Visit the Nation’s Oldest Seaport in St. Augustine
Explore plenty of maritime and pirate history in the place where they once roamed on Florida’s Historic Coast.
Most visitors to Florida’s Historic Coast are aware that St. Augustine is the Nation’s Oldest City. But unless they talk to locals, they might not know the oldest city is also America’s oldest seaport. And that port was important for the Spanish to receive their fleets and to protect the town from enemies, such as pirates!
Here are some tips for experiencing the town’s long maritime history.
St. Augustine became a seaport in a hurry! In September 1565, a Spanish fleet arrived and within hours, sailors, soldiers and civilians brought ashore crates filled with food and supplies. On Sept. 8, Admiral Pedro Menendez came ashore and named the new settlement “St. Augustine.” Today, the Great Cross at the Mission Nombre de Dios is the tallest, free-standing cross in the Western Hemisphere and marks where the city’s long association with the sea began. Over the next 200 years, St. Augustine’s port offered an invaluable haven for Spanish treasure fleets sailing from the Caribbean. This was the last possible stop before the powerful Gulf Stream carried the valuable fleets away from the mainland and on to a course that would bring them home to Spain.
Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Today, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum provides an ideal place to explore this rich coastal culture. Climb 219 steps to the top of this still-working lighthouse and the spectacular view clearly reveals the physical link between the sea and the city. First lit in 1874, this lighthouse replaced a large Spanish lighthouse that operated here for nearly 150 years before the waves caused it to topple into the Atlantic. Inside the beautifully restored Keeper’s House, a museum provides artifacts and stories about the many lighthouse keepers and their families who lived and worked here. Local maritime artifacts, including cannons brought up from the sea by the lighthouse’s full-time team of marine archaeologists, help tell the story. In addition, entertaining interactive exhibits and an outdoor shipyard playground put even the youngest visitors into a seafaring mood. (Remember, you have to be at least 44 inches tall to climb the tower.) Must Sees at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.
Pirates? Yes, St. Augustine has a long and tragic history of pirate encounters. In 1586, 2,000 English pirates under the command of Sir Francis Drake burned the city to the ground. In 1668, more English pirates attacked the town and murdered 60 Spanish citizens, including the governor’s young daughter. This outrage prompted the Spanish King to order the building of Castillo de San Marcos. Completed in 1695, the fortress prevented further pirate attacks. Today, the Castillo provides a perfect setting for reliving those days when pirate ships could quickly appear on the horizon.
Meanwhile, just across the street, the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum takes young and old alike back to the Golden Age of Piracy. Housing the world’s largest collection of pirate artifacts, this interactive and fun museum features Disneyesque exhibits that entertain and educate. When the owner, Pat Croce, was asked why he placed his museum in St. Augustine, he said “it’s one of the few places in the world where you can look out the window and see where real pirates once walked the streets.”