Worth a Trip: The Best of St. Petersburg

written by: Katie Wilson    photos by: Chris Zuppa

Do storm-stricken Florida a favor and go visit. From breweries to beaches, a local shares the best of St. Pete.

During college, Katie Wilson worked at a restaurant in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, smack dab in the middle of Central Avenue’s busiest block. “After my shift, my coworkers and I would make the bar rounds. We were the royalty of our stomping grounds, an easy feat on a cozy block with only a handful of cafes and watering holes,” Wilson recalls.

Sunset, Pass a Grill Beach, Florida

That was then, as they say, and this is now.

“I lost the crown as Queen Bee of Central Avenue long, long ago,” Wilson says. “Some of my old haunts are still there, albeit in glossier, more modern versions. Others got washed away.”

St. Pete, once seen as  America’s retirement capital, is bursting with new art, restaurants, bars and people—one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country.

“As a fourth-generation native, I am proud that it draws national recognition as one of America’s best mid-sized cities—with award-winning beaches,” Wilson says. “But behind the celebratory atmosphere wafting over St. Pete´s streets looms a fear of the tipping point—the moment when it all will become too much.”

Now is the time to visit.     Take Katie Wilson’s word for it—when Salt Lake city skies start to turn gray and dirty, head to Sunshine City.

Best Beach:

For decades I’ve been loyal to one patch of powdery white sand on Pass-A-Grille Beach, which makes up the southernmost tip of St. Pete Beach. Since I am not a hard body in a bikini or a fraternity brother on spring break, I head to this relatively laid-back spot just south of the beachside snack bar. Paid parking is usually easy, public bathrooms are nearby and the rooftop deck at The Hurricane is a favorite place to grab a post-beach drink and watch the sun melt into the Gulf of Mexico.

Best Places to Meander:

St. Pete’s activity hub is downtown, and includes its historic waterfront. A walk from Demens Landing Park to Coffee Pot Bridge is about 2 miles of salty Tampa Bay air, sailboats heaving and clanking and, oftentimes, sociable dolphins interacting with walkers along the seawall.

For a little more action, start walking at Beach Drive and head west on Central Avenue. You’ll discover innumerable unique local shops—(Plain Jane boutique and ARTpool Gallery & Vintage Boutique are worth stops) and charming restaurants, coffee spots and bars.

Best Unexpected Art: 

The Dali Museum houses more than 2,100 of the artist’s works, the largest collection of his work outside Europe. It’s the largest collection of his masterpieces in the world, including The Hallucinogenic Toreador. The 2011 building is a work of art itself. Don’t miss he garden labyrinth out back and, if you’re thinking ahead, download the audio tour app and bring your earbuds. On Thursdays after 5 p.m., tickets are more than half off the usual price of $10 per adult.

Also, St. Pete has seen a recent explosion of street art and murals tucked away in unexpected corners. Find an interactive map at shineonstpete.com.

Best Dose of Live, Local Music:

To see a small blonde woman belt a tune like Aretha Franklin singin’ the blues, head over to the Good Sunday Revue with the Betty Fox Band at the Ale and the Witch. Betty usually welcomes a special guest or two to join her and the band in a casual, outdoor courtyard setting, and the Ale and the Witch serves a large selection of craft beers. The intimate Hideaway Café and Recording Studio and the long-standing Ringside Café are two other great choices.

Best Watering Holes: 

You’re not in Utah anymore, Dorothy! For a cheap drink, strong pour and straight-shooting service, grab a stool at Mastry’s Bar and enjoy a libation in a St. Petersburg institution. Open since 1935 and voted by Maxim magazine as one of America´s greatest dive bars, every true St. Petersburger has a story to tell about a Mastry’s night. If craft beer is your thing, choose from 10 breweries. Cycle Brewing has an outdoor seating area on Central Avenue that puts you in the middle of all the action, and the spacious 3 Daughters Brewing offers a bevy of games to keep you entertained. Best begin the evening (and happy hour) at dusk at The Canopy Rooftop Lounge. It’s got a swanky vibe, but you don’t have to be gussied up to enjoy the bird’s-eye view of the waterfront.

Best Saturday Morning:

Head downtown to the Saturday morning market (101 1st St. SE) and weave through the colorful rows of artisanal food stalls, artists, eateries and regional farmers selling freshly harvested goods. You’ll find live music, great people watching and a real sense of the Sunshine City spirit. A gigantic smoked turkey leg from Mr. I Got ‘Em is tasty and served by a dapper gentleman in a tux and top hat.

Best Eats:

Dining options in St. Pete are expanding nearly every day. I often crave a Cuban sandwich at Bodega on Central. Try to wrangle a seat at the bar window to take in the kitchen action, or watch the world pass by from the outdoor seating. Bella Brava New World Trattoria is situated on the corner of scenic Beach Drive and serves authentic Italian flavors in a modern, urban setting. Locale Market, founded by chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, is a foodie’s delight. Buy high quality ingredients to go, grab something prepared to eat on their patio or make your way upstairs for farm-and-Gulf-to-table fare in the FarmTable Kitchen.

Best Escape from the Hustle:

Paddle the Hillsborough River. Its quiet dankness is a glimpse of old, untouched Florida and is teeming with wildlife. Pack a little picnic and do the two-hour trip with Canoe Escape (12702 Rt. 301), which supplies all the gear, directions and pick-up at a designated spot along the river. 

Where to Stay:

Part of the boutique hotel group that used to own The Monaco here in Salt Lake, Zamora has all the style and amenities you expect—full-service spa, poolside bar, good restaurants and three bars. Plus, pets stay free. The Kimpton Hotel Zamora 3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Petersburg, Fla., 866-599-6674. thehotelzamora.com

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