Why You Really Need to Visit St. Petersburg, Florida

Florida's historic St. Petersburg invites you to its vibrant downtown and gorgeous beaches.

Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg, FL
St. Pete is full of surprises, like the over-100-year-old Sunken Gardens. Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Once a sleepy coastal city where retirees congregated on green benches lining the streets, Tampa's neighboring town now draws entrepreneurs, painters, and travelers—from beach lovers to art aficionados. (Retirees have a lot more fun too.) "My parents told me, 'You're too young to move to St. Pete,'" said Emily Elwyn, who relocated anyway, along with scads of other Gen-Xers and millennials who've helped invigorate this town. "So much of what people want is what we already have: a walkable downtown, front-porch neighborhoods, funky old buildings, and access to the arts, parks, and recreation." Not to mention the fact that beaches are minutes away.

A 12-year resident, Elwyn now serves as president of the board of directors at Preserve the "Burg, a nonprofit that leads city tours for locals and tourists every Saturday. From the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood, with its inviting bungalows, to the business center along the marina, where new additions and million-dollar condos are popping up, St. Petersburg feels both historic and emergent.

Locals say the recent boom has centered along Beach Drive (facing the bay) and Central Avenue (lined with galleries, bars, and boutiques).

"The town has only been this exciting for about 15 years," said Jeri Gammage, who volunteers at Florida CraftArt, a gallery and store, that's also a statewide nonprofit. Gammage attributes the city's evolution to the arts community. "Some might argue it's the baseball team," she said, nodding toward the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field on the downtown fringe. "But most people in the baseball shirts go straight to the stadium."

For Gammage, it was the Morean Arts Center, where locals can take classes and tourists can watch glassblowing demos, that sparked many changes downtown. She said that once the Morean joined Florida CraftArt on Central Avenue a few years back, the businesses, restaurants, and warehouses-turned-studios followed.

Chihuly Glass in St. Petersburg FL
Famed artist Dale Chihuly chose St. Pete for this collection. Robbie Caponetto

All About the Arts

Adding to the cachet of Central Avenue, the Morean's Chihuly Collection (a trove of fantastical blown-glass creations by Dale Chihuly) moved inside a new gallery designed to help the viewer appreciate every curl and spire. The artist reportedly chose St. Petersburg because of its commitment to art and arts education. Gallery owner and multimedia artist Chad Mize even designed a popular T-shirt that proudly proclaims, in bold lettering, this city's place among the world's biggest cultural hubs: "Paris, London, Tokyo, St. Pete."

"Originally, it was tongue-in-cheek, but we actually are kind of in that league," said Mize, who has sold more than 60,000 items with his World Tour design. "We are definitely an arts city in terms of culture and desirability."

Shoppers along Central Avenue can browse through the curated housewares at ZaZoo'd, snag affordable handmade jewelry at SaltLight Art, and find on-trend fashions under $60 at Misred. Stroll past the murals that decorate refurbished buildings, some of which Mize painted after he moved to St. Pete, attracted by its heritage and potential for growth. "I loved the kitsch of it, the neon signs, the roadside-attraction aspect, and also the water," he said. "Now there's just so much—new restaurants and more stuff to do."

Ricky Watts' Eye of the Storm Mural in St. Petersburg
Find artist Ricky Watts' Eye of the Storm mural on First Avenue North. Robbie Caponetto

Like Central Avenue, Beach Drive has done its part to spur the city's renaissance. The Museum of Fine Arts, which anchors this thoroughfare with neoclassical grandeur, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. Its handsome interiors are reminiscent of a grand, old estate, one where there just happens to be a Monet hanging on the wall. (It's one of his Houses of Parliament paintings, just in case you're wondering.)

Sunken Garden Flamingos in St. Petersburg, FL
The Sunken Gardens are home to iconic Florida flamingos. Robbie Caponetto

Sunken Gardens and Surreal Experiences

Only a few blocks away, a botanical wonderland that's called the Sunken Gardens hides right in the middle of downtown. This landscape—more than a century old—will lure you into a maze of paths through towering palms and past fountains of pink bougainvillea and manicured gardens. People come from all over the country to admire the fluttering tops of bamboo stalks that grow as tall as palm trees.

Visitors can get so entranced with the plants that they might not have time to stop by one of St. Petersburg's most amazing jewels: the stunning home for works by Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí.

The Dalí Museum overlooks the marina and faces the renovated Duke Energy Center for the Arts-The Mahaffey Theater, which hosts world-class concerts, ballets, and more. Worth a trip for the architecture alone, The Dalí invites visitors to climb an elegant spiral stairway to see masterworks housed on the third floor and to enjoy water and sky views through an undulating window on the way up.

Take in the Dreams of Dalí virtual reality experience, where you will join other headset-wearing visitors "walking" amid stark and startling landscapes. In the Avant-garden, you can pose with a mustache sculpture or sit on an oozing green bench that looks like it came straight out of a Dalí painting.

International Flavors

"The Dalí has made us a destination for people from around the world," Gammage said. Have dinner at Tryst Gastro Lounge on Beach Drive, and you might hear Spanish, French, or Italian accents coming from nearby tables.

Enjoy the ambiance as well as Tryst's frequently changing menu that promises fresh surprises every time you visit. Order a cocktail, and join couples lounging beneath umbrellas at sidewalk tables. (Try the Tryst: Deep Eddy vodka, muddled strawberry, raspberry, lemon, and elderflower liquor.) Relax under the indoor twinkling light strands. They complement the illuminated facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, located just across the street, where banners highlight the current exhibit.

Red Mesa in St. Petersburg FL
Red Mesa keeps it bold and fresh. Robbie Caponetto

It's a happening spot. Clusters of diners bustle by to meet friends at Tryst and other eateries, such as Red Mesa Cantina just a few blocks away; locals take their dogs out for nightly walks, and places like Ocean Blue Galleries stay open late into the evening. St. Petersburg seems less like a typical resort town and more like a bayside neighborhood where visitors can take up residence and feel at home, if only for the weekend.

The Don Cesar Hotel Pool in St. Petersburg, FL
The Don CeSar hotel has been welcoming guests since 1928. Robbie Caponetto

Beautiful Beaches

Despite the city's charms, the sand and surf of St. Pete Beach will eventually lure you away. The flamingo-hued Don CeSar hotel, known as the Pink Palace, has been welcoming guests to this barrier island since the 1920s.

On a perfect day—temps in the low 80s, no humidity, fluttering palms— it can be tough to find a parking spot on Gulf Way, which runs along the beachfront in the historic Pass-a-Grille neighborhood. The powder-soft white sand and turquoise-streaked water are worth enduring a momentary traffic jam. Across from Eighth and Ninth Avenues, a happy, banana yellow hole-in-the-wall called Paradise Grille serves sunbathers from breakfast until dinnertime. It's flanked on Saturdays by the Suntan Art Mart, where you can find beach-themed creations and estate jewelry.

Take a seat at the rooftop bar at Hurricane Seafood Restaurant for a seagull's view of the beach scene. The nearby Brass Monkey also offers an impressive Gulf vista, along with a tangy Grouper Reuben.

The Best of Both Worlds

On the pastel-colored row of beachy Eighth Avenue shops, check out Bamboozle and Etc., which are both brimming with stylish coastal wares. This short street dead-ends into Merry Pier, with an old bait shop where you can book fishing charters. Hop on the shuttle to Shell Key, an undeveloped barrier island. After a 10-minute boat ride, the captain will drop you off where you're free to snorkel, sunbathe, dolphin-watch, and collect shells until the shuttle picks you up a few hours later. End the day with dinner on historic Corey Avenue at Chill Restaurant & Bar. (Order the espresso-rubbed beef tenderloin.)

The Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg, Fl
Robbie Caponetto

Don't leave St. Pete without swinging back downtown for a drink along Central Avenue, which pulses with live music at a string of bars where tables spill onto the sidewalk. Check out The Mandarin Hide, a sophisticated speakeasy-style place, or head to Mastry's Bar, a local landmark. They're both great spots to toast St. Petersburg while planning your return.

Hotels in St. Petersburg

St. Pete has no shortage of cool hotels, including some classic coastal spots.

Don CeSar Hotel Lobby in St. Petersburg, FL
The Don CeSar hotel has been welcoming guests since 1928. Robbie Caponetto

The Don CeSar, St. Pete Beach

The Pink Palace is the centerpiece of St. Pete Beach. Opened in 1928, The Don Cesar celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2018 but still feels updated, with a new lobby and room renovations completed over the past decade.

Hollander Hotel, Downtown

With its restaurant (The Tap Room), a spa, and the stunning courtyard pool and terrace, this affordable gem is within walking distance of Beach Drive.

Avalon Hotel in St. Petersburg, FL
Discover the chic style of the Avalon hotel downtown. Robbie Caponetto

Avalon, Downtown

The Hollander Hotel's sister property offers access to the Hollander's pool as well as complimentary Champagne and wine every evening.

The Vinoy Renaissance St Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, Downtown

Pink with palm-green trim, this recently renovated historic property on the marina exudes vintage glamour. Miami-inspired colors meet Art Deco style in the refreshed guest rooms and a new restaurant called Paul's Landing.

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