Castillo de San Marcos sits in the Historic District of St Augustine, on the water and within reach of all the Ancient City offers. It sits on the Western shore of the Matanzas Bay, and is lauded as the city’s most popular attraction. We highly recommend you spend a few hours here, and this is what you need to know before you go!
Why This Fort Is Special
At over 300 years old, this fort has seen many battles, many wars, many fights…but there are two things that stood out most to me. First, it is the oldest masonry fortress in the US, built in 1695. The star-shaped design originated in Italy and came about because of the advancement in black powder weapons and cannon fire.
Second, Castillo is one of only two fortifications in the world built built of a limestone called coquina (the other is also in the same region – see more info below.) Coquina is very porous and was originally thought to be a poor material with which to build the fort. Ironic now that this one still stands and the numerous wooden forts previously in the area were destroyed.
Boy, were they surprised when that first cannon ball hit the walls – with very little impact! Turns out that all those holes create air pockets that make the fort exceptionally STRONG! Instead of shattering the walls, any cannon balls fired at the fort burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there… like a bb fired into a Styrofoam cup. On top of that, it was fire-proof!
And with that, Castillo became of the country’s few forts that remained impenetrable!
Kids Are Free
Castillo de San Marcos is a “walk in” park…so you walk through instead of driving in. The $15pp fee for adults is good for 7-days, so if you want to revisit for a cannon demonstration or sunset view while you’re in town, you don’t have to pay extra.
Kiddos 15yo and younger are free! making this an affordable family adventure.
Become a Junior Ranger
If you’re bringing the kiddos then don’t forget to ask about the Junior Ranger Program. I like to print our books before we go, and review a little with the boys to get them excited before we visit. You can also pick up a booklet at the park.
The program is perfect for kids 6-12, and it is free. The parks usually say it takes about an hour to complete, but it always takes us longer. Often we have to finish at home, but you can still send your book back in once you’re home from vacation, and they will mail your kiddo their certificate and Junior Ranger Badge.
Take The Trolley
There is a small parking lot in front of the Fort…or you can easily explore the Fort if you’ve been taking in the Downtown sites…but we visited the Fort on our trolley ride, and really recommend it.
If you start the Trolley Tour at the Old Jail, like we recommend in our St Augustine post, you’ll reach the Fort at nearly the end of the route. The stop is in the parking lot (pick up and drop off.) . Pay attention to the drop-off point because it’s not marked.
I liked this with kids, especially, because after sitting for about 45 min, they were ready to explore…and I didn’t have to hear any “I’m tired”-ness. The were ready for the adventure!
After we toured the Fort, we walked over and had lunch at Taberna del Caballo in the Colonial Quarter, explored the streets (and had a popsicle at The Hyppo) and then grabbed the trolley again back at the parking lot. Easy Peasy – no parking hassles.
Plan To Hear a Ranger Talk
As soon as you purchase your ticket, ask them about Ranger Programs for the day. The Park Rangers give a number of interpretive talks throughout the day on various subjects, and you’ll want to be sure to catch one…to get the inside scoop on the Fort.
There is also a video on the Fort every hour, so be sure to see it. If you can’t make your schedule work, then check out the great videos online before you go!
Watch a Demonstration
If you are in the area on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday then make it a priority to see a cannon-firing demonstration. You can find the schedule here.
The Park Rangers demonstrate the cannons (and other weapons) and share about the life of colonial Spanish soldiers in the 1740s.
Remember, even if you don’t want to tour the Fort on a weekend (that is their most busy time) your ticket is good for 7 days, so don’t miss this!
It’s Not the Only Fort
Finally, we just want to point out that Castillo de San Marcos is an amazing and important Fort in St Augustine history – but it’s not the only one.
Our favorite was Fort Matanzas – because of the water ferry, the smaller number of guests touring, the intimate story telling from the Park Ranger, and the ability to really “get our head around” the story there.
Next time we’re in St Augustine, we will also take in Fort Mose. It was the first free African settlement in the US
Disclosure: Thank you to St Augustine for hosting me and my family. Opinions here, as always, are all my own.
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