St. Augustine, Florida, greets holiday visitors with a megawatt smile. Every year, beginning midsummer, city crews start stringing up more than 2 million white lights at 100-plus locations. Businesses and individuals add to the glow with light displays of their own. But you’ll have to turn to local personalities for color: A city ordinance limits holiday lights to white or clear bulbs in the historic district.
Spain’s first settlement in the continental United States, this is the oldest European town in the country. (Sorry, Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts.) The Spanish traditionally mark Christmas by placing a simple white candle in their windows, and this city took that practice to the max. The area struggled through pirate attacks, epidemics, and the threat of English occupation before the construction of Fort Castillo de San Marcos in 1695. After decades of fighting, Spain traded Florida to England in 1763 in exchange for Cuba. However, England’s rule was short. After the American Revolution, the victorious colonies gave Florida back to their Spanish allies―for a while. In 1821, Florida became a U.S. territory.
TOURS OF LIGHTS
By land: Pick a horse-drawn carriage from the bayfront stand, then tuck yourself under a plaid throw and clip-clop into the night. Narrated trips last from 45 minutes to an hour and cover more than two miles. Sights include the Lightner Museum, St. George Street, the Castillo de San Marcos, and the light-strewn Plaza de la Constitución. Rates are about $20 for adults and $10 for children; a private ride for two runs about $85, plus tip.
By sea: Catch the full effect of all the wattage from the schooner Freedom (904/810-1010, schoonerfreedom.com). The sailing ship pushes away from its Matanzas Bay dock late each afternoon for two-hour sunset tours that are capped by a panorama of the glittering waterfront. Tickets cost $45, which includes beer and wine.
By air: See incredible views of the glowing city from a helicopter (904/824-5506 or oldcityhelicopters.com). Night tours begin at $170 for up to three passengers and cover 17 miles. Or, if you’re not up for a ride in a chopper but still want a bird’s-eye view, you can honor the city’s nautical tradition by climbing the 219 steps to the observation deck of the St. Augustine Lighthouse (staugustinelighthouse.com), which is across the bay on Anastasia Island.