How to spend an artsy and nature-filled weekend in St Petersburg, Florida

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St Petersburg, Florida, is a rapidly growing city in the Tampa Bay Area, whose 70F (21C) “winters”, arts city-meets-beach town vibe and excellent food scene make it a fantastic alternative to tourist-thronged Miami and Orlando.

We spoke to Florida-based travel writer Terry Ward, who has called the Tampa Bay area home for over ten years, to help craft the perfect St Petersburg weekend.

“I think people get really surprised by St Pete,” said Ward, using the city’s affectionate nickname. “What a lot of people [want is] a beach experience in Florida that also offers something on the urban side of things… [St Pete]’s just got this indie vibe.”

St Pete’s immensely walkable downtown, comprised of the St Pete Pier and Grand Central District, teems with shops, eclectic museums, art galleries and nightlife, brightened by hip murals and a constant explosion of new restaurants, from upscale eateries to Roman run porchetta trucks.  The Central Avenue Trolley and SunRunner buses run from downtown to St Pete Beach, a narrow islet of pristine white sand, seafood shacks and Mid-century hotels, while a car is useful for visiting seafront Gulfport – an Easter egg-coloured enclave of bars and boutiques known for its nightlife – and historic Kenwood with its brick streets lined with oak trees and gabled Craftsman bungalows. Home to generations of Native Americans since circa 3000 BCE, the area now known as St Petersburg was invaded by pirates in the 16th Century, and the pirate remains a popular figure in local identity.

“St Pete used to be called ‘God’s waiting room’,” joked Ward. “Yeah, it’s long outgrown that reputation.”

Here’s Terry Ward’s guide to spending a weekend in sunny, artsy St Pete.

1. Best for Friday night – The St Pete Pier

To kick off a St Pete weekend, Ward heads to the St Pete Pier – a delightfully pedestrian-friendly tree-lined zone of restaurants and shops leading to the city’s massive waterfront; crowned by the dazzling twine net mega-sculpture “Bending Arc” by local artist Janet Echelman. “It’s super Scandinavian looking,” said Ward of the area. “It’s super cool. [For kids] there’s the Majeed Foundation] splash pad  and they’ve got a pirate-themed playground. [There’s also the] Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center with nature exhibits… You can get 360 views of everything.”

Ward’s St Petersburg hotel of choice is the Pier’s The Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, dating to 1926. “[It’s] so classic and so walkable to everything,” she said of the recently renovated flamingo-coloured resort. Ward recommends starting off from The Vinoy on foot towards lively Beach Drive, where couples can grab a rooftop cocktail at the Birchwood Canopy bar at the Birchwood, a handsome boutique hotel, while families can enjoy the Pier’s street life. “It’s really lively at night, which is cool,” said Ward. “[There’s] live music on the weekend, and they sometimes have pop up things like a roller-skating rink, depending on the season.”

For dinner, Ward likes the elegant French bistro Cassis, the New American restaurant Teak St Pete with its spectacular views of downtown and Allelo, a Mediterranean-Aegean restaurant and bar serving shareable small plates. To end on a sweet note, Ward stops at Paciugo Gelato & Caffé. “We don’t even have to have a plan,” she said. “You can just set out on foot and see where the night brings you.”

2. Best for Saturday morning – Saturday Morning Market

Ward’s ideal Saturday morning in St Pete is spent at the bustling Saturday Morning Market, a fixture in the city’s social scene since 2002. “I’d say it’s probably the best market in the whole Tampa Bay area,” said Ward. “I come across the bridge [from Tampa] just for that market.”

The market – held at  Williams Park from June to September and next to the Al Lang Stadium from October to May – is a high-energy showcase for St Pete’s best local produce vendors, artisans and food stands. “Beautiful flowers, live music, beer garden,” said Ward. “Everybody goes to that on Saturday morning… You can piece together an easy breakfast, and they have tables to sit at.”

Ward’s go-to sweet treat at the Saturday Morning Market is a freshly made Belgian waffle from Sylvia’s Waffles,  but she notes that the market changes constantly. “You never know who’s going to be there,” she said. “There’s usually someone, like, opening coconuts with a straw… but it’s lots of different food from different countries, and [locals] do their product shopping there. [It’s] got a little bit of a Euro vibe.”

The Saturday Morning Market welcomes artisans from all over the Tampa Bay Area, selling wares from hand-painted ceramic tiles to repurposed art prints. Ward likes gifting local honey, pure Florida sea salt and tropical sea sponges. “I always get [sponges] to bring to friends when I’m looking for something really ‘Florida’,” she said.

3. Best for Saturday afternoon – Soaking up the street art and museum scene

After strolling through the Saturday Morning Market, Ward segues into an afternoon of enjoying St Petersburg’s vibrant art scene – starting with the Dalí Museum, an avantgarde building designed by local architect  Yann Weymouth that houses over 2,400 artworks chronicling every period of the surrealist master’s life and artistic evolution. “It’s just a short walk from [the winter Saturday Morning Market],” said Ward. “They have a good café there, too, that does a really good Spanish tortilla.”

The Dali is just one of St Petersburg’s unique museums: art lovers can also explore the nearby James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art  or, heading further uptown, the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Modern sculpture lovers will enjoy the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Centre, where American glass artist  Dale Chihuly’s whimsical glass sculptures of sea creatures are on display.

As rich as St Pete’s museum scene may be, the city’s greatest art may well be found outdoors, particularly in the former warehouse precinct which – known as the Grand Central District since 2000 – is now home to excellent shops, dining options and dozens of gorgeous street murals splashed across formerly drab expanses. “They have the huge Shine® Mural Festival every year,” said Ward. “There’s hundreds of street murals in St. Pete. The city actually welcomes muralists more. The city has really kind of fostered St Pete’s creativity and enabled it. It’s just a cool town.”

4. Best for Saturday night – the Grand Central District

When the sun goes down, muting the vibrant colours of the Grand Central District’s murals, the area’s nightlife begins; perfect for a car-free Saturday night of great food and bar hopping. “There’s a few spots I like there for something casual,” said Ward. “There’s a place called Lolita’s Wine Market [where you can] make your own charcuterie boards. They’ve got couches that make it really communal for hanging out.” Ward also recommends  Trophy Fish  – an elevated fish house serving craft cocktails and fresh Gulf seafood like smoked peel-and-eat shrimp and fish sandwiches made with the day’s fresh catch.

For after dinner drinks, Ward suggests The Saint. “It’s a speakeasy where you enter through a confessional,” she explained. “Confess your sin and get in.” The speakeasy’s location on a nondescript city block belies its decadent interiors and its vast menu of elaborate cocktails, seven of which are named for the Deadly Sins, or its regular tarot readings and burlesque performances. For something a little more wholesome, Ward recommends heading to one of St Pete’s breweries. “They’re really good here. They’re sort of family-friendly,” she said. “[They have] cornhole and outdoor areas where you can hang out beer garden style.” Try Ward’s craft brewery pick, 3 Daughters Brewing on 22nd street.

5. Best for Sunday morning – Brunch at The Library

Saturday night drinks naturally bleed into Sunday morning (or early afternoon) brunch. St Pete has many great options – like the lavish Sunday brunch buffet at the bubble-gum pink castle shaped  Don CeSar resort on St Pete Beach. Ward’s favourite brunch spot is  The Library,  an elegant New American restaurant located in downtown St Pete. “It’s got indoor and outdoor seating and great Gouda bacon grits and cocktails,” said Ward. “[It’s ] inspired by a library in Baltimore,  [with] books as décor and for borrowing if you want to find a nook to curl up with a coffee and read.”

The Library’s unique bookish setting is housed in the  John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Research and Education building. Also unique are its brunch offerings, which range from playful twists on American brunch classics – like Maple Snickerdoodle Pancakes and Beef Cheek Benedict – to a decadent $80 brunch board extravaganza.

6. Best for Sunday afternoon – Florida nature escape

When all is said and done, Florida’s main draw is always its sugar-soft white sand beaches and untamed wildlife. “[There’s] so much natural beauty in the area,” said Ward. “I think if you don’t get out in it either at one of the beaches or these unexpected places to paddle and see dolphins and manatees, you’re missing out on what Florida is really about.”

Ward’s ideal St Petersburg beach escape is the charming neighbourhood of  Pass-a-Grille, located at the southernmost end of St Pete Beach and flanked with brightly painted late 19th-Century gabled buildings, home to artsy boutiques and restaurants. “The history is interesting,” said Ward. “It was named Passe aux Grilleurs in French for the French buccaneers who grilled up their fresh catch on the pass there.”

A day in Pass-a-Grille involves boutique hopping and a relaxing layout at the beach before adjourning to The Dewey; beachfront luxury suites with a dazzling rooftop bar and restaurant serving upscale coastal fare (try the Kentucky Fried Grouper Cheeks).

For those looking for an alternative water adventure, Ward loves the  Weedon Island Preserve. “There’s a four-mile kayaking or canoe trail through the mangroves,” said Ward. “Feels a little bit like you’re in the Everglades!”

Visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to explore the preserve, then stop for lunch at The Getaway; a tiki hut next door to the Urban Kai paddleboard shop. “It’s really cool, it’s got Key West vibes,” said Ward. “The restaurant is just picnic tables in the sand – you know, bright colours, tropical music. It’s very Jimmy Buffett Key Westie feeling. I took a friend from Switzerland there recently and he was, like, ‘This is exactly what I was hoping for.’ They’ve got tuna nachos and then grilled fish tacos like grouper, snapper, whatever’s fresh. I love that place.”

St Petersburg’s location on the Gulf of Mexico makes it perfect for enjoying fresh seafood, especially famous Florida grouper, which is most commonly served in delicious sandwiches – choose blackened, grilled, or fried. “There’s nothing kind of like eating a sandwich with a water view,” said Ward.