You might think that the oldest masonry fort in America would be somewhere in the Northeast United States, but it’s actually a Spanish fort in Florida: El Castillo de San Marcos, constructed in 1672 to protect the critical Spanish port city of St. Augustine, itself the oldest city in America, dating back to 1565.
And what a fort it is! The Spanish built it out of a local stone called cocina, which is a sedimentary rock made up of compressed seashells. It was available locally and easier to cut and shape than regular stone, and it turned out to have a unique defensive benefit: when cannonballs hit the fort, they bounced off, rather than absorbing the impact like stone and shattering.
Repeated attacks by the British did little to damage the fort, while the defenders would simply bide their time and take carefully aimed shots at the attacking ships. Unique among forts in the world, El Castillo de San Marcos was never taken by force. It was transferred to the British in a peace treaty, returned to the Spanish in another agreement only 10 years later, and finally ceded to the United States by Spain in 1821.
The fort has excellent views of the bay, the Bridge of Lions, and the surrounding city. The rooftop contains a collection of original cannons and mortars, as well as the iconic towers that the Spanish used to watch for approaching enemy ships.
Within the courtyard, you will find historical exhibits, including period cannonballs and docents explaining how people lived during the height of the fort’s use. The surrounding rooms contain films, exhibits and period costumes. One room has graffiti carved in the walls by Plains Indians who were held prisoners of the US Army in the 1800s, which is a fascinating intersection of history.
Definitely don’t miss the re-enactment of cannon firing, performed by volunteers in Spanish army uniforms every hour on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They perform the entire loading, firing and cleaning procedure in Spanish, and actually fire the cannon off (no cannonballs, of course!). Our boys loved it, and it draws quite a crowd.
Admission for Adults aged 16 and up is $10.00 and is valid for 7 consecutive days. Children under 16 are free. Open daily from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Visiting the fort is easy, and a short drive from Orlando. It is located right in downtown St. Augustine, to the north of the Bridge of Lions. We recommend the public parking right next to the visitor center. It’s centrally located and reasonably priced. From there, you can explore the Castillo and the Old Town of St. Augustine, which you can read more about here.