Exploring First Coast Culture and History

The First Coast region of Florida offers much more than opulent beach views and majestic palm trees. The area also boasts a rich history and a wide variety of cultural experiences perfect for visitors and residents alike.

Flagler County and Palm Coast

While beautiful Flagler Beach and its numerous restaurants and bars are an obvious draw, Flagler County’s majestic network of preserves, aptly named Princess Place Preserve, are a jewel that should not be overlooked.

Located at the confluence of Pellicer Creek, Moody Creek and the Matanzas River, the preserve’s history is rich and storied and includes a princess, orange groves and Florida’s first in-ground pool where the “rich and royal frolicked.” 

The Flagler Auditorium and Flagler Playhouse are two cultural attractions that are also not to be missed, showcasing some of the best performing arts in the region.

For history buffs, the Flagler Beach Historical Museum features a wide range of collections, artifacts and images. You’ll learn about mastodons and mammoths, shipwrecked French sailors, Charles Lindbergh and the founding families of “Ocean City.”

 St. Johns County and St. Augustine

St. Johns County offers residents and visitors a diverse array of historical structures, culturally significant food, live music and visual art.

Established by the Spanish explorer, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, in 1565, beautiful St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. Known for its Spanish architectural style, the city is truly something to behold.

While in St. Augustine, consider visiting the Ancient City Poets, a group that Chris Bodor, founding member and coordinator, describes as a “loosely knit patchwork of poets” who gather on the last Sunday of each month at the Dondanville Road location of the Kookaburra Coffee Shop. “Poets and poetry lovers have been gathering monthly since August of 2009,” Bodor says.

If a leisurely drive is more to your liking, consider a trip along the A1A Scenic and Historic Coast Byway. The Byway runs from the northern border of St. Johns County, south through Flagler County and is one of only two “All American Roads” in Florida, designated as such by the U.S. Department of Transportation for its incredible oceanside views and stunning scenery.

Other notable St. Johns’ attractions include the Fort Matanzas National Monument, the St. Augustine Lighthouse, Lightner Museum and The Oldest House Museum. The Oldest House Museum is a complex that offers guided tours every half hour. Expect to see an authentic colonial kitchen and ornamental garden and museum, while receiving an overview of the culture and history of St. Augustine.

For a truly unique “Old Florida” experience, visit Genung’s Fish Camp located in Crescent Beach. A destination for Floridians since 1948, Genung’s offers a fully stocked bait and tackle shop for anglers. Owner-operators Adam and Janine Morley both St. Augustine natives, have updated the traditional experience adding a fleet of kayaks and paddle boards for rent and space to host public and private events on the lawn along the Matanzas River.

Fish camps are a coastal tradition dating back to the early 20th century when entrepreneurs noticed farmers and factory workers, often with their families, fishing along the banks of waterways. It didn’t take long for shacks to appear where, for a small fee, you could clean and sometimes even cook your fish. From the Great Depression up until the development of bigger family attractions in the 1970s, fish camps grew to be a coastal tradition with coastal property owners and entrepreneurs offering fishing gear and boats for rent and simple cottages for inexpensive family stays.

Perfectly suited for family fun outdoors, local traffic and visits from surrounding counties has been booming at Genung’s. During the height of the pandemic their regular weekly visitors started coming two to three times each week and visits from surrounding county residents blossomed. “Fishing is the original social distancing activity, after all, and being outdoors with your family felt safe,” said Adam Morley.

Genung's Fishing Camp is an "Old Florida" style bait and tackle shop with a small marina, paddle sport rentals, and special event venue
Thrasher-Horne Center's Lee Adams Florida Artists Gallery which showcases local Florida artists in a variety of artistic mediums
Chris Bodor with students at Trinity Early Learning Center - Read a Child a Poem Day - at the Ancient City Poets

Putnam County

Putnam County is home to a variety of historical attractions. The Royal Indian Temple Mound was once a Timucuan Indian Temple and is the largest sand mound in Florida. Another unique attraction, the David Browning Railroad Museum contains documents, photographs, maps, signs and other items donated or loaned by the public and is part of the Palatka Railroad Depot.
Built in 1926, the Welaka National Fish Hatchery is a warm-water hatchery where 4.5 to 5 million fish are raised annually. It features 41 ponds operated at two locations: the Welaka Unit and the Beecher Unit.

Baker County

Several attractions that shouldn’t be missed when visiting Baker County include St. Mary’s Shoals Park, John M. Bethea State Forest and Heritage Park Village. Heritage Park Village was established in 1883 in northeast Florida and is an area of rich history and colorful traditions. Many of the county’s current residents are direct descendants of the pioneering families that settled here in the 1800s.

Take a walk back in time and explore the 20 mini heritage museums to view a unique collection of artifacts and community history showcasing the lives and traditions of past residents of the county.

Clay County

One of Florida’s fastest-growing counties, Clay County is best known for its events, many of which take place at the Thrasher-Horne Center. Located on the Orange Park campus of St. Johns River State College, the Center is the first major cultural arts and event venue facility in the area.

The Center presents the best of professional music, theatre, dance and meeting spaces. It includes a 1,725-seat Main Stage Theater, offering large-scale entertainment and a 6,260-square-foot, full-service Conference Center. Thrasher-Horne is also home to a studio theater, two visual arts galleries, a full dance studio, a scene shop and modern dressing rooms with full artist amenities.

According to Bob Olson, Executive Director, “Being a total event center allowed us to pivot when the pandemic safety protocols limiting capacity came down.” The size and variety of space options allowed them to host a wide range of performances from communities seeking alternatives to their smaller spaces. He first credits his incredible team who stepped up when he told them, “We are only limited by our creativity.” Olson also credits the loyal patrons and community who stuck with Thrasher-Horne Center, embracing new and unlikely events like the ever-popular corn hole tournament.

Together, the counties of the First Coast Region of Florida offer a robust and diverse range of cultural activities against the backdrop of beautiful beaches, waterways and historic scenery. Countless options suiting the tastes of every visitor are offered in this magnificent and exciting area of Florida.

Fort Mantazas National Monument, a stronghold constructed to protect Matanzas inlet which leads the way to the south entrance of St. Augustine
The spiral staircase inside the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse, which opened in 1874 on Lighthouse Avenue in St. Augustine, Florida
Thrasher-Horne Center in Clay County