When we think of early America, our thoughts go to John Smith and
Jamestown, the Puritans and Plymouth Rock. Surprisingly, St. Augustine in
northern Florida holds the title of oldest continuously occupied city in the
continental United States founded by Europeans. Today, the charming, sunny city
remembers its Spanish heritage while making room for plenty of quirky shops,
restaurants and tourist attractions.
The Spaniards landed in St. Augustine in 1565, after spotting
land on the saint’s feast day. The chaplain of the expedition, Father Francisco
López de Mendoza Grajales, celebrated Mass for them. Now, an open air altar
marks the approximate spot of the first Mass in the United States. Visitors can
stroll around the grassy grounds and see a large steel cross, the small chapel
dedicated to Our Lady of La Leche, stone Stations of the Cross and a Catholic
Across the city, check out the beautiful red and gold interior of
the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine.
The city’s Spanish origins are most evident in the Castillo de
San Marcos, a fort on the Matanzas River. Parts of the old city walls remain as
well. The terra-cotta colored buildings of Flagler University, though constructed
more recently, pay homage to Spanish architecture.
A glass of sangria and a bite to eat is best enjoyed in one of
the many bars and restaurants along St. George Street, a pedestrian walkway
filled with unexpected treasures. Tucked among the many shops, tourists can
visit the country’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, a small Greek Orthodox Shrine
covered with colorful frescoes, and the Pepper Palace, where you can buy every
type of hot sauce and pepper jelly imaginable.
St. Augustine also has its share of tourist stops, such as
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the Pirate and Treasure Museum and the
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. For the more adventurous, try zip lining
over crocodile-infested waters at the Alligator Farm Zoological Park.