When we think of Florida, most of us think of beaches, Disney World and probably an alligator or two. But Florida has an intriguing history to go along with all those other attractions. From the nation's oldest settlement, to Indian mounds, Cuban culture, railroads and natural sponges plucked from the Gulf of Mexico, here are 5 historical sites that will entertain the whole family.
Settled by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565, historic St. Augustine is the oldest successful European settlement in the nation and the ideal place to experience Florida's history.
Occupying more than 20 acres along the downtown corridor, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is the centerpiece of historic downtown St. Augustine. Construction on the fort began in 1672 and took 23 years to build. The kids will have a blast exploring the gun deck and secret chamber. Be sure to check out the second level of the fort for an up-close look at the towers where soldiers stood guard. Re-enactors entertain with cannon-firing demonstrations every weekend.
On 15 waterfront acres in an area first explored by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, you'll find the Fountain of Youth. The park has a long and rich history, spanning nearly 500 years. Highlights include a Spanish Watchtower, the Menendez 1565 Settlement Field, a 600-foot Founders Riverwalk and, of course, the Fountain of Youth.
In the Colonia Spanish Museum - St. Augustine's only living history museum - watch a blacksmith welding, see a carpenter at work on his latest craft, or converse with a solider and his wife on the streets of a recreated 1740's town. Be sure to take the kids by the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, where teachers and students recreate the school days from over 200 years ago through the use of state-of-the-art audio-animatronics.
Indian Temple Mound Museum
Long before European settlers came to St. Augustine, Florida was home to Native American tribes. Between 800AD and 1,000AD, these tribes built shell mounds all around the state.
The Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach is situated near one of the largest ceremonial mounds in the state. With roughly 1,000 artifacts and extensive exhibits, this archaeological site gives visitors an inside look at the lifestyles of four southeastern American Indian groups that inhabited the Choctawhatchee Bay region for 12,000 years.
Railroads pop up in the history of most places and Florida is no exception. After bringing the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in the 1890s, Henry Flagler dreamed of continuing it another 128 miles to Key West. Against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the railroad was completed in 1912. Riding on the "Overseas Railroad" across 60 miles of unobstructed water was like riding on top of the ocean. The train was in service until 1935, when a devastating hurricane destroyed the engineering marvel.
Pigeon Key served as the base camp for many of the railroad workers during construction. Today, the Pigeon Key Foundation has restored the historical buildings and installed a museum detailing the history behind the Overseas Railroad and the island. Tours are available and include a ferry ride to and from the island. Pigeon Key can also be accessed by the 2.2-mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which is open to pedestrian, cycling and golf cart traffic.
In 1886, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor built a cigar factory just east of downtown Tampa and began to organize a Cuban community whose flavor still permeates this Tampa neighborhood. The Ybor Museum State Park, a one-acre urban state park housed in the former Ferlita Bakery, offers a glimpse into the history of the neighborhood and its people. Museum displays include original cigar box cover labels, cigar-rolling demonstrations and restored casitas, which were once the homes of cigar factory workers.
Don't miss dinner at the Columbia Restaurant - Florida's oldest restaurant and the gem of Ybor City. The 52,000-square-foot restaurant encompasses an entire block and offers enough artifacts to rival a museum. Flamenco dancers perform most nights, providing an exciting Latin entertainment experience.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the brick streets of charming downtown Tarpon Springs are lined with art galleries, antique stores and specialty shops housed in buildings dating from the late 1800s. But the most intriguing aspect of this town located just north of Tampa along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, comes from its surrounding waters.
Tarpon Springs is known as the sponge capital of the world. The Spongeorama Sponge Factory has the world's largest selection of natural sea sponges and provides an introduction to the sponge docks at the onsite museum and theater show. The kids are sure to enjoy the St. Nicholas Boat Line sponge diving tour. During the boat tour, a diver goes overboard to harvest a sponge and then gives you the opportunity to see and feel a live sponge.
The sponge industry helped build a Greek community that is famous not only for its sponges but for some of the finest Greek restaurants, markets and bakeries anywhere outside of Greece.
Have you explored Florida's historic sites? What were your favorites?
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