By Janet K. Keeler
St. Augustine’s Spanish history mixes with a modern city full of festivals, art and trendy places to eat and drink. Oh, and there’s Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Plus lots of charming B&Bs for overnight visitors.
The Old Town Trolley tours give visitors a narrated overall view of the city, making 23 stops along the way to hop on and hop off. Trained service dogs are welcome on the trams and several trolleys have lifts for wheelchairs.
For visitors with vision impairments who want to learn more about St. Augustine on foot, the TOUCH St. Augustine Braille Trail is a great way to combine a little learning with Florida sunshine. TOUCH stands for Tactile Orientation for Understanding Creativity and History.
Seven sculptures around the Plaza de la Constitucion tell the story of the city from the Spanish explorers through the boom years of oil tycoon and railroad baron Henry Flagler and up to the brave “foot soldiers” who worked for the advancement of civil rights in the 1960s.
The self-guided tour of the sculptures is accompanied by interpretive braille signage on large pedestals. There are also free regular guided tours with audio enhancements that can be accessed from a mobile device. The noon guided tours start just a few blocks south of the plaza at the St. Augustine Art Association on Marine Street but interested visitors can join in at any point along the walk. Or stop at any point, too, and pick up the trail again on their own.
The Braille Trail is a joint effort between the St. Augustine Art Association and the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, the Florida Humanities Council and other groups to make the city more accessible to all visitors.
When You’re Ready for a Braille Trail Diversion
There’s a lot to learn from the sculptures and if you’re on a self-guided tour you will find benches in the plaza to catch your breath. And there are also nearby places to get something to eat or drink.
There’s an interesting mishmash of global noshes near the plaza including French cookies at Le Macaron and Australian specialties (brekkie pies!) at Kookaburra Coffee. Gaufres and Goods has Polish and Greek food. A1A Ale Works Restaurant and Tap Room serves pub food and craft beer. If you’re looking for something more Florida-centric with a history as long as some of the statues, check out the Columbia Restaurant on St. George Street. The Gonzmart family has been serving Spanish-Cuban food at various locations around Florida since 1905. If you haven’t had their famed Cuban sandwich, order one here.
If you’re up for a bit more walking, head to the Floridian on Spanish Street and order shrimp and grits or the shrimp banh mi po’ boy drizzled with Datil pepper hot sauce. Dail peppers are native to Florida.
These restaurants are where the Seeing AI app will come in handy. Point your camera smartphone at the menu and the app will read information out loud.
The Seven Sculptures of the St. Augustine Braille Trail
The sculptures are situated mostly around and in the Plaza de la Constitución which greets visitors as they enter St. Augustine over the Bridge of Lions from the Atlantic Ocean side of the city. Established in 1573, the plaza is considered the oldest park in the United States, and is home to many popular events throughout the year. It draws visitors in November and December with its display of holiday lights.
The sculptures are listed in order of the stops on the walking tour. Two highlights:
“Heavenly Bodies” by Enzo Torcoletti is in the Sculpture Garden of the St. Augustine Art Association. The large abstract stone and steel sculpture represents the joining of the Old and New World. This idea epitomizes St. Augustine where Spanish Colonial history meets new craft distilleries and souvenir shops.
Signal from Shore
“Signal from Shore” is a bronze sculpture of a Timucuan Indian child with arms outstretched, holding a palm frond in one hand. The work by Richard Weaver was unveiled in 2016 and is placed near where many native artifacts were found and just outside the St. Augustine Art Association on Marine Street.
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Ponce de Leon
There are many sculptural tributes around the state — and even more in St. Augustine — to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, credited with leading the first European expedition to Florida in 1565. The gallant looking explorer cast in bronze has been welcoming visitors over the Bridge of Lions from the barrier island since 1923 when it was donated to the city. It is a replica of a statue in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ponce de Leon was the first governor of Puerto Rico.
Father Pedro Camps Minorcans
This statue at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine on the east side of the plaza was dedicated in 1975 and pays homage to Father Pedro Camps. Father Camps arrived in the New World from Minorca in 1768 and is credited with keeping Catholicism alive in the Florida colony. Rather than the distinguished and triumphant look of the figures depicted in most of the other sculptures, this one represents the struggle for religious freedom.
Oil tycoon Henry Flagler opened the east coast of Florida in the early 1900s to train travel for northerners looking to get out of the cold. They are still coming today though mostly by car and air. This sculpture is at Flagler College, the small liberal arts college of about 2,500 students. The centerpiece of the campus is the Ponce de Leon Hotel, built in 1888 and purchased by Flagler on his honeymoon with his second wife. Visitors will see his name all over Florida, most famously on the college.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles
On the other side of the plaza from Ponce de Leon is Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who claimed and named the city in 1565 after vanquishing the French colony that was there. The statue is in front of the city municipal building which houses the Lightner Museum. The sculpture was given to the city in 1972 from Aviles and is a replica of the one near the tomb of Menendez in the northern coastal Spanish city.
St. Augustine Foot Soldiers
The guided tour concludes at a sculpture that might be a surprise to visitors. The monument honors four people — and represents many others — who marched peacefully in the plaza during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The work designed by sculptor Brian R. Owens was unveiled in 2011. The civil rights activists staged lunchroom sit-ins and “wade-ins” at beaches that were off-limits to African-Americans. Like other protestors in the South, they suffered beatings, death threats and loss of jobs for their involvement.