07 july 2014
Sure you can wear T-shirts and shorts almost anywhere you go in St. Augustine, Florida. You wouldn’t be in the Sunshine State if you couldn’t.
But it would be a serious mistake to write this small Atlantic Coast city off as just another sandy tourist trap.
Yes, the beaches are beautiful.
Yes, there are kitschy bars and a requisite gator farm in the area.
But this remarkable city — the oldest, continuously populated European-settled city in the continental United States — boasts a fascinating military history, an abundance of ornate Spanish architecture and a European-style historical district that is best accessed by foot or bicycle.
Start with a stroll down Aviles Street, a picturesque brick lane deemed the oldest street in the oldest city.
It’s so narrow that locals often refer to the RVs that tourists sometimes try to squeeze through as “balcony killers.” Palm trees peek their top-heavy heads out from behind European-style buildings housing art galleries, curio shops and cafes with cheerful outdoor seating.
“Best ambiance in the city is anywhere on that street,” says local historian and unofficial St. Augustine guide Roger Smith.
Make sure to duck into the many small gardens tucked into courtyards and alcoves along the downtown streets. These beautiful shady respites — often featuring moss-covered statuary and a bench or two — are every bit as lovely as something you’d discover in New Orleans or Charleston, and they offer a moment of shelter from the Florida heat.
Next, check out the Gonzalez-Alvarez House on St. Francis Street. It is a well-restored double-level home with two coquina fireplaces and a second-level porch.
The oldest surviving Spanish Colonial home in the state, this residence has been occupied since the 1600s, and offers tourists a glimpse at how people survived in the sweltering tropical heat and of what possessions families valued most, including a crude water purification system that stands outside one of the exterior doors.