Five hundred years ago, grizzled Spanish conquistador Ponce de León became the first European to set eyes on (what he called) La Florida, the “Land of Flowers”, though Spanish colonization didn’t get going until 1565, with the foundation of the city of St Augustine. Today the place is part historic theme park, part memorial to America’s oft forgotten Spanish roots (it was founded some forty years before Jamestown and 55 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts). There’s still plenty of real history behind the kitsch: here Stephen Keeling, co-author of The Rough Guide to Florida, picks ten highlights in honour of Ponce de León’s portentous discovery.

1) The Fountain of Youth

Ponce de León was supposedly drawn to Florida by the fabled life-preserving “fountain of youth”. The legend is celebrated just north of downtown St Augustine at a mineral spring that’s touted, only half in jest, as the actual fountain. Delusions apart, this is thought to be where de León landed in 1513, and is genuinely where the first Spanish colony was established in 1565. Toast the Spanish hero with a cup of the fresh, sulphur-smelling spring water (everlasting life is free with admission), and view the exhibits on the (very real) Timucua people who lived here before the Spanish.

2) Mission of Nombre de Dios

Next door to the Fountain of Youth is the Catholic complex known as the Mission of Nombre de Dios, the location of the first official Mass in North America. The mission that was established on this spot around 1620 was the first of many in the southeast US established by Jesuits; a small, ivy-covered 1914 re-creation of the original Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is still revered by pilgrims, while a pathway leads across a nineteenth-century cemetery to the 208-foot stainless steel Great Cross raised in 1965, glittering in the sun beside the river.

3) Castillo de San Marcos

Nothing in St Augustine survived the dastardly attacks of British freebooting pirates Francis Drake in 1586 and Robert Searle in 1668; only the stone-built Castillo de San Marcos escaped further destruction wrought by Carolina governor James Moore in 1702. Given its current fine state of preservation, it’s difficult to believe that the fortress was established back in 1672. Now operated by the National Park Service, docents in Spanish uniforms carry period muskets and fire cannons from the walls, while inside, there’s a series of exhibits highlighting life in the fort, the British attacks and Native American prisoners of war held here in the 1880s.

4) Colonial Spanish Quarter

Taking up a fair-sized wedge of old St Augustine, the Colonial Spanish Quarter is an enthusiastic effort to portray life during the Spanish period, with reconstructed homes and workshops set up circa the 1740s. This is a living museum; volunteers dressed convincingly as Spanish settlers go about their daily tasks at anvils and foot-driven wood lathes, making candles and the like.

5) Spanish Military Hospital & Museum

Originally built in 1791, the Spanish Military Hospital and Museum re-creates the spartan care wounded soldiers received during Spanish era. Give thanks you weren’t one of them whilst viewing the displays of rusty surgical instruments and the “mourning room”, where the priest administered last rites to doomed patients.

6) Ximenez-Fatio House

Built around 1798 for a Spanish merchant, the Ximenez-Fatio House became a boarding house in the nineteenth century, representing one of the few socially acceptable business ventures for a woman at the time. Don’t miss the rare 1650 Caravaca Cross displayed in the house museum, discovered on the property in 2002.

7) Dow Museum of Historic Houses

This collection of nine handsome buildings has been expertly restored from every period and cultural milieu between 1790 and 1910, not just the Spanish. Particularly fascinating is the Prince Murat House (1790), briefly home to Napoleon’s nephew (for whom it was named), whose main room and upstairs bedroom is graced by ravishing French Empire furniture.

8) The Oldest House

This really is one of the oldest and most atmospheric structures in town, built in the years after the destruction of St Augustine in 1702. The ground floor is furnished in the sparse, rough style of the early 1700s, while the second floor was grafted on during the period of British rule in Florida in the 1770s, a fact evinced by the bone china crockery belonging to a former occupant, one very English-sounding Mary Peavitt.

9) Villa Zorayda Museum

The nineteenth-century inhabitants of St Augustine were fascinated by their Spanish heritage. Eccentric Bostonian architect Franklin W. Smith was especially obsessed, building the Villa Zorayda Museum in 1883 as a homage to the famed Alhambra (at a tenth of the original size). Today the gorgeous, ornate villa is home to a bizarre collection of Smith’s personal belongings and rare antiques: highlights include the “Sacred Cat Rug”, a 2400-year old carpet made from the hairs of ancient Egyptian cats. It was discovered in 1861 as wrapping for the foot of a looted mummy (also on display here).

10) Flagler College

True, the flowing spires, arches and Spanish Revival red-tiled roof of Flagler College have zero to do with colonial Spain, but it’s an astounding work of art packed with treasures nonetheless. Now a liberal arts campus, the confection was completed by Henry Flagler in 1888 as the Ponce de León Hotel. Tours take in the best bits: the mesmerizing 80-foot Rotunda, with its Tiffany sunroof, stunning oak carvings, 14-carat gold gilding and murals by George Maynard; and the incredibly opulent dining room with its precious collection of Tiffany stained glass windows and yet more dramatic murals by Maynard.

Discover more of Florida on Rough Guides >