Ultimate Survival Guide to St. Augustine Nights of Lights
Nights of Lights is a yearly celebration in the city of St. Augustine that kicks off with a jam-packed lighting ceremony called Light Up! Night. It's the coolest thing for miles, and people come from all over the city, the state, the country, and even the world just to see the Ancient City’s dazzling lights turn on for the first time.
Nights of Lights has made St. Augustine one of the 'Twinkliest Towns' in the nation according to Rachel Ray Magazine, it was listed on National Geographic's Top 10 Places in the World (yes, as in "Planet Earth," "the Globe," "everywhere where any Christmas lights are found") to view holiday lights in 2012 and 2013, listed on 7-Over-The-Top Holiday Light Displays You Gotta See by HuffPost in 2015, and on the Top 20 Spots Across America to See Amazing Holiday Light Displays by Country Living in 2014. Basically, you can say that when it comes to insanely awesome light displays, St. Augustine reigns supreme, and ain't no one gonna dethrone us any time soon.
If you're already feeling overwhelmed, don't be! If you’re new to the event, all the excitement can feel like a bit much, but that’s why those of us here at VisitStAugustine.com have put together this Ultimate Survival Guide to St. Augustine Nights of Lights—so that people can get in, have fun, and get out in one piece, as opposed to coming out tangled up in a ball of Christmas lights (that only happened once).
For a complete list of Nights of Lights tours and all the other holiday events going on in St. Augustine, visit here.
Know the History
St. Augustine Nights of Lights first started in the winter of 1993, and it's been lighting up the nation's oldest city ever since.
St. Augustine's Nights of Lights comes from the traditional Spanish practice of displaying a candle in windows during the Christmas holidays. Candles in the window allude to the biblical story where Mary and Joseph could find no room at the inn. When the Spanish put candles in their windows, they were symbolically making room in their homes and hearts for Jesus. It also reflects the welcoming attitude of the holiday season, welcoming guests to our home. The stunning lights reflect the city's over 450 years of history and illuminate the beautiful cityscape for lasting holiday memories. The city of St. Augustine has been celebrating Nights of Lights for more than 20 years, and this year is sure to be another one for the books.
Don't forget about the metered spots along the bayfront south of the Bridge of Lions.
Traffic and parking is a little more difficult than usual, as flocks of people come from all over the region to view the lights. There's a parking garage located near the Visitor Information Center which you can get to by turning onto Castillo Drive from US 1. Parking at the garage is $12 per day. All metered spots on the street are free after 5 p.m.
The City of St. Augustine offers a free park and ride shuttle on Saturdays through the end of December 2017. The shuttle operates from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., beginning on Light-Up! Night (November 18, 2017,) on Friday and Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend (November 24 & 25), and then every Saturday in December.
The shuttle brings visitors to the Visitor Information Center at 10 S. Castillo Drive from two locations north of the city:
• St. Johns County Health Department, 200 San Sebastian View
• Parking Lot at the northern end of San Marco Ave, 301 San Marco Ave.
Locals who live nearby or own a bike should consider walking or biking to Nights of Lights. Just make sure your bike is equipped with its own set of lights and reflectors.
Grab Some Food.
Shrimp and Scallops from Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille
Make plans to have dinner and walk around. There are plenty of restaurants within walking distance of the main plaza, and they’ll all be open ready to serve vacationers for Nights of Lights.
- A1A Ale Works: This St. Augustine restaurant overlooks the Plaza de la Constitución where the lighting ceremony takes place. Sit on their New Orleans-style balcony and enjoy dinner entrees under the comfort of their outdoor heaters.
- Harry’s Seafood: Just around the corner from the plaza, this sit-down restaurant has a lovely patio that is lit up year round to get you in the Nights of Lights mood.
- Costa Brava Restaurant: For an elegant dining experience and world-class Mediterranean coastal cuisine, you can't go wrong with choosing this award-winning eatery inside the renowned Casa Monica Resort & Spa.
- The Spanish Bakery & Café: Tucked away in a garden just off St. George Street, this restaurant is a local favorite, offering delicious, homemade Spanish cuisine including empanadas, sausage rolls and more.
- Florida Cracker Café: Florida-style cuisine and a laid back atmosphere attract diners to this St. George Street restaurant, with both indoor and outdoor seating available.
Get Something Warm.
Hot cocoa at Kookaburra.
The nights can be cold (for Florida, which means around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, 18 degrees Celsius), so even if you don't feel like sitting down for a full meal, it'll be a good idea to grab something warm to eat or drink. If you want to grab a quick snack or drink to go, stop by these local fast food joints. And by "fast food," we don’t mean questionable quality, we mean quality service. Not to mention they're all within walking distance of the City's plaza, so you will be right in the heart of the historic district.
- Kookaburra: This Australian coffee shop serves up caffeinated beverages, hot chocolate, and their meat pies. Order a Hot Aussie if you’re looking for a sweet drink to keep you warm.
- Gaufre's and Goods: This Polish and Greek restaurant on Aviles Street serves hot Belgian waffles that come with a variety of toppings, like Nutella, whipped cream, and bananas.
Grab an Epic View!
You wanna be in a great spot when the lights are on for St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights. Here are a few of the places you can stand to watch the lights come on.
The Plaza de la Constitución is where most of the light-up the action takes place. There's a central gazebo, and lights are strung along all the trees in the plaza. There's also a huge Christmas tree that makes a perfect background for holiday photos (also see below).
The Bridge of Lions
You can stand along the sidewalks on the Bridge of Lions to get a view that allows you to overlook the whole bayfront, the tops of the trees in the plaza, and all the illuminated buildings.
I’m not suggesting you grab an inner tube and jump in the Matanzas River, but if you own a boat or want to book one of the Nights of Lights water tours, you can get a great view of the lights from the water without worrying about any crowds. It's comfortable, unique, and you can avoid the no open container law that applies to sidewalks and enjoy a drink from the ship. See Specialty Tours below for some great choices for water tours.
There are so many great opportunities to take photos. Get the family by the Christmas tree in the main plaza for a free Christmas photo. Take shots of the buildings or the trees to post on Instagram.
If you do post on Instagram, mention @VisitStA. You may get reposted!
Tips for the Perfect Nights of Lights Photo
- Pick the right time of day -- especially around sunset.
- If you have a digital camera, change the white balance to ‘tungsten.’
- Focus on something closer to make the lights become soft, out-of-focus orbs called “bokeh.”
- Plug in your iPhone headphones and use the volume button on the cord with the camera app open in order to take a still shot in low lighting without shaking the camera.
- Post on Instagram and mention @VisitStA.
Jam Out to Live Music
Every year, bands play live music from the gazebo in the Plaza de la Constitucion for Light Up! Night. Showtime USA is the favorite band that plays at the Light Up! Night Ceremony, but there's frequently live music in the gazebo on weekend nights throughout the holidays.
The festive atmosphere makes it easy to get in the spirit of the holiday season with Christmas songs and winter tunes. Relax and listen to the music, or grab a partner and dance to a merry tune.
Grab a Drink.
The Tini Martini Bar at the Casablanca Inn
Don't rush to get out of town as soon as the entertainment ends at 8 p.m. Stop at one of these bars and relax with a seasonal drink.
- Tini Martini Bar: Known for their decked out balcony, Tini Martini Bar at the Casablanca Inn on the Bayfront serves delicious dessert martinis for the holiday sweet tooth, like the After Eight, made with chocolate vodka, peppermint schnapps, Godiva chocolate liqueur, and Starbucks cream liqueur.
- Scarlett O'Hara's: A comfortable pub atmosphere, a downtown location with great people-watching seating on the porch, live music, great food, and handcrafted cocktails are highlights of this popular restaurant overlooking Hypolita Street.
- Dos Gatos: This rock-n-roll cocktail lounge and bar on Hypolita Street specializes in craft alcohol creations and late-night partying.
- Meehan’s: Sit on the balcony for views of the Bridge of Lions lit up on the water, and sip an Irish coffee.
Walking in a Lit-up Wonderland.
Stroll through the plaza, down the bayfront lined with lights and decorated palm trees. There’s also the Lightner Museum and Flagler College down King Street which are both adorned with lights. If you can’t see everything, then no worries. The display will be up every night until January 31, 2018.
Best Time to See Nights of Lights
Many people come for Nights of Lights on the weekend, so if you're looking to avoid the crowds, coming mid-week is a good idea. It’s a great way to get on a trolley or train without a long wait, and since many of the hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts in St. Augustine offer lower rates mid-week, it makes it easier to plan on staying overnight. That way, you can enjoy the lights at your leisure. And don't forget ... the lights are lit through the end of January!
Enjoy a specialty tour ...
- Old Town Trolleys Famous Nights of Lights Tour: Sing along with this tour of Nights of Lights for all ages.
- Ripley's Red Train Nights of Lights Tours: Family-friendly tour featuring music and treats.
- Eco Tours Nights of Lights Boat Tour: Float away from the crowds and view the spectacle of lights from the water on this delightful one-hour tour.
- Florida Water Tours Nights of Lights Tours: These tours go out nightly from Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor.
- Scenic Cruise Tours: The Victory III goes out to see the lights on Saturday nights only during Nights of Lights, departing from the downtown city marina.
- Native Sun Nights of Lights Tours: This tour departs every night during Nights of Lights from the Conch House Marina.
- Nights of Lights Wine and Carriage Tour: Take an old-fashioned tour on a horse and carriage and enjoy some great wine along the way.
This article was originally written by Alex Pooler on November 10, 2014. It has been completely updated with current information for the 2017-18 Nights of Lights season.