St. Petersburg, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, may not get the buzz like Miami and Orlando; but it should. It’s charming, quaint, but that’s just half of the story. The really interesting chapter is its funkiness, art obsession, and vibrant culinary scene. There’s a lot of personality in this town of more than 250,000 that’s pretty much next door to Tampa.
What captivated me was the art. I came seeking it and got more than I could have imagined. There are seven art districts, more than 600 murals, and 30-plus museums. I knew I would be blown away by the street art, that’s my sweet spot, and I was. But what I hadn’t expected was the emotion-filled visit to The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art.
The portrayal of Native American life has to be among the most powerful on the planet. The collection includes more than 3,000 prized pieces from Mary and Tom James, chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial. The vivid paintings, sculptures, and other media tell the stories of Native American life, from the late 1700s to early 1900s. Telling stories so graphically — the good, the bad, the tribal traditions — and more so clearly, it’s like watching a movie. You feel the joy and the pain. Be sure to explore the Native Artists Gallery featuring 20th and 21st-century Native American artists who share their truths. No doubt a bonus is The Jewelry Box Gallery, with its extraordinary Native-made jewelry and the New West Gallery with its take on the West expressed with twists of Cubism and Surrealism. It’s enlightening to experience the James Museum. You’ll likely get a new perspective and want to know more about the culture.
This was just one memorable moment. St. Pete is an art mecca. Here are a few highlights of an art scene that you should not miss next time you are in St. Petersburg.
People come from around the globe to visit the Dali Museum. There’s a good reason for that. It has the largest collection of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí’s works outside of Spain. To add to the allure, the building’s architecture designed by Yann Weymouth is outrageous and in itself worth a visit. There’s always something new here like Dali Lives, an AI experience where Salvador Dalí welcomes you to the museum as if he were alive today. He shares observations on current events and offers the backstory behind his work. Plan to spend several hours here. You’ll want to savor the experience by finishing off your time at the museum with lunch at Café Gala (named in honor of his wife). Sit inside or outside in the greenery of the Avant-Garden patio and enjoy waterfront views. Feast on the Spanish-themed menu that features tapas and treats like the Barcelona chicken salad panini and keep the good vibe going with the café’s signature Cava Rosado (Spanish rosé champagne).
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for an artsy place to stay while you’re in St. Pete, consider The Birchwood in the heart of the downtown waterfront district. It’s only 18 rooms, quaint, are stylish with a 1920s theme and classic elegance. Another plus is the rooftop lounge, The Canopy, with cabanas and fire pits, ideal for sipping cocktails.
Fairgrounds St. Pete
What do you get when you let more than 60 artists loose to do their thing? Something special indeed. Fairgrounds St. Pete is no ordinary “museum.” This is art plus technology, an immersive experience with interactive story-driven installations. It’s cool, kooky, all that, and a bag of chips. You’ll marvel at the creativity. I don’t want to spill the beans about what you’ll see. Just know that here, weird and wacky works abound. In a word, expect the unexpected in this 15,000-square foot wonderland. As for the name, it refers to traditional fairgrounds and their role as a place for exhibiting new ideas, as well as recognizing talent, creativity, and innovation. Recall those good old days of the world’s fair. Feel good knowing that not only are the artists paid for their work, but they get a portion of the profits from ticket sales while their work is on display.
SHINE St. Petersburg Mural Festival
Few cities can boast of having more than 600 murals. Over the last 6 years, more than 100 of them have come from the artists who participate in the annual SHINE Festival. Top talent, local, national, and international muralists come to town to showcase their talents on the city’s walls. This fall, they added 19 more murals to the streetscape. Get a map and go. You can drive, or even better, bike around to see the murals. They are in clusters in the various art districts. Be ready to ooh and aah. These are not rookies at play. You’ll see the works of mural masters like Germany’s Case Maclaim, known for his photo realism and surrealistic spray-painting magic. The SHINE Mural Festival is an event of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, a nonprofit, 501 dedicated to advocating for the arts and driving arts-related economic impact. It’s cool to watch the artists at work. They might even have a minute to chat with you about their piece. That is a treat. It’s not often you get to hear the backstory directly from the creator.
Pro Tip: Be sure you make your way to the 600 block of Central Avenue; this is the site where some of the city’s first murals were painted. While you’re there, a few blocks up at 1180, there’s Bodega, which you’ll be ready for after all that walking. It claims to have the best Cuban sandwich, I certainly agree. Don’t take my word for it, Yahoo Food named it among the 20 best Cubano sandwiches in America. It’s Latin food at its best — casual, street food, yummy.
The Chihuly Collection At The Morean Arts Center
Remember that song from Sesame Street, One of These Things Is Not Like The Other? Well, for sure this applies to The Chihuly Collection. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen. That alone is reason to visit. Dale Chihuly does things with glass that are spectacular and that’s not an overstatement. Go there and see if you disagree. This is the first installation of Chihuly art in a building designed specifically for that purpose, so you get an experience with his art you won’t get elsewhere. The collection starts with a bang. The entrance is an iconic 20-foot sculpture created especially for the site. Every piece stands out, but look out for the Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, popular series works including Macchia and Ikebana.
Pro Tip: For more glass art check out the Imagine Museum in the Central Arts District. The museum focuses on the glass movement since the 1960s and contemporary glass.
Museum Of The American Arts & Crafts Movement
The city’s newest museum opened in September. The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (MAACM) is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the American Arts and Crafts movement. It’s a beauty; pristine, and a bit proper. The building itself is impressive at 137,000 square feet; 40,000 square feet of gallery space, grand atrium, skylights, and a spiral staircase that is the stuff of fantasy. You feel like you should speak in hushed tones out of respect because you are in the presence of stunning architecture, and more than 800 works of art that showcase the best of the Arts and Crafts Movement from 1890 to 1930. Think names like Gustav Stickley, Charles Rohlfs, and Frank Lloyd Wright for starters. The furniture, pottery, tiles, textiles, photography, and period room installations capture your attention. Don’t rush. There’s plenty to see — extras like a reference library, outdoor green space, store, and a café that’s above the average museum fare.
Museum Of Fine Arts
The MFA is legendary and a landmark. It opened in 1965 and was the city’s first art museum on the downtown waterfront. The collection covers nearly 5,000 years of life on the planet with thousands upon thousands of treasures from ancient times up to today. You’ll see works of masters like Monet, O’Keefe, De Kooning, and many other greats. It’s also home to one of the state’s most prized photography collections.
Pro Tip: If you’re in the mood for fine art, then you’re likely in a mood for a fine meal. Go for the upscale Urban Stillhouse, if you can get a reservation. Better make it before you get to town as it can take a few weeks. This 16,000-square-foot restaurant in the Warehouse Arts District has an outdoor patio, three bars, a huge upstairs library, and main dining floor. Pretty cool, too, that you tour the behind-the-scenes production of the magic that goes into making Horse Soldier Bourbon. There’s an interesting story behind the brand and the food here is likely to be some of the best you have in St. Pete — or anywhere for that matter. No doubt the thinking from the kitchen is that food is art.
If you’re contemplating a visit to St. Petersburg, here’s more information: