Family Guide to Florida

Living History: Spending a Day in St. Augustine

The oldest continually inhabited city in the U.S. isn't just interesting for the adults.

By Jamie Portwood January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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I admit itI had a minor freak-out on a recent trip to St. Augustine—the oldest continually-inhabited city in the U.S., located near Jacksonville—with my nieces Maddie and Dani, 6 and 7. They wanted to climb to the top of the town’s lighthouse, which seemed like a splendid idea, until I looked down. The black grating of the spiraling staircase allowed me to see exactly how far up we were. Heart pounding, I had to stop at the second landing.

The girls—was I related to them?—sped past me, onward and upward. “Race you to the top!” yelled Maddie. “That’s not fair! You have a head start!” her sister replied. I watched their steps from below, ignoring the pitying glances of strangers.

I wish I could say that I gathered my courage and resumed climbing the 219 steps, but, alas, I had to hear about it from the two gushing girls. At least there was plenty to be explored on the ground. Like the good history buffs we are, we visited the neighboring maritime museum, where we marveled at the meticulously restored keeper’s house, learning about life in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Maddie and I decided it didn’t sound so bad, but Dani just looked at us. “Seriously? Like, no air conditioning?” she said, shaking her head in disgust at her nerdy companions and moving off to study the furniture. Fashionistas are way more interested in fabrics, after all.

The fashionista herself was most fascinated of all by our trip to nearby Castillo de San Marcos, where she stared at the tiny wooden bunks from hundreds of years ago. “Jayjee! Why are the beds so small?” she asked. “You couldn’t even sleep in that!” I tried to explain that people were shorter back then, but the girls had already moved on, racing out into the Florida sun to see who would reach the cannons first.

I tucked the brochure back into my bag and charged after them. Cannons, of course, are coolest of all. Even I knew that.

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Image: Shutterstock

St. Augustine for Kids: 6 Picks

1. St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum

The oldest, permanent navigational aide in North America, constructed in 1874, offers up breathtaking views for those who can make it to the top (ahem), plus a keeper’s house and maritime museum.

2. Castillo de San Marcos

The 17th-century structure is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and only one of two built with coquina, the porous limestone found in northeast Florida. Its artillery collection is an ever-popular attraction.

3. Oldest Wooden School House

Two hundred years ago, teachers really did live at school, as this little red cedar and cypress schoolhouse, quarters attached, will attest. Kids can peruse an exhibit of the school books pupils learned from so long ago.

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Image: Shutterstock

4. St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

At this fun little museum, small pirates can tie knots, fire cannons, learn about Blackbeard’s last battle and touch a centuries-old treasure chest.

5. Colonial Quarter in the Historic District

Learn what life in St. Augustine was like from the 1600s through the 1800s by exploring replicas of the town’s original wooden fortifications, homes, and a colonial print shop. Kids can participate in cannon and musket drills.

6. Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum

The very first Ripley’s, located in a historic castle, features bizarre attractions for the whole family, including a bone motorcycle and, of course, plenty of shrunken heads.

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