- I'm a Florida resident who visited the state's coastal city of St. Augustine for the first time.
- I appreciated the city's European-inspired architecture, and enjoyed its Floridian quirks.
- The city was busy with a lot of foot traffic, but had a cheery vibe and friendly crowds.
I've lived in Florida for 13 years, and have had plenty of friends and family encourage me to visit St. Augustine, including one of my aunts, a world traveler who told me the coastal Florida town reminds her of various spots she's visited across Europe.
This December, I finally treated myself to a solo getaway to see St. Augustine's Nights of Lights, an annual holiday celebration that runs from mid-November through late January. I stayed at a hotel in the center of St. Augustine's Historic District, which overlooks the Matanzas River and the iconic Bridge of Lions.
I arrived early in the day and spent the afternoon and evening exploring the town's gorgeous cobblestone streets, European-inspired architecture, and festive Christmas displays. Here are my top takeaways from the trip.
St. Augustine was founded in 1565 and is considered America's longest-occupied city. It has a rich history with a mix of cultural influences, from its Spanish founders and 18th century British rulers, to the Gilded Age tycoons who transformed it into a tourist destination with newly built resorts and hotels, and the many others who've called it home ever since.
The town's European influences were, in my opinion, most prominent in its architecture and layout.
Throughout St. Augustine's Historic District, I saw colorful shutters, balconies overflowing with potted flowers, and vibrant terracotta roofs.
I was especially impressed by the variety of unique doors I saw on homes and businesses, including wooden doors, wrought iron doors, and doors of all shapes and colors. I could fill an album with all the photos I took of St. Augustine's doors — I took a lot because I thought they were so beautiful.
I also enjoyed reading various signs and plaques posted throughout the city that identified historic landmarks and told stories about the town's past. One sign I saw on King Street described how American Patriots had been held as prisoners of war in St. Augustine during the American Revolution.
From the moment I arrived, I marveled at the holiday decorations that seemed to fill every corner of the city. At my hotel, the banisters leading to my room were wrapped in ribbons and garland, and large ornaments hung from the breezeway ceilings.
Around town, I saw wreaths hung from street lamps and business facades decorated with string lights and red poinsettias. I passed by an art gallery that had a Grinch-themed exhibit, and shops along the busy foot-trafficked King Street that had filled their windows and walls with holiday displays.
One boutique I visited, called Two Sparrows, invited customers to write holiday messages or prayers on blank tags and hang them on a Christmas tree in the center of the store.
Even the passersby added to the charm of the season. I spotted folks donning Santa hats, matching holiday-themed outfits, and a variety of ugly and not-so-ugly Christmas sweaters.
Once I'd checked in at my hotel, I took a six-minute walk to the Plaza de la Constitución. In this rectangular plaza, which dates back to 1573, I saw several historical gems, from Civil War-era cannons to the Constitución Monument, an early-1800s obelisk that was built in honor of the Spanish government.
The square was also a hub for the Nights of Lights festivities. At the center of the plaza, I came across a large Christmas tree and a raised pavilion, where a chorus of children were singing holiday hymns.
At the eastern end of the square, closest to the Matanzas River, I saw craftspeople and artists selling wares at a covered market, which I later read online dates back to the 1500s. Throughout the square, I saw families lounging in portable camp chairs and snapping photos in front of the many festive decorations.
I stopped outside Ponce de Léon Hall, which was once a luxury hotel and is now a residence hall for Flager College, according to the school's website. I paused to take a Polaroid for a young couple who said they were also visiting from out of town and wanted a picture in front of the building.
Built in the 1880s, the Hall has arched walkways that surround a large courtyard, concrete towers with intricate moldings, terracotta roofing, and stately brick columns, including two by the main gates that had carvings of lions' heads. I also saw the statue of Henry Flagler, who developed the original hotel, in front of the gated entrance.
At the Governor's House Cultural Center and Museum, a single L-shaped building that spans the width of the plaza and once housed colonial governors, I found glass displays containing historical items and informational plaques about the history of the town. I read details about how St. Augustine's architectural makeup evolved over the centuries since its founding and was influenced by its various governments, including Spanish and British rulers.
In the building's lobby, I saw a permanent exhibit of artifacts from the building's renovations over the years, and in the center of the building there were rooms for rotating art exhibits.
I didn't go inside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine because it was temporarily closed to the public for a wedding ceremony. But I did get a chance to walk around the building and read about its history.
One sign that I saw explained how the site dates back to a Catholic mass that was held in 1565, an event that's considered the first mass ever held in the continental United States.
The Lightner Museum had castle-like towers, arched corridors with stone columns, and walkways that led to an inner courtyard. I later learned, after browsing the museum website, that these elements are a combination of Italian Renaissance and Moorish architecture.
As I explored the grassy grounds around the museum, I saw a wedding party passing through, with bridesmaids who wore elegant red and green gowns. I noticed that other nearby visitors, like me, took care to stay a respectful distance from the wedding group, which to me emphasized the feeling of friendliness I experienced throughout the town.
Completely off-limits to vehicles, St. George Street is lined with shops and restaurants, many of which are set in two-story buildings with balconies. In between the buildings, I also saw several quaint gardens and courtyards. The architecture here to me seemed much simpler and more understated than what I'd seen around the Plaza de la Constitución.
For example, the balconies that I saw were mostly built with wood rather than stone, many of the roofs had wooden shingles instead of terracotta tiles, and the buildings overall were more simple and less elaborate. Combined with the foot traffic and brick streets, the area had a pleasant vibe that felt to me like strolling through a European village or market.
One of the larger courtyards I came across along St. George had a coffee shop and beer tavern, and was filled with families gathered at outdoor patio tables. I also saw gift shops that lined the courtyard, including a jewelry shop and a store that sold Florida-themed souvenirs. At one end of the square, kids lined up to meet and take photos with a festively dressed Santa and Mrs. Claus.
As the light displays switched on at sunset, I saw the town transform into a glowing spectacle that I thought looked like something right out of a children's holiday book.
I made a point to circle back to the Plaza de la Constitución just after dusk, and I'm glad I did. The trees in the park were lit up with string lights that draped over the square like a canopy and twinkled on and off in a coordinated display. The Christmas tree at the center of the plaza, which had been off when I passed by during the day, glowed with multi-colored lights.
I saw families and couples lined up patiently at the edge of a gazebo near the tree, which had an elevated, well-lit platform that was a convenient place for taking photos with holiday lights in the background.
At the plaza's artisan market, I saw a lone guitarist softly strumming Vince Guaraldi's "Skating." The guitar music drifted across the park and mingled with children's laughter and church bells from the Cathedral Basilica, which reminded me of attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve with my family when I was a child.
I currently live a few hours away from my hometown and don't get to spend many holidays with my family, so it felt comforting to be surrounded by so many cheerful people celebrating together.
As someone who's lived in Florida for over a decade, I'm rather fond of the state's notorious weirdness, and was amused to see some of it throughout St. Augustine's mostly European-inspired settings.
On St. George Street, I spotted mermaid Christmas ornaments and other tropical eccentricities on display in shop windows. And on multiple occasions, I passed people dressed in full pirate garb, with sashes, swords, and hats and all. I presumed they were on their way to or from the Pirate & Treasure Museum, which is fittingly located across from the Castillo de San Marcos Monument, a historic coquina fort, built in 1695, that was constructed in part to protect the town from marauders.
The Bridge of Lions, which is named for the two pairs of carved marble lions that guard its entrances, connects St. Augustine's mainland with Anastasia Island, a beach community across the Matanzas River.
The bridge has a raised sidewalk and is pedestrian-friendly, so I decided to stroll partway across the river after sunset to view the holiday festivities from a distance.
On my walk, I watched the boats in the marina, some of which were decorated with colorful lights, and admired the sights and sounds of Nights of Lights, which I could still hear from afar.
The lights illuminated the evening and cast twinkling, multi-colored reflections on the water. From the bridge, I could hear passengers on the Old Town Trolley Tours, St. Augustine's popular shuttle service, singing Christmas carols like "Feliz Navidad" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."
I say this not with the heart of a Grinch, but with a hopefully helpful nod to traveling parents and early risers: While the daytime festivities felt completely family-friendly to me, the after-dark hours of Nights of Lights felt distinctly adult.
An hour or two after sunset, I noticed that the bar-hopping crowd expanded into many of the streets around the city, which made the sidewalks more dense and raucous than they'd been when I was walking around during the day.
The bars were packed, with loud music that I could hear long after I returned to my hotel around 11 p.m. The vibe around town continued to feel upbeat though, and from my perspective the area never felt unsafe, even in the later hours of the night.
I'm glad I experienced the festivities, but my next visit to St. Augustine will likely be during the off-season instead of in December. After arriving in town, I quickly realized how busy it gets this time of year due to the tourists who visit for the holiday lights and celebrations.
I saw multiple parking garages and a few outdoor lots throughout the Historic District, but many were already full by the time I got into town in the early afternoon. I was thankful I opted for a hotel near the center of the city that had reserved parking spots where I could park my car. Luckily, my hotel was also within walking distance of the main sites, otherwise I think getting around would likely have been a burden.
During the day, I wasn't bothered by the number of people roaming the streets, since everyone was so friendly and the town is built to accommodate walkers with pedestrian-only areas and clearly marked crosswalks. But in the evening, the crowds made it difficult to find a spot to eat or drink.
Starting just before sunset, nearly every restaurant I passed — including places that only offered food to go, like ice cream parlors or coffee shops — had lines that stretched out the door. At one particularly popular restaurant, I counted 39 people waiting outside the building.
As a solo traveler, I was fortunate to squeeze into a single bar seat outside at Casa Maya, a Mexican restaurant and bar, where I enjoyed a shrimp and guajillo dish that was delicious. But next time, I'll call ahead to the restaurants I want to visit and make a reservation.
On my last morning in town, I woke up early and enjoyed a stroll around the quiet, not-yet-bustling brick streets. At this time of day, just after sunrise, I thought St. Augustine took on a more local feel. The sidewalks were occupied mostly by neighborhood folks walking their dogs or by restaurant workers prepping for the day.
I walked along the river again, and stopped to watch the boats in the now-foggy marina wait for their turn to pass under the drawbridge.
I considered stopping at a popular breakfast spot along Avenida Menendez, another main thoroughfare, but realized that other early risers in town had already congregated there. Since I wanted to avoid long lines, I opted instead to wait until a French bakery, Le Macaron, opened at 10 a.m., and enjoyed a breakfast of macarons and coffee at its booths that overlooked the river.
As a Florida resident, I sometimes long to experience Christmastime like they do in storybooks — bundled up in the snow, serenaded by Christmas carols, and surrounded by over-the-top baubles and decor.
While there wasn't any snow, I thought St. Augustine's holiday displays, friendly crowds, and cheery atmosphere made for a wonderful solo getaway. And I was more than happy to trade the snow flurries in my imagination for palm trees and a serene, twinkling riverfront.