3. St. Augustine, FL
St. Augustine has decided to throw itself a 450th birthday party—for four years. That would be overkill anyplace else, but not in the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America, founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistadors. Add this year’s statewide quincentennial commemoration of Ponce de León’s 1513 landing and you’ve got a true history bash.
She—St. Augustine is too pretty not to be female—nestles on Florida’s northeast coast, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by barrier beach islands of signal interest to sand castle builders. Havana, maybe, has as much bougainvillea and Spanish Colonial character. But with a restored fortress, coquina limestone city gates, central plaza and nine-building-strong Dow Museum of Historic Houses, St. Augustine stands as the most lovingly cared-for vestige of the Spanish New World in the United States.
She comes to her fiesta in full dress, with an exhibition of 39 artworks by Pablo Picasso on loan from the Fundación Picasso in Málaga, Spain (through May 11), at the St. Augustine Visitor Center, a Spanish Mission Revival-style building. Colonial Quarter, a living history museum, opened last month, and the Government House Museum will complete renovations in the fall, returning Spanish doubloons and épées to display. Flagler College is polishing Tiffany stained-glass windows and restoring the solarium at Ponce de León Hall, formerly a luxury hotel, built when big American money turned its eyes on Florida. There’s no gainsaying the wow factor of St. Augustine’s Gilded Age.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, with a planetarium, teaches about the nation’s first port and has a swizzle stick of a beacon, with 219 steps leading to an alert Fresnel lens. Performing arts take stage at the Limelight Theater, First Coast Opera and St. Augustine Amphitheater, famous for “The Cross and Sword,” a re-enactment of the town’s founding, with symphonic accompaniment.
It must be said you’ve got to look sharp to avoid the Florida theme park feeling that sometimes makes it hard to tell the true from the ersatz. But who can cavil about the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park? Founded in 1894, it’s a relic in itself, one of the oldest still-operating tourist attractions in Florida—and the only place in the world said to exhibit living specimens of all 23 crocodilian species.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.