Move Over Austin, St. Petersburg Is the New Capital of Weird
Quirky art, cool neighborhood gems, and white sand beaches await in this Florida town.
It’s tempting to keep St. Petersburg a secret. If recent history tells us anything, as soon as a city shows a burgeoning art scene or quirky, creative places, the masses follow and it quickly becomes overdone and expensive. Portland, Austin, and Nashville can all tell you that story, but somehow St. Petersburg, Florida has remained under the radar.
Part of that might be because the city sits in the shadow of its across-the-bay neighbor Tampa, and under the looming cultural presence of Miami. But St. Pete’s ability to keep things low key has more to do with locals who take pride in their neighborhood spots. “People really care, the community cares about culture,” says Liz Dimmitt, the CEO of the city’s immersive Floridian art showcase, Fairgrounds. “People are invested in their town, and the cultural scene has some activism to it, so people are proud.”
That pride has given the western part of Tampa Bay a true gem of a weekend getaway, a place to escape the state’s hectic cities and meandering suburbs, and immerse yourself in unexpected art and quick-witted people. St. Petersburg is a place where you can lay on the beach all morning, peruse Dali’s masterpieces in the afternoon, and wander through art galleries at night. Then retire to a rooftop bar atop a hotel that’s been standing for 100 years. So come along to the urban jewel of the Gulf Coast, and discover why St. Petersburg is the Sunshine State’s coolest city.
4 hours from Miami
If You Don’t Do Anything Else: Explore Weird, Wacky, Wonderful Florida at Fairgrounds
If one place embodies all that is cool and creative about St. Petersburg, it’s Fairgrounds. Not to be confused with the large tracts of land where 4H clubs mingle with creepy carnies, the Fairgrounds is an immersive art and technology walk through a museum. Imagine the famed Meow Wolf set up shop in a mid-century roadside Florida motel, and you’re getting the idea.
More than 60 different artists from locales that range from down the block to the other side of the world helped create this neon-and-pastel playground. The premise revolves around a young couple who checked into a kitschy motel and suddenly disappeared. Clues lie everywhere inside the Fairgrounds, from the eerie check-in desk to the couple’s abandoned van, so guests can gamify the experience by hunting for the pair. Or just explore unusual photos of the Everglades and their inhabitants, and play with a soundboard in a Twistee Treat whose inside looks like a spaceship.
“We have tangible things you can touch and feel. There’s a narrative you can investigate, and it changes over time,” says Dimmitt. “It has that authentic, local Florida feel and you get that the artists who made this space love this space.”
There are also several photo ops, including a new room filled with all varieties of gigantic shrimp sculptures. But make no mistake this is far from an Instagram museum, as you can walk through taking nary a picture and still find the experience completely captivating.
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Arts and Culture in St. Petersburg, Florida
Art in St. Pete is far from a one-trick pony, and while Fairgrounds is a must-hit, the scene throughout the city is what made the place possible. No trip through St. Petersburg’s art scene is complete without a trip to the Salvador Dali Museum, which recently added Dali 360, a 30-ish minute experience where the artist’s works come to life inside a projection dome. The Chihuly Collection is a permanent exhibition at the Modean Arts Center that showcases large-scale work by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The blocks around Fairgrounds are filled with artist’s studios where you can pop in and out to get a sense of who’s creating in this city, similar to Wynwood circa 2010. Even St. Pete's iconic pier has interesting art, highlighted by a net sculpture called “Bending Arc” from Tampa Bay native Janet Echelmen. You can also visit for the annual SHINE Mural Festival in October, where artists fill the city’s streets to add to the over 150 murals the festival has created in its eight years.
Things to Do Outdoors in St. Petersburg, Florida
With all its quirky creativity, it’s easy to forget St. Petersburg is still in Florida, so it also offers miles of soft white sand beaches. St. Pete Beach is the crowd favorite, so if you’re looking for turquoise waters and toes-in-the-sand beach bars, that’s the place to go. But you can also head a little outside town to Fort DeSoto Park and get that same aquamarine slice of heaven in a totally remote location. If you’re more for watersports, rent a kayak and explore Caladesi Island State Park, where uninhabited islands in Tampa Bay make you feel like an early Florida explorer. You can also jump on two wheels and cycle along the Pinellas Trail, a 45-mile path from St. Pete to Tarpon Springs that takes you through small towns and undisturbed Florida nature.
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in St. Petersburg, Florida
As its cultural scene has developed, St. Petersburg has also seen the growth of vibrant neighborhoods. The most-recognized is the EDGE District, the historic blocks surrounding ill-fated Tropicana Field. Once only home to pregame stalwart Ferg’s, the bustling streets around Central Ave. N. will welcome a gleaming new Moxy hotel soon. It’ll be flanked by spots like Green Bench Brewing and its sunny outdoor patio, thrift shops, Intermezzo Coffee and Cocktails, and Bodega Cuban cuisine. You’ll also find The Candle Pour, a craft-your-own aromatic candle experience that’s one of those things you don’t think you’ll love until you do it. And then you bring home a candle and don’t shut up about how you made it.
A little further up Central you can pop into the Grand Central District, an LGBTQ-friendly part of town where rainbow flags line the street and drag queens in high heels strut the sidewalks. It’s home to the city’s most provocative collection of murals, and the Right Around the Corner pinball arcade. You can also try some of the city’s top tacos at Casita Taqueria, or start the day with vegan donuts at Valhalla Bakery.
Eat, Drink, and Sleep
Best Bars and Restaurants in St. Petersburg, Florida
Eating and drinking is an equally creative experience in St. Petersburg, a story best told at CellarMasters. What looks like a converted auto body shop is actually a personality-packed trip into a world of hipster wine, where signs loudly announce you won’t find Caymus (“Fake wine, terrible family”), Meomi, or La Crema inside. It’s adorned in detailed vintage furniture and 20th century pop culture tributes, as close to an angry hipster wine bar as you’ll find in Florida.
The fun continues at No Vacancy, a Florida motel-themed bar with fresh craft cocktails, flamingoes galore, and an outdoor patio with oversized games and an airstream trailer. For something a little more serious (and substantial), book dinner at Baba, a fresh Mediterranean spot in Grand Central where you can enjoy mezze and grilled seafood with a warm Florida breeze. Or sample small plates at Allelo, which sits along the downtown waterfront and offers an impressive collection of wine to pair with each one.
You can also hit the Urban Stillhouse, which in addition to distilling its own whiskey has an extensive menu of food, and low-key plates up one of the best brunches in the city. Or book a romantic table at The Black Pearl in Dunedin, who’s not overselling itself when it claims to have the “best filet in Tampa Bay.”
Where to stay in St. Petersburg, Florida
If you’re into old Florida luxury resorts, you already know about Don CeSar. The iconic resort exudes bright-pink, over-the-top glam and puts you just steps from the sugary sand beach. That being said, if you’re looking for that same slice of history within a three-block walk to downtown opt for the Vinoy. The 1925 palace was built for pure Florida leisure, complete with a lagoon pool and patio restaurant. A second-floor mezzanine tells you the place’s entire history, with artifacts from the ‘30s and ‘40s and menus from old state dinners. A little north in Dunedin you can post up at the Fenway Hotel, a stucco spot that’s served as home for everything from Pinellas County’s first radio station to the headquarters of the Tai Chi Society of the USA, that now boasts a rooftop bar with stunning views of the bay.