As someone who used to live in Florida and who still visits multiple times a year, I’ve had this 1 day in St. Augustine on the back burner for years. I typically spend my time on the southern, more Gulf Coast-ier side of things and had never made it that far north.
I’d always been drawn to the history (forts!), the mystery (ghosts!), and the fact that it’s America’s oldest continuously settled city (men in wigs!). This year I finally decided to make a special trip to the top of Florida to check out the Ancient City. Read on to see how Hotels.com and I have joined together to help you organize your own jam-packed 1 day in St. Augustine.
1 Day in St. Augustine, Florida
St. Augustine’s location makes it a perfect day trip destination. It’s less than a 2-hour drive from Orlando and only 45 minutes from Jacksonville, which it’s technically part of. Needless to say, there are a lot of people spending just 1 day in St. Augustine.
That being said, if St. Augustine is the first destination on your Florida itinerary, you’ll want to fly into Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) for the most convenience. For my 1 day in St. Augustine I:
- flew into Jacksonville late at night,
- rented a car,
- stayed at a hotel near the Jacksonville airport,
- spent the whole next day exploring St. Augustine,
- and then drove to Orlando to stay the night at my friend’s house.
Where to stay in St. Augustine
I’m lucky in that I have best friends all over Florida who routinely open their hearts and guest bedrooms up to me. However, St. Augustine has plenty of great places to stay before and after a jam-packed day in America’s oldest city. (So you don’t have to spend as much time on the road both early as hell and late at night like I did.)
For St. Augustine, I recommend staying as close to the downtown area as possible for the best (and fastest and easiest) access to everything. Here are 3 recommendations for where to stay in St. Augustine on your next visit:
Named after the year of St. Augustine’s founding, Villa 1565 is located in a great spot just around the corner from some of St. Augustine’s top attractions. (And walkable to almost all the others.)
It offers free WiFi, an outdoor pool, plenty of free on-site parking, and a free breakfast buffet. But really, you can’t beat the fact that its location has scored a 9.5 out of 10 with past reviewers.
La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham
This La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham hotel is located on Anastasia Island, just a few minutes from the St. Augustine Lighthouse. They, too, offer free buffet breakfast, free WiFi, and free parking.
This hotel is across the bridge from downtown St. Augustine but is still just a short walk from all the most popular things to do during your 1 day in St. Augustine.
Casa Monica Resort & Spa
Or, if you feel like pampering yourself in St. Augustine, stay at Casa Monica. This is one of St. Augustine’s most iconic hotels and it’s right in the center of everything. The entire place is a looker and that outdoor pool is calling my name!
It’s got all the amenities, great reviews, and would be the perfect way to splurge during your 1 day in St. Augustine.
Is 1 day in St. Augustine worth it?
So is 1 day in St. Augustine even worth it? Absolutely. Seeing everything you can in a city in just one day can be a challenge, but with enough planning (and the right destination) it’s not hard at all.
Plus, St. Augustine is a compact and incredibly walkable city. You can see a ton of what St. Augustine has to offer in even just a short amount of time. You’ll spend almost zero time behind the wheel, waiting in traffic, getting lost, or worrying about finding your way around. I’d say St. Augustine, Florida is one of the most easily navigable cities I’ve visited.
Obviously you could always spend more time here, but you definitely won’t feel cheated spending just 1 day in St. Augustine.
Why visit St. Augustine, Florida?
For me, I always wanted to visit St. Augustine, Florida to learn about its history as the “oldest city in the United States.” The city was founded in 1565 and has gone through so many transformations.
And being someone who spends a lot of time in Florida, I was interested to visit a place that is so unlike the Gulf Coast where I usually spend my time.
Otherwise, 1 day in St. Augustine, Florida is perfect for:
- History lovers
- Architecture nerds
- Foodies and craft beer enthusiasts
- Those who want to experience Old Florida
- Day trippers
How to get around St. Augustine
St. Augustine is compact and one of the most walkable cities I’ve ever visited. However, during my 1 day in St. Augustine I booked a spot on the Old Town Trolley tour.
These trolley tours are one of the most popular things to do in St. Augustine (and many other cities like Key West, Nashville, and Boston). I wanted to save time and money and thought this was my best option to see everything I needed to see. Was I right? Meh, not entirely.
Check out my entire St. Augustine Old Town Trolley tour review here. It includes pros and cons, helpful tips, things you should know before you book, and compares it to its competitor.
1 day in St. Augustine itinerary
During my 1 day in St. Augustine I did a mix of taking the trolley around town, driving when I had to, but mostly walking. I based what I did and when on a site’s opening and closing times as well as tour times and the rumbling of my stomach. Adjust yours accordingly!
Old Town Trolley tour
I started off my 1 day in St. Augustine at the Old Jail where I parked my car (for free) and jumped on the next available Old Town Trolley tour. I’d pre-purchased my ticket so I was ready to go when I got there. (And by that I mean, on my phone from my car in the parking lot.)
The Old Jail operated from 1891-1953 and was constructed by the same company that built Alcatraz. They offer tours to highlight the jail’s history and tell some of its more interesting stories. I checked it out from the outside and didn’t go in, but if that sounds like something you’d like to see, check out this St. Augustine Old Jail tour.
Old City Gates
I hopped off the trolley at stop #5 for my first stop of the day: the Old City Gates and the perfect place to start your 1 day in St. Augustine. The Old City Gates were once the official entrance into the city of St. Augustine and were constructed in 1808. They stand right at the end of St. George’s Street, an important site of its own.
Heading north through the Gate and across the tiny street you’ll find the Huguenot Cemetery–a Protestant burial ground used between 1821-1884. Until this time, the only cemetery in town was reserved for Catholics. The boys in charge, realizing they had a desperate situation on their hands—all those Protestants and all—designated this piece of land for Protestant burials.
And just in time too as a large number of the city’s inhabitants was, soon after, wiped out by a yellow fever epidemic.
Spanish Trail marker
And just a little past that sits the Old Spanish Trail marker. This big round ball/tiny Death Star marks mile zero of the Old Spanish Trail. The end of the trail is in San Diego, California.
The Old Spanish Trail is a 20th-century auto route that mimics the same trade route used by Spanish conquistadores 400 years ago. Allegedly.
Regardless, you can get from this marker to the one in San Diego along this route that crosses 8 states and 67 counties along the southern border of the United States.
Castillo de San Marcos
From there, walk 7 minutes along the coast to Castillo de San Marcos, arguably the #1 attraction in all of St. Augustine.
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States, constructed between 1672 – 1695. It was built as a defensive fort and is, today, the only surviving 17th-century military construction in the country.
Castillo de San Marcos is operated by the National Park Service and you can visit and tour it every day of the year, unless your 1 day in St. Augustine happens to be Thanksgiving or Christmas. They offer insightful ranger programs and the park rangers on site are eager to tell you all of the Castillo’s history. (There will be quizzes.)
You can visit all the rooms of the fort like the storage rooms, chapels, living quarters, the jail, and walk along the top to see the cannons and the views.
St. George Street
Back across the main road you’ll find St. George Street. St. George Street is a really old pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants, shops, and other historical landmarks. Walk down St. George Street and be sure to check out:
Besides Castillo de San Marcos, Flagler College is the other iconic St. Augustine attraction. Though it’s a college today, it opened as the groundbreaking Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1888. By 1967 the hotel was suffering for business and closed down temporarily—until it reopened a year later as Flagler College.
Besides being an absolutely gorgeous piece of property, Flagler College is full of fun facts:
- It was the first hotel of its kind to be constructed entirely of poured concrete.
- It was one of the first buildings in the U.S. to be wired for electricity. (40 years before the White House actually)
- The hotel had running water when it opened—a true innovation that other hotels didn’t have yet.
- Thomas Edison installed the electricity here himself.
- It possesses the world’s largest private collection of Tiffany stained glass (worth an estimated $130 million). If this interests you, you can visit the Morse Museum in Orlando to see the rest of the world’s largest collection of Tiffany art.
- And the ceiling of its Flagler Room is painted in the original Tiffany blue.
You see, oil tycoon Henry Flagler, scientist extraordinaire Thomas Edison, and fancy man Charles Lewis Tiffany = all buddies. That equals one beautiful, cutting-edge building.
Flagler College tour
The place is definitely worth checking out, but its bread and butter lie in its guided tours which are offered a couple times a day. The tours are led by current Flagler College students and they’ll be the most entertaining thing you do during your 1 day in St. Augustine!
You’ll learn so much about the weird and awesome history of this building—like how the Coast Guard took up residence in this building for the duration of World War II—and see some really cool stuff. On a Flagler College tour you’ll get to:
- See the incredible main lobby and learn all about its art and murals
- Visit the dining room where you’ll see the famous stained glass and see how unbelievably different these kids have it from your college dining days
- And the cool leather staircase you’ll take to get there
- Tour the courtyard and get insight into so many of its quirks and hidden little secrets
- Visit the former Women’s Grand Parlor to learn more about Henry Flagler’s interesting life and see a variety of historical artifacts
Flagler College tours are offered 7 days a week at 10 AM and 2 PM. Admission is $14 for adults and free for children under 10 and residents of St. Johns County.
Tickets can only be purchased in the gift shop inside the main entrance. (Buy them early in the day since tours often sell out.)
Memorial Presbyterian Church
Like with the Huguenot Cemetery, there weren’t any places for non-Catholics to worship either. So, they built their own and it’s beautiful! The Memorial Presbyterian Church was founded in 1824 and built by none other than Henry Flagler. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice inspired its unique look.
I love visiting churches when I travel and this has to be the most unique in St. Augustine. It sits just behind (and diagonal from) Flagler College and you’re welcome to go in and check it out.
Back on the trolley
From outside the Presbyterian Church I hopped back on the Old Town Trolley to catch a breeze and see some more of St. Augustine from the comfort of my own butt.
I blew by the St. Augustine distillery and the highly recommended Ice Plant bar. I learned about St. Augustine’s Civil Rights history and about MLK’s visits to the city. And I hopped off at the Lightner Museum for a look around.
Lunch at Gaufre and Goods
After checking out the grounds of the Lightner Museum, I walked the short walk to lunch at Gaufres and Goods. Gaufres and Goods is a locally-owned Polish and Greek restaurant located in a vintage former bakery.
The place was popular, the service was great, and the best-selling pierogies were fantastic!
Plaza de la Constitución
From there, backtrack to Plaza de la Constitución, St. Augustine’s main square. Plaza de la Constitución is the center of St. Augustine’s downtown area and is surrounded by restaurants and shops, memorials, monuments, trolley stops, and the coast on one side.
There are historical markers all over the area to catch up on some of the city’s history. This plaza hosts festivals and regular art walks, and is all lit up at night.
Bridge of Lions
Across the street from Plaza de la Constitución is the Bridge of Lions. This bridge, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in the mid-1920s.
The Bridge of Lions is a drawbridge connecting Anastasia Island to the mainland and is capped off by two lion statues–exact replicas of the Medici lions outside Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. (One of my favorite palazzos!)
Back on the trolley
Back over in Plaza Constitución I caught the Old Town Trolley again to head back towards my car at the Old Jail. On the way there I saw Aviles Street, the Oldest House, and the Fountain of Youth.
Back across the street, you’ll find Aviles Street shooting off south from Plaza Constitución. Aviles Street is the oldest street in the oldest city. Ergo, the oldest street in the United States.
This cobblestone street is–you guessed it–lined with restaurants and shops and historical markers, as well as several bed and breakfasts.
The Oldest House
The Oldest House (officially known as the González-Alvarez House) was built back in 1723 and is the oldest house in St. Augustine. This is a pretty big deal for Florida but… where I live in Massachusetts I’m literally surrounded on all sides by houses a hundred years older than that.
Regardless, it’s a National Historic Landmark and is open for public tours.
Fountain of Youth
I rode the trolley back towards the start until we got to the Fountain of Youth where I hopped off again.
The Fountain of Youth (yes, that Fountain of Youth) is a natural spring that is believed to restore the youth of anyone who drinks from it. Though the legend of the Fountain of Youth goes back ages and ages, it’s most famously connected to Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. (It’s also believed to be located on one of The Bahamas’s 700 islands, so whatev.)
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
The location of the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine is the spot where Ponce de Leon landed in the area. Allegedly. Actually, there’s a lot of alleged history involved here, as you can imagine.
Today, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is a whole complex of old settlements, missions, Native American villages, and other historical spots. And… the Fountain of Youth, which is little more than gross-smelling water trickling from what looks like a street gutter.
Personally, I decided not to go in to drink the famously stinky water, but my BFF just did. Her verdict: actual fountain? Lame. Rest of the site? Cool.
From there I exited the Fountain of Youth parking lot onto Magnolia Avenue, listed as one of the 10 most beautiful streets in America by National Geographic.
Magnolia Avenue is a short road dividing the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park and a residential neighborhood. It’s lined top to bottom with–nope, not Magnolias–live oak trees drenched in Spanish moss. And it’s beautiful.
From there, it was just a few minutes’ walk back to my car at the Old Jail. By now, the Old Town Trolley had made its last pickup and dropoff so I’d have to drive myself over the Bridge of Lions to Anastasia Island.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum was probably my favorite stop during my 1 day in St. Augustine. Mostly because I love to climb tall towers, but also because there’s just so much to see and do here.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse dates back to 1874 and was even used by the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII to watch for German U-boats.
At the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum you can:
- Climb to the top of the lighthouse for great views and a cool breeze (219 steps)
- Explore the museum that covers the history of the lighthouse,
- Walk the property’s many nature trails
- Grab a snack at the Tin Pickle, their WWII-themed eatery
- Visit the lighthouse keeper’s house
- Watch small wooden watercrafts get built by volunteers using only historic tools and plans
- And a ton of stuff for kids I know nothing about.
Ancient City Brewing
From the lighthouse, drive back across the Bridge of Lions and grab a parking spot in the area around Plaza de la Constitución. Right there on the north side of the plaza is the downtown taproom for Ancient City Brewing.
Visiting local breweries when I travel is another habit of mine and this was one of the best! All the beers have St. Augustine-y, Florida-y, historical names and I loved them all. Their Galleon’s Golden Ale is so incredibly drinkable but their best, by far, is the Castillo Coconut Porter.
I tried five beers as a flight, enjoyed talking to the beertender, and met some really friendly locals excited to talk about their historic hometown.
Dinner at Columbia
For dinner, head back to St. George Street to end your 1 day in St Augustine at Columbia Restaurant.
Columbia is an amazing Spanish restaurant known for their Cuban sandwiches and their signature 1905 salad. (My name is Ashley Smith and I approve this meal.)
Columbia Restaurant is a favorite of mine and I’m known to visit the Tampa and Sarasota locations every now and then. Their Ybor City location is the original and is also the oldest and largest Spanish restaurant in the country. It’s a must-visit and I talk more about it in my post on how to spend a day in Ybor City.
At the St. Augustine location, the place is beautiful and they’re open 365 days a year. They make sangria and salads at your table. And they brag about their century-old family recipes for paella, their red snapper, and their Cuban roasted pork.