What if you didn’t have to choose between historic or kid friendly? What if you didn’t have to compromise between a wheelchair friendly city or beautiful sandy beaches? What if there were a place that had something for the really young I-run-everywhere-I-go crowd, the really old I’m-lucky-if-I-can-mosey crowd, and the tired parents and wild partyers in between?
Welcome to Wheelchair Accessible St. Augustine – the nation’s oldest city. I’ve been struggling with how to categorize this one, because it really has so much of everything, all lumped into one destination. The big draw for me was a historic town that has done so much to improve wheelchair accessibility (that’s not typically a thing – wheelchairs don’t go to old places), but we found so much more.
Below are our favorite family friendly and wheelchair accessible St. Augustine highlights from our four day stay. I strongly suggest you leave yourself more time than that, because we only made it through about half of what we wanted to do! Also, please know that we were hosted for most of these activities, but I only share what we love!
When to Go
Maybe the best thing about Florida is that there is no bad time to go. Sure, summers are hot, but not unbearably so. We went over the holiday season, which is the areas busiest time of year… but once we discovered why, we weren’t sorry. National Geographic named St. Augustine’s holiday light display in the top five in the world. It’s the only U.S. display on the list this year. So, if you’re a Christmas fanatic like me, December-January is the best time to go. You can’t go wrong, no matter when you go. Promise.
Because of the ease of transportation in and around downtown, you can get here however you’d like! We drove, because it was part of a bigger trip. That being said, we really only used our van to get out to the beach and the lighthouse.
If you fly in, Jacksonville is the closest airport, but Orlando may be worth the extra drive for the savings in airfare. They’re pretty consistently the cheapest flights into Florida, which would more than make up for the cost of getting into St. Augustine from there.
If you take your car into town, you can use it to get around. If you have a disability placard, you can park for free in any city space for up to 48 hours. The same rule applies to public parking garages (like the big one by the visitor’s center). While that may sound easy-peasy, parking during the busy season can get tricky. You may spend as much time looking for a space downtown as you would’ve walking in from your hotel.
The same Old Town Trolley tour that we loved in Nashville also runs in St. Augustine! You can park for free at their main station and let them shuttle you around all day. The perks of this option are being able to get on and off at all of the major attractions, not worrying about parking, and not wearing yourself out trying to walk it all. Your driver also doubles as a tour guide, and gives you a nice history of the city.
They also run special Ghosts and Gravestones tours, and they do the Nights of Lights tour that we loved so much. Oh, and they give discounted admission to the stops/attractions they partner with – which is nice if you’re trying to hit up a lot of the different things St. Augustine has to offer!
Not all of the stops are wheelchair accessible, but they give you a map of which ones are. The stops were all close enough to each other that we didn’t have any issues just going a stop over for ramp access. The only downside was later in the day as the trolleys filled up it was hard to get back on. Since only one row has wheelchair access (and there’s no sharing rows during Covid), it was tricky to be able to hop on once things got more crowded.
By Personal Cruiser
How about a personalized tour, that takes you to any stop you want (and none you don’t), offers a history of the town (but will pause for your kids’ interruptions), can work with your schedule needs, and is fully wheelchair accessible? I know: it sounds too expensive. Nope. It’s by donation. L.B. Cruisers is an extension of a community development corporation that’s working to support and revitalize St. Augustine. They’re meeting needs of both the local disability community and the tourism industry. (904-878-1171)
By Other Wheels
From wheelchairs to scooters and three wheelers, you can rent any kind of wheels you want from Solano Cycle, starting as low as $15 an hour. Keep in mind you’ll still need to find a place to park most of these things.
What to Do
Eek! Ok, this is where it starts to get overwhelming. I’m going to group things by area, because there’s just too much to cover in one trip. I would suggest at least two days for downtown and a third day for the beach… with a return visit for all of the holiday festivities!
The Nation’s Oldest…
My eight year old joked that this was the tagline for every place we saw. “Look, Mom, the nation’s oldest parking garage!”
This is understandable once you know that we had just visited the nation’s oldest street, the nation’s oldest house, one of the nation’s oldest stores, one of the nation’s oldest jails, and even the nation’s oldest wax museum and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! The nation’s oldest city happens to have a lot of old things.
All of those locations are interesting to see. I suggest you plan for a day just to make your way down George St. and take in as many of these as you can (the trolley or cruiser would be a great way to do this). Start at the old city gate on George St. and make your way past the end of the street to Flagler College. We didn’t make it inside to see the Tiffany glass windows, but I’m sorry we missed it.
Also, when I say take in as many as you can, many of these should be walk-throughs. If you book six historic tours in a day, your kids will lose their minds. Pick a favorite or two for a tour. Just check out what’s open to the public for the others.
My personal favorite was the Pirate and Treasure Museum, I think because it’s a corner of history we know so little about. I loved seeing real buried treasure and hearing stories of pirates… that I thought had been made up by Disney (don’t judge). Fully wheelchair accessible, you’ll just need to exit through the entrance.
Another really fascinating tour was the old jail. That being said, it’s an ugly history and was a bit intense for our young crowd. I would suggest 8 and up, depending on the personality of your kids. The second floor is not wheelchair accessible, but the guide was really great about filling us in on everything we couldn’t see.
**Many of the shops, restaurants, and attractions are in historic buildings with steps at the entrance. While very few places have signs to indicate accessibility, most of them have back or side entrances that are wheelchair accessible. We almost missed out on several good ice creams because of this. Always look for an alternate entrance!**
Castillo de San Marcos
This is another “the nation’s oldest,” but it needs its own day. Spanish built and showcasing multicultural history through the years, Castillo de San Marcos is cool just to view from the outside, but also worth the really long wait to get in. The gun deck is not wheelchair accessible. Your National Park ACCESS pass gets you in for free.
Fountain of Youth
The Native Americans were twice the size of the European’s coming to Florida, and lived twice as long, so obviously it was this Floridian water.
I do realize this attraction may seem a bit contrived, but it’s still cool to say you drank from the Fountain of Youth – my kids all insist they feel younger, already. In addition to drinking from the fountain (since that takes about ten seconds), the attraction offers several shows featuring the lifestyle of the era, including firing a musket and a cannon. There’s also a planetarium and a boardwalk that takes you out over the water. The fountain itself is down three steps.
While you’re in the area, make sure you check out the street that you entered from, Magnolia Avenue – it’s designated as one of the nation’s most beautiful streets.
You are in Florida, after all. It would be silly to skip this.
Anastasia State Park
While you can borrow beach wheelchairs for any of the beach locations (three days advance notice required), I suggest Anastasia State Park for ease of accessibility. They have ramped boardwalks and a mobi-mat for beach access, as well as accessible facilities like restrooms and picnic areas. Beach wheelchairs are available for loan at the Island Beach Shop and Grill or Anastasia Water Sports.
We struggled to find the right beach access, so now I’m helping you. Don’t map Vilano Beach. It won’t bring you to anything easy to get to – especially with a wheelchair. You want to put in “Porpoise Point Beach Access.” There’s an accessible dune walkover, beach wheelchairs (call 904 209-0331 at least three days in advance to reserve), and you can even get a permit to drive on the beach.
St. Augustine Beach
The beach here has less accessibility options, but you are able to drive on the beach from several access points starting at A Street and heading south. There is a pier, but no ramped access to the ocean.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park
This is outside of downtown, and maybe outside of what you would think of with the nation’s oldest city, but the St. Augustine Alligator Farm has an impressive number of species and activities. This is still a very Floridian experience, and a great activity for captivating and educating the kids. It was easy to navigate with a wheelchair, and mostly outdoors (which adds to the comfort level of us Pennsylvanians in a pandemic). There is a disability discount available for admission. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can even zipline over the gators (not an accessible experience).
All the Rest
While the above were our absolute favorites, we also really enjoyed Potter’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. We ran out of time for the Whetstone Chocolate tasting tour, and that was high on my list. From cruises to mini golf, your activity options are pretty much endless. There’s a plethora of historic museums, like Old Florida Museum, Lightner, and the Oldest Store (and all those other “nation’s oldest” locations!). There are wineries and distilleries. St. Augustine is even home to the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum. I suggest you stay as long as you’re able so that you can take in as much as you can, at a leisurely pace!
Where to Eat
You don’t need me to tell you the best places to eat. You just need to look at the lines waiting to get in, and pick the longest! (This is always Harry’s.) Ok, ok. I’ll still give you some direction. If you’re not feeling any of these, check out the Guest and Chef Exchange Facebook page. You can ask about any specific food you have a hankering for, and someone will tell you where it’s best!
Maple Street Biscuit Company was our favorite for outdoor dining. The biscuits and homemade jam are delicious, and they have more adventurous offerings like a fried hash brown cake with smoked gouda cheese, topped with chives, gravy, and an egg. YUM. Grab a menu and get in line as soon as you get there, because that line will end up winding around the block! (Downtown and wheelchair accessible.)
The Blue Hen Cafe was probably our favorite overall. Between the five of us, we tried half the menu and can affirmatively tell you that you can’t go wrong. The wheelchair entrance is just to the right of the building. The café is just outside of the busy part of town – which makes parking easy. They don’t have outdoor seating, but we didn’t realize that until we got there, and we were hungry, so…
Lunch and Dinner
Taberna Del Caballo was so good that the kids asked to go there for every meal. It’s centrally located on George St. and has kid friendly options at reasonable prices (more so than most places on this street).
Salt Life Food Shack is on the beach side of things and has that great beach vibe, with decent views, and a fun fish tank inside. They have an elevator to their second-floor outdoor dining – which puts them a level above the rest (see what I did, there…).
Meehan’s Irish Pub is a local restaurant with three separate restaurants in the same location. We ended up at The Backyard because the wait was shortest, but all three have quality food… from the same kitchens.
The Floridian is a locally sourced restaurant with a vibrant menu. It’s not a kid-restaurant, per se, but they have a good kids’ menu and the outdoor seating makes it a laid back atmosphere.
That’s right, I’m adding a food category. You need to know the ice cream joints! If you’re on George St., there’s an ice cream or sweet treat every other building. I wish we could’ve tried them all, so please let me know what favorites you find! Our ice cream at Kilwin’s was unbeatable. They have a couple of locations, but we visited near the Colonial Quarter. The rear entrance is accessible.
Another place you’ll see more than once is The Hyppo. You might as well stop for a popsicle each time you see one. Delicious. And, being all natural, they’re practically good for you, right? You’re not going to be able to pass the smell coming from Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar, so you might as well stop here, too. If none of these meet your fancy, George St. has every kind of bakery, pastry shop, creamery, and confectionary you can dream of. Yum.
Where to Stay
We were hosted by the Holiday Inn St. Augustine – Historic. This was perfect for us for multiple reasons. First, accessibility was easy. They’ve got that down. Second, location, location, location. They’re outside of the traffic and noise of downtown, but only by a few blocks. It’s walkable if you’re up for , or a super short ride.
There are also hotels on the beach side, but we enjoyed being near all of the fun. If these don’t fit your budget, staying out of town is always more cost effective. Fifteen minutes outside of town, you can stay just off of I-95 and commute in. The Courtyard here was lovely.
This was a lot of information – and it really only scratches the tip of the iceberg (just kidding, it’s too warm for icebergs…). Click here to see how it breaks down into a perfect weekend itinerary. Or here to find other inspiration in the area!