The St. Augustine Lighthouse has been keeping its luminous eye on the Atlantic’s endless horizon since 1874. In the 130 years since, the tower of Alabama brick and Philadelphia iron has served as the home of light keepers, a beacon to sailors, and a target of arson, eventually benefiting from a 15-year restoration project that commenced in 1980. Today, a staff of historians and protectors is eager to share the rich history of the nation's oldest port, not only through education and preservation but also by letting guests explore.
Visitors can scale the 165-foot, black-and-white lighthouse's 219 steps to the bright-red observation deck to catch breathtaking views of St. Augustine and spot gangs of dolphins making trouble by the shore. Lens-room tours allow up-close access to the regularly off-limits Fresnel lens, built in 1873, which weighs 2,000 pounds and shepherds ships with a light that radiates for 25 miles on a clear night. The clink of champagne glasses adds an element of glamour to Sunset Moonrise events, whereas Dark of the Moon tours let guests in after-hours to hear the tales of paranormal activity that earned the lighthouse a feature on Ghost Hunters.
With an in-depth collection of Victorian-era art and artifacts, Lightner Museum could find no better setting to house its works than the former Alcazar Hotel, built in 1887. Relics cover three floors of the intricately architected building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designed in Spanish-Renaissance style by the visionaries behind the New York Public Library. Inside the magnificent lobby, whitewashed pillars connect high ceilings bordered by intricate plastered molds with amaranthine-hued mosaic floors.
Wander into the Science and Industry room for views of a taxidermied crocodile suspended from the ceiling, mingling among cases filled with statuettes and antique globes. Moving into neighboring galleries, a carved and gilded neoclassical rocking chair and colorful, mosaic-like Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps provide insight into the daily lives of Victorian citizens. Other 19th-century paintings and statues showcase the era's artistic inspiration as well as its curious fashions, such as wearing Santa Claus hats year-round.
This shrine to pillaging and plundering greets guests with interactive displays of more than 800 items, including rare and authentic pirate artifacts dating back more than 300 years. Visitors can stop in and see artifacts such as Captain Thomas Tew's 17th-century treasure chest, which the museum boasts is the only authentic pirate treasure chest in the world, or view one of the only two authentic Jolly Roger flags left in existence. Aspiring buccaneers can view the journal of Captain Kidd's final voyage aboard the HMS Advice, a diary kept by Lieutenant Thomas Longish documenting the ship's log and the precise number of extraterrestrials spotted at sea. Pat Croce, a physical therapist, entrepreneur, and former president of the Philadelphia 76ers, opened the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum to share his passion for pirates with the public. This buccaneer's trove of treasures stands within easy walking distance to the historic homes and shopping along St. George Street.
Though most museums instruct with glass cases and placards, Old Florida Museum wants you to live the experiences of its indigenous populations and settlers firsthand. During its hands-on program, guests explore Florida's history of year 1585 beginning with the Timucua Indians. In the recreated Village of Seloy, they can learn about corn grinding, dug-out canoe making, and Indian tools before visitors encounter Fort Menendez and discover how early settlers lived by dipping candles, weaving, and woodworking.
Along this trek through time, patrons can earn ducados—tokens which are good for park games and select gift shop items—by completing chores and activities. Skilled hagglers can also trade their ducados with other patrons or museum workers searching for the fountain of youth.
Physically, celadon porcelain from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and a 13-foot skeleton of the giant ground sloth don’t have too much in common. But both explore how our world has evolved and how we perceive it—making both perfectly suited for display in the eclectic exhibits of the Museum of Arts & Sciences. The 100,000-square-foot museum—which perches on a 90-acre nature preserve—houses a planetarium alongside myriad exhibits that delve into art, history, and science.
The museum’s particularly impressive assembly of Cuban art draws visitors through 300 years of history with more than 200 rare maps, paintings, and ceramics. Nearby, the exhibit of Chinese art glimmers with gemstones, bronzes, and cloisonné. Visitors also peruse crafts made closer to home in the 4,000-square-foot gallery of American art, where portraits by Gilbert Stuart and landscapes by George Bonfield hang on walls, rather than on the traditional horse’s withers. In addition to its traditional art galleries, the Museum of Arts & Sciences also hosts more fragile objects inside the Helene B. Roberson Visible Storage Building, a 4,400-square-foot glass-fronted space designed to maintain exhibits in a climate-controlled state.
Younger museum-goers can gaze longingly at the 800 teddy bears on display in the Americana-focused Root Family Museum before heading to the Charles and Linda Williams Children’s Museum to explore ever-changing, hands-on science exhibits. In addition to assembling and testing model racecars, whippersnappers strum the 16 laser beams of a laser harp and try the "Pull Yourself Up" exhibit. Daily shows in the planetarium continue scientific education by unlocking the night sky’s mysteries, such as why stars don’t go out when you blow on them.