Planning a vacation to Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Palm Coast, Daytona Beach, or any of the other spectacular beach towns along the northeastern Florida coast? You will have a wonderful time even if all you do is go to the beach every day! But if you're looking for a few other activities that do not require an admission fee or any special equipment, here are some ideas to consider:
Northeast Florida is the site of the first European presence in North America, so it is unbelievably rich in history. Most of this is centered around St. Augustine, America's oldest continuously-inhabited city. St. Augustine is a great place for walking, so put on comfy shoes and explore the Old City. Many of the streets in this area are closed to traffic, and all are filled with fun and interesting little shops and delicious restaurants. (Don't miss a gelato break!) Pets are very welcome in this area, with many businesses thoughtfully putting out bowls of water on the boardwalk.
The Old City is right on the water, with a nice grassy promenade area the kids will enjoy running around on. The Bridge of Lions is clearly visible here, as well as the Castillo de San Marcos (shown above). This centuries-old fort does charge for visitors over the age of 15, but is free on all holidays (as we were surprised to find out on Veterans Day!), and is a great place for the whole family. Children love exploring the Castillo, and interactive guides wear period dress, offer free tours, and are a wealth of information.
On the outskirts of St. Augustine, you might want to stop in at the Mission of Nombre de Dios. The first Mass on North American soil was said to be conducted here in 1565, and the beautiful old church -- visible from miles away by its giant cross! -- is definitely worth a visit.
While you're in the area, don't miss a tour of the San Sebastian Winery, a visit to the Farmer's Market on Anastasia Island, and a look at the fabulous murals in the lobby of the main building of Flagler College (formerly the elegant Ponce de Leon Hotel!). All free, and all a great break from expensive attractions during your Florida vacation.
If the Jacksonville area is your vacation destination, don't miss the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Managed by the National Park Service, this is nothing short of an historical and natural treasure, featuring the Kingsley Plantation (an antebellum cotton plantation with slave cabins), the Theodore Roosevelt Area (4 miles of hiking trails with rare wildlife and free guided tours on Saturdays), the Fort Caroline Memorial (honoring the French presence in 16th-century Florida!), and the American Beach (an historic African-American beach).
And if you happen to be out and about in Jacksonville on a Tuesday, drop by the Cummer Museum of Art. It's free on this day only, and packed with works by the great European masters. There are also lovely gardens on the grounds.
Traveling south from St. Augustine instead of north, you encounter Fort Matanzas, a national monument about 15 miles from the Old City. Nearly 300 years old, it is a fascinating place to explore. Park rangers are happy to guide you through this historic site, and the area also contains hiking and walking trails.
The entire Flagler County area is rich in parks and nature preserves. A paradise for bird-watchers, the Flagler area is home to nearly 500 identified species, and is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Even if you've never picked up binoculars in your life, this is a great place to spot your first American Coot or White Ibis!
Just a bit farther down the coast and you come to Daytona, famous for its Speedway but also home to great outdoor concerts at the Daytona Beach Bandshell. The building itself is interesting, constructed of crushed coquina shells (the same that make up the sand of Cinnamon Beach!) Located right on the water, it's a great place to bring a picnic and make a day of it. Free concerts are held all summer long here.
Staying at the beach in Florida is not only stress-free -- with a little planning, it can be financially nearly free, too! Have fun exploring all of the great opportunities these beach communities have to offer.