Our St. Augustine skyline would be incomplete without the striking figure of our historic lighthouse. The emblematic beacon rises above the coastline with its unmistakable black and white candy stripe during the day. At moonrise, a piercing beam of light cuts through the night sky, traveling up to 25 miles from the cherry-topped tower. The brick and steel building continues to provide guidance and safety to those adrift in our nation’s oldest port. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is a “must see” for visitors and residents alike.
Climbing the St. Augustine Lighthouse
Climbing the St. Augustine Lighthouse is a rite of passage. Children who are over 44″ can make the ascent. If your child can ride Space Mountain at Disney World, they can climb the St. Augustine Lighthouse. The steps are divided by eight landings where you can rest if needed. My children easily stepped up the stairs as if they had wings on their feet, nagging me to move faster.
I chose to climb slowly, reading facts posted on the walls and enjoying the views through the narrow windows. When reaching the observation deck you can peek inside the rotation room containing a First Order Fresnel lens built in Paris, France in 1874.
What to do at the lighthouse if you have toddlers, physical limitations, or a fear of heights.
There are many things to do and see at the lighthouse even if you do not climb the spiral staircase. For those unable or unwilling to climb the lighthouse you can take a first-person tour by video in the Maritime Center. This building also houses a puppet theatre in the shape of a miniature lighthouse, hands-on children’s activities, beautiful model ships, and several educational displays. My husband spent time in this air-conditioned room with my toddlers while the rest of us scaled the lighthouse. When we switched places, I took the kids to the playground area which includes shipyard activities like tying ropes and lifting buckets.
If your children are adventurous, take them to the Maritime Hammock trails. Pick up a card pack at the entrance of the trail for a fun scavenger hunt. My little naturalists loved walking through the canopy of trees. The short walk is lovely and provides many picture opportunities.
History and Education Abound on the Lighthouse Grounds
The Keepers house includes most of the museum exhibits. There are three floors devoted to maritime history. The First floor contains information about the light keepers who lived in the home during the late 1800’s. You are able to step back in time as if visiting the family who lived here. The lower levels explore archeology and the items that were found in a shipwreck offshore of St. Augustine. You can walk across a wooden floor made to mimic the bottom of the ocean as you discover life on a ship. The upper portion of the building is devoted to the local shrimping and boat building industry of Northeast Florida.
There are three other areas of interest worth noting on the historic grounds: Artifact conservation, WWII era displays, and the heritage boat works. The Artifact Conservation Viewing area allows you to see items recovered from the bottom of the ocean as they are restored for archeological study. Several WWII-era displays reveal how the US Coast Guard took over lighthouse operations in 1939, using the structure as a lookout station. We were also able to watch volunteers building boats using techniques and designs from the past.
Insider tips for visiting the St. Augustine Lighthouse
Active military, St. Johns County firemen and first responders, and children under 44″ receive free admission. If this doesn’t apply to you, go online for a 10% off coupon or receive 15% off by paying in advance using the code LH15. As a local, a family membership may be the most cost-efficient way to see the lighthouse. A membership will provide unlimited admission for members and their immediate family for one year, a subscription to the Spyglass museum magazine, and 20% off in the museum store. The museum store has great gifts for those wanting to give local products to friends and family, plus you’re supporting a not-for-profit educational and historical society.
I encourage you to arrive early due to the afternoon thunderstorms which are common in our area. The lighthouse steps will be closed during thunderstorms and you will be unable to view the city from the observation deck. Lightning strikes the building several times a year and the cast iron steps may become treacherous when wet. Arriving early also helps you to avoid the sweltering Florida heat during your climb.
A behind-the-scenes tour is included with regular admission between 11 and 3, on the hour. This is a 45 minute guided tour. For the children, don’t miss the tiny clues activity at 10AM and 4PM where they can experience hands-on how archeologists find artifacts in the ocean.
Don’t miss one of the best attractions in St. Augustine
The St. Augustine Lighthouse has been entertaining visitors since it was first lit in 1874. On the first Wednesday in December, the lighthouse hosts a luminary night that is truly magical. There are holiday crafts, live music, and beautiful holiday luminaries surrounding the lighthouse grounds. If you are too busy in December, I encourage you to participate in the Annual Lighthouse 5K and Night Fest on the first Saturday in March. This is a 5k walk/run that starts and ends at the lighthouse. The proceeds from this race benefit many local non-profit organizations in our community.
During other parts of the year, you can go on a ghost tour or view the sunset/ moonrise with champagne and appetizers. On the 4th of July, a few lucky patrons can watch the fireworks from the observation deck.
No matter your interests there is something for you at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. It’s one of my favorite St. Augustine attractions and I hope it will soon be one of yours.