St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest, continuously occupied city. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, the city remains true to its historic charm.
Home to Castillo de San Marcos — which is open to visitors — cobblestone streets and buildings covered with Spanish moss, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve taken a step back in time. And, as there were no cars in the 1500s, the city is meant to be walked. Once you find a parking spot, you can do your window shopping, coffee-drinking and ice cream eating in a day’s stroll. Though all of this keeps the city magical year-round, the annual Nights of Lights manages to make this not-so-hidden Florida gem even more magical during the holiday season.
Blending its history with modern culture is a core focus for St. Augustine, and every year, the Nights of Lights is held to accomplish this goal. According to Visit St. Augustine, the Nights of Lights traces back to a traditional Spanish practice, in which the Spanish would place a white candle in their windows during the Christmas holidays. This practice alludes to the birth story of Jesus, which started with Mary and Joseph unable to find shelter. By displaying candles in their windows, the Spanish were “symbolically making room in their homes and hearts for Jesus.”
Now, instead of candles in storefront and hotel windows, the city is adorned in Christmas lights. Everywhere you go downtown, from Flagler College to King Street, is lit up for the holiday season. The show is so spectacular, in fact, that it was named by National Geographic as one of the ten best holiday lighting displays in the world in both 2011 and in 2012. The list also included light shows in Hong Kong, Colombia and Madrid.
To have a light display of this level is a massive undertaking and requires a lot of help. According to Margaret Wallis, partnership coordinator with Visit St. Augustine, the city itself funds the light displays in the Plaza de la Constitución and the Lightner Museum. Flagler College, as well as other local businesses (restaurants, bed and breakfasts, etc.), hang their own lights. It’s a community effort, with everyone in town doing their part to spread holiday cheer.
Beyond enjoying the city lights, visitors can take photos with outdoor displays or the holiday tree placed in the center of town plaza, or, as Visit St. Augustine recommends, grab a hot chocolate from a local restaurant to savor on your stroll. There are also plenty of tours to enjoy, including the Old Town Trolley Famous Nights of Lights Tour.
In Florida, the common complaint is that Christmas never truly feels like Christmas. The movies all depict scenes of snow and lights, but Florida is still a blue ocean of humidity. Though there is still water to be seen in St. Augustine, the temps get just cool enough for sweaters, and the lights and window-shopping help match the picture of Christmas most of us carry around in our heads and hearts.
So, take a stroll through downtown St. Augustine this holiday season, and let yourself be enchanted by the history and the holiday spirit.