Facing placid Old Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, Florida, attracts visitors with a vibrant downtown of pastel art-deco buildings and cultural attractions such as the Salvador Dali Museum, the symphony at Ruth Eckerd Hall and theater at American Stage.
On the Gulf side of the peninsula in Pinellas County, Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach are welcoming swaths of Gulf water lapping at white sand, backed by restaurants, souvenir shops, and boogie-board-and-bikini boutiques. Caladesi Island, Honeymoon Island and Fort de Soto Park are all noteworthy Pinellas beaches.
The St. Petersburg downtown area, once sleepy and empty at night, has become revitalized thanks to Sundial St. Pete, an entertainment and restaurant complex, and an explosion of high-rise luxury condos. Also, boutique cafes and restaurants are springing up along Central Avenue (the core east-west route from bay to Gulf) for about two blocks to the north and south.
Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.
St. Petersburg occupies the peninsula that forms the west side of Tampa Bay (the city of Tampa is across the water to the northeast). St. Petersburg's numbered roads and directional addresses make it relatively easy to negotiate. Avenues run east and west; streets run north and south. Central Avenue is the main dividing line between north and south. The avenue numbers increase as you move from the center of town in either direction, and the "north" or "south" in the address indicates whether the destination is north or south of Central Avenue. The streets are also numbered, beginning at the Tampa Bay waterfront and increasing as you go west.
St. Petersburg lies on the bay side of the Pinellas peninsula. It has more history and a better sense of place and sophistication than the beach towns along the Gulf side. There are romantic bed-and-breakfasts, fine restaurants and cultural attractions.
Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach on the Gulf side have the densest concentrations of beachside accommodations—in Clearwater this often means tall resort hotels and condos right on the beach; in St. Pete Beach it's low-rise motels that date back a few decades.
The communities in between—Belleair and Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach, Madeira Beach and Treasure Island—are fairly residential, but with pockets of beachside hotels, motels and rentals.
The whole Gulf side is really composed of a series of tiny barrier islands connected to the mainland by causeways. This may not be totally clear to you when driving, but spend a little time with the map so you know when you're looking at boats bobbing on the Intracoastal Waterway, Boca Ciega Bay, Clearwater Harbor or the Gulf of Mexico.
Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to visit the peninsula they named Pinellas—Ponce de Leon even searched for the fountain of youth there. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that settlements began to take shape in the St. Petersburg area. The arrival of a railroad built by Peter Demens in the late 1800s spurred the area's growth. The city was named in honor of Demens' birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia. By the late 19th century, the area was being promoted by the American Medical Association for its health benefits.
Even in its early years, the town was a vacation destination. Fittingly, a young aviator named Tony Jannus flew the world's first passenger airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914. In recent decades, St. Petersburg has been caught up in the growth of the larger Tampa Bay area, which has helped diversify its businesses. Nonetheless, it remains popular with vacationers and retirees.
The sightseeing action in St. Petersburg is downtown. All of the city's notable museums are found there, close to where Central Avenue meets Tampa Bay. The Salvador Dali Museum is one of the city's best, offering an extensive collection of paintings, prints and photographs. The Pier, the city's signature downtown entertainment center, closed for redevelopment in June 2013.
Museums and other downtown areas of interest are linked by a trolley-bus, the blue Looper, which runs daily at 15-minute intervals. http://www.loopertrolley.com.
Although the ultrachic, high-tech dance clubs are found in Tampa, St. Petersburg does not lack a nightlife. Whether it's dancing to the hottest tracks, enjoying an after-dinner cognac or talking about the big game over a few drafts, this city has it. Bars and clubs generally close their doors at 2 am.
Although St. Petersburg can't compete with the number and variety of restaurants in nearby Tampa, it has several innovative establishments worth seeking out. There are also plenty of international eateries.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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