You want a winter escape to Florida but are tired of the same-old same in Miami and Orlando. Where to? St. Pete on west coast — for a little new, a little classic, and a lot of sunshine. Here’s the lowdown.
ST. PETE, Florida — It was winter, and my mother and I were looking for a place to rendezvous in Florida. She's 84 and lives in the Detroit suburb where I grew up, and I live in New York. Over the years we had enjoyed Miami, the Gulf keys, Sarasota, and Orlando but we wanted something new. My mom requested a dash of culture with her sunshine – galleries, museums, interesting restaurants — and I wanted a convertible, a good beach, and a charming hotel. I love an old, grand hotel full of history and mystery, and when I saw a picture of Don CeSar — The Pink Palace built in 1928 — we had our destination: St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg.
The best thing about this southern half of Pinellas County is that it's like visiting two very different cultures at once (even three, if you include the tiny community of Pass-a-Grille). Along the wide, fine white sand of St. Pete Beach, you find kitschy mid-century resorts with tiki bars and shuffleboard courts, '70s hotels with rooftop bars (one with a revolving restaurant), strip malls, and fried seafood joints with names like the Drunken Clam and Sea Hags.
A ten-minute highway drive (or a ride on the public trolley), and you're in what feels like a cheerful, recently-endowed college town on a bay — St. Petersburg — with new world-class museums, bike paths, sidewalk cafes, gluten-free bakeries, live music spilling out of craft breweries, seven arts districts, and the state's largest farmers' market, held every Saturday. The food and music scenes are as diverse as the art in the galleries and on the murals that adorn St. Petersburg's old warehouses, and the performances we saw by the American Stage Theater company and the Florida Symphony were outstanding. My mom and I bummed around the beach and pool until early afternoon, then drove into St. Pete to visit a museum or galleries before dinner, then took in a play or a concert, before the easy drive under the stars back to our room at the pink palace, both of us happy with our new Florida find.
Oceanfront views at The Don CeSar. Photo courtesy of The Don CeSar.
King suite. Photo courtesy of The Don CeSar.
Where to stay
The Don CeSar
3400 Gulf Blvd.; +1-727-360-1881
This flamingo-pink, 277-room, 40-suite resort sits high above it all at the southern end of St. Pete Beach and on the National Register of Historic American Places. With two pools, two restaurants, a wonderful spa, on-site shops (including a great ice cream shop), and activities for kids, it's got something for everyone. A short walk down the beach takes you back in time to the quiet, still funky old Florida community Pass-A-Grille. Enjoy a blackened shrimp omelet at breakfast or lunch, a grouper sandwich at the Paradise Grille, which has tables on the beach.
The Vinoy Renaissance
501 Fifth Ave. NE; +1-727-894-1000
If you'd rather be based downtown and visit the beach, another grand, historic (and pink) hotel, the Vinoy Renaissance, built in 1925, overlooks the bay and has its own marina, 18-hole golf course, tennis complex, spa, and five restaurants.
340 Beach Dr. NE; +1-727-896-1080
A smaller downtown option, this elegant boutique hotel on North Straub Park is decorated with four-poster beds and claw-footed bathtubs, and has a lovely rooftop bar and restaurant.
Paradise Grille. Photo by Elisabeth Robinson.
Level 11 Rooftop Lounge. Photo by Elisabeth Robinson.
Where to eat and drink
The Reading Room
6001 Central Ave.; +1-727-343-0052
With innovative, big flavors and hyper-fresh produce (their farm is the garden right outside), chef Lauren Macellaro creates wonderful New American dishes. Her partner, Jessika Palombo, pours clever, refreshing craft cocktails.
170 Beach Dr.; +1-727-827-2927
A lively brasserie serving American and French classics. The grand sidewalk café is the perfect place for people-watching day and night.
449 Central Ave.; +1-897-5700
Chef David Benstock creates modern Italian dishes in new and delightful flavor combinations, while the front of house gives excellent service in an understated urban-elegant room. No wonder reservations are so hard to get.
10 Beach Dr. NE; +1-727-209-2299
Javier Hinojosa's superb band Sombras Flamencas performs (sometimes accompanying flamenco dancers) five nights a week at this dimly lit bar under the popular Spanish restaurant Cevíche. Top tapas and historical and tropical-themed craft cocktails, like the Old Cuban and Puka Puka Punch, are served by a friendly staff who seem to enjoy their work as much as the customers crowding the tiny dance floor. Until 9 p.m., the full menu from Ceviche is also available.
Level 11 Rooftop Lounge
5250 Gulf Blvd.; +1-800-448-0901
An external glass elevator carries you up the side of the cylindrical Grand Plaza Hotel, built in 1974, to its gleaming rooftop bar (one floor below Spinners, the only the revolving restaurant on the Gulf coast). With stunning 360-degree views, at sunset the sofas and tables fill up fast, so arrive early if you want a seat. Artisanal small plates and a wide range of cocktails, like rosemary lavender lemonade and spiced mango margarita, are served from 3 p.m. until 1 a.m.
6653 Central Ave., +1-727-914-7443
Gluten-free, organic, sustainable, and delicious baked goods, artisanal sandwiches, plus locally roasted coffee, loose leaf teas, and craft sodas served in a wonderful space, inside and out.
Dali Museum. Photo by Elisabeth Robinson.
What to do
1 Dali Blvd.; +1-727-823-3767
The stunning Yann Weymouth building, with a 75-foot tall geodesic glass bubble known as “the enigma” and helical staircase, is home to more than 2,000 works — the largest Salvador Dalí collection outside Spain. Friendly docents and a virtual-reality experience help you absorb the great scope and dimension of the late surrealist's enormous talent. Leave time to explore the gift shop, café, and tranquil Avant-Garden, which includes a labyrinth modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral.
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art
150 Central Ave.; +1727-892-4200
St. Pete's newest museum (opened in April 2018) is an inspiring and tranquil downtown oasis that’s home to more than 400 works of Western and wildlife art, including life-size bronze sculptures that evoke the spirit of the frontier, tribal traditions, and the beauty of the American West.
720 Central Ave.; +1 727-896-4527
Visiting this gallery, home to the permanent collection of the glass artist's work, is like entering a black velvet dream of illuminated red glass icicles and blue curlicues, many pieces commissioned just for this site.
On the second Saturday of every month, from 5-9 p.m., five arts districts are open to explore, with 20 trolley stops connecting visitors to more than 40 studios and galleries, many serving refreshments and offering live music.
Haslam's Book Store
2025 Central Ave.; +1 727-822-8616
Another historic destination: Florida's largest bookstore is filled with new and used books.\
Plan your trip
How to get there
Tampa International Airport (TPA) is about 30-minute drive, and St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport (PIE), about a 25-minute drive from St. Pete Beach.
While there is a public trolley system and lot of Uber and taxis availability, renting a car will give you the freedom to explore other coastal communities, which are as different from each other as St. Pete Beach is from St. Petersburg. Dunedin is charming and New England-y. Farther north, Tarpon Springs is full of Greek restaurants and sponge shops. Caladesi Beach is wild and rated the best in all of Florida.