One hundred years after St. Augustine’s founding, English pirate Robert Searle sailed into Matanzas Bay. The pirates under his command killed 60 people, looted every building, and kidnapped another 70 people for ransom. After Searle sailed away, the Queen Regent Mariana of Spain finally authorized the construction of the settlement’s first masonry fort – Castillo de San Marcos.
Throughout the fort’s 200-year service history, it was owned by Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, stood guard through nearly a dozen wars, and served as a prison for Revolutionary War and Civil War prisoners. But the masonry fort, built from a local stone called coquina, was never captured in battle.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument preserves the oldest masonry fort in the oldest city in the United States.
Over fifty years after Ponce de Leon explored Florida, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in 1565. Spain has the New World to itself – it would be another fifty years before the British founded Jamestown. The only threats came from Native Americans and pirates, so the only defenses were a series of rickety wooden forts.
But one hundred years after St. Augustine’s founding, English pirate Robert Searle sailed into Matanzas Bay. Pirates under his command killed 60 people, looted every building in the settlement, and kidnapped another 70 people for ransom.
Queen Regent Mariana of Spain ordered the Florida governor to build a masonry fort. Castillo de San Marcos – Spanish for “Castle of Saint Mark” – was built from 1672 until 1695. Once completed, the fort featured coquina walls 12 feet thick and 33 feet high, surrounded by a moat, and protected by dozens of cannons mounted at the bastions.
Did You Know? Coquina is a type of limestone native to coastal regions around the world. The stone comprises tiny seashells greater than 2mm in size that has been compressed over thousands of years. Coquina is the Spanish word for “tiny shell.”
In 1702, the fort was attacked by a British fleet from Carolina Province – modern-day Jacksonville. And then, in 1740, John Oglethorpe sailed from Savannah to siege the fort. Throughout the decades, the coquina walls held, and St. Augustine was never captured.
In 1763, the French and Indian War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Spain was forced to cede West Florida to Great Britain. The British finally took command of the fort and renamed it Fort Saint Mark – the English translation of the original name.
But just twenty years later, in 1783, the British were forced to return Florida to Spanish control at the end of the American Revolutionary War. The Spanish reinstated their name for the fort. But Floridians were not content to live under Spanish rule. In 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty was signed, and the burgeoning United States purchased East and West Florida from Spain.
The U.S. War Department took possession of Castillo de San Marcos in 1821 and maintained a small garrison and prison in the fort. In 1825, the War Department renamed it Fort Marion after Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. In 1900, the fort was decommissioned.
In 1924, Fort Marion and nearby Fort Matanzas were declared national monuments. Although the National Park Service was created in 1916, the War Department maintained the two national monuments until they were transferred in 1933.
Finally, in 1942 an act of Congress reinstated the original name of the national monument – Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It’s the oldest masonry fort in the United States that was never captured in battle – but still changed ownership three times throughout its history.
Did You Know? The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest structure in St. Augustine, completed in 1695. But the González-Alvarez House is the oldest house. The house’s first floor was completed in 1727, and the final form seen today was finished in 1790.
The NPS App is the official app of the National Park Service. The app takes all the information available online – park information, interactive maps, videos, travel alerts, and things to do – and puts it at your fingertips on a smartphone.
The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument page in the app includes self-guided tours, park movies, and interactive maps.
Top 5 Things to Do at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
- Take the self-guided walking tour of the fort’s interior and canons along the wall – pick up a brochure at the ticket booth or use the NPS app map.
- Stick around for a historic weapon demonstration with muskets or canons
- Explore the interior rooms of the fort, including the jail cell where Revolutionary War heroes were held in solitary confinement
- Enjoy the view of St. Augustine from the fort’s walls
- Go for a walk around the perimeter of the fort to the Old City Gates
Castillo de San Marcos Self-Guided Walking Tour
The best way to explore the Castillo de San Marcos is with the self-guided walking tour. The tour is available through the NPS Park App. The tour begins at the sally port – or entrance into the fort – and passes through the interior rooms of the casement.
The rooms are filled with interpretive signs, historical artifacts, and intriguing pieces of history to explore. Park rangers are usually roaming through the rooms to answer any questions.
Artillery Self-Guided Walking Tour
The original design of Castillo de San Marcos did not include an elevated platform along the fort’s walls. But after several battles, the Spaniards realized limiting canons to the bastions at the fort’s corners was not enough.
The Artillery Self-Guided Walking Tour is a fascinating exploration along the fort’s perimeter. Almost 40 canons, mortars, and howitzers line the walls overlooking St. Augustine and Matanzas Bay.
Spanish canons are gorgeously decorated compared to British or American canons. Intricate iron work covers the canons in beautiful patterns.
And the view from the top of the walls isn’t bad, either. It was my favorite spot exploring Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
The Old City Gates
In 1808, growing distrust between the newly founded United States and Spanish Florida led to the creation of defensive walls around St. Augustine. The Old City Gates are located at the north end of St. George Street. The gates were the only entrance into the settlement when the walls were completed.
The Old City Gates are maintained by the National Park Service as a part of the national monument. A portion of the original defensive walls stretches between Florida Highway A1A and Castillo de San Marcos beside the gates.
Best Time to Visit
There is a reason why Florida is known as “The Sunshine State.” St. Augustine is graced with over 300 days of sunshine each year, so there isn’t a wrong time to visit the Castillo de San Marcos.
But certain times are better than others.
Summer temperatures exceed 90 degrees with high humidity and frequent thunderstorms. During these months, it is best to keep an eye on a weather alert app and carry a pocket-sized rain jacket.
The best time to visit the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is spring and autumn. During these months, the temperatures average around 70 degrees with clear skies and low humidity.
Admission into the national monument is $15 per person and is good for seven consecutive days. The America the Beautiful annual pass grants free admission for the passholder and three guests.
St. Augustine maintains a parking lot in front of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. However, getting a parking space in that lot is like getting a cheap television on Black Friday. The lot rarely has empty parking spaces, and a long line of tour buses making stops adds to the difficulty. Only vehicles shorter than 21 feet are allowed – typically a crew cab pickup truck.
The Historic Downtown Parking Facility behind the St. Augustine Visitors Center is the best place to park while visiting the national monument. It is a 15-minute walk along city sidewalks from the parking garage to the national monument’s entrance. Visitors can safely cross the busy four-lane highway by using a pedestrian crosswalk at Fort Alley.
RVs, trailers, and vehicles over 21 feet can use the free city parking lot at the corner of West Castillo Drive and Riberia Street. It’s about one city block behind the Historic Downtown Parking Facility.
Considering that Castillo de San Marcos was built in the late 17th century, the fort is remarkably accessible for most visitors. The city parking lot and the first level of the fort are accessible. This includes the ticket booth, sally port, interior rooms, gift shop, and theater.
Where to Stay
St. Augustine has an abundance of hotels, condos, and rental homes. The choices start with budget-friendly options near Interstate 95 and go through the roof with luxury options in the heart of the historic district. Here are some options if you want to spend a few nights while exploring the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
Days Inn is a surprisingly comfortable budget-friendly option. The motel features free on-site parking, an outdoor swimming pool, and an on-site IHOP restaurant. Choose from rooms with two full beds or one king bed. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
La Quinta is an excellent budget-friendly option in St. Augustine. The hotel features a nice outdoor swimming pool and free on-site parking. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or a suite with a king bed and a sleeper sofa. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
Quality Inn is awkwardly located beside a busy intersection, but it’s still a great budget-friendly option. The motel features free on-site parking and a nice outdoor swimming pool. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or one king bed. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
Holiday Inn is located along the busy four-lane US Highway 1 – locally called Ponce de Leon Boulevard. The hotel is not quite walking distance to the Castillo de San Marcos. The hotel features free on-site parking, an outdoor swimming pool, and an on-site restaurant. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or suites that include a sleeper sofa. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
Hampton Inn is also located on Ponce de Leon Boulevard about a 10-minute drive from Castillo de San Marcos. On-site parking is limited and costs an additional $10 per day. The outdoor swimming pool is nice, but don’t expect a peaceful evening with its located beside the busy highway. But the hotel features comfortable rooms and the best complimentary hot breakfast. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or a studio with a king bed and a sleeper sofa. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
Best Western Historical Inn is connected to Hampton Inn’s property. This hotel also charges $10 per day for parking and features a boulevard-side swimming pool. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or one king bed. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
St. George Inn is located on the pedestrian-only St. George Street one block from the Castillo de San Marcos. The luxury rooms feature balconies overlooking Orange Street with a view of the fort. Guests must use the public parking garage one block away and costs $12 per day. Choose from immaculate rooms with two queen beds or one king bed. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
While the other premium hotels are within walking distance of the Castillo de San Marcos, the Holiday Inn Express is within walking distance of the beach. The hotel features plenty of free on-site parking, a nice indoor swimming pool, and rooms with balconies. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or one king bed. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com
Villa Victor is one of the best hotels in St. Augustine. Located on Florida Highway A1A, the hotel is four blocks from the Castillo de San Marcos – about a fifteen-minute walk. The hotel features on-site parking for an additional $15 per day, an outdoor swimming pool, and on-site bar and restaurant. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or a suite with a king bed and a sleeper sofa. Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com