles both south and north of Matanzas Inlet appear to be similar, they are actually distinct, each having unique features. St. Augustine Beach, minutes from downtown, is a beautiful stretch of white sand, ideal for fishing, swimming and beach walks. Hang out on the beach or under shady pavilions; check out shops and restaurants along A Street. Just to the south, beautiful Crescent Beach has numerous access points along A1A to enjoy swimming, surfing, boogie-boarding. Butler Beach, 2 miles south of St. Augustine Beach on A1A, is a quiet beach along a beautiful, protected dune preserve. Vilano Beach, just north of downtown on A1A, is gorgeous, with a heavier surf, steeper drop-off, and stronger current due to its proximity to the inlet.
Eco-tourism is big in St. Augustine. With so many awesome pristine places to explore and many ways to do it, it’s easy to see why. St. Augustine EcoTours offers boat and kayak guided tours. Their Dolphin, Birding, Nature Boat Excursions head out mornings, afternoons or sunset for scenic guided tours through miles of rivers, marshes and creeks. Dynamic naturalists aboard the dry, stable boats point out sights along the way. Their Salt Marsh Kayak Trip is a nice 2-hour guided tour requiring little kayaking experience. Kayak St. Augustine offers guided kayak and paddleboard (SUP) tours to explore diverse natural areas. Sea Serpent Airboat Tours skim over the marshes and rivers on a thrilling ride.
OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES FOR THE NOT-SO-ACTIVE
There are ways to enjoy St. Augustine’s beautiful outdoors without roughing it. Numerous attractions are outdoor venues, and the Old Town Trolley, which gives enjoyable narrated tours of Old Town, and its Beach Bus shuttle, which makes the run over to Anastasia Island, location of attractions and beaches, gets you to them.
Old Town Outdoor Attractions via the Old Town Trolley
Castillo de San Marcos: The most iconic of St. Augustine’s historic sites is open to the elements. The oldest masonry fort in the U.S., built by the Spanish in 1685 as a walled defense line around the settlement, can be walked through on a self-guided tour. Check out exhibits and a video on canon and musket firing.
Colonial Spanish Quarter: It is a walk through 450 years of St. Augustine history – a 16th century fledgling Spanish port and small waterfront settlement; a thriving 17th century Spanish town; a bustling British one. Climb a watchtower, dig for artifacts, see a musket drill, watch a blacksmith at work. End the tour relaxing with a pitcher of Sangria and tasty tapas in the outdoor patio of Taberna del Gallo.
Mission Nombre de Dios and Shrine: The site where Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in 1565, proclaiming it for Spain, is a serene, shady place to walk. The landing spot on the marsh edge is marked by an impressive 208 foot stainless steel cross and an 11 foot bronze statue of Fr. Francisco Lopez, the chaplain of Menendez’ fleet. Step into the quiet of tiny, vine-covered Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, dedicated to motherhood, and a focal point of the grounds. Walk over to the small museum housing stunning artifacts and exhibits. Visit the unique gift shop.
Fountain of Youth Archeological Park: An area speculated to have been explored by Ponce de Leon, and thought to be the site of the 1565 settlement, offers more than a sip from the fabled fountain. Life-sized, historically accurate outdoor exhibits focus on St. Augustine’s early history. Walk through Timucuan Village structures, a reconstruction of the First Mission Church, a layout of the 1565 settlement field. Look over the marshes from a watchtower; see how early explorers navigated by the stars. Enjoy something tasty and refreshing at Flags Café’s shady outdoor picnic tables.
Get out on the water without getting wet! Cruise past historical landmarks along St. Augustine’s picturesque waterfront on a Scenic St. Augustine Boat Tour aboard Victory III, owned by a local family which has been giving boat tours for generations. Sail into the sunset aboard the tall ship Schooner Freedom on a romantic sunset or enchanting moonlight sail. Both depart from Old Town’s Municipal Pier.
Anastasia Island “The Island” Outdoor Attractions via Beach Bus
St. Augustine Lighthouse: Breathtaking panoramic views from the top are well worth the 219-foot climb up wrought-iron steps. Tour the Keeper’s House; see artifacts in the small museum; browse through the gift shop.
Alligator Farm and Zoological Park: Offers more than a chance to see the farm’s star, 15-ft Maximo. See wading birds, lemurs, pythons, exotic birds, native reptiles, giant tortoises, even albino alligators. Zip high above the gators, see birds roosting in tree tops, take in great views on a thrilling Zip Line ride.
St. John’s County Ocean Pier Complex: On the northern end of St. Augustine Beach has many free amenities, including a splash park for kids and covered pavilions. For $1, access the pier to hang out in refreshing ocean breezes, walk, fish, or watch others fish. It’s the perfect spot to spend sunset, listening to live music.
Take a Scenic Road Trip to Fort Matanzas
Drive 9 miles south on A1A from St. Augustine Beach to Fort Matanzas National Monument. Pick up a boarding pass at the Visitor Center to hop on a ferry for a ranger-led visit to the fort, constructed by the Spanish in 1740 to protect St. Augustine from British invasions from the south. Learn about the ecosystem of Rattlesnake Island.
Outdoor Dining – Old Town & the Beaches
Having lunch or dinner at one of St. Augustine’s many restaurants with outdoor seating is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. The views, the weather, the vibes – all are memorable. Check out some of these: Old Town: Harry’s Seafood, Mojos BBQ, The Floridian. Beaches: Sunset Grill and Salt Life Food Shack on St. Augustine Beach; Aunt Kate’s, Caps on the Water, the Reef on Vilano Beach; South Beach Grill on Crescent Beach. Anastasia Island has many restaurants with both Atlantic and river views. For a real Old Florida experience in location, atmosphere, décor and menu, Saltwater Cowboys is the place.
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