I spent a lot of years living in Tampa Bay and it’s still my base when I’m in the USA for a while. So our partner Hotels.com asked me to share my recommendations for what to do while there on vacation.
If you head to the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Beaches in Florida, you won’t have much trouble getting some vacation photos worthy of social media envy most of the year. Lots of sun, a blindingly white beach, and lovely aqua water are waiting. You’re not likely to get knocked down by a wave while you’re taking that selfie either since the Gulf of Mexico waters are calm. They’re also warm: the coldest water temps here (in January) are equivalent to the warmest in Cape Cod or Malibu (in August).
If that makes you want a book a place to stay right now, there are plenty of accommodation types for any budget.
A lot of people come to Clearwater or St. Pete Beach after months of being covered up and staying indoors, however, with their skin at its lightest point. So a few hours in the sun later, they’re looking pink and baked. It happens after even the most careful sunscreen applications if you stay out for hours. So it’s best to take it easy at the beginning and to have a back-up plan for what you’ll do that’s not out in the tropical sun.
You may look at a map and think you should visit downtown Clearwater, but probably not. Unless you’re doing a research project on cult behavior that is: it’s the home of Scientology and they seem to own half the buildings there. As a result, you’ won’t find much of a nightlife scene or even shopping opportunities. It’s kind of a dead zone.
The first few excursions below are nearest to Clearwater Beach, while the next round is closer to St. Pete Beach. You can go from one area to the other though, even without a car, so you don’t have to limit yourself to just the ones nearby.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The one worthwhile stop you can get to on a long walk or a short ferry from the beach is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Back when Florida was run by a state government that understood the concept “return on investment,” a good number of movies were filmed in the state, including Dolphin Tale and later Dolphin Tale 2. During the filming, cast members of the hit movie like Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Harry Connick Jr. stayed at the Sandpearl Hotel on the beach.
The aquarium has expanded and gotten more funding over the years, but the mission of this non-profit organization remains the same:
We believe in preserving our environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life; environmental education; research; and conservation.
This is not some showpiece with giant showy glass tanks you can walk under, but rather a research facility where you can learn something and see some sea life in the process. And yes, you can see Winter the Dolphin with her famous prosthetic tail, and Hope from the sequel. Get more info here.
Pinball and Sponge Docks at Tarpon Springs
Although it’s kind of hard to believe now, whole towns in Florida sprung up and made lots of money from the sponge trade, back before you could make synthetic sponges for cheap. Many of the sponge divers themselves were Greek, so communities of Greeks brought their food and customs along. One of those communities is Tarpon Springs, about a half hour drive north from Clearwater Beach.
You can still buy souvenir sponges and yes, still get some good Greek food, much of it here featuring fresh seafood.
There are also a few good brewpubs in town and you can get to here on a bicycle off the Pinellas Trail. In my opinion though, these and the old train station museum pale in comparison to my main reason to visit: the Replay Amusement Museum. You pay one rate ($14 adults/$8 kids) and then can spend as long as your fingers can handle playing dozens of pinball machines from the vintage age to the present. There are some retro video games too. It’s heaven for kids and those who still want to feel like kids. Closed Monday and Tuesday, get the scoop here.
A Compact Brewpub Tour in Dunedin
The Tampa Bay craft beer scene has no real comparison in the Southeast. There are more active breweries here than in the rest of Florida combined and more than in all of Georgia. One microcosm of that where you can drink well without going very far is in the cute pedestrian-friendly town of Dunedin just a few miles away.
Dunedin, Florida only has around 37,000 residents, but there are 7 breweries within a few blocks of each other downtown. Dunedin Brewery is the oldest operating one in Florida, but their business hasn’t declined since all the newcomers moved in.
If you start at 7venth Sun, you can then head to Dunedin House of Beer, Cueni, Woodwright, Dunedin Brewery, Caledonia, and Soggy Bottom Brewing without having to walk more than a few blocks in between. Or do it in reverse. There are some good restaurant options in the same area. The marina there is a nice spot for sunset photos if you don’t make it back to Clearwater Beach in time.
The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg
We’ve written about the fantastic Dali Museum in St. Pete before, highlighting a cool virtual reality program where you can walk into one of Dali’s paintings.
The museum has the biggest collection of his work outside Spain, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a fan of the surrealist master. There’s also a secondary temporary exhibit going on and sometimes it’s a big-name one, both shows included in the price. The building itself is a work of art too, inside and out. As you would imagine, the gift shop has some unique items.
The Dali Museum is in downtown St. Pete, close to plenty of shopping and dining, about 15 or 20 minutes from the beach resorts.
Central Avenue and the St. Pete Art Scene
Dali would probably feel right at home in downtown St. Petersburg, FL. It’s a magnet for artists, from students just getting started to facilities dedicated to masters like Chihuly.
The Morea Center for the Arts is here, with ongoing exhibitions, plus a glass-blowing studio with daily demos in the back. Some of the most interesting art is in local galleries or right out on the street. Walls of many buildings in the central core of the city are decorated with striking murals.
Two Spots for Vinyl Record Fanatics
Are you working on your vinyl record collection? Something new or something classic?
You’re in good shape either way in St. Petersburg, with two legendary record stores that have been around since records were the main way to listen to music, not a retro cool item.
In downtown St. Pete, on hopping Central Avenue, check out Daddy Kool Records. They also sell local concert tickets for a lower fee than the conglomerate company and they have some kool rock merch. The other option is more like a vinyl library, with the shelves packed out to capacity and a database to help you find that rare release from 1968 you’ve been hunting for.
Bananas Records has so much to sell that they have a retail shop on 22nd Ave. and a whole “vinyl warehouse” on N. 16th Ave. Added together, this is claimed to be the largest vinyl collection in the world, with 3.5 million albums! If you can’t find it here, you’ve got very obscure tastes.
The Sunken Gardens of St. Pete
Sunken Gardens on St. Pete’s 4th Street, just a bit north of downtown, is a botanical gardens attraction that’s more than a century old. It’s a four-acre site with meandering paths, a peaceful and shady place to see old trees and lots of tropical plants. It’s a popular haven for birds and butterflies. See more info here.
This is not a comprehensive list of where to go from Clearwater and St. Petersburg Beaches of course. If you’re into baseball, the Major League Baseball stadium here for the Tampa Bay Rays is covered, so no sunburn worries no matter where you sit. Clearwater has The Thrashers minor league team and there’s an even more minor one in Dunedin—with some of the best food and drink bargains in baseball.
Looking for more to do in the whole Tampa Bay region? Check out this earlier post on 5 strange things to see in Tampa Bay.
This post was made possible through financial support from our travel partner Hotels.com. As always, all opinions are our own.