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.
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.
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 they're certainly adept at standing still, buildings and monuments present their own set of challenges for people trying to take pictures of them. To surmount these complications, the professional photographers at ShutterGuide set out on two-hour walking tours, teaching groups how to best frame the landmarks on their route. For each site, they demonstrate a different camera technique that suits the landscape, such as adjusting the composition or keeping photo-bombing statues out of the frame. Guests can capture snapshots with nearly any type of lens—even the one on their smartphone.
The tours cover photography topics from lighting to metering and depth of field, but they're also a lesson in history. During the walk, guides dole out trivia on the city's past. They take a maximum of eight people in every group and accommodate aspiring shutterbugs of all skill levels.
Ripley's Red Train Tours range from daily explorations of the city to nightly supernatural adventures. Guests can get on and off the open-air Red Train Trolley anytime from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. as it stops at spots including San Sebastian Winery, Mission Nombre de Dios, and the oldest house. Alternately, they can embark on a Ghost Train Adventure to explore the city at night armed with an EMF Ghost-Meter. Other tours include seasonal Sunset Tours that take advantage of the long days of summer, the bay front’s cooler temperatures, and a recent peace treaty signed by the mayor of St. Augustine and the local merfolk. There are also Black History Tours that showcase local spots that were important in the Civil Rights Movement, including Zora Neale Hurston’s former residence and the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 arrest.