Florida's home to the oldest continuously occupied city in the U.S., the first European settlement and even the oldest operating bar – and often, beautiful beaches are just footsteps away from these historic destinations.
By Lauren Tjaden
Close your eyes and imagine a Spanish galleon rushing through the angry, black seas, driven by a howling gale into the reef. The ship sinks, its gold and treasures spilling into the depths.
Imagine soldiers from many nations, hoisting their flags, building forts, waging bloody wars.
Imagine a fervent journey in search for a magic elixir that will keep one eternally young.
All of this and more really happened here in the Sunshine State. Come relive the fascinating past at these five historic beach towns in Florida.
1. Amelia Island
This northeast Florida escape, home to historic Fernandina Beach, is a laid-back sort of place where you can explore miles of wide, quiet Atlantic beaches and where free parking and Southern hospitality seem perfectly natural. Known as the Isle of Eight Flags, Amelia Island's eventful past includes a diverse cast of Timucuan Indians, pirates, shrimpers, nobles and confederates.
For David Edwards, owner-operator of Amelia Island Trolley, the area's must-sees include the Palace Saloon, Florida's oldest continuously operating bar; the Florida House, Florida's oldest continuously operated bed and breakfast; and the Amelia Lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in the state.
"Fernandina Beach has been carefully preserved to retain its charming, friendly atmosphere, which is one of the reasons people fall in love with it," says Edwards.
The island also boasts the Amelia Island Museum of History, Fort Clinch State Park and American Beach, founded by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida's first black millionaire.
2. Key West
The United States' southernmost city is famed for many things: its quirky, spirited personality with oddities like chickens roaming the streets and six-toed cats, for its gingerbread mansions and tin-roofed conch houses, and for its sunset celebrations and abundant nightlife. But it also has a colorful past.
"(Key West is) home to the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the country, three Civil War-era forts, and what is believed to be the nation's only African American refugee cemetery," says writer and 30-year resident Carol Shaughnessy. "Plus, it has Ernest Hemingway's home and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which features artifacts and treasure from two Spanish galleons shipwrecked in 1622."
A particularly fascinating tidbit: During sailing's golden age, more than 100 ships per day navigated the treacherous waters of the Florida Keys. On average, at least one ship per week would wreck. "Wreckers" would the race to the reef, saving the crew and the cargo. The salvaged goods were sold at auction in Key West, with the courts awarding generous profits to the wreckers, making Key West the wealthiest city in the nation by the 1830s.
The site of the first European settlement attempt in the country, Pensacola is sprawled against the glittering, emerald-tinted waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The modern Pensacola conjures up images of shining jets, plates of steaming seafood and enthusiastic toasts, but its past is swirling with soldiers, conquistadors and hurricanes.
Valeria L. Palmertree of Visit Pensacola recommends climbing to the top of the lighthouse. "It's 150 years old, the view is breathtaking, and you can see the path that the Spanish sailed through our islands in 1559."
At the National Naval Aviation Museum, you can try out thrilling Top Gun air combat simulators, walk among more than 150 vintage aircraft and watch the Blue Angels practice at certain times of the year – all for free.
Note: The National Naval Aviation Museum is open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID cardholders. Access to NAS Pensacola is limited to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID card holders (active-duty service members, retirees, and their families) and Veterans who possess a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs that displays the Veteran’s eligibility status. DoD ID card holders can escort guests as part of the Trusted Traveler Program, but must remain with their guests at all times. Unless sponsored through the Trusted Traveler program, no civilians will be granted access onto the base until further notice, and thus will not be able to access the National Naval Aviation Museum. Call 850-452-8450 for answers to your questions about visiting the museum and attending Blue Angels practice air shows.
In Historic Pensacola Village, explore furnished period houses, museums and one of the state's oldest churches. Then there's hauntingly beautiful Fort Barrancas, where you can burrow into the past at archaeological sites or volunteer to take part in a dig.
4. St. Augustine
St. Augstine is one of the most historic beach towns in Florida. Start at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine – the nation's oldest continuously occupied city – to discover the very cradle of the United States, the 1565 birthplace of Colonial European America. You'll walk in the sands where Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles trod, you'll shiver at a cannon firing and you'll never ever forget it.
Save energy to investigate the narrow, brick-lined streets of St. Augustine's downtown historic district, where you can dine outside, shop or buy an ice cream cone amid historic churches, museums and buildings. Ascend the curving, seemingly endless steps to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse; explore Fort Matanzas and Castillo de San Marcos – and remember to soak up some sunshine on the golden sands of the wide Atlantic beach.
This laid-back town is nestled in the heart of Florida's Treasure Coast, so named for the Spanish galleons that wrecked off its shores in the 17th and 18th centuries, spilling their booty into the Atlantic. One of the must-sees in Stuart is Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, a haven for shipwreck survivors perched atop jagged limestone formations.
"The fascinating thing is that it's been here since 1876, and it's the only remaining House of Refuge in the country," says Jim McCormick, Keeper of the House. "If the light is right, you can see sections of the Georges Valentine, an Italian brigantine wrecked just offshore, from the front porch." You can even don your fins and snorkel or dive the wreck.
Make sure to explore the Children's Museum of the Treasure Coast and splash over to quaint Jensen Beach. In 1895, the town was shipping more than 1 million boxes of pineapples each year, thus proclaimed the "Pineapple Capital of the World."
When You Go...
800-FLA-Keys or 800-352-5397
772-288-5451 or 877-585-0085