In 2015, the city of St. Augustine commemorated the 450th anniversary of its founding as the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States. Closing out this year of celebration is the 22nd annual Nights of Lights, one of the ancient city’s most popular traditions, offering visitors a magical tribute to the holiday season.
During Nights of Lights, the city’s Historic District is lit by more than 3 million white lights, said Barbara Golden, communications manager for FloridasHistoricCoast.com, the region’s visitors and convention bureau. Historic buildings like Flagler College, the Lightner Museum and Casa Monica, the Bridge of Lions, hotels, inns and private residences all take part in the sparkly tradition.
A recent visit to this charming city only reinforced my affection for all it has to offer, particularly for those in search of Christmas spirit. Listed by National Geographic as one of the 10 best holiday lighting displays in the world, Nights of Lights kicks off each year the Saturday before Thanksgiving and continues through January.
The best way to see the lights is aboard one of two tourist trams that zip around the Historic District: Old Town Trolley and Ripley’s Red Train. The trams cost $10 to $12 for adults and $5 for kids.
If your budget is an issue, simply enjoy the Nights of Lights on foot. The more spectacular displays are within an easy stroll of the central Plaza de la Constitucion at the foot of the Bridge of Lions. The plaza, with its trees adorned in twinkling lights, is a good place to begin a Nights of Lights walkabout, as families and couples gather at the gazebo to admire the Christmas tree and enjoy the festive atmosphere, singing choirs and live music.
We hopped aboard the Old Town Holly Jolly Trolley, which was specially decked out for the evening tours. To the sound of recorded Christmas classics and carols, our tramful of tourists enjoyed a 30-minute open-air ride around the illuminated Historic District.
To my delight, no historic commentary was delivered over the tram speakers (we already had received St. Augustine history lessons on two walking tours that day).
Both tram tours provide riders with “magic glasses” that offer a whole new dimension to the twinkling white lights. The specially made 3-D glasses turn white lights into dancing colored snowflakes — an almost psychedelic experience. The glasses were a big hit with old and young alike.
In addition to Nights of Lights, our weekend included a few of my favorite St. Augustine activities — strolling historic St. George Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, to browse through the jewelry shops and art galleries; visiting the Castillo de San Marcos for the spectacular views of the city and Matanzas Bay; and noshing my way through the Old City. Each time I visit, I discover a few new favorites among the diverse array of restaurants and outdoor cafes that line the streets.
“In the past decade, St. Augustine has really developed a reputation as a foodie town,” Golden said. “We have some amazing culinary talent — world-class chefs and restaurants — and the walking food tours have become very popular.”
Hearing the buzz about the new St. Augustine Distillery, we made time to visit, take the free tour, sample the spirits and fall in love with this historic gem. The lovingly restored 1907 ice manufacturing plant is on the National Register of Historic Buildings and stands as a magnificent tribute to a community that spent five years bringing the operation to fruition in early 2014. The rustic yet sophisticated second-floor Ice Plant Bar offers a farm-to-table menu and craft cocktails featuring the distillery’s Florida Cane Vodka, New World Gin and Discovery Rum.
The bourbon is being aged in barrels and will not be ready for tasting until late 2016, which provides an excellent reason to return to St. Augustine next holiday season — along with the Nights of Lights, of course.
Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer living is Safety Harbor.