Looking Beyond American History in St. Augustine

The rest of the world giggles a little bit when Americans talk about their past. While the USA counts its birthdays in the couple hundreds, many civilizations otherwise filling great swaths of the world have been in business for thousands of years.

As the oldest settled city in American. St. Augustine, Florida offers a look back through more extensive history — reaching centuries beyond the Founding Fathers to this continent’s European colonial era.

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Founded as garrison colony by Spain in 1565, the city is in the midst of an extended 450th-anniversary celebration. While there are plenty touristy attractions and more restaurants and shopping than you’d expect in a city of about 12,000 people, St. Augustine is a focus destination for history-minded travelers.

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Any visit to St. Augustine should begin at its largest attraction — the Castillo de San Marcos. The oldest stone building in the continental United States, the structure was originally a star fort built by Spain to protect the city from everyone from the British to pirates of different eras.

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Over the years, the Castillo changed ownership between Spain, England and, eventually, Americans. Displays and reenactments explore phases of the fort’s history — offering a perfect entry way to St. Augustine’s long history.

I mentioned pirates, and St. Augustine rivals New Orleans as the South’s epicenter for plunder, booty and shivering timbers. With an almost five century history as a prime seaport, the region welcomed such famous visitors as Black Beard, Captain Morgan, and Captain Kidd. It’s only fitting that a look at those scoundrels should set up shop just across the street from the Castillo.

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The St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum celebrates the region’s privateering history with artifacts recovered from shipwrecks and recreations of famous confrontations. The exhibits reveal how many of these would-be criminals were sent out into the world by European governments as unofficial arms of the military aimed at stealing from enemies.

Once those governments decided their privateers were no longer needed, they became criminals — hunted and often executed by the same authorities that originally blessed their actions.

Once away from the Castillo, travelers will find downtown St. Augustine bustling with shops and restaurants. Admittedly, some veer toward the cheesier side of tourism, there are some genuine vintage treats to be found on the town’s pedestrian-dedicated streets.

As sunset approaches the town from the west, travelers should head to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum where 219 steps will transport them to the perfect view of the town and the winsome Atlantic – looking much as it did almost 500 years ago when America’s oldest city was founded.