what you will see
Spanish engineer Ignacio Daza designed Castillo de San Marcos as a hollow square with diamond-shaped bastions at each of its four corners. Named Saint-Pédro, Saint-Carlos, Saint-Augustin and Saint-Pablo, the bastions are connected by thick walls which gave the soldiers a good overview of the region, in particular the sea, from where the Spaniards expected to most attacks. From the bastions, they could also fire at the enemy in several directions, creating a crossfire effect. The walls, constructed from more than 400,000 blocks of coquina stone, ranging from 14 to 19 feet thick at the base and tapering to nine feet at the top, provided the necessary protection against enemy fire.
When you purchase tickets at the entrance to the Castillo, you also receive a self-guided tour brochure. Entering through the entrance known as Sally Port, you will find the soldiers’ quarters on your right. These rooms, fitted with wooden beds, tables and chairs set against the rough gray walls, allow you to imagine the lives of ordinary soldiers as they stood guard. “The Spanish garrison at St. Augustine was supposed to be 300 troops,” says Jill Leverett, a ranger at the fort, “but they were generally a little timid because they were in the middle of nowhere.”
The soldiers did not live inside the fort – they usually stayed with their families in their homes in St. Augustine – but instead they usually worked around the clock inside the Castillo. During these shifts, in addition to their guard duties, they took naps, played games, sought warmth near fireplaces in winter, and cooked food. You will enter a room with a fully laid table filled with a fake feast of vegetables, fruit, bread, and wine. Nearby, an area that once served as officers’ quarters is now a bookstore selling gifts and souvenirs, including pieces of coquina stone.
In the Plaza de Armas, the courtyard of the fort, you will see one of the three original wells, still with fresh water. The well is a good place to start exploring various exhibits in the rooms surrounding the plaza. As you follow the self-guided tour clockwise around the courtyard, posters guide you chronologically through the construction and history of the fort. Fires, rot, storms, termites and tides destroyed the first nine wooden forts of St. Augustine. The Spaniards therefore began building this one in stone in 1672, a project which was not completed until 1695. Historians believe that they used, at least in part, African laborers (both free and enslaved) and Native American tribesmen (who were paid but forced to work). Workers mined more than 150 million pounds of coquina, then transported the blocks across the bay to the site and set them into walls, all by hand. In the 18th century, the Spaniards further fortified the Castillo. It is not clear if they knew of the special properties of the rascal. “It’s possible they didn’t, which is why they thickened the walls,” says Leverett.
As you continue the self-tour, you’ll see warehouses where the Spanish stored ammunition, gunpowder, and tools, as well as provisions such as beans, corn, flour, and rice. A gunpowder room is more like a crawl space with a door about 3 feet high, which children frequently crawl out to explore the room. Several rooms tell the story of the fort under English governance, after the British took Florida from the Spanish in 1763.
You can also learn about the history of the fort in the 19th century: after Florida became part of the United States in 1821, the fort was renamed Fort Marion in honor of the American war officer. independence Francis Marion, known as Swamp Fox. His days at Fort Marion included grim events, such as his use from 1875 to 1878 to imprison 74 Native Americans from five tribes, many of whom were survivors of the brutal 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in present-day Colorado. (Congress officially changed the name of the national monument to Castillo de San Marcos in 1942.)
Once you have finished touring the fort, take a moment to stand in the middle of the Plaza de Armas to imagine being here in the turbulent colonial times. In times of peace, soldiers practiced their military skills in the square to use the musket to muscle memory, crucial for battle. When an enemy threatened, people from around St. Augustine flocked here for safety, building shelters in the plaza and cooking food. During the siege of 1702, around 1,500 soldiers and civilians lived inside the fort for 51 days – an unimaginable feat by modern standards.
If you can, climb the stairs to the bastions and the Gun Deck. There’s no elevator or wheelchair access, but the stairs aren’t steep with the 47 tall and wide steps. On deck are cannons that were used to fire back – some original, some replicas. You’ll also be rewarded with a cooling breeze, a spectacular view of Matanzas Bay, and the chance of spotting a dolphin or two. Looking out to sea, visualize approaching enemy ships dropping anchor and battering the fort, and feel the attackers’ frustration and bewilderment at its impenetrable walls. You won’t find any cannonballs lodged in the walls as the Spanish replaced the damaged sections with new ones, but you can imagine this particular sight.
Before the pandemic, staff at the fort wore Spanish costumes and fired the cannons on weekends, paying homage to the fort’s tumultuous history, but the schedule is currently on hold to avoid drawing large crowds. Likewise, ranger talks, once given several times a day in the Plaza de Armas, are suspended, but rangers are there to answer questions.
Ranger Tip: The popular museum has a small parking lot that tends to fill up on busy days. To get a spot, especially near the entrance, Leverett suggests coming early. Alternatively, you can park your car in one of the city parking lots or garages and walk 10-15 minutes, or take a trolley.