Alligators are Amazing: A mini-guide to Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida
Updated: Aug 4
Did you know that Jacksonville is the largest city in the contingent United States by land mass? I know - that's crazy! Did you know that St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States? You probably did, I feel like that is not a secret. Let me share with you a bunch of other tidbits that you should know about Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida.
I had the random pleasure to visit these North Florida gems when my mother told my grandmother she would take her on vacation - anywhere she wanted to go - and my grandmother said she wanted to visit family in north and central Florida. I think my mom was expecting a slightly more exotic vacation, but since that wasn't in the cards, she invited me to come along with them. I never say no to hanging out with my mom (she's really cool), and the next thing I knew I was setting my suitcase down in a little blue house in Jax Beach.
In Jacksonville, there was water everywhere. Our little rental house was on the Atlantic Ocean, the massive St. John’s River slithered back and forth through the old city, and the river’s tributaries touched every neighborhood we visited. I imagined the whole city floating on the sparkling waters that surrounded us.
Highlights of Jacksonville included the free people-mover that took me and my mom to South Jacksonville to visit the Museum of Science and History. I always go to the history museum when I visit a place. I just feel like I understand where I am better. Not only did the museum have a great exhibit on the history of Northeast Florida, it also has the best acronym of any institution ever (MOSH). There were some seriously impressive dioramas of native peoples and early settlers. We skipped the science part. I figure that’s the same everywhere.
What blew me away, however, was the Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown Jacksonville. The museum was the perfect size – big enough to be interesting, but not so big that we were tired when we left – and the art inside was diverse and beautiful. The museum comes highly recommended!
My favorite piece was a series of pioneer women's bonnets made from thousands of pins. While the head of the pins formed beautiful designs on the outside, the needle pointed in toward the wearer's head symbolizing the physical and emotional pain shouldered by women pioneers of the 1800s as well as female migrants of today.
The bulk of our time in Jacksonville was spent connecting with faraway family. We spent a long time with my Great Aunt Rose pouring over her photo album of our Slovak ancestors. These good-looking guys are my great-great-great grandparents Ignatius and Elizabeth. I clearly have his furrowed brow.
When we weren’t in Jacksonville, we took trips down I-1A to St. Augustine. The oldest city in the US certainly plays on its reputation. We spent about an hour waiting for our mediocre food at a corny restaurant in the historic center; however, our lunch at the Floridian just beyond renaissance faire-esque St. George Street was absolutely fabulous and served with the perfect Southern charm.
There were some nice things to see strolling down the main strip of St. Augustine, like the old pharmacy on Orange Street with hundreds of these lovely old tins.
Most of what I loved, though, involved steering clear of St. George Street and exploring the adjacent neighborhoods. The Dow Museum of Historic Houses was very cool, as was the Lightner Museum. The Lightner Museum holds a great collection of 19th Century decorative art in a grand old hotel. You should grab a drink in the attached Cafe Alacazar which is built in the deep end of the old hotel's indoor pool - the largest in the world at the time. You will literally be drinking in a drained historic pool. I feel like there might be something meta there, but I'm not totally sure.
While you are walking around, you might as well check out the oldest house in the oldest city, right? I mean, you’re already here. The González-Alvarez House was originally thought to be the oldest house in the country because evidence exists that the site has been occupied since the 1600s, but after doing some research it became clear that the present house dates to the early 1700s. I did not go on a tour of the house, I just waved at it as I walked by. You do what you think is right.
Flagler College was worth the self-guided tour (aka snooping). The architecture of the campus is just stunning.
Far and away, the best part of our trip to St. Augustine and Jacksonville was our spur-of-the-moment decision to go to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Listen – I’m not joking when I say this place blew my mind. It opened in 1893, and it is one of Florida's oldest continuously running attractions. It's so worth it! You really get very close to the alligators! And also to crocodiles! And they teach you about the difference between the two!
This is an alligator:
And this is a crocodile:
Only the alligators' top teeth are exposed, and they have a wide nose.
Crocodiles' teeth alternate up and down like this, and they have a narrow nose (this is an extreme example from a Gharial, a type of crocodile native to India.):
But you don't just learn about gators and crocs at the zoo. Oh no.
You also learn about albino alligators! I guess that is still alligators.
And baby alligators! Ok, that's still alligators, too.
Well how about birds! There are so many amazing birds at the zoo's rookery - and they change seasonally because they are not captive.
They are just birds right over your head being beautiful!
And birds taking baths!
And hundreds of white egrets chilling in trees!
There are birds of paradise!
There are also captive birds, like this amazing tucan.
And these little love birds (actually parrots, not love birds).
And this silly billy.
The birds, honestly, were my favorite part. They were amazing.
They were my mom and grandmother's favorite part, too!
North Florida is gorgeous. The next time you get a random offer to check it out, you should do it. Make sure you don't miss out on that St. Augustine Alligator Farm.