Mix History, Sun and Surf In St. Augustine
St. Augustine, Florida, is the longest continuously occupied city in the U.S. It’s often not the first place parents think of for a Florida beach vacation with kids. But with its mix of hands-on history, quirky fun and beaches, it’s an ideal something-for-everyone family destination. Here are my picks for the best things to do in St. Augustine with kids, along with what age groups their best suited to.
10 Top St. Augustine Things To Do For Families
Learn Hands-On History
• I love that this oldest American city lets visitors get up close to all sorts of cool, historic things. Just keep in mind that this city is H-O-T in the summer. Plan your sightseeing for early morning or better yet, visit during one of the other three seasons. The city makes for a great fall or spring weekend getaway or a longer winter break destination.
Start at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the national park site known to locals as The Fort. Founded in the late 17th century by Spanish military forces, the two-story, squarish structure sits at the edge of Matanzas Bay, a looming testament to the conflicts that swept the peninsula for hundreds of years.
It’s St. Augustine’s top attraction and not to be missed. History buffs will enjoy the on-site exhibits detailing what everyday life was like for the inhabitants. (It was pretty rough.) Kids like scaling the stairs and clamoring around the giant cannons that line the battlements. There are demonstrations of historic weapons, nighttime cannon firings and historical lectures.
Best for: school-age and tweens
• The Lightner Museum is a great thing to do inside, if you need to cool off or escape a burst of rain.
Once the posh Hotel Alcazar, was the brainchild of Henry Flagler, one of Florida’s earliest developers. It’s now a museum of 19th century decorative art with an eclectic collection of objects.
Plan to examine shrunken heads, Tiffany cut glass, rag rugs, several thousand salt and pepper shakers and a large collection of typewriters (which kids find fascinating). Aside from the exhibits there is the gorgeous gilded-age building that houses them.
Best for: school-age kids through teens
• The Colonial Quarter is a living history where costumed interpreters mingle with visitors amid the colonial homes and shops and dirt streets. See a blacksmith plying his trade and a musketeer firing his assorted weapons, among other sights.
• To absorb the city’s historic vibe without the kitsch, just walk around the historic district (top) for free. You’ll see brightly colored woodframe, stone and Victorian buildings from the city’s many periods of history.
This is where you’ll head for shopping and dining and where you’ll find small hotels and vacation rentals.
Note: A combo ticket to the Colonial Quarter grants you entrance to the Government House and the Pirate & Treasure Museum.
Best for: Colonial Quarter School-age kids through early tweens. The historic district is for all ages.
Explore St. Augustine’s Quirky Side
• Speaking of the Pirate & Treasure Museum, the center of which is a full-size-reproduction pirate ship that holds some 800 exhibits. Fire a cannon, raise a real treasure chest, see swashbuckling memorabilia from both real life and the movies, and learn a little pirate history. (Note: Some of it is quite grisly.)
Best for: Tweens and teens
The white-gabled Old Jail looks like a pleasant Victorian public building from the outside. but it delights in giving visitors a taste of the incarcerated life in the late 19th century. Tours are every twenty minutes during business hours.
The tour guides provide plenty of history and insight and admirably ham it up to keep things light. The highlight? Getting locked in a wrought-iron cell for a few minutes and seeing the prison from the other side of the bars.
Best for: Tweens and teens
If you’re short on time,take one of several trolley tours that cover the length and breadth of St. Augustine in a few hours. Hop on and off at some 20 attractions or stay on for a full city tour. A ticket to Red Train Tours includesdiscounts to other attractions, including the Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which sponsors the scarlet locomotive-shaped trolley.
Best for: All ages
Play in the Sand
St. Augustine has some of the best beaches in Florida. Some have smooth, pristine stretches of sand, some are laid-back parks that are good for finding treasure, and others a ideal for exploring nature and spotting birds. State parks charge nominal parking fees and there are small fees to drive on certain beaches; otherwise and you can access most sand and surf for free.
• The aptly named St. Augustine Beach, a five-minute drive from downtown, is perhaps the most expansive. It features fine sand, a pier, some playgrounds and lots of hotels. Think of it as your most typical Florida beach experience and perfect for families with toddlers and young children.
• The slightly more isolated Vilano Beach offers a laid-back experience and something kids will love: shark teeth. Older kids and tweens will love searching for ferocious chompers hidden right beneath their feet while younger siblings play in the sand.
• Finally, Anastasia State Park (right) offers a glimpse at what Old Florida once looked like with moss-draped oaks skirting a beach where hawks, eagles and ospreys circle above. There is even an old quarry. It’s true wilderness with modern amenities. It has has three playgrounds, a trio of picnic areas, a restaurant, a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and park-sponsored geocaching. Another all-ages spot, for sure.
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Loren Eaton, a native of Lexington, KY made his way out of the American South to explore several different continents and write all about the world’s wild corners. He now lives in south Florida with his wife and children. He likes to explore his home state with his family and write about it.