“Looking for recommendations for a girls’ trip!”
“Taking hubby away for a long weekend, suggestions?”
“Need a fun weekend getaway less than three hours by air.”
They’re all over Preston Hollow and Park Cities neighborhood Facebook groups; requests for recommendations for girls’ trips, weekend getaways with the hubby, and easy family trips. Oh, and spring break is around the corner. Omicron or not, Dallasites are eager to travel and there’s a place that meets the criteria for most every traveler, but it’s not on the radar screen. Yet.
Meet St. Petersburg, Florida.
After an easy two-hour-and-14-minute flight from Love Field into Tampa, you’re in a sub-tropical paradise that might remind you of Austin, Nashville, or Seattle before they became uber-popular, crowded, and expensive.
The peninsula that is St. Petersburg/Clearwater has the best of both worlds: Bay side St. Petersburg, which has a compact but thriving downtown and is home to excellent museums, professional sports venues, top-notch restaurants, world-class sailing, and the showpiece of the city, The St. Pete Pier, a public park and multi-level dining and entertainment space that juts into the blue waters of Tampa Bay.
St. Pete Beach and Clearwater on the beach side, are the welcome centers for the Gulf of Mexico, whose waters last lapped land in Corpus Christi, which has the same latitude as St. Pete Beach. Sandy beaches, sunsets, and beach-town vibes are a mere 20-minute drive from downtown via car or crosstown trolley. Like I said, the best of both worlds.
What is there to do? Plenty.
St. Petersburg is home to several world-class museums, including the only Salvador Dalí Museum in America, the Museum of American Arts & Crafts Movement with a robust collection of furniture, jewelry, photography, and other objet d’art of the 1880s-1920s, and The James Museum of History, Culture and Wildlife of the American West founded by Tom James, former head of the financial services firm Raymond James whose name is woven throughout the sails of the city, its world headquarters.
There is much live music to enjoy here. You can often catch free public concerts at St. Pete Pier or at one of the bars on Central Avenue, buy tickets to shows at the Mahaffey Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Arts, the Jannus, an outdoor venue, or The Floridian Social Club, a fabulous art-deco venue with a variety of musical acts, from an Elton John tribute band to jazz ensembles. Most venues are walkable from downtown.
The Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Rowdies Major League Soccer team have stadiums perched perfectly downtown, walkable, and surrounded by restaurants and bars for pre-and-post gaming. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is a three-day event from February 25-27 in which INDYCAR racing cars compete on a downtown racetrack that chicanes around museums, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, and the Alfred Whitted Airport. If you’re a sailor or just like to watch, the yacht club hosts regattas throughout the year that are fun to watch from the parks or pier.
I wouldn’t give St. Pete a second thought if it didn’t have plenty of great restaurants to enjoy. Seafood is plentiful here and you should not leave without having a Grouper Sandwich at Harvey’s Grill on 4th or Ted Peter’s Smoked Fish Dip, though there are plenty of good substitutes if you don’t want to drive that far. Beach Drive is the main drag downtown, so it’s the place where you find the most concentration of restaurants. My favorites there include Ceviche, a Spanish restaurant, and Parkshore Grill, which has a sprawling menu. All restaurants have ample patios. Beach Drive also has several sweet shops, including Kilwin’s fudge and a Dallas hometown favorite, Paciugo Gelato.
On the pier, there are six great dining and drinking options, including Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille, which specializes in Florida seafood, including stone crabs when in season. Teak offers fine dining two stories above the water and on the very top story is Pier Teaki, a classic tiki bar that is loads of fun unless it’s raining.
St. Pete has fine dining as well. Left Bank Bistro is a French-Florida restaurant in a little Craftsman house less than a mile from downtown and serves fresh steaks and seafood. The Library is curiously located inside of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital but is a fabulous restaurant lined with tomes in shades of blue against sandy blond wood, serving fresh pastas, seafood, and steak. Il Ritorno is an exquisite Italian restaurant on Central Avenue, a crosstown Bay-to-beach street lined with restaurants, cafés, bars, and breweries.
No one comes to St. Pete to shop, and it’s obvious why. One place worth visiting, however, is the Luis Sottil Gallery on Beach Drive. You will immediately recognize Sottil’s rich, colorful canvases from Mi Cocina Tex-Mex restaurants, which display Sottil’s work throughout their locations.
You can stay Bay side or Beach side. Downtown’s Bay side has more options and hotels with recognizable flags, Hilton, Hyatt, Hampton Inn. The Vinoy Hotel is a lovely Mediterranean-Revival hotel overlooking the harbor and parks and is nicely aside from the more bustling Hyatt Place, a full-service hotel that’s right in the middle of the downtown St. Pete action.
On the beach side, the Don Cesar Hotel is the Pink Palace of St. Pete, an iconic Gatsby-esque hotel that is retro and charming and worth a visit, even if just for drinks.
If you stay a few extra days in the area, Sarasota is an easy drive and a great day trip. St. Armand’s Circle offers abundant dining and shopping. The must-see place in Sarasota is Ca’ d’Zan, the stunning Venetian Gothic home of Mable and John Ringling, founder of the Ringling Circus. The Ringlings were great arts patrons, and the Ringling Art Museum is worth a stop, as is the Ringling Circus Museum which contains delightful and interesting circus history and artifacts without a lot of creepy clowns.
Tampa is one of the hottest cities in America right now, despite Tom Brady’s big loss to local boy Matthew Stafford and the Rams on Sunday. There’s so much to see, do, and eat in Tampa that it deserves its own story.
For a smaller-sized city, St. Peterburg offers rich and diverse experiences, and I didn’t even mention fishing, shuffleboard, or lawn bowling. The area is changing and expanding so it’s a place you can visit over again with girls, families, or for romantic long weekends. If you’re planning a visit and would like some tips on things to do or places to eat, I’ll be glad to help. Find me on Instagram at KerstenEats.