Hair standing up on the back of the neck? Check.
Chill running down spine? Check.
No one standing behind you? Double check.
St. Augustine visitors traditionally pack the pedestrian-friendly streets of downtown during the day, soaking up historic landmarks amid art galleries, restaurants and shops galore. But while there’s plenty to do in the daylight, the nation’s oldest city has a sleepy reputation after the sun goes down.
But don’t be fooled. For those who know where to look, some entertaining doors remain open way past bedtime. At the top of St. Augustine’s after-dark to-do list: ghost hunting.
There are ghost tours with pirates in costume as guides. Others include a chauffeur-driven hearse to haunted sites and a Ripley’s Believe It or Not ghost train adventure. There’s even a haunted pub crawl for those who like to mix spirits with spirits.
GhoSt Augustine (ghostaugustine.com) offers a variety of tours, using the city’s historic quarter as its stomping ground. Among the offerings is the Ghost Walk ($16), a guided tour with stories of the purported hauntings and macabre history of the city. There’s even a more intense, hands-on option for those who want to use the tools of the paranormal trade and gain access to buildings seen on television shows such as Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters.” Paranormal Investigations ($25 for adults, $35 for semi-private tour) arm visitors with devices such as electromagnetic field (EMF) meters and something called a spirit box, which scans radio frequencies in an attempt to capture voices of the dearly departed.
The pricier semi-private version has no more than 12 people and lasts a little over two hours. It includes a stop in a Victorian-era antiques and collectibles store, where visitors are allowed to explore the dark rooms before gathering in a small hallway monitored by infrared cameras. The guide sets up flashlights with the contact points slightly apart so the lights go out. He then calls on any spirits in the room to show their presence. The lights, which can be inspected by skeptical tour takers, often turn on and off in creepy measure.
Upping the heebie-jeebie factor is the visible presence on the various infrared cameras of balls of light that would flash on screen momentarily.
The chilling destination was a highlight of the tour that also featured stops at two cemeteries, Flagler College and the Lightner Museum, all with their own grim ghost tales.
The final stop of the evening was Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort built in the 1700s. Bathed in eerie floodlights, its more infamous history was reflected in the firing squad wall, still pocked with musket ball holes centuries after those sentenced to death met their fate.
While the historic quarter is the main draw for those hunting for ghost stories, one other must-see stop for spectral curiosity seekers is the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Separated from the city by the Matanzas River, the 164-foot-tall beacon opened in 1874.
The Dark of the Moon Ghost Tour (staugustinelighthouse.com/events/darkofmoon.html) takes visitors into the buildings and around the walking paths through forests surrounding the compound. But the trip up the lighthouse’s spiral staircase in the dark is the prize for chill seekers, who brave the “something-is-behind-you” feelings that inevitably come while hiking up and down the 219 steps. The nighttime views from the top are well worth the $25 for adults.
The massive Fresnel lens pierces the surrounding night sky for 20 miles as it swings around in 30-second intervals. Looking out over the lights of the city and into the darkness of the Atlantic Ocean is a moment of serenity atop the structure, even if it’s amid tales of hauntings.
To that end, visitors can rent EMF meters as they take the nearly two-hour tour with guides dishing ghost stories complete with smartphones full of images of those who once lived on the grounds.
This is also home to one of the more famous “Ghost Hunter” episodes, and guides will be more than happy to show images of a humanesque shadow figure peering over the lighthouse spiral railings from a few floors above.
The night tour is not for the squeamish. The basement of the lighthouse keeper’s house and the walk through the trees are enough to give anyone the willies. Taking flash photos in regular intervals ups the creepy factor, especially as the mind’s eye is wont to create images out of shadows and streaks of light that are captured on digital imagery.
For skeptics, it’s enough to maybe open the mind. For believers, it’s worth the visit.
Of course, all this ghost hunting is enough to set anyone’s nerves on edge, and the city has a decent selection of places to take the edge off.
There are oodles of small bars with patio seating peppering downtown that are just waiting to invite travelers with a glass of wine, a mixed drink or a beer.
Many also come with musical treats, although to be honest, St. Augustine’s last call is a challenge from venue to venue.
In one night, visitors may find themselves shuttled from one bar to the next as things can close down as early as 10 p.m.
For wine lovers, try Sangria’s Wine & Piano Bar (visitstaugustine.com/restaurant/sangrias). It has second-floor balconies overlooking St. George Street where guests can people-watch while eating tapas and sipping on the wide variety of reds and whites. Closing time: Usually 11 p.m. or midnight.
Nearby Casa Maya (casamayasta.com) has a gorgeous patio to try one of its many tequila-based concoctions as well as great seafood. The Smoke & Fire, for example, is a jalapeno-infused tequila with mezcal, chile ancho liquor, lime, orange juice, agave and spicy bitters. Closing time: 10 p.m.
On Fridays and Saturdays, San Sebastian Winery (sansebastianwinery.com) on King Street opens up the Wine Bar, a rooftop wine, jazz and blues bar with light bites. The wine selection includes San Sebastian’s Florida-grown, muscadine-grape vintages. Closing time: 11 p.m.
For those hoping to sing along to “The Unicorn Song,” the best bet is Meehan’s Irish Pub (meehansirishpub.com) along the waterfront on Avenida Menendez. The venue is home to nightly entertainment ranging from rock to folk, and often playing until midnight. The kitchen has a sizable menu and is often serving until 10 or 11 p.m. depending on the crowds. Closing time: 2 a.m.
For those more interested in domestic beer, mixed drinks and loud music, the White Lion (whitelion.bar) is the best bet. Like Meehan’s, it’s one of the few venues with a 2 a.m. closing time, and as such, is popular with the crowd from Flagler College and tourists alike. It also serves food, but the kitchen closes earlier.
For a better beer selection, try A1A Ale Works restaurant and taproom (a1aaleworks.com) on King Street. Closing time: 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday.
With many of these locations, the kitchens close before 9 p.m., so finding a late-night dinner in St. Augustine is a challenge, especially if you’re trying to mix dinner and a ghost tour.
There are a few options.
Just across the Bridge of Lions on Anastasia Island, visitors will find the intriguing Sarbez! This bar (sarbezstaugustine.com) touts grilled cheese sandwiches and craft beer until 2 a.m. The Hashton Kutcher ($8) features cheddar, sausage, fried egg, hash browns and Sarbez Sauce on rye bread. Work by local artists adorns the walls, and the entertainment features an eclectic mix of touring bands. There are plenty of games including pool, darts, shuffleboard and an arcade.
If beer and cheese-based sandwiches aren’t tempting, perhaps farm-to-table dishes with mixed drinks from the purest water in town is an option.
The Ice Plant (iceplantbar.com) on King Street shares space with the St. Augustine Distillery.
The dining venue is housed in an old ice-making plant, and the look and feel is the combination of romance and industry. Each day, a 300-pound block of ice is used to create distinct ice-cube shapes for the original and classic concoctions served by waiters in period get-ups.
So whether seeking the chills of a ghost hunt, the chill of the perfect ice cube or just chilling out to some good music, St. Augustine isn’t so sleepy after dark after all.
What: Founded in 1565, the nation’s oldest city is in Northeast Florida.
Where: Situated 43 miles south of Jacksonville in St. Johns County.
Population: According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of St. Augustine is 14,280.
Accommodations and activities: Historic downtown St. Augustine is home to high-end hotels such as the Casa Monica Resort, quaint bed and breakfasts and major hotels. Main draws are the historic Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Lighthouse, the Lightner Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Alligator Farm.