Self-Guided Tour: Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Fernandina Beach

    By VISIT FLORIDA staff

    This tour of Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach transports you to some of the oldest historical sites in the state.

    Something is happening in downtown Jacksonville. There is a shared expectation here. A feeling that everything's moving in the right direction that you'll sense during Jacksonville tours. Downtown is colorful. Flowers adorn the streetlight poles and parks. And parks abound, from Confederate Park on the north to Friendship Fountain on the south. From the Sports Complex on the east to the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center on the west, downtown Jacksonville is once again emerging as a new city.

    By far the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, St. Augustine was established in 1565 as an important outpost guarding the Spanish Empire in the New World. By the time the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, St. Augustine was a bustling city and seaport. For nearly 240 years, St. Augustine's residents remained "noble and loyal" subjects of Spain, enduring numerous wars, famines, plagues and pirate raids. The city was occupied by the British from 1763 until 1784 when the Spanish returned. In 1821, the U.S. acquired Florida and its capital of St. Augustine from Spain. In the late 1880s, millionaire visionary Henry Flagler transformed the city into an exclusive resort for wealthy northern families seeking an escape from cold winters. Flagler's magnificent hotels remain as symbols of that by-gone era. History is a large part of St. Augustine tours.

    Fernandina Beach is the only town on Amelia Island. Fernandina Beach tours will start on Centre Street, which leads visitors down to the historic waterfront, the heart of the 52-block historic district. Amelia Island is known as the "Isle of Eight Flags" because it is the only place in America claimed by eight separate countries under eight different flags dating back to 1562.

    Jacksonville Tours Highlights

    By building Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville, the French established the first Protestant colony in America in 1564. A year after Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, the name of the narrow spot where cows were ferried across the St. Johns River, was changed to Jacksonville after General Andrew Jackson. Jacksonville became known as the "winter city in summerland" during the mid-to-late 19th century, drawing tourists from around the world. In the years since, Jacksonville has seen the building of military installations, modern skyscrapers and bridges, quietly evolving into a major business center of the South.

    The signature sound for downtown Jacksonville is cheering. Besides the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, Jacksonville is home to the annual Florida-Georgia football game, one of the most intense and exciting rivalries on the college calendar, and the annual Gator Bowl. 

    Jacksonville sits on the banks of the St. Johns River, one of the most mystical and scenic rivers in America and designated as an American Heritage River in 1998. It's a major stop on self-guided Jacksonville tours.

    Jacksonville's Riverwalk and a cross-river shuttle afford spectacular views of the downtown skyline and varied entertainment and people-watching ashore. Nature tour operators, including Kayak Amelia (904) 251-0016, provide paddling tours of river tributaries.

    On the Northbank, a 300,000 square-foot main library and the new Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art, (904) 366-6911, front Hemming Plaza. On the Southbank, the interactive Museum of Science & History, (904) 396-6674, welcomes visitors of any age with a thirst for knowledge. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, (904) 356-6857, borders the river with historic English and Italian gardens.

    St. Augustine Tours Highlights

    The north side of the Plaza de la Constitucion, the oldest public park in the United States, features the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, (904) 824-2806. Built in 1797, the Cathedral symbolizes the oldest Catholic parish in the United States. Trinity Episcopal Church, (904) 824-2876, occupies much of the area on the south side of the plaza. Built in 1830-1831, the church includes many stained-glass windows, including one of Tiffany glass.

    St. Augustine tours will lead you to narrow, brick-paved Aviles Street runs southward from the plaza and is lined with small restaurants and antique shops. The Ximenez-Fatio House, (904) 829-3575, has been restored to show how it appeared when it served as a fashionable boarding house from 1821 until 1845. King Street leads westward from the plaza and passes the Casa Monica Hotel, (904) 827-1888. Built in 1888, the hotel closed during The Depression and later served as the county courthouse until it was restored to its Spanish Renaissance greatness and re-opened as a hotel in 1999. The view directly west from the plaza is dominated by Flagler College, (904) 829-6481, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel - the centerpiece of Henry Flagler's winter resort. This massive resort hotel which opened in 1888 provides a look at the opulence of America's Gilded Age on a grand scale. One of America's best examples of Moorish Revival architecture, the former Alcazar Hotel, also built by Flagler, currently houses city government offices as well as the Lightner Museum, (904) 824-2874. Pedestrian-only St. George Street leads northward from the plaza and is lined with shops, restaurants and historic buildings. At the Colonial Quarter Museum, re-enactors present an authentic look at the city in 1740.

    Fernandina Beach Tours Highlights

    The town of Fernandina Beach was the last town to be platted by the Spanish before they ceded Florida to the United States in the early 19th century. The original town was on the bluff overlooking Egan's Creek and the Amelia River at the north end of the island. In the early 1850's, David Levy Yulee convinced community leaders to move the town one mile south to accommodate his Cross-Florida Railroad. Yulee's railroad was a shortcut for commerce, allowing ships to avoid sailing around the Florida Peninsula by off-loading cargo onto a train at Cedar Key, which was then transferred onto ships at the port of Fernandina. The natural deep-water port is protected from storms and has been a favorite of mariners since the area was first explored by French, then Spanish and English sailors in the 1500's.

    Fernandina Beach was named "One of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations Worth Discovering" in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 52-block historic district, the center of Fernandina Beach tours, is comprised of more than 450 beautiful homes, churches, public buildings and commercial structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a real, working Victorian-era fishing village that was renowned far and wide as the "Newport of the South" as a tourist destination in the late 1800's.

    Walking tours of this magnificent and noteworthy historic district are offered by the Amelia Island Museum of History, (904) 261-7378, the state's first spoken history museum.

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