St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Designated a national monument in 1924, the fort soon ended it’s military duties and became a tourist attraction.

After peaceably changing hands between the Spaniards, the English, the Confederates and the United States a total of six times, these days it’s steward is the National Park Service. Let’s check it out.

We enter the fort using drawbridges over a dry moat. This entrance is the only one into the fort. This controlled entrance to a fort is known as a “sally port.”

Castillo de San Marcos drawbridge

The moat here was intended to stay dry unless the fort was being attacked. At high tide, gates could be opened in the seawall which would allow water to flood in.

For dramatic effect, the caretakers of the fort filled the moat with water from 1938 until 1996. This resulted in quite a bit of damage to the structure of the fort’s walls. The National Park Service drained the moat and performed restoration work on the walls.

2016’s Hurricane Matthew also managed to fill in the moat with water and debris.

Castillo de San Marcos Panorama

We’re going to join in on a Park Service Ranger-led tour of the fort, which meets here in the Plaza de Armas (aka the courtyard). These tours happen throughout the day and are included with admission.

Castillo de San Marcos ranger tour

The tour first takes you outside to the Ravelin which protects the entrance and overlooks the moat. You’ll hear how the fort defended itself from unwanted entrances and sieges.

Next, you’ll come back to the Plaza de Armas and talk about life in the fort. You’ll explore the storage rooms (which look like prison cells but are not and never were), a re-created barracks room, and the chapel.

Moving on to the top deck, you can get a great view of the Plaza de Armas, the Mantanzas River and St. Augustine Inlet, and the St. Augustine Lighthouse, which we will also visit.

Castillo de San Marcos courtyard
Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos St. Augustine Light

A defining feature of the fort is the San Carlos Bastion which rises above the rest of the fort from the outer wall. This distinctive element served as a lookout tower and as a cannon emplacement.

The other corners of the fort also sport bastions (and cannons) but none as grand as this one.

The walls of the fort are made from local coquina, which is like a concrete made from shells and mud. The porous nature of this building material allowed it to absorb cannon shot.

The English were used to stone forts that would shatter when hit by their artillery. Here, the ball would bounce off or get absorbed by the wall like a bb into styrofoam.

Castillo de San Marcos

On the top deck you’ll also get to examine original cannons of this period. Many of these did not call the fort home, but are similar to ones that did.

These weapons of destruction are surprisingly ornate. Not only are they cast with beautiful carvings that note their place and date of origin (Sevilla, Spain in this example) but when the Americans captured the cannon they too stamped an ornate message denoting when and where it was captured (Vera Cruz, 1847).

Castillo de San Marcos
Castillo de San Marcos cannon
Castillo de San Marcos cannon

Just outside of the fort’s walls you’ll find the old city wall and the gates of St. Augustine.

The city leaders built fortifications beginning in 1704 after experiencing a punishing assault at the hands of the English two years earlier.

During that attack, the city’s 1,500 residents took shelter inside the fort. When the smoke cleared, they found their city pillaged and destroyed.

Over the years, it stood up to Seminole attacks and another major English siege attempt in 1740. The gates you see today are from 1808 and are made from coquina, just like the Castillo.

St. Augustine Gates
St. Augustine Gates Plaque

What to know

The Castillo is open from 8:45 a.m. until 5:15 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Up to 3,500 people visit per day in the peak summer months. Expect lots of school groups if you visit while school is in session.

Admission is $10 per person.

Comments (2)

  • Jo A Walsh . April 20, 2017 . Reply

    Reminds me of Fort Sumter. Just beautiful .Thanks for the tour !!!!

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