Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, The Everglades, Sarasota, and beyond — I’ve been all over The Sunshine State. But despite logging tons of time with family in Tampa, I’d rarely crossed the bay to one of the most popular tourism destinations on the American Gulf Coast — The Sunshine City.
St. Petersburg, Florida logs an average of 361 days of sunshine per year, landing the Guinness World Record for most consecutive days with sun after one particularly bright 768 day stretch. My own trip featured an incredibly unusual forecast — four days of rain. As a certified Vitamin D addict, that kind of bad luck can usually leave both a physical and metaphorical cloud over a new destination for me.
But St. Pete, I quickly learned, is special — and a destination of contrasts. A hip downtown and a retro beach strip, big city attractions with a small town vibe, a sunshine city with crazy amounts to do in the rain. A friend had described St. Pete to me as Florida’s answer to Austin or Portland, and while I’ve yet to visit either of those cities, I knew exactly the vibe they invoked. Bohemian. Creative. Local. Hip.
“What took me so long to get over here?” was a pretty constant chorus running through my head throughout my trip. I’m not sure what did — but I do know it won’t be long before I’m back. Here’s why.
The Museum Scene is Amazing
The Dali Museum, called “one of the most beautiful museums in the world” by Condé Nast Traveler in 2016, is the undisputed queen of the St. Pete museum scene. I visited a few years ago — one of my few forays across the bay to St. Pete — and couldn’t wait to return. While the building, gardens and café feel larger than life, the galleries themselves, home to works by one of the world’s most creative minds, are relatively small and won’t take all day to tackle. (Not too small, though — it is world’s largest collection of the artist’s work outside of Spain.)
The Dali is more than just a museum. Fun, community-minded events like Yoga at the Dali, Coffee With a Curator lectures, and ArtFlix, an art documentary film series, make this space a living, breathing part of St. Pete. Movie buffs shouldn’t miss Cult Classics @ The Dali, a free movie following extended museum hours — bring a lawn chair and enjoy food and craft beer from local food trucks and breweries while watching a beloved flick on an outdoor screen.
St. Pete is also renown for its glass art scene. The Chihuly Collection is a must-see, as is the included Hot Glass Shop demonstration across the street. The $20 admission was the one purchase in St. Pete that gave me pause — it’s a pretty small museum, frankly — but I just couldn’t stand to miss it. If you’re doing tons of attractions across the bay, Tampa’s CityPass is a good value. Perhaps one of the included guided tours — which we didn’t take – would have made it feel like a higher value.
Still want more? Browse works by the masters at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, or browse affordable works by local artists at the brilliant Florida CraftArt, which also offers local mural tours (read more about those here!)
Watching your wallet? The Duncan McClellan Gallery is a stunning collection of one local glass artists work, the Morean Arts Center shows contemporary work from around the world, and the Morean Center for Clay shows pottery in a renovated historic train station — all for free.
Want to be the artist? Zen Glass Studio offers workshops in blowing wine glasses, glass pendants, glass ornaments, and beyond. The Morean Arts Center offers courses in glass, clay, and more, and you can learn beading, felting and other craft skills at Strands of Sunshine’s workshops.
And it’s not all about the arts. History buffs should head to The St. Petersburg Museum of History (an exhibit on Alligators and Oddities explores Florida’s classic taste for kitsch — it’s on my list for next time!) and The Florida Holocaust Museum. Sports fans will get a kick out of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame at Tropicana Field, and families will enjoy running around with the kids at the Great Explorations Children’s Museum.
I wasn’t kidding — St. Pete takes its gallery and museum-ing seriously.
One of the things I love most about traveling in Florida is the price tags. Aside from the fairly pricey museum admissions, St. Pete will constantly surprise you with its affordability. From my fantastic $99 beach hotel to 99¢ ice cream, you can have an amazing vacation here that doesn’t break the bank — nor feel like you’re on a tight budget.
The Market Scene is Insane
I was incredibly lucky that my visit coincided with the monthly St. Pete Indie Market, a haven for local designers, indie artists, and bohemian crafters. In the winter, the market is held outside at Green Bench Brewery; in the summer, they beat the heat at the historic State Theater.
As we walked through the doors, I felt as if I’d been transported back to Brooklyn — though endless wares embroidered with Florida’s unmissable outline reminded me where I was. Artisan snacks, massage tents, a bustling bar, great music, and tons of pups contributed to the street party atmosphere, which graces downtown St. Pete the first Saturday of every month from 11-3pm. I bought letterpress cards, my aunt grabbed a vintage jacket, and we oohed and aahed over succulent gardens, screen printed totes, handmade jewelry, and enough gifts to knock off a full Christmas list in one swoop.
And there’s more. Brocante Market is a monthly vintage market housed in a 15,000 square foot former piano factory, Crafty Fest is another local indie market held once a month in the spacious alley of a local gallery, and Corey Sunday Market and the Saturday Morning Market are weekly events with a more farmer’s market feel.
Can’t stand shopping in the Florida heat? Head to one of the summer night markets like the St. Pete Side Lot’s Night Market, the Fringe Flea Market, or the Summer Nights Exchange, a brewery-based event featuring 50+ vendors, music, interactive installations, and a tattoo art show. Find a full list of local markets here.
The Food Is Crazy Good
The bar and restaurant scene in St. Pete is so robust, I dedicated a whole post to it. And again, the drum beats to all things local — fresh ingredients sourced from nearby farms and taps filled with the newest offerings from breweries all along The Gulp Coast.
I assumed the area’s notorious microbrewery scene wouldn’t have anything to offer a non-beer drinker like me, but found myself pleasantly surprised by the selection of locally produced wines and ciders. More coming soon!
It’s All Kinds of Green
St. Pete made headlines last year when they vowed to be the first city in Florida to use 100% renewable energy. It wasn’t the first time they were recognized — St. Pete was the first in Florida to be designated a ‘Green City’ by the Florida Green Building Coalition, and also lays claim to Florida’s first LEED GOLD certified home.
St. Pete has made a clear commitment to sustainability and conservation — and that leaves an eco traveler like me looking like the heart-eyed emoji.
The City Feels Young
Florida isn’t known as “God’s Waiting Room” for nothin’. But St. Pete has a lively, youthful feel that breaks the stereotype. And it’s not just subjective. A well-weighted ranking of Florida cities put St. Pete at the top of the best cities for millennials, with its millennial population increasing 6% since 2010.
But don’t worry, that old nickname hasn’t been retired — God’s Waiting Room now refers to a trendy speakeasy serving craft cocktails in the heart of downtown St. Pete.
Shopping Local is Easy — and Amazing
Forget the big box stores. St. Pete locals and visitors alike are committed to shopping local. Regular blog readers know I’m not much of a shopper (local markets are an exception!) but even I couldn’t resist the lure of Central Avenue’s fun and affordable boutiques.
My favorite store of all was Haslam’s, Florida’s largest bookstore — and an independent gem in the Amazon age. A fabulous section on all things Florida highlighted world-famous authors that love St. Pete. Chief among them? Jack Kerouac, who lived in St. Pete from 1966 to his death in 1969, and was a frequent customer of Haslam’s himself.
A local organization Friends of the Jack Kerouac House organize occasional bike tours and book clubs to raise funds to turn the author’s final dwelling into a local museum.
Nature is Not Hard to Find
I had big plans to spend my days in St Pete stand up paddling along its lovely shores, kayaking to Caladesi Island, biking the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, taking the Shell Key Shuttle to an abandoned beach, and searching for dolphins in Vinoy Park. The weather had other plans, but I now have a list to tackle when I return!
With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and Tampa Bay on the other, St. Pete is literally surrounded by beautiful waters and dotted with lovely parks, bike paths, and other reminders of the beautiful land upon which this city sprung.
The Beaches are a Beautiful Nostalgia Bomb
Due to the weather I spent most of my time in St. Pete exploring the downtown area — however, I loved staying at vintage vacation spot The Postcard Inn on The Beach. With less than a twenty minute drive between them in my cute red rental from Avis, I really felt like I got the best of both worlds. (However, if you are super keen to stay downtown, you can do that too — check out The Avalon, recently renovated and looking fresh!)
For every degree hip that downtown is, the beach strip matches it in retro cuteness. Even in the rain I loved driving from the very southern tip of Pass-A-Grille all the way up to St. John’s Pass in Madeira, getting a feel for the different vibes of the various beaches along the way. Business names like The Undertow Beach Bar, The Freaky Tiki Surf Shack, and Polynesian Putter — open since 1967 and one of the oldest mini-golf courses in Florida! — left me swooning with an undeserved nostalgia for the Old Florida I was too young to really known.
But I love that on St. Pete beach, I could get a taste of it.
The Fitness Scene is Fabulous
When I planned this trip I thought I’d be running on the beach and taking SUP yoga classes — instead, I found myself seeking indoor fitness options. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because these were some of my favorite finds of the trip.
I kicked things off with Yoga at the Dali. This weekly Sunday offering is a mere $10 for members and students, and just $15 for non-members. To visit the galleries on the same day is just $10 more. Since regular admission is $24, you’re basically getting a $1 yoga class! And it was a great one — I loved how the teacher incorporated her thoughts on art and creativity into the class, and I can’t think of a better view than the museum’s iconic organically-shaped glass walls.
Yoga in unusual places is having a moment in St. Pete — throughout my stay I also saw signs for Yoga On Tap at a local brewery, and Awaken Yoga classes at the roadside retro attraction The Sunken Gardens. Local gem The Body Electric offers wild workshops and classes all over town, from clothing optional classes to poolside sessions to SUP workshops to yoga in a local fixed gear bike shop.
Another morning, I turned to ClassPass to look for a workout with an easy commute from The Postcard Inn. I stumbled on Barre Central, and fell in love from the moment I walked through the door. This sweet locally-owned and operated studio has a multi-generational legion of fans. I left with a huge smile on my face — not just because of the amazing butt-kicking workout I just had, but also because of the sense of community I felt from just one class.
Group fitness addicts, don’t miss this one. After class, stock up on organic and healthy treats next door at Earth Origins Market.
It’s a Treat for Travelers To Get To
With frequent and affordable flights arriving to both St. Pete Airport and Tampa Airport, it’s a pleasure to fly to. And it’s quick. With direct flights clocking in at less than two and a half hours from New York, it’s quicker than a drive to the Hamptons.
Plus, you’ll be following in the steps of some serious aviation history — In 1914 the world’s first commercial flight took off from St. Pete and landed 23 minutes later in Tampa with one passenger who paid $400 for the ticket. That would be just under $10,000 today — thank goodness fares have dropped!
If you’re tacking St. Pete onto a trip to one of Florida’s other famous destinations, you might be pleasantly surprised by the drive — it’s a quick two hour zip across the state from Orlando. Coming by boat? Nearby Tampa has Florida’s largest and most diversified seaport — and regular cruise ship departures.
Clearly, I’m pretty smitten with St. Pete. What’s not to love? It’s got the art and food scene of a big city with the charms and natural beauty of the beach town. The focus on local business and sustainability? It just pushes everything over the edge.
While I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty serious Miami girl, this trip had me seriously reconsidering my ranking of favorite Florida cities.
What’s your favorite city in The Sunshine State?
One thing I’ve been hearing from you guys is that you want to hear more about my current travels right after they happen. Well, ask and ye shall receive! I’m jumping in to start sharing some posts from Florida and Tennessee, a trip so fresh I just unpacked from it.
This post is brought to your by VISIT FLORIDA. I maintain full editorial control and as always all thoughts, opinions, and declarations of love are my own.