The Florida Beach Escape Where Old + New = Epic
If the cure-all for our escapist cravings could be boiled down to a recipe, it would bear an uncanny resemblance to what you’ll find in St. Pete/Clearwater: one part sunny, beachy optimism; one part comforting nostalgia; and one extra-large part gleaming new waterfront playground (reported to be the biggest in the Southeast, with a $92 million Pier District at the center).
While the new waterfront development includes everything from an aquarium to bayside dining, long adored local classics have debuted fresh designs and energy you'll want to check out, too. And as always, the local beaches remain connoisseur favorites, ranking among TripAdvisor’s best in the world for 2020.
The best beaches
With stunning shoreline to spare, St. Pete/Clearwater is the only U.S. metro area to land two beaches in the top five of TripAdvisor’s Best Beaches in the U.S. for 2020: St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach. The former also happens to be the only U.S. mainland beach to rank among TripAdvisor’s top 20 beaches in the world this year.
Arguably the most recognizable patch of St. Pete Beach is the one belonging to the Don CeSar (more on this iconic pink hotel soon), but the public approaches to the north and south offer lovely places to stretch out in the sand. Pass-a-Grille Beach, at St. Pete Beach’s southern tip, is a particularly beloved local favorite.
Clearwater Beach is especially appealing to families with its wide swath of powdery sand, beachfront playground and the year-round ritual of sunset celebrations on the Pier 60 complete with musicians, artisans—and the most glorious pink and tangerine-hued show in the sky.
Of course, for all the fame of the two main beaches, the area is home to lesser-known coastal treasures, too. And there's a trio that nature lovers—or just solitude seekers—won't want to miss: Fort De Soto Park, whose pristine shores serve as a gateway to a series of wildlife-rich ecosystems that span five interconnected keys; Honeymoon Island State Park, where miles of quiet beach await‚ as do virgin slash pine forests and creatures ranging from osprey and great horned owls to armadillos and gopher tortoises; and Egmont Key State Park—a boat-accessible wildlife refuge that blends protected habitats (thousands of shorebirds nest here annually) with history (for starters, a lovely 19th-century lighthouse)—and plenty of room to spread out on the sand.
The groundbreaking waterfront playground
The newly opened St. Pete Pier District is an interactive and largely over-the-water extension of the city’s happening downtown.
Headlining the new attractions is the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, where you can do a deep figurative dive into the state’s largest open-water estuary—from the abundant local wildlife (think sea turtles, manatees and almost 40,000 pairs of nesting birds) to the ongoing environmental restoration efforts. The facility’s centerpiece is an aquarium full of the species that call the bay home, but you’ll also find touch tanks, video installations and other interactive exhibits.
If you’ve got kids in tow, touch tanks alone may not satisfy the urge to get wet—in which case, proceed to the pier’s excellent splash pad. On the other hand, if you’re feeling more chill, you can always kick back on the pier’s bayside beach—or the rooftop tiki bar.
Whatever you wind up doing there, it will come with gorgeous views of the water and the skyline—and probably frolicking dolphins just offshore.
The retro resurgence
For all the buzz around the gleaming new waterfront additions—and it is well deserved—let’s be honest: At a moment when everyone’s seeking comfort, the city’s more nostalgic elements are at least as appealing. And the ‘Burg knows precisely how to pay homage to its historic vibe while maintaining a young, edgy spirit. Seriously: Show us another town that’s made the old-timey pursuit of pushing a puck down a shuffleboard court so astoundingly hip.
Every weekend, the private 1920s-vintage St. Pete Shuffleboard Club—a historic landmark—opens to the public for Friday night shuffle. Friends arrive with well-stocked coolers (note: craft beer and bubbly drinks in cans are a yes, glass bottles are a no) to join the picnic under the stars (and of course, shuffleboarding) that ensues, complete with indie soundtrack. (Editor's Note: The Club isn’t currently open to visitors due to the pandemic; please check back on status.)
The city has also put a fresh spin on two historic grande dames: Both The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club and The Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach ooze early 20th-century vacation vibes with pretty-in-pink, palm-lined exteriors. Inside, chic new restaurants include Paul's Landing at the Vinoy, where Gulf Coast classics (don’t miss the smoked fish dip) pair perfectly with frosty local IPAs and sweeping views of the marina. And for something fancier, hit the newly updated Maritana at The Don for fresh Florida seafood a la Mediterranea.
The ever-expanding art scene
For some, art offers as much of an escape from the day-to-day as nostalgic time-travel or playing in the great outdoors. And if that’s you, you could easily spend your entire trip to St. Pete in galleries and museums (seriously, the town is home to no fewer than seven arts districts).
In fact, well before you set foot inside a single museum, you’ll get a sense of the local artsy vibe: More than 600 eye-opening murals in various stages of evolution adorn everything from the local bookshops to brewery walls. The new St. Pete Pier even got into the swing of things with "Bending Arc", a 430-foot-wide net sculpture by Tampa Bay native Janet Echelman that transforms 180 miles of twine and more than 1.6 million knots into billowing art work that moves with the breezes off the water. Pro tip: Go see it at night, when the magenta and violet lights add drama to the ever-changing installation.
But once you do start museum-hopping, your mind will be well and truly blown—particularly if you start at the world-renowned Salvador Dalí Museum. Home to the largest Dalí collection outside Spain (and as locals know, the best gazpacho in town) this ode to surreality now incorporates elements of virtual and augmented reality (See: the Dreams of Dalí in Virtual Reality and Dalí Masterworks in Augmented Reality exhibits.)
Overlapping with the Surrealist movement—but taking a vastly different shape (many shapes, actually)—the Arts and Crafts Movement is giving rise to another one-of-a-kind museum in St. Pete. Set to debut later in 2020, The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement houses a huge collection of pottery, furniture, decorative arts and more in a strikingly modern feat of architecture.
Point is, whatever inspires you aesthetically—from Chihuly to the American West—there’s a museum for that in St. Pete.
The flourishing brew scene
At last count, close to 50 local craft breweries dotted the legendary St. Pete/Clearwater Beer Trail, with new additions coming online all the time. One recent move that made a big…splash: The beloved Green Bench opened Webb’s City Cellar right next door with 12 rotating taps that veer into more experimental terrain. This is the place to try a wild pour.
And don’t miss at least a few more local faves: 3 Daughters, Cage, St. Pete Brewing, Mastry’s, Big Storm and Dunedin Brewery (the state’s first craft brewery). In fact, to make a proper road trip of “the Gulp Coast,” book a Thirsty Pelican tour, or opt for the DIY version with VSPC’s Gulp Coast Passport and a designated driver whom you'll repay in kind next time. And trust us: When you’ve been here once, “next time” is never far off.
Ready to go? Plan your St. Pete Clearwater escape by requesting a free travel guide, taking virtual tours and following @VSPC on Instagram.
While the area has largely reopened, please check the hours and status of each spot you plan to visit over the course of your St. Pete/Clearwater adventure.