Why St. Pete/Clearwater Should Top Your 2019 Travel List
For the second year running, TripAdvisor has named Clearwater Beach America’s top beach—and that may be all you need to know before you start packing your bags. (The fact that this was the only U.S. beach to rank among TripAdvisor’s global top 10 for 2019 doesn’t hurt, either.) But as glorious as Clearwater Beach's 2.5-mile shoreline is—all sugar-white sand and transparent aquamarine water—there are plenty of other reasons to get to the St. Pete/Clearwater region this year. Read on for five of our favorites.
The beer scene has gone from stellar to epic
The legendary St. Pete/Clearwater Beer Trail features, at last count, more than 40 local craft breweries. St. Pete’s deservedly popular Green Bench earned bonus bragging rights this year when it opened Webb’s City Cellar next door, basically the owner’s two-story “beer closet” and reportedly the state's biggest beer cellar. The cavernous space, set amid gigantic barrels of aging brews, has 12 rotating taps that veer into more experimental terrain than Green Bench’s usual roster. If you’ve never tried a “wild” pour—one fermented with a blend of wild yeast and bacteria—now’s your chance.
But save room to try at least a few other local faves: 3 Daughters, Cage, St. Pete Brewing, Mastry’s, Big Storm and Dunedin Brewery (the state’s first craft brewery)—for starters. Diehard fans can make a proper road trip of “the Gulp Coast” on a Thirsty Pelican tour, or go for the DIY version with VSPC’s Gulp Coast Passport and a designated driver whom you'll surely get back next time.
The food scene has followed suit
Tempting additions to this culinary mecca run the gamut from pub grub to multi-culti. And that’s just in St. Pete, where mid-June saw the much-anticipated opening of Datz—known for inventive spins on American comfort food. Case in point: the signature Datchos (sweet and salty chips with chili, jalapeños and topped with blue cheese). So how popular are they? Enough that the chefs burn through 500 pounds of potatoes a day.
Ichicoro Ane, a Japanese fusion joint, is another relative newcomer and crowd favorite, serving up creative small plates, all manner of ramen, plus craft fusion cocktails. If the menu dazzles you into indecision, consider pairing the CuBaoNo (an Asian twist on the classic Cuban sandwich) with some agricole rum-based Goblin Punch.
For something more laid back (think “bait shop chic”), try Trophy Fish, a casual outdoor space opened last year by St. Pete locals who saw the need for a fresh fish joint downtown. Must-try items include the from-scratch hush puppies, fried pickles and local grouper nuggets.
An already mind-blowing museum is going next-level
St. Pete’s famed Dali Museum went high-tech a few years ago with its “Dreams of Dali” virtual-reality experience, and 2019 brings a pair of new installations designed to take you even deeper into his art. “Dali Lives,” an artificial intelligence exhibition created from archival footage and hundreds of letters and interviews, reimagines Salvador Dali today. He appears to speak to you about his life and works from large screens throughout the museum. (And yes, you can get a selfie with the mustachioed master.)
Another big wow, running through early November, is “Visual Magic: Dali’s Masterworks in Augmented Reality (AR).” Curators relocated eight large-scale pieces into a darkened room where—using a downloaded app or museum headset—you’ll get an unprecedented AR docent-like explanation of the complex imagery.
Of course, the Dali Museum is one of many in St. Pete, where the growing arts scene will soon welcome another standout: The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, set to open this December with some 2,000 works—think turn-of-the-century furniture, pottery, tile and photography—from the world-renowned collection of philanthropist Rodolfo “Rudy” Ciccarello.
The local festivals are a world unto themselves
Let’s start with the festival formerly known as Clearwater Beach Uncorked, because it’s being reborn this year as Savor St. Pete Festival (Nov. 2-3). Beyond the festival’s amazing eats, local craft beers and award-winning wines, expect a celeb sighting or two.
There are plenty of longstanding festivals you’ll love, too. Take Gulfport’s homage to Florida’s beloved unofficial mascot: GeckoFest (Aug. 31) serves up live music on two stages; food and crafts plus a veritable circus of performers, from aerialist to escape artists.
Then there’s the Clearwater Jazz Holiday (Oct. 17-20), a world-class musical extravaganza in 18 acts—and not just jazz. This year’s lineup ranges from Alison Krauss to Boyz II Men—plus fireworks.
Or go see what happens when 40 top chalk artists get their hands on the Beach Walk of South Clearwater Beach: The Clearwater Beach Chalk Art Festival (Oct. 18-20) always produces mind-boggling 3-D masterpieces.
Not to be outdone, the artists on hand for the Sanding Ovations Master's Cup (Nov. 20-24) will compete for sand sculpture supremacy on Treasure Island. In addition to their jaw-dropping creations, there will be live music, food, and an area for little sand sculptors in training to take lessons.
And because beach weather and the holidays aren’t mutually exclusive here, there’s another outdoor festival that starts around the same time as Sanding Ovations: the new Enchant Christmas at St. Pete’s Tropicana Field (Nov. 22 - Dec. 29), where you’ll find a Christmas market, ice-skating trail (seriously)—and the world's largest illuminated Christmas maze.
Everything old is new again
Three of the area’s grande dame hotels have gotten fabulous facelifts, and you’ll want to check out (or check into) the resulting rooms. Topping the list is St. Pete Beach's "Pink Palace by the Sea," the Don CeSar, whose multi-stage renovation is underway with a refresh of The Lobby Bar, Maritana Grille, Uncle Andy’s, the Don CeSar Shops and the Beach House Suites outdoor space—all set to debut in November.
Meanwhile, another St. Pete landmark with a signature pink façade—the Vinoy—recently revealed a redesign that includes elaborate frescos, a modern décor and roomier digs.
Five miles up the coast from Clearwater, in increasingly less sleepy Dunedin, sprawls the Fenway Hotel, a 1920s-era landmark that has served as everything from a private club to a college campus to a minor-league baseball team’s HQ. The newest incarnation—as of late last year—is an 83-room Autograph Collection hotel, where you’ll find a rooftop bar, live jazz and an expansive bay-side lawn with yoga and tai chi.