As you walk around the the Spanish Quarter of St. Augustine it’s kind of hard to miss the dark grey stone walls rising on top of a little hill near the harbor. As the protector of St. Augustine it makes sense that the Castillo de San Marcos has such a presence. While a lot of the city is historic and looks from another world (or at least another continent), the fort especially makes you feel transported somewhere far far away (in place and in time). Luckily there is a solitary palm tree sticking up inside to remind you that you’re still in Florida and prevent your brain from freaking out.
My friends had recommended the fort as a must-see in St. Augustine. On my first afternoon walking around the Spanish Quarter it caught my attention several times, but it was getting to be quite a hot June day and I wanted to avoid the crowds. My plan was to wake up early the next day and tackle it. Despite my ability to always stay up later than I should (wasting time on who knows what), I got up relatively early and grabbed a breakfast of gluten-free crepes at DOLCE Cafe in Old Town. Then it was off to the fort.
I’ve been using “fort” to describe the Castillo de San Marcos, because that’s technically what it is. It’s in fact the oldest masonry fort in the continental US (there is a fort in Puerto Rico that’s older). It’s been hard for me to type “fort” though, because the Castillo de San Marcos blows all expectations about a fort out of the water. First off it’s probably 100-150 years older than most of the forts Americans are used to experiencing. A few weeks earlier I had visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore and I grew up visiting forts across the US (especially the Western half). The contrasts are stark. You throw in a moat (unfortunately no longer filled with water) and drawbridge, towers, and pretty elegant facades inside and this just doesn’t seem like a “fort” in the American sense. “Castillo” means castle in Spanish and that seems like a far better descriptor of the Castillo de San Marcos. So no more “fort” from me in this post.
I pretty quickly knew I was in for a different experience than I expected as soon as I crossed the drawbridge. You walk across in the shadow of two cannons and then enter a large doorway with the inner courtyard in view. Along the short walkway once you enter was a room where a lot of the soldiers slept and a tight passage down to what looked like prisoner cells. On a lot of the walls in the barracks are graffiti that soldiers left over the years (now protected behind glass). The Castillo has a wealth of information throughout and here you can learn about how the soldiers lived, some of the messages in the graffiti, and about some of the lives of the soldiers themselves.
I kept walking into the courtyard and became a big fan right away of the facades of the courtyard. While the outside of the Castillo is very castle-like, the inside almost reminded me of a palace in the Mediterranean. It’s probably a little too simply decorated to be compared to a palace, so let’s call it like a villa. I could easily see finding something that looks just like it on the coast of Spain, Italy, or maybe Croatia.
When I bought my ticket they mentioned that the first cannon firing was about to happen, so after taking in the courtyard for a few minutes I went upstairs to watch that. The cannon firing was done by a park ranger and a team of volunteers dressed up in Spanish military attire. The Castillo has served under four different countries (can you guess them all?*) and numerous flags (when you account for the different iterations of certain countries flags). When you visit today the Burgandian Saltire, Spain’s flag (I gave you one of the countries…) when the Castillo was constructed, flies. The ranger had a wealth of historical knowledge that he shared while the team prepared the cannon for firing.
Despite having a long history of ownership by different countries, the Castillo de San Marcos has never in fact been captured. The fort is made out of coquina, which is a shell stone mined nearby. The coquina ended up being one of the Castillo’s greatest defenses, because it absorbed the blast of enemy cannon fire rather than crumbling. The Castillo also had cannons with a range of 6 miles, so it could generally take care of enemy threats before it was a threat to the fort or St. Augustine. All facts you can learn from the ranger or the many signs around the Castillo.
After the cannon firing I walked around the rest of the top of the fort. You get absolutely stunning views of St. Augustine and especially the water. There are several towers that looks awesome with the blue backdrop. The views and scenery were probably my favorite part, besides the amount of history you can learn about. From the top level you can also get up close to the different cannons and look down on the different fortifications.
Back downstairs there are many rooms off the courtyard to go into and read more displays and factoids, plus a video on the Castillo de San Marcos and St. Augustine. The info can appeal to many ages. There’s a lot of it for those more interested, but it’s straightforward enough for most kids to read and enjoy (but then again I personally loved history as a kid).
After going through all the different rooms (and taking one last walk around the top of the Castillo) I briefly walked around the outside of the main fort and got a close up of some of the outer defenses.
Easily the Castillo de San Marcos is my top recommendation for St. Augustine. It is a must! History and military lovers will really enjoy the level of information, but I think all visitors can appreciate the history and significance of the Castillo de San Marcos. Bare minimum I think all will be impressed by the awesome views and magnificence of the Castillo itself (maybe 50/50 chance a moody teenager on a forced family vacation will find a way somehow to not enjoy it). Don’t miss out on this one on any trip to St. Augustine!
Castillo de San Marcos- 1 S Castillo Dr St. Augustine 32084
*Countries that ruled the Castillo de San Marcos at various points were Spain, Great Britain, the United States, and the Confederacy (“country”).