St. George Street: Walkable Journey into St. Augustine History, Culture

    By Amy Wimmer Schwarb

    Boutiques, bistros, galleries and gift shops populate cubbyhole storefronts – but you won't find cars or bicycles.

    St. George Street is the premier street in the nation's oldest city, a thoroughfare where pedestrians can stroll unencumbered by vehicle or even bicycle traffic.

    St. George is just one of several quaint, walkable streets in the Historic District of St. Augustine, and getting lost among the side streets is part of the fun of experiencing this small northeast Florida city. St. Augustine is also close to several beach communities – including Vilano Beach, Crescent Beach and St. Augustine Beach – and about 20 miles south of Ponte Vedra Beach, where TPC Sawgrass – home of the PGA Tour and one of the nation's most famous golf courses – is located.

    On the narrow avenue, boutiques, bistros, galleries and gift shops are tucked into cubbyhole-sized storefronts. But the street is so popular – and often packed with visitors – that traversing it can be overwhelming.

    Here's a primer for finding more on St. George Street than shell shops and Florida kitsch (though it has those, too):

    First, sound like a local: It's not George Street. It's not St. George's Street. It's Saint. George. Street.

    Start the day early, when the temperatures are lower and the traffic is lighter. And there's no better place to launch the day than The Bunnery, the cute name for the bustling bakery and café that offers coffee, espresso and smoothies; bakery goodies, from German chocolate brownies to raspberry crumble bars; and a full slate of breakfast and lunch fare. Try the buttery croissant with spinach and feta baked inside.

    Opportunities to buy saltwater taffy, gummy gators and dolphin-shaped molded chocolate abound in the Historic District. But if you're looking for something sweet that is distinctively St. Augustine's, head to Whetsone Chocolates. Northeast Florida natives Henry and Esther Whetstone launched their company in 1967 with a single fudge recipe produced in their kitchen and soon expanded both their array of chocolates and their production digs. Today, the company remains in the hands of their daughter, and the chocolate – including a new assortment of artisan chocolates – remain a sweet addition to St. George Street.

    St. Augustine is a city of superlatives (including the nation's oldest wooden schoolhouse and Florida's oldest house), and among all the tours and museums, it's easy to overlook a simpler attraction, The Historic Pena-Peck House. The Spanish Colonial home, built in 1750 by order of the King of Spain, was home to his royal treasurer, Juan Esteban de Pena. The house went on to become home to two British governors (after Spain lost Florida to Britain) and, eventually, Dr. Seth Peck, whose family moved into the home in 1837. It was Dr. Peck's granddaughter who donated her family home to the city when she died in 1931. Today it is maintained by the Woman's Exchange of St. Augustine, which offers tours for the cost of an appreciated donation. You also can peruse the handicrafts for sale in the home's gift shop, housed in the room where Dr. Peck once operated his practice.

    A mainstay in the Colonial Quarter of St. Augustine since 1975, The Spanish Bakery offers authentic Spanish fare from a white stucco kitchen house tucked behind a courtyard off St. George. Beyond the baked goodies, lunch offerings include empanadas and bowls of hearty picadillo. Another popular treat: Cinnamon cookies are made without eggs or milk and prepared with a recipe similar to one that is believed to have sailed the Atlantic with the earliest Spanish settlers.

    From the street, the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine looks like a nondescript plain white box of a building. But inside, Byzantine-style frescoes highlighted with 22-karat gold leaf depict scenes from the life of Christ, plus many saints and apostles. In yet another example of the important place St. Augustine holds in the history of many cultures, the shrine honors the first colony of Greek people, who were brought to New Smyrna Beach as indentured servants in 1768. Their story is tragic, moving and mostly unknown. But it ended nearly 10 years later, with many of them fleeing to St. Augustine for refuge. The Greek Orthodox shrine still honors their memory.

    The Woman's Exchange of St. Augustine offers free tours of the Historic Pena-Peck House though donations are encouraged.

    The Woman's Exchange of St. Augustine offers free tours of the Historic Pena-Peck House though donations are encouraged.

    Amy Wimmer Schwarb

    St. George Street is the main thoroughfare of St. Augustine's Historic District.

    St. George Street is the main thoroughfare of St. Augustine's Historic District.

    Amy Wimmer Schwarb

    If you go...

    The Bunnery
    121 St. George St.
    904-829-6166
    bunnerybakeryandcafe.com  

    Whetsone Chocolates
    42 St. George St.
    904-825-1720
    whetstonechocolates.com

    The Historic Pena-Peck House
    143 St. George St.
    904-829-5064
    penapeckhouse.com

    The Spanish Bakery
    Rear of 42½ St. George St.
    904-827-9701
    thespanishbakery.com

    St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine
    41 St. George St.
    904-829-8205
    stphotios.com

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