St. Petersburg, Florida, long had the reputation of a sleepy little retirement town nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. There were visions of elderly residents sitting on iconic green benches downtown.
Things have changed. The beach is still white and wide. But new businesses and local economic growth have brought in white-collar workers and their families. The downtown area is alive with restaurants and nightclubs. St. Pete today trends younger and is more vibrant. No longer a sleepy retirement community, it is now very much alive and vibrant, offering excitement and fun in the sun.
Things To Do In St. Petersburg
St. Pete Beach has become a go-to destination for those seeking sand in their toes. From Treasurer Island to Tierra Verde, the beaches attract sun-worshippers year-round. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico have almost medicinal effects. The winter season brings “snowbirds” from up north, while the summer season is mainly a Florida family crowd.
1. Fort DeSoto Park
This is a great park for fishing, swimming, kayaking, and bike riding. There’s even a dog park. Located on the very southern tip of Tierra Verde, Fort DeSoto has a large campground with 238 sites, but reservations are hard to come by, especially in the peak winter season.
There are two fishing piers jetting out into Tampa Bay. Kayak rentals are available, and I recommend the paddle out to Shell Key (one of our picks for the best Florida Beaches that typically aren’t ridiculously crowded), where you can experience quiet solitude with your toes in the sand. And, as the name implies, it’s a great place for shelling.
A centerpiece of the park is the historic fort, which was built in the late 1890s as a defense against feared invasion during the Spanish-American war. To withstand cannon barrages, the walls of the fort are 8 to 20 feet thick. It wasn’t until some years later, after the war was over, that mortar batteries and cannons were actually installed in the fort.
Admission to the park is $5, but it’s free if you ride your bike, walk, or have a handicapped sticker on your car.
2. Skyway Bridge
Looming across the entrance to Tampa Bay is the four-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge, connecting St. Petersburg to Manatee County on I-275. The bridge was built in the 1980s after the original bridge collapsed after being hit by a freighter during a storm. For a toll of only $1.50, it’s worth the ride to see this architectural wonder and get a high view of Tampa Bay. The remains of the old bridge now form a giant fishing pier.
3. St. Petersburg Pier
A highlight of visiting downtown St. Petersburg on the bay side is a visit to the new St. Pete Pier. There has been a pier at this location for over 100 years, but the new pier is unique — more than just a pier jutting out into the bay. This new 26-acre pier is an island of activity, including walkways, tram rides, restaurants, shopping, and open space. There are docks to secure your boat while visiting plus 500 parking spaces. Note that parking on the pier can be expensive and most people choose off-site parking garages if they plan on being on the pier for more than a few hours.
4. Shuffleboard Club
There are more sedate things to do around St. Pete, too. It is home to the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, which claims the title of the World’s Largest. Formed in 1924, the club has 1,200 members. The clubhouse is a designated St. Petersburg Historic Site.
5. Weedon Island Kayaking
Weedon Island is a large Pinellas County Park, located on the bayside of St. Pete, off Gandy Boulevard. It has picnic areas and pavilions available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are kayak and canoe rentals if you want to paddle the miles of waterways in the park.
6. The Arts
St. Pete has a vibrant arts scene starting with the Salvador Dali Museum, located just south of downtown. The Dali permanently features many works of the surrealist Spanish artist as well as temporary exhibits of other artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso.
Located downtown, the Chihuly Collection is a permanent exhibition of the glass art of Dale Chihuly. The Collection includes Chihuly’s spectacular large-scale installations such as Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, created specifically for the collection, along with several popular series works including Macchia, Ikebana, Niijima Floats, Persians, and Tumbleweeds, which have thrilled audiences around the globe.
7. Florida Holocaust Museum
This museum is located downtown and offers insight into the horrific World War II holocaust. There is also a section devoted to the history of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
There are several botanical gardens in St. Pete and nearby suburbs. The largest is the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo. Over 100 acres of gardens are devoted to tropical plants, fruit, cactus, roses, topiaries, and a wedding garden that can hold large or more intimate weddings. The gardens are part of the Pinellas County park system.
The St. Petersburg Parks and Recreation Department operates the Gizella Kopsick Arboretum, a small two-acre park that used to be a miniature golf course. A variety of palm trees, more than 500 of them, can be found here. It is a popular spot for weddings.
Sunken Gardens is a St. Pete landmark that dates back over a century. The mature flora, flamingo exhibit, and old Florida-style gift shop are part of what is billed as Florida’s oldest surviving roadside attraction. If you ever feel the need to buy a plastic flamingo yard ornament, this is the place to find it.
St. Pete is a big-league city. The Tampa Bay Rays, American League champions in 2020, play at Tropicana Field. The domed stadium has a seating capacity of about 42,000 fans, but games seldom sell out, and walk-up tickets are usually available. The Rays have played there since their inaugural season in 1998.
Over the years, St. Petersburg has been the Spring Training home for many major league teams. None are there currently, but five teams train less than an hour away: Blue Jays (Dunedin), Phillies (Clearwater), Yankees (Tampa), Pirates (Bradenton), Orioles (Sarasota).
Nearby, in the city of Tampa, you find the homes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL).
Best Restaurants In St. Petersburg
There are several fine dining options in downtown St. Pete, but those beachside tend to be more casual.
The Rococo Steak House downtown features grass-fed beef and seafood. The Birch and Vine resides in the Birchwood Hotel. It features inside and outside dining, with a rooftop bar and tables along the sidewalk.
The Sea Porch Cafe at the Don Cesar offers casual dining and an elaborate Sunday brunch.
Billy’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde has been around for nearly 50 years, serving fresh seafood and steaks.
Very Casual Beachside Dining
The Hurricane, on Pass A Grille Beach, offers seafood and is noted for its grouper sandwiches. It offers outside and rooftop dining overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
John’s Pass Village, in Madeira Beach, offers nearly a dozen casual restaurants.
Best Hotels In St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is home to two historic hotels, one on the beach, one on the bay.
The Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach is known as the “Pink Palace” and has been welcoming guests since 1928. The “Don” is located right on the beach and was the luxury destination for people like Clarence Darrow and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Second World War brought that to an end. The hotel was converted into a hospital and convalescent center for U.S. troops. It later became a Veterans Administration headquarters. Investors stepped in to restore the original hotel in the 1970s, and it has regained its luxury status today.
The Don enjoys a paranormal reputation for being haunted and has even been featured in television shows on the topic. Don’t worry, the ghosts are friendly.
The Vinoy Hotel, on the bay downtown by the Pier, followed a similar path as the Don. The Vinoy was a luxury hotel built in 1925 and hosted presidents, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Stewart, and many wealthy guests. During the Second World War, it was converted into a military training school. It reopened after the war but didn’t regain its status as a luxury hotel. Instead, it fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the 1970s. It sat vacant and crumbling until a group of investors bought the property in 1990 and moved to restore the hotel to its original beauty. Today, it’s a Marriott property with multiple restaurants, a golf course, and a spa.