This article is published in partnership with Hotels.com who asked if we would share our guide for what to see and do on a St. Petersburg Florida getaway.
Snowbirds have loved it for decades. It’s a destination where the sands are white, the ocean is blue, and the temperature averages a comfortable 23 degrees from November to April (that’s 73 degrees for those of us who still remember Fahrenheit!). But St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida, is more than just a pretty beach destination: visitors to this Gulf coast gem can also find eclectic shopping, excellent art galleries, great restaurants, outdoor adventure activities, and every type of accommodation from grand “old Florida” luxury hotels to chic modern boutique properties. Here’s why, when it comes to everything you want in a Florida getaway, you just can’t beat St. Pete!
A Perfect Florida Getaway Starts With the Perfect Beach
ST. PETE BEACH
When you’re heading off on a Florida getaway, beaches are a big part of the decision where to go, and the Gulf Coast of Florida has some of the best beaches in the state – starting with St. Pete Beach that runs the length of the narrow barrier island known as Long Key. Trip Advisor ranks St. Pete Beach as the number 4 beach in the entire U.S, and one look at the sun sparkling off the gorgeous white sands here and you’ll understand why this beach has so much appeal.
Hotel developers have recognized the beauty of St. Pete Beach for almost a century: it was in 1928 that the historic luxury hotel, the Don Cesar, first opened. Known affectionately as the Pink Palace because of its coral-coloured exterior, the Don Cesar was famous as a celebrity hangout in the 1930s, hosting everyone from Al Capone to Mickey Mantle. Its luxurious amenities and perfect location on St. Pete Beach continue to draw the likes of Harrison Ford even today.
Passe-A-Grille Beach, just south of the Don Cesar on the narrow tip of Long Key, has a much more bohemian vibe than a celebrity one, thanks to the laid-back community located here. Stroll 8th avenue and you’ll find colourful bungalows, funky beach shops, super-casual restaurants and artsy boutiques, making this part of St. Pete not just ‘the world’s shortest main street’ but an eccentric, fun place to hang out when you’re not lounging on the soft white sands.
If you’re looking for a beautiful beach without the shops or houses, drive the short distance (10 miles) to North Beach in Fort De Soto Park. This county park beach is a favourite for families because of a wide tidal pool that’s an ideal spot where kiddies can splash around. But North Beach is also a great spot to see shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers as well as herons, egrets and pelicans, and when it’s not high season (like in November when I visited), this beach is virtually deserted.
TIP: If you happen to be visiting North Beach during nesting season, be sure to respect the signs and barriers that are placed there to protect the birds.
Get Close to Nature in Fort De Soto Park
Fort De Soto Park isn’t just home to beautiful white sand beaches – it’s also a great place to go kayaking in the mangroves and spot wildlife.
The shallow waters on the protected bay side of Fort De Soto Park are home to all kinds of birds, from egrets to ospreys, who love to fish in and around the mangroves. I managed to kayak within a few feet of a young bittern who was perched in a mangrove bush.
I also spent some time trying to (unsuccessfully) photograph mullet fish that were leaping out of the water. (No one knows exactly why they do this, but it’s pretty wild to see.) These mangroves are also a favourite place for manatee to swim, and I was told that if you are particularly lucky, you may be approached by one of these large, curious mammals. (Which might be a little too close to nature for me!)
TIP: For those of you who love the idea of seeing manatees and other marine life up close, you can even rent see through canoes here for your paddle in Fort De Soto’s mangroves!
Beyond the Beach: Cultural St. Petersburg
While many people may only think of beaches when they think of St. Petersburg, there is much more to this city than just a sandy shoreline. Downtown St. Petersburg has an artsy side that may surprise many visitors. It certainly came as a surprise to me that St. Pete is home to the Dali Museum which boasts the largest collection of Salvador Dali paintings outside of Europe. And not only is the artwork impressive, the architectural design of the Dali Museum is beautiful in its own right.
Fine art lovers should head to St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has more than 20,000 objects from around the globe spanning 5,000 years of human civilization. These include European and North American painters (from Monet and Gaugin to Georgia O’Keeffe), sculpture, and one of the largest fine art photography collections in this part of the United States.
The glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly have a permanent place in St. Pete as well, at the Chihuly Collection in the Morean Arts Centre on Central Avenue, a building built especially to house these works. These blown glass sculptural installations are found all over the world from Venice to Finland and touring exhibitions (like the one that came to Toronto) draw thousands of visitors.
The Morean Arts Centre is more than just home to the Chihuly Collection. It is St. Petersburg’s artist hub, offering workshops in everything from jewelry making to metal sculpture, and showcasing local art in its gallery spaces. The Morean Arts Centre has been part of this community since 1917, making it the oldest arts organization in the Tampa Bay area. So if you thought St. Pete is new to the art scene, think again.
In Need of Some “Retail Therapy” on Your Florida Getaway?
I’m not one to obsess about shopping when I travel, but I have to admit that I was very tempted by the eclectic array of shops on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. From vintage and designer consignment boutiques (Designers’ Consigner) to interesting home decor and gift stores (Zazood and White Owl Market), this street – and this city – has something for every shopper, and every budget.
Like Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, Corey Avenue close to St. Pete beach is a great shopping destination with small stores and galleries selling everything from bangles and crystals to home decor. And on Sundays there’s a farmer’s market here, too.
Want to go boho? Check out the stores in Passe-A-Grille. Bamboozle is an absolutely beautiful boutique and a local favourite for unique beach clothing and accessories. (They’ve also opened a second shop next door for home decor items.)
If you’re looking for surf-dude-inspired, funky art pieces, visit Island Life Art. Or to buy art directly from the artists, there’s A Little Room for Art, a local cooperative art gallery founded by 7 artists which has now grown to more than 25.
For the ‘pickers’ who may be looking for flea market finds new or old, head a few miles north of St. Pete Beach to Wagon Wheel, a massive indoor/outdoor weekend market that has been around for more than 55 years. Vendors here sell everything from fresh local produce to antiques, and as an added bonus there’s live country music, too.
Where to Eat in St. Pete
Where to start with where to eat in St. Pete? Type of food? Ambience? Location? I’ve written about several places already, including Beverly’s La Croisette for breakfast, Chill for lunch, and the Parkshore Grill or Birch & Vine for dinner, but here are a few more recommendations.
BREAKFAST: The Seahorse in Passe-A-Grille
This place is a must-do, so much so in fact, that locals drive for 45 minutes from Tampa just to eat breakfast at the Seahorse. This restaurant is doing something very right, and they’ve been doing it since 1938!
LUNCH: Crabby Bills or The Chattaway Inn
A casual place (think picnic table seating!) for good, affordable seafood, Crabby Bill’s is right on the beach and there’s no beating their ocean views, especially while enjoying a happy hour drink on their rooftop patio.
For a true ‘old Florida’ vibe: the Chattaway Inn is a local favourite, offering burgers, sandwiches, salads and seafood in a funky outdoor garden setting.
Take dinner up a notch at Madfish, a beautiful restaurant whose decor and ambiance match the quality of the surf and turf menu items. If your Florida getaway includes a special occasion, this is the place to book.
When You’ve Just Gotta Get Away
St. Petersburg has everything you’re looking for in a Florida getaway: beautiful beaches, sunny skies, urban attractions and a relaxed vibe that makes you forget whatever stress you’ve left behind. Which is why I say, with all this going for it, can you really beat St. Pete?
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.