Talk about dramatic entrances. You arrive after a breathtaking drive across the luminous Sunshine Skyway Bridge. St. Petersburg is more like several cities, a colorful tapestry of districts and neighborhoods with distinct personalities. Instead of trying to cover it all, let’s visit downtown St. Pete for this travelogue.
Waterfront Arts District
This stretch of the Tampa Bay waterfront is a bustling hot spot of upscale boutiques, pubs, galleries, hotels and restaurants. It’s also home to many of St. Pete’s beloved museums, including the surreal Salvador Dali Museum and the more reality-based Museum of Fine Arts. Plan to spend hours exploring the 26 acres of parks and the revitalized St. Pete Pier. On the pier itself, explore Tampa Bay’s unique ecosystems at the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center. The green spaces near the pier offer more possibilities. For a close encounter with art, experience “Bending Arc,” Janet Echelman’s ever-changing outdoor sculpture that she created with 180 miles of twine and 1,662,528 knots. For a close encounter with nature, Vinoy Park offers shady spots for picnics, winding trails for biking and walking, and music festivals.
The Central Arts and Grand Central Districts
St. Pete’s vibrant art scene becomes even more evident in the Central Arts District just a few blocks west. A main attraction is the Morean Arts Center, which encompasses the Center for Clay and a dazzling collection of Dale Chihuly’s glass art creations. The Florida CraftArt Gallery celebrates works by regional artists. Along with its artful delights, Central Avenue is a fun, funky mishmash of urban murals and street art, retro boutiques, restaurants, bars, and live music venues. The Grand Central District is just a bit further to the west. Here, you’ll find the Imagine Museum (and its mesmerizing contemporary glass art) and the bookworm’s paradise of Haslam’s Book Store. If your canine companion is with you, don’t miss the doggie-and-human heaven of The Dog Bar — an off-leash dog park and a fully loaded human bar. Woof!
Where to Stay
If panache and laidback luxury are on your wish list, make The Vinoy Renaissance Resort and Golf Club your base of operations. Long ago, this Mediterranean Revival palace grandly rising above St. Petersburg’s waterfront was a tony destination for wealthy industrialists, Hollywood celebs, politicos and literary types. It’s still the best perch in town. 501 Fifth Ave. NE; Marriot.com.
Walk the Art
Every second Saturday of the month, from 5 to 9 p.m., St. Pete hosts its popular ArtWalk, where dozens of galleries across the city’s five art districts — Waterfront, Central, Edge, Grand Central and Warehouse —open their doors. Info: StPeteArtsAlliance.org.
Travel Time: About an hour and 15 minutes from Lakewood Ranch
This funky fishing village and artists’ colony is Old Florida to the core.
Old Florida’s alive and kicking in this funky fishing village on a tiny barrier island (which forms a bridge from the mainland to Pine Island) about an hour south of Venice. Matlacha’s three-block main commercial drag is a menagerie of flamboyantly painted buildings and fishing shanties housing art galleries, kitschy shops, clothing boutiques, hole-in-the-wall eateries and waterfront restaurants. Bring your camera for colorful shots and your appetite for fresh seafood.
Must-dos include visiting the Wild Child Art Gallery, which features art, jewelry and other creations by more than 100 Florida artists. Check out Leoma Lovegrove’s Gallery and Gardens, a trippy studio, exhibit space and gift shop. Famed as the “Peter Max of the South,” Lovegrove loves to invite visitors to stroll through the lush tropical gardens behind her gallery. Island Visions celebrates original tropical, nautical and steampunk work by more than 50 artists from across the nation.
Hungry? Chow down on some of the freshest seafood in the region at the Blue Dog Bar (the “Mullet Sampler,” also known as the “Pine Island Holy Trinity,” serves up mullet three ways: filet fried, blackened and as a smoked dip). For a downhome Southern grub breakfast, the Perfect Cup Roastery & Café’s Cajun omelet with andouille sausage and blackened shrimp and crawfish will leave you smacking your lips. Around sunset, head for the outdoor Tiki bar at Miceli’s Restaurant, perched smack dab on Matlacha Sound. Here you can sip a refreshing beverage while digging live tunes and watching birds flock to a nearby island aviary.
Kayakers will enjoy saltwater sojourns through the mangroves of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve. Gulf Coast Kayak and other paddleboard and kayaking tour companies will gear you for your journey. (Gulf Coast’s “Early Bird Guided Eco Tours” at dawn are always a special treat.)
Where to Stay
The Bridgewater Inn bills itself as “a fisherman’s dream come true.” In classic fishing camp style, this nine-room inn is built on a dock extending into Pine Island Sound. Just stick your pole out your window and you’re gone fishing! They can also hook you up with inspired fishing and boat charters. 4331 Pine Island Road; BridgeWaterInn.com.
Or think small and check into Matlacha Tiny Village, a former RV park reinvented as a picturesque village of five brightly colored mini-inns, each about the size of a compact garage. Each micro-mansion sleeps four people. 4661 Pine Island Road; MatlachaTinyVillage.com.
Travel Time: About an hour and 15 minutes from Lakewood Ranch
Two of America’s most-celebrated inventors and entrepreneurs made this subtropical city their winter home. Take a visit and see why.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates is this city’s high-voltage attraction. This 20-acre property contains a world-class botanical garden, historical museum, laboratory and the winter homes of two American icons — and buddies —Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Your children’s eyes will light up with wonder (and your inner child will feel the same way) witnessing Edison’s hundreds of inventions, including the motion picture camera, phonograph, stock tickers, the electric lightbulb and other man-made marvels. Experienced historians lead daily guided tours — and they’re worth every nickel.
While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to visit the River District, Fort Myers’ historic downtown area. Here, the grand brick buildings are old, but the vibe is new. The place bustles with outdoor cafes, art and antique galleries, live music and art festivals, open air markets and bustling breweries. A short drive away, the Florida version of Times Square awaits on Fort Myers Beach. This fun (but noisy!) hangout boasts live music, street performers, and abundant souvenir and beach and surf shops. Grab a cold brew and a shrimp burger at the Pierside Grill and Famous Blowfish Bar overlooking the beach and the public pier.
Where to Stay
The Luminary Hotel offers enlightening views of the Caloosahatchee River, along with plenty of places to eat and quench your thirst. Enchanting eateries include the retro-style Ella Mae’s Diner and the über-elegant Silver King Ocean Brasserie. Ask for a balcony suite overlooking the river. 2200 Edwards Drive; LuminaryHotel.com.
Ford Automotive Tour at Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Accompany automotive curator James Moss for a new perspective on the evolution of the automobile, from the Model T to the Model A, gasoline to electric. Mondays at 10:30 a.m. EdisonFordWinterEstates.org.
Travel Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes from Lakewood Ranch
Come for the sponges, and stay for the baklava. Opa!
Tarpon Springs boasts America’s largest Greek community. That heritage began with sponge-diving Greek immigrants in the 1890s, and it’s going strong today. You can still see sponge divers offloading their day’s harvest from the sea on the docks. No, you can’t dive with them, but a visit to the Spongeorama Sponge Factory is the next best thing. Here, you can watch a movie about the local sponge harvesting industry and purchase sponges and olive oil-based products.
The souvenir shops along Dodecanese Avenue (the city’s main drag) offer more proof that Greek traditions are alive and well here. Treasures include olive oil, authentic Greek fishermen caps, religious icons, and blue “Nazar” amulets and beads designed to ward off the evil eye. Yes, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a unique culture, but the food is the main attraction. These twisted streets are filled with outstanding restaurants and bakeries, including the celebrated Hellas Restaurant & Bakery. (To impress your server, practice your Greek before arriving. Proper pronunciation of moussaka, dolmades, pastitsio and tzatziki is a sign of respect, and they appreciate it.)
After the feast, it’s an ideal time for a cruise. Odyssey Cruises offers a one-hour narrated tour exploring Tarpon Springs’ historical connection to the unique local ecosystem. Before you leave, visit St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It’s a sacred place of marble sculpture and intricate, ancient designs from the original St. Sofia’s Cathedral. It’s an awesome space — in the original, literal sense.
What’s Cookin’ at Hellas Restaurant
Everything. But if you’ve got a crowd of hungry diners, start with some shared appetizers, including the saganaki (fried cheese), taramosalata (made from tarama, the salted and cured roe of the cod), the skordalia (potato garlic spread) and the spanakopita. The fresh seafood rules here — so go for the whole fish of the day. But leave room for baklava!
Tsifteteli and Bouzouki, anyone?
You can’t leave Tarpon Springs without a little tsifteteli (belly dancing) and bouzouki (a traditional Greek stringed instrument). You can experience both on a Saturday night visit to Mama’s Greek Cuisine. It’s billed as “Where the Locals Meet to Eat.” Now we know why.