Photo by Margaret Wiktor/Shutterstock
Florida isn’t short on great beach towns, but few deliver the combination of world-class culture and laid-back vibes found in St. Petersburg–Clearwater. A true-to-itself destination just south of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast, St. Pete has become a haven for young creatives—the annual downtown mural… festival SHINE St. Pete and new St. Pete Pier have just as much visitor appeal as the 35 miles of glorious beachfront a short drive away. Clearwater, about 20 miles north of St. Pete, has equally beautiful beaches that attract families and couples to swanky gulf-front resorts. Bring your bathing suit, flip flops, and an open mind—you’re in for a surprise here on one of Florida’s coolest coastlines.
What to know before you go to St. Pete–Clearwater
With an average of 361 sunny days annually, the St. Pete–Clearwater area is close to perfect all year long, even when the water "cools" December through February (that's still 70 degrees F water, though). If you’re looking for that ideal mix of pleasant temps and minimal crowds, visit during shoulder season in October or November. The weather stays gorgeous—with those low-humidity, cloud-free days—well into January, when high season begins; tourism really picks up in March and April, when the snowbird traffic and spring break collide. During the summer months, it's possible (but unlikely) that you might have to deal with the threat of a hurricane, and afternoon thunderstorms are frequent occurrences. And then there's the heat and humidity, but there’s always a beach nearby where you can cool off with a swim.
Flying in? Choose either Tampa International Airport or the smaller St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport, followed by an Uber or Lyft to your hotel (it’s about $30 one-way from Tampa or $20 from St. Pete–Clearwater). If St. Pete is going to be your base, we suggest you stay downtown; great art, restaurants, and shops are within walking distance or a short bike ride away. (The town’s Coast bike share program makes it easy to find a ride, plus terrain here is flat and perfect for pedaling.) The real action in Clearwater is out on the beach. Renting a car is well worth it for the freedom it gives you to travel between beaches (both St. Pete’s and Clearwater’s downtowns are several miles from the Gulf). You can also Uber/Lyft to avoid paying for parking when it’s time to hit the beach.
Public transit: Downtown St. Pete has the Looper trolley, which runs every 15 minutes and is free to ride. Use it to get to places along Central Avenue, as well as the Dalí Museum, Beach Drive, the St. Pete Pier, and more. In Clearwater, there’s the Jolley Trolley, which costs $5 for an unlimited day pass and connects the beach, Sand Key, downtown Clearwater, and surrounding areas.
- For some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States, head to Fort De Soto Park just south of St. Pete Beach. The outdoor oasis spans five interconnected islands (or keys) and offers much in the way of empty sand for sunbathing in peace. And that sand . . . it’s so fine and pearly it almost sticks to you like glitter.
-The newly redone St. Pete Pier opened in early July 2020 and is an accessible add-on to a day in the already fabulous downtown district. There’s a playground and splash pad for the kids, public art, rooftop tiki bar, snack bar, fishing pier, outdoor performance space, bayfront beach, and even a marine discovery center, all on site—and all within a 10-minute stroll from downtown.
- Come sunset, join the locals at Pass-a-Grille Beach or Pier 60 in Clearwater to spot the “green flash”—the exact moment when the sun dips below the horizon each evening.
- See the largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain at the Dalí Museum, housed in an “enigma” in downtown St. Pete. The museum also has fascinating augmented reality exhibits, plus a little café with tasty Spanish-inspired pastries.
- St. Pete is something of a street art draw, with more than 500 murals decorating bookstores, breweries, and other places around town. For a deep dive into the scene, sign up for one of Florida CraftArt’s Saturday morning walking mural tours, or visit during the SHINE Mural Festival in October, when you can see artists at work and enjoy events throughout town. You can also download the PixelStix app to learn about each mural on a self-guided tour.
- A stroll through the Saturday Morning Market, held year round in downtown St. Pete, is a rite of passage in these parts, and a good opportunity to shop for local products like Florida-grown greens, goat milk soap, and craft kombucha.
- Grouper sandwiches are gospel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and St. Pete–Clearwater—the so-classed Grouper Capital of the World—brings some strong contenders to the table. Try one at the Big Catch at Salt Creek in St. Pete or the beachfront Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill in Clearwater.
- Smoked fish dip is so much better than it sounds, especially when the fish is smoked over Florida red oak (which has a similar flavor profile to hickory). You’ll find the best example in these parts at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, a family-run, roadside spot in St. Pete that’s been around since 1951 and has somewhat of a cult following.
- Just off the highway in a nondescript industrial area in St. Pete, Mazarro’s Italian Market is a temple to Italian food—and a source of great local pride. When you tire of fresh Florida seafood, go here for the best espresso, authentic gelato, cured meats and cheeses, and hot Italian sandwiches.
- If you’re a suds fan, you’ve come to the right spot. In fact, St. Pete–Clearwater has such a thriving craft beer scene, it’s been affectionately dubbed “the Gulp Coast.” You could spend days tasting your way along the area’s Craft Beer Trail, but if you only have time to visit one brewery, make it Webb’s City Cellar in St. Pete for the superior sours and wild ales.
- Whatever you do, don’t pack up before sunset. Many locals just wait until the golden hour to head to the beach for a swim.
- St. Pete prides itself on being friendly, so enter shops with a smile and hello.
- St. Pete–Clearwater may be a sundress/board shorts kind of place, but don’t be afraid to dress up a little for dinner in downtown St. Pete. Just leave the stilettos for Tampa.
- Bring your reusable bags or push trolleys to the Saturday Morning Market to fit in with the eco-minded locals (and be green yourself).
read before you go
more about St. Pete–Clearwater
Freelance travel writer Terry Ward transferred to the University of Florida from northern climes during her college years and has called the Sunshine State home ever since. Exploring Florida’s nature—via kayak, with scuba diving gear, or with a tent in tow during camping trips—is her favorite way to experience the state. She’s written for National Geographic Traveler, BBC Travel, the Los Angeles Times, CNN Travel, AFAR, and many others over a career that spans two decades of near-nonstop travel and reporting. Read more of her work on terry-ward.com.