Undoubtedly Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is THE sight to see in St Augustine. You can’t miss it as you drive through town and it’s one of the best things to do in the Ancient City. With construction on it starting 400+ years ago, the Castillo is the pride of the city and worth adding to your visit.
Before we ever visited Florida and before living here, we’d built it up a bit to our kids. You know, it’s all pirates and alligators everywhere. With that, we also told a few lies… like there are pirate forts and you can find treasure on the beach. Well, even if there aren’t pirate forts here in Florida, there are Spanish fortresses and there is treasure to be found.
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Who cares that the Castillo de San Marcos is a Spanish fort vs a pirate fort? Once there, you’ll be excited to explore and learn more about Florida’s weird history. We’re not shy about taking the kids to places that seem like they’ll be more for adults, as these guys are such good sports and it’s always a surprise to us what they’ll find interesting. The Castillo is GREAT for kids!
Things to do at the Castillo de San Marcos
There are continual living history tour guides to teach about the Castillo and answer questions. If you have the time/patience, do it! Kids 6 yrs+ may really enjoy it.
If you enjoy the Castillo, get directions to Fort Matanzas. It’s a 20 minutes or so away and is drastically different. It also includes a boat ride (for free!)
Touring the Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is really interesting as far as history goes, but it’s also just nice to walk around. As you tour the lower level of the fort, the chambers are filled with interpretive displays (English and Spanish), interesting artifacts, living history characters and fascinating architecture.
As you head out and up, the view surrounding the Castillo is just beautiful. As you circle, there are cannons EVERYWHERE. There are plenty of rangers and signage to answer almost every question you might come up with. Again, like with the old walls, don’t touch. You can get plenty close to the cannons and really examine them, but keep your hands to yourself.
You can check with the Park in advance if they’re doing any special programs, including cannon fire, if you really want to have a super special visit. FYI: kids love cannons!
Views of St Augustine From the Castillo de San Marcos
The Castillo de San Marcos offers a really wonderful panorama and LOTS of benches to be able to just sit and enjoy the town of St Augustine. Being situated on an estuary, there are loads of egrets and osprey circling at all times. Really beautiful.
To the east is the mouth of the inlet and out to the Atlantic Ocean. To the south is the Bridge of Lions, the marina and the town. To the west you’ll see the Old Town / Colonial Quarter, with church and university spires breaking the horizon. To the north are the Tolomato River and the GTM Estuarine Research Reserve. There is no bad view.
Planning a Visit to the Castillo de San Marcos
Our whole family has enjoyed the Castillo de San Marcos many times, and when we have visitors come to St Augustine we take them too. The fort is interesting for adults, and cool and castle-like for kids. We saw a lot of seniors there as well, walking the battlements and just enjoying the view.
Also, anybody who enjoys a bit of theatre will enjoy it, both for the tour guides in costume and the random re-enactments with cannon fire. If this is your first trip to the southeastern USA, this is a must stop. Seeing the Castillo de San Marcos and learning about the history of the area will really help you understand the area, the names you see everywhere, and how Florida and the whole USA, developed over the years.
Tip: if you’re traveling with kids, be sure to have them participate in the Junior Ranger program. They get to find clues around the Castillo and get a more kid-friendly understanding of the fort and its history.
Is the Castillo de San Marcos Wheelchair Accessible?
While the path up to the entrance plaza and even across the drawbridge into the fort is wheelchair accessible, no all parts of the Castillo are without obstacles. Going into many of the fort’s chambers and exhibit areas require stepping up and there are lots of uneven surfaces. The interior walls/courtyard and the outer grounds are accessible, but even on the lower level, not all chambers can be traversed with wheels.
Also, the top of the Castillo isn’t wheelchair accessible. You can carry a stroller to the top level (about 35 steps), but there’s no ramp to the top. Ask a ranger for instructions for accessing as much of the fort as possible.
When to visit Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
You’re in Florida, so know that when that sun comes out, it’ll get hot… like really hot. Starting your day at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is a great idea, and that way you’re already parked in a great spot for more close by activities after the fort. Allow at least an hour at the fort, and if you’re a big sitter or reader, longer. Check at the entry booth for tour times or events.
Hours of Operation: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas
Cost of Admission to the Castillo
Remember to bring your National Parks pass, as admission is required at the Castillo. Your pass covers up to five adults (16 years and older). Kids 15 and under are free when accompanied by a paying adult.
History of the Castillo de San Marcos
The town of St Augustine was settled by the Spanish in 1565 but then kept getting attacked and bugged by the British, so having a fort to guard the city was very important. St Augustine is situated on the bay and the Matanzas River (an inlet actually) and was the only defense for the old walled city. The fort served as a stronghold in both battles and hurricanes. It was named a National Monument in 1924 as Fort Marion, but then later converted names back to Castillo de San Marcos.
About the Coquina of the Castillo de San Marcos
Once you cross the draw bridge into the Castillo, you almost instantly see sea shells in the walls. Huh? Yep, for realz. The fort is built out of coquina, which is a sedimentary stone quarried in Florida. It’s basically compressed shells held together with natural mortar. Because it’s so porous and even looks like a sponge, it could withstand cannon balls, gun shots, hurricanes and more!
Tip: when you’re at the fort, you’re asked not to touch the walls in an effort to preserve them. If you’re really dying to take a piece home for your rock collection, the gift shop has some quarried stone you can purchase. Preserve history and follow the rules, please.
Exploring the Town of St Augustine
St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. It’s home to the first Thanksgiving, the oldest western structure in the USA, the oldest fort in North America… and the Fountain of Youth. Yeah, it’s really old and so cool. As you walk through the town, you genuinely expect a pirate to get his lights punched out and fall from a window above you.
Tip: park at the Castillo de San Marcos and pay for 4+ hours of parking. Things are tight in the old town and you’ll want to remember where you left your car.
So should you plan to visit the Castillo de San Marcos? OMG yes! If you like history, National Parks or just cool old stuff, this is worth every moment you spend here. We usually do the whole thing in under two hours and return often.
If you have any questions about visiting Castillo de San Marcos National Monument or anything else around St Augustine, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to help!