Did you know the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the mainland us is in Florida? If you’re remotely interested in history, you probably knew that. How about that there are dozens of forts from the Civil and Seminole Wars throughout the state? Or literally hundreds of Indian mounds?

Florida is one of the most historically diverse states in the country. We may not have tons of early European towns, but we have the oldest one in St. Augustine. Our Native American sites may not be the most spectacular, but we have arguably one of the oldest sites in North America at the Page-Ladsdon site. Plus, we have a lot of really historically unique places, like Bok Tower, Coral Castle, and Fort Jefferson. Here are a few historical places in Florida that everyone should visit.

St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine is one of the must-see historic sites in Florida.

St Augustine is the oldest, continuously-inhabited European city in the mainland United States and one of the most historic Florida towns. It often hits lists of historic places to visit in Florida and historic cities to visit in Florida. The city is filled with historic sites so pointing out just one site to visit is nearly impossible. Do yourself a favor and plan to spend a week here. Seriously, you’ll need that much time to see it all. Last time we went it was for 3 days, and I wish we had another two to three days to see everything. If time is limited, be sure to see the main attractions, such as Castillo de San Marcos, historic George Street, the cathedral Basilica, and St. Augustine Lighthouse. You can see many other sites just by walking around in the historic downtown region. The old city gates tower at the end nearest the fort. Historic homes turned businesses line many of the streets and paint stories of the people who live and worked in St. Augustine before the city became a tourist attraction.

Read more here about the history of St. Augustine. And check out the photo gallery here.

We found this book incredibly helpful when we were in St Augustine. Written by a resident of the city and a city historian, the book effortlessly melds history with guidebook.

Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center

The space shuttle Atlantis now rests at Kennedy Space Center, one of the historic sites in Florida everyone should see.

Can you believe I had lived in Florida for almost 25 years before I went to Kennedy Space Center for the first time? Bizarre, right? Space stuff isn’t really my thing, but Kennedy Space Center is really amazing. This place makes the list of must see historic sites in Florida, not for its age, but because of its historical value in space exploration. The contributions made to space exploration from Cape Canaveral plus the rockets, space shuttle, and memorabilia on display at Kennedy Space Center mean this is an historic place to visit in Florida.

My favorite parts when visiting were seeing the Shuttle Atlantis and the Saturn rocket while Nick’s favorite was definitely the “crawler”, a ginormous tractor that slowly  (oh, so slowly) hauls the rockets and space craft out to the launch pads. The Apollo 8 control room brought some emotional moments for me. I wasn’t alive at the time but the historical importance of those launches are not lost on me. We also thoroughly enjoyed the memorabilia at the Saturn V site and the rocket garden. Plan to spend a couple of days at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. We ended up rushing though a bit, and I wish we’d had one more day to see everything we missed. Read more about our day trip to Kennedy Space Center here.

A family trip to Kennedy Space Center is a trip that is part education and part sci-fi fantasy. This children’s book will delight your kids on the way to, or back from, Kennedy Space Center. Be sure to pick it up before your trip.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

Photo credit Pelican Island Refuge/FWS

Pelican Islands is not one of Florida’s most well-known nature preserves or wildlife refuges so it’s inclusion as one of the historic places to visit in Florida may confuse you at first. After all, we have Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, John Pennekamp State Park, and the Ocala National Forest, all parks which are more well-known and more likely to be historic sites in Florida. Pelican Island may be only a small island, but the Refuge encompasses 5400 acres of protected waters. The Refuge is historically significant because it was the first National Wildlife Refuge in the United States. Designated in 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Pelican Island was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, a Wetland of International Importance in 1993, and a candidate Marine Protected Area in 2000.

Vizcaya

Photo courtesy of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Growing up in Miami, Vizcaya was one of those mandatory middle and high school field trips that all kids take. We tip-toed down carpeted hallways and peered, somewhat bored, into gaudy rooms filled with priceless European antiques. My favorite part was always the gardens. We knew, of course, that Vizcaya was one of the historic sites in Florida that many people wanted to see, but for me, anyways, it wasn’t a “real” historic villa like the centuries-old ones in Europe.

Vizcaya was created as a winter retreat for John Deering and built over 12 years from 1910 to 1922. Modeled after a centuries-old Italian villa, the estate houses European antiques and used modern (for the time ) building technologies while the grounds included (then) 180 acres (though the grounds are much smaller now) and 10 acres of formal gardens. It’s one of the historic places to visit in Florida for many reasons – it’s age, the many antiques in the mansion, and the innovative techniques used for building the mansion and dock as well as cultivating the gardens.

Viscaya: an American Villa takes an extraordinary look into the little-known story of Viscaya and is an excellent reminder of what an amazing national treasure this estate truly is.

Overseas Railroad

Overseas Railroad bridge south of Bahia Honda Key. Photo courtesy of Mwanner/Wikipedia.

When it was conceived in 1905, the Overseas Railroad was nicknamed “Flagler’s Folly”, for the railroad’s builder, Henry Flagler, and the audacity of the building plan – to connect Key West to mainland Florida 128 miles North via railroad. Construction used many new engineering innovations, thousands of men, and millions of dollars. The railroad operated from 1912 until it was partially destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. When construction was completed, the railroad was commonly called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. After the Labor Day Hurricane and heavily in debt, the Florida East Coast Railroad sold the Overseas Railroad’s roadbed and bridges to the state of Florida which built the Overseas Highway on much of the old railroad infrastructure. Some of it is still used as fishing piers and exercise trails today.

There are hundreds of other historic sites in Florida. Most towns have at least one to explore. Many of the state and County parks are built around or on historic sites so if you visit one, chances are you’ll learn a little Florida history as well. The National Park Service also publishes a comprehensive list naming all of the state’s national historic landmarks.


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