There just might be some truth to the Fountain of Youth after all. The oldest city in the United States just celebrated its 450th anniversary, and it’s never looked better.
In anticipation of the national spotlight, culminating with a visit from the king and queen of Spain last month, some of the city’s most-notable buildings got major makeovers. Flagler College, the Government House, the mission, the lighthouse and other significant landmarks completed renovations totaling more than $20 million.
Guests came pouring in for parades, concerts, festivals, exhibits and special events—the Sept. 8 birthday festivities alone drew some 125,000 people to the city that’s home to just 13,000.
“All the publicity and attention surrounding St. Augustine’s 450th birthday celebration helped create awareness of the cultural diversity, the rich history and natural beauty surrounding the nation’s oldest city,” said Richard Goldman, the president and CEO of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitor & Convention Bureau. “This tremendous exposure provided opportunities for all of Florida’s Historic Coast attractions and sites to shine as they share our stories and offer great experiences with visitors every day of the year.”
Now that the party is over, St. Augustine isn’t resting on its laurels. In this destination city, the celebration goes on. On any given day, tourists sip sangria from upstairs balconies, and live bands play music on the bayfront and from St. George Street courtyards.
Costumed guides lead spirited ghost tours nightly, and Christmas is celebrated for two months as the historic district’s grandest landmarks dazzle in 2 million lights. In addition, the city is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, which oversees some of the destination's most-popular landmarks, from the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Mose to Anastasia State Park and the GTM Research Reserve, which is one of the largest estuaries in the world.
St. Augustine has the feel of a European town, with the spirit and style of New Orleans without the bawdiness. Whether it’s admiring the city’s architecture, visiting the historic sites or spending a relaxing day by the ocean, there is much to see and do in this small but dynamic town. In fact, there’s more to offer tourists than ever before.
Through the centuries, St. Augustine has reinvented itself time and time again. The Fountain of Youth, once a kitschy roadside attraction inspired by Ponce de Leon’s legend, has evolved into a living-history museum and park today.
Tales of 18th-century pirates have materialized into a popular bayfront museum for families. The five-star resort built by Henry Flagler is now the home of 7,000 college students. And in the country’s oldest city, the most-popular attraction on Trip Advisor, St. Augustine Distillery, is brand new.
“The distillery is very mindful of creating an experience-based tour where your senses are engaged,” said Kara Pound, the director of communications for the St. Augustine Distillery. “We invite guests to see our beautifully renovated ice plant from the turn of the century. Hear our story. Smell our spirits being distilled and taste the amazing cocktails that they make. Every part of our tour is designed to create an experience and lasting memories of a person's time in St. Augustine.”
After getting a taste of the city, tourists take to the streets with a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour or an old-fashioned horse-and-buggy ride. Visitors can choose from a dozen more historic sites to relive the story of St. Augustine, from obvious sites such as the massive Castillo de San Marcos, to hidden gems including the ivy-covered Chapel of Our Lady of La Leche. St. Augustine offers a plethora of attractions for children, from the country’s original Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and first wax museum (Potter’s), to an 1874 lighthouse and the country’s first alligator farm, which is well worth an afternoon. And no visitor to Florida can ever forget the beaches. It was, in fact, the beautiful safe harbor and smooth shoreline that drew those first explorers to the area more than 500 years ago.
St. Augustine is proud of its strong foundation and its claim as the oldest city in the country, but it continues to add layers of culture, cuisine and history that make it a rich and relevant vacation experience today.