A St. Augustine day trip is a visit to a 400-500 years old historical and colonial time and there you can see the forts, artilleries, cannons, monuments, medieval streets, schools, and whatnot. If you visit in December preferably during Christmas or New year, the St Augustine nights of lights event can be the cherry on the top for your getaway. And that's what we did!
We were in St. Augustine on Christmas eve when the city was glistening in the lights (million to be exactly as the legends say). It seemed like the city is bathing in the lights from top to bottom especially the downtown St Augustine.
Let me tell you about my journey which started hours ago in the morning of the same day when we reached St Augustine. Let me build up the narration leading up to the famous 'Night of Lights' which I was excited about, right from the word go!
I will cover all the places we had been to(me, my husband and two of our friends) throughout the day. We preferred a self-instructing walking tour over the whole town. I will also list out some famous trolley tours available in the city for those who prefer sitting-n-touring over walking-n-touring.
St. Augustine distance
The closest airport is Jacksonville from where you can rent a car to travel to St Augustine (though you don't need a car in the city itself) or hire a taxi from the airport. It is a 1-1.5 hrs drive to the historic town. Orlando airport is farther but might come in cheap in terms of tickets.
We were living in Tampa when we visited St Augustine so we came by our car. We started from Tampa early morning and reached St Augustine by noon. Parking is no issue in the town as it's generously available throughout, we parked the car behind USPS office on king street(dedicated parking available) near the Villa Zorayda Museum which also became our first thing to visit.
Lightner Museum is right beside the Villa Zorayda Museum and a beautiful garden with a fountain and statue in the center precedes the museum. Initially, it was a former Alcazar Hotel built in 1888 by Henry Flagler. The garden is huge and has paths built for the tour trolleys to pass through it.
Lightner Museum is one of the best to house the magnificent collection of art of the 19th century. I saw beautifully cut sculptures, antiques and historic paintings displayed in the museum. It is free to visit however some dedicated tours requires fees, is open throughout the week and might be closed on holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and others. Hours may differ on Christmas eve.
There are various decorative articles to watch out for and you can witness melodious demonstrations of antique musical instruments. The artists do music demonstrations from 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. When we visited the place, I saw a lady playing the harp. Oh, how pleasing it was!. One of the soothing live music to hear I might say, in the town and especially if it is played with antique instruments, isn't it?
There are two different building structures and in between, they have created another beautiful garden with a pond(koi pond I think) in the center, housing variety of fishes and a cute bridge to observe them and crossover the pond. So after hearing the musical demo I ventured into that garden to take it all and getting lost into the statues placed in the garden. The museum wall surrounds it from all sides and I could see corridors on both sides to connect to the other building.
Casa Monica Resort & Spa and Flagler college
It is a resort but seemed like a monument with its historic building telling a story of its past and a European style structure built in the colonial times. You can stay there and feel like royalty anytime. Casa Monica a sight to behold!
Flagler College is again one of the historic set of buildings to look out for and is placed opposite the Lightner Museum on King Street. All these three structures face each other and seem to create a magnificent, famous square of their own with the Lightner Museum garden in the center.
I knew all these huge structures were going to light up at night but that did not deter me from any of my anticipation of the upcoming night.
Castillo de San Marcos
We proceeded further on the King St till we reached the Matanzas river and walked parallel by the shore to reach the fort which is facing the river.
The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the continental United States; it is located on the western shore of Matanzas Bay. The Castillo was designed by the Spanish engineer Ignacio Daza, with construction beginning in 1672, 107 years after the city's founding by Spanish Admiral and conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, when Florida was part of the Spanish Empire (Source:Wikipedia)
The fort stands proudly facing the Matanzas bay to support the medieval US shores in case of an enemy attack coming from the water.
The fort still has a firing salvo where cannonballs were heated up back then, before firing the shots on the coming enemy ships. However, the need never arose to fire those shots on the ships so they used it for drill purposes in case a possible attack happens.
They also had various other weaponry to protect the fort back then. Exploding shells were fired from mortars and howitzers and solid shots cannonballs were fired from cannons.
Castillo de San Marcos is built in a start shaped structure(if viewed from the top) probably to take a hit or an impact of fired weaponry shot by an enemy, giving it a strategic advantage. It was an interesting visit to the fort which helped us in getting to know all about the structure protecting the shores of St. Augustine, in those times. Till here the St Augustine day trip was turning out to be remarkable and out self-guiding walking tour was getting us really hungry.
Old City Gates, like really old and the Cemetary residing opposite!
After educating ourselves on the history of Castillo de San Marcos, we moved on to the San Marco Ave or Florida State Road A1A leading us to the historic gates of St. Augustine. The gate was opened in 1739 and was the only access to the town of St. Augustine from the north side.
The Huguenot Cemetery is present across the historic city gates and was a burial ground between the 1821 and 1884.
St. George Street: the ultimate shopping and souvenirs destination
Time to do some shopping and St. George Street, here we come!
This is the hub of activities to do in St. Augustine, right from buying cigars to eating pastries, from minting coins to buying souvenirs, you will find many things here.
St. George Street starts from the Old City Gates. You can go explore it starting here or you can enter the streets from many other streets depending on where currently you are at, in the town. If you are on the riverside of the town, Orange St, Cuna St, Treasury St, King St, and many such streets lead up to it and they are all historical with medieval houses, full of small yet beautiful souvenir shops and also restaurants. But St. George street is my favorite. We were at the fort so we planned to enter St. George St from the ancient gates and the Orange St which are very close to each other.
Wonder why I mentioned it? We were starving after we were done with the fort. Al's Pizza is right across the corner and is opposite to the St. Augustine coffee house, Stogies Cigar shop.
Being a vegetarian, surfing through the menu is always a scary task because you never know if you would like an option to eat considering they are way less than the non-vegetarian ones.
Silver Creek Jewellery & Gifts
Oldest Wooden School House
LeMacron French Pastries & Shell shop-sunburst trading Co
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
After some leisure and shopping activity on some of the oldest streets in the USA. we stumbled on the beautifully carved and momentous cathedral which was again a creation of 18th Century. It is present on Cathedral Street between the St. George Street and Charlotte Street.
It has a remarkable interior and the gives you the feel medieval times as soon as you enter it.
Bridge of Lions / Coastal byway
Post this Gigantic cathedral visit, we walked to the riverside and planned to cross the bridge as we had wanted so much to see the lighthouse from up close as it had constantly teased us from afar standing tall over the island on the other side.
The walk on the bridge had a significance of its own as we could see the whole town of St. Augustine in a single glance and it was a nice Instagram worthy spot to capture it in an entire frame. The whole bay area had boats and yachts enhancing the view, this walk on the bridge is a must-watch attraction of St. Augustine and the fact that the town could be seen in a single frame in the twilight is a never miss incentive to walk on it.
This bridge connects the St Augustine historic town to the Anastasia Island which is again mostly a residential island but also has various tourist attractions you could visit like Alligator Farm zoological park, Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, and Anastasia State Park. If anyone is on a 2-day visit to this old town, they can enjoy these tourists attractions. This St Augustine day trip had by then, became a twilight excursion.
The lighthouse, being far inside the island, we kissed our dream of exploring the lighthouse, goodbye and walked till the Marker 8 Hotel and Marina and came back as we had to catch the Christmas lights as well. Remember the Christmas lights which I was highly excited to see?
Medici Lion marble statues
These lion structures welcome you when you reach the shore of the town which is the western end of the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine, Florida. It was constructed between 1925 and 1927. They guard the entrance to the bridge.
The concept of Medici lions was originated in Rome and the structures were copied throughout the world. Apparently, the lion statue which is looking forward has its one paw placed on the marbled orb. It is again a good place for a photo-op.
Cutter and Cutter Fine Arts Gallery
It is a beautiful gallery right on the Plaza de la Constitucion in the heart of the town. The organizers exhibited beautiful creations of Salvador Dali on the day we visited. I went through all the beautiful paintings and wondered how did he make those?
People working at the Cutter and Cutter Fine Arts there were explaining a few of the paintings. The exhibition also has some other creations like sculptures and landscape paintings which definitely looked like a limited edition fine art. If you are a collector of arts, you must not miss this beautiful Gallery.
Plaza de la Constitucion
This is again located on the King Street opposite the Cutter Gallery and was heavily lit up with the St Augustine lights to celebrate the night of lights. They celebrate it throughout December.
The St Augustine day trip has certainly become fascinating by these light's display covering right from St Augustine's colonial buildings to the celebrated monuments, from the shrubs to the gigantic trees of the garden.
Civil Rights memorial present in the vicinity was also decorated with the lights and tourists were flocking at the Plaza de la Constitucion to celebrate the festival of Lights. Christmas tree in the Plaza garden was enriched for people to adore and getting their photos clicked around it and why not it was magnificently decorated with ornaments and lights and surprisingly it was blueish in its aura.
Dog Rose Brewing Beer
We advanced further from the plaza, on St George St towards the residential side of the town and had a stone-paved way, and took a right on the bridge St and walked further down to reach the place. We had a beer after the whole adventure of St Augustine. There was a little distillery kept in a corner and I bet that must be old too. We played darts just to cool off.
Heading back to Lightner museum at night
Now coming to the show stopper of the night! Have you ever seen 3 million lights in a single night? I had not. Right from the museum to the resort and to the college, every this was lit as crazy. This was what I was waiting for throughout the day.
The lights filled the gardens and the town trolley tours going through them were an amazing sight to watch. Everyone there was basking in the holiday lights and were having the best time of their life during this dazzling holiday cheer.