St. Augustine is the place in the southeast where we first became aware of the incredibly complex history of this region – French, Spanish, English, American – every historic place keeps track of its shifting sovereignty throughout history, and posts signs informing you of the “Seven Flags” or whatever. But as the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the US, St. Augustine is right up there with New Orleans in being a place where this history is quite visible in the built environment, and not just when you read a sign or a textbook.
We first visited St. Augustine four years ago, and were surprised by its variety and beauty. There is the Spanish period, which can be seen in the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century fort – not a reconstruction.
As the boom of Florida tourism hit the Atlantic coast in the 1880s, Henry Flagler developed much of downtown St. Augustine. He hired Carrere and Hastings, who designed two exuberant hotels, one of which is now Flagler College, and the other is the city museum.
It’s a small city, with a great variety of places, periods, cultures and architecture. It attracts a lot of daytrippers and tourists, but they are cleverly contained in one area, and don’t overrun the whole city – it is a place where residents can enjoy life without being on display all the time. It seems to be the one place in Florida where the past hasn’t been dwarfed by the present.