If you have never discovered this Atlantic coast treasure or it has been awhile since you’ve visited, you may be surprised by the stunning architecture, culinary delights, family-friendly festivities, and an amazing history that has influenced Florida for 450 years.
Story+Photos: Mary Ann DeSantis, Shemir Wiles, and Tina Morrison
St. Augustine means something different to everyone and just to show you how diverse the city can be, Style’s writers teamed up to share some of their favorite locations. We also invite you to tell us about your special St. Augustine places on our Facebook page!
Mary Ann’s Favorite:
It’s hard to pick one favorite spot in St. Augustine, but the most surprising “find” for me was the Villa Zorayda, formerly known as the Zorayda Castle, located at 83 King Street. The history surrounding this 1883 building is just as fascinating as its Moorish architecture, which motivated Henry Flagler and others to conform to the city’s Spanish architectural heritage. It is also considered the first example of “fantasy architecture” in Florida — a precursor, so to speak, for Disney World.
Inspired by the 12th Century Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, Boston architect Franklin W. Smith built Villa Zorayda as his winter residence. No detail was spared — most notably the cast plaster work that matches the Alhambra’s. The Moorish horseshoe arches and columns also are exact replicas of those in the famous Court of Lions found in Spain’s iconic palace. Now a museum, Villa Zorayda is filled with unique antiquities like a tent warmer and a 2,400-year-old sacred cat hair rug from Egypt. Smith’s legacy, however, is just as fascinating. Truly a Renaissance man, he was the founder of the YMCA and an early preservationist in St. Augustine.
On the National Register of Historic Places, Villa Zorayda was closed in 2000 for nearly eight years for extensive and detailed renovations. The hokey, touristy look of the 1960s has been replaced by an elegant venue that is popular for weddings and special events. The best time to see Villa Zorayda is during the holiday season when evening candlelight tours give the rooms an ethereal glow that seemingly transports visitors into a classic Washington Irving tale from The Alhambra. [divider_1px]
My first visit to St. Augustine happened only a few months ago over the Memorial Day weekend. While I spent most of the time wandering the cobblestoned streets looking at the various shops and snapping photos of all the interesting sights, the place that I fell instantly in love with is probably also one of the most shrouded sites in the entire city: the Mission of Los Nombres de Dios.
Considered the birthplace of Christianity in the New World, this Spanish Catholic mission traces its origins to the founding of St. Augustine in 1565 when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed on the shores of the Timucua Indian village of Seloy and proclaimed it for Spain. Shortly thereafter, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of the expedition, celebrated the first parish Mass.
Though there is much to see at Mission of Los Nombres de Dios, one of the most striking features on the grounds is The Great Cross, a stainless steel cross that rises more than 200 feet above the Matanzas marshes. Guarding it is a massive statute of Father Lopez gazing devotedly toward the sky.
Also breathtaking is The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, the first Catholic shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the United States. The present chapel is a replica of earlier coquina chapels and provides visitors with a quiet place to pray.
Though it was only a brief visit to Mission of Los Nombres de Dios, I left feeling bathed in tranquility and humility. Whether you are deeply religious or just needing a place of solace, this serene spot is perfect for winding down after a full day of sightseeing.[divider_1px]
Driving into St. Augustine always puts a big smile on my face. My husband and I tied the knot there three years ago, and it is my favorite place in the world to be not just for the sentimental reasons, but for the gorgeous architecture and incredible food.
I have two favorites that are always on my must-do list when I arrive in this historical town: staying at Casablanca Inn and eating at 95 Cordova. The oldest bed and breakfast in St. Augustine, Casablanca Inn was built by Henry Flagler in 1914 to be used as his residence while he was constructing what is now the famed Flagler College. The inn is spectacular, the view of the bay is unparalleled, and I always feel at home when we stay here. Perhaps the best part of being there is enjoying the bay breezes on the front porch with a glass of wine while listening to the tale of the “Woman with the Lantern,” one of the most well-known ghost stories in St. Augustine.
Once I am ready to leave our cozy room and peek out into the world, I head straight to my favorite restaurant, 95 Cordova. This gorgeous restaurant, which is situated in the renowned Casa Monica Hotel, exudes warmth and style. Being the creature of habit I am, I gravitate to the same three things on the menu: fresh pasta with cream sauce, the most incredible filet ever (and I like to think of myself as a steak connoisseur), and a glass of red wine.
I am never disappointed when I come to this stunning city. Few places have the appeal and ambiance that St. Augustine does, and before I return home, I am already planning our next excursion to the “Nation’s Oldest City.” [divider_1px]