St. Petersburg has long shed its image as a boring place where retirees kill time gossiping on rows of green benches, but if you haven’t visited it lately, you might be surprised at what a young and lively place it has become.
Happily, one thing that makes St. Petersburg a delight is the lingering bits of Old Florida that have been preserved.
St. Petersburg is renowned for its bike paths, it has more than a dozen craft breweries, its streets are decorated with colorful murals and several large, impressive museums have opened in recent years.
Amid all the new, St. Petersburg has preserved many historic buildings and some of Florida’s most beautiful tree-lined historic neighborhoods. Somehow, it even retains miles of original brick roads.
My husband and I visited St. Petersburg in the steamy summer for two reasons: It’s a city where you can spend the hot afternoons in museums and the mornings and evenings at a gorgeous beach.
In the morning, we got up early and walked the beach at one of our favorite Old Florida beach towns, Pass-a-Grille. At night, we came back to Pass-a-Grille to enjoy a West Coast treat: the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, we filled our four days with lots of activities — and we didn’t even get to everything on our list.
7 things to do in St. Peterburg
See St. Petersburg’s waterfront by bike on the North Bay Trail
My favorite thing on this list of St. Pete things to do is to bicycle this very scenic bike trail along the expansive waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg and then into a gorgeous historic neighborhood.
The best part of the North Bay Trail is the three miles from near the Salvador Dali Museum downtown north along the shore of Tampa Bay to waterfront Coffee Pot Park. (The North Bay Trail continues three miles north of here for a 12-mile roundtrip, but is not as scenic and has frequent street crossings north of Coffee Pot Park.)
You can’t beat the scenery and all the parks you can access on the southern three miles along Tampa Bay. On a bike, you can easily ride through both peninsulas extending into the bay – Demens Landing Park and St. Pete’s Pier – as well as pause at the many parks along the way. One unusual stop is Gizella Kopsick Palm Arboretum, 605 11th Ave. Northeast, St. Petersburg, a small free arboretum filled with a vast variety of palms from around the world.
The mile of the North Bay Trail along Coffee Pot Boulevard has waterfront views on the east and the handsome homes of the tree-shaded Historic Old Northeast on the west. Rather than continue on the trail after Coffee Pot Park, I recommend riding through the residential streets and enjoying the beautiful homes.
Let me warn you: The North Bay Trail is just my speed — sort of slow. It’s a multi-use trail, with walkers, joggers, skateboarders, strollers and dog walkers all enjoying the route through downtown. Yes, you have to repeatedly go around slower-moving users with a constant refrain of “on your left,” but there are only two street crossings in this three-mile stretch. If you like long walks or if you jog, you might enjoy this trail on foot.
There are several “bike share” concessions downtown convenient to the path, including at the pier.
Bike riders should note that the most famous bike trail in St. Peterburg is the 50-mile long Pinellas Trail, described here in a Florida Rambler story. It is one of the state’s best bike trails. You can connect the two trails at First Avenue Southeast at Bayshore Drive, immediately across from Demens Landing, which is where the Pinellas Trail originates.
We started our bike ride on the North Bay Trail across from the Dali Museum, parking at Albert Whited Park, 480 Bayshore Dr. Southeast, St. Petersburg, wedged between the water and the small downtown airport. This park has restrooms, picnic tables, a fenced playground and a fabulous view of the bay and the St. Pete Pier.
Meander the historic St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens
When Americans started visiting Florida by car in the 1920s, they couldn’t get enough of Florida’s exotic plants, flowers and trees. Colorful gardens were popular roadside attractions for decades. Most are gone now, but St. Petersburg’s Sunken Gardens is better than ever after more than 100 years.
Starting in 1911, George Turner Sr., a plumber and avid gardener, drained a lake in a sinkhole and used the rich soil to plant fruit trees, flowering bushes and even Royal Palm trees. Visitors began paying him a nickel to see it.
Well, the ticket price has gone up, but many of the original plants and trees are still there. In 1999, the city saved the attraction, which is now open seven days a week right in downtown St. Petersburg.
Winding trails offer exquisite vistas past manmade waterfalls, over arched bridges with views of koi ponds and orchids. There is a flock of flamingoes and colorful parrots and macaws.
You can see it all at a leisurely pace in an hour. Many of the plants and trees are not uncommon; if you’re a Florida gardener, you’ll recognize many.
The admission ($15 adults; $12 seniors; $6 children) may seem steep for many visitors. But garden lovers will find it worth it. In addition, there’s a good chance of getting a discount ticket via Groupon, as we did: $16 for two.
1825 Fourth St. North, St. Petersburg
Taste Old Florida at Ted Peters Smoked Fish
Located in St. Pete since 1951, Ted Peters Smoked Fish is run by the fifth generation of the founders, who keep the fish-smoking flame alive.
Ted Peters didn’t invent smoked fish dip; he made it famous. His innovation was putting the smoking operation right out front, where the smell would attract folks to stop on their way to and from the beach. The quality of his fish dip and his German potato side dish remain big draws over the decades. It’s also famous: It has been featured in media coverage from Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives to the New York Times.
You can get the fish dip take-out from the bar or buy pieces of smoked fish by the pound from the separate smoking house. In summer 2022, the price of to-go fish dip is a bargain at $5.99 for a half pint. (The equivalent container of smoked fish dip sold at my local Publix is $9.99.)
Outdoor seating for the restaurant operation is an inexpensive meal, starting with $7 hamburgers. But come prepared: Ted Peters is a cash-only business.
Ted Peters Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave. South, St. Petersburg
Take the African American Heritage Trail for history & good food
This historically black neighborhood, which dates to the dark days of segregation in St. Pete, was centered around “The Deuces,” the nickname for 22nd Street South.
Today, there is a walking trail with 19 markers telling the story of the neighborhood from its pioneers through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
The tour starts at the Carter Woodson African American Museum, a free museum currently offering an exhibit on “The Right To Swim.”
A popular restaurant that makes a good stop in the neighborhood: Lorene’s Fish and Crab House is known for its fried fish and sides like collard greens and mac-and-cheese.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum
2240 Ninth Ave. South, St. Petersburg
Lorene’s Fish and Crab House
927 22nd St. South, St. Petersburg
Visit the Vinoy, a grand hotel from the 1920s
The Vinoy is one of those big pink Mediterranean Revival hotels so popular in the early boom years of Florida development. It has a tower and the sort of architectural detail that suggests a European palace.
Built in 1925, it was popular with the rich and famous – from Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover back in the day, through Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio and on to George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
During our summer 2022 visit, the main entrance area was being refurbished, but inside the Vinoy had magnificent spaces and craftsmanship. A glass chandelier by artist Dale Chihuly hangs in the grand ballroom and everything from the floor tiles to the vintage appearance of the lobby elevators reminds you of its heritage.
You’re welcome to walk through the lobby and admire the place, and don’t miss the museum-like history display at the south end of the lobby. A timeline tells the story of the Vinoy, including how it closed as a hotel and housed troops during World War II. There are examples of its original china and many historic postcards from St. Pete’s glory days.
One story I found fascinating is how over the years, the Vinoy deteriorated and tastes changed, until, in 1974, its last season before an 18-year closure, room rates fell to $7 a night. The Vinoy sat vacant until it reopened in 1992 after a $93 million renovation. The rates are a bit higher now: A room for $320 is an off-season bargain.
The Vinoy was a major spur to downtown development in St. Petersburg, where once sleepy Beach Drive is now filled with restaurants and bars and people.
The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club
450 Seventh Ave Northeast, St. Petersburg
Here’s another way to experience the glamour of the Vinoy: Tours and high tea are offered at 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday by reservation ($109 per person for at least two people). Reserve at 727-404-5251. Tours are open to the public.
Stroll downtown to see historic buildings
Downtown St. Petersburg is a very walkable place full of vintage buildings, many repurposed for modern use. We enjoyed a private walking tour by Tour St. Pete, with an informative guide who is a long-time volunteer at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. (Price was $25 per person.)
You can easily do your own tour using the excellent free audio tours from the Florida Humanities Council, which you can download here.
We loved all the historic buildings, but my favorites are the 1916 Open Air Post Office and the 1928 Snell building and arcade, which are next door to each other on Fourth Street South between Central Avenue and First Avenue North.
Both are highly decorative Mediterranean Revival buildings. The 1916 Open Air Post Office is modeled after a 1419 children’s hospital designed by famous Italian artist Filippo Brunelleschi. (It’s remarkably similar; Brunelleschi is most famous for designing the dome of the cathedral in Florence.)
The post office was completely open air, right up to 1969, and the St. Pete tourism promotion machine made sure everyone in America knew that St. Pete was so warm and sunny that its post office could be open air.
Located across the alley, the Snell Building has a lovely arcade, once even grander. (Look for the tile mosaic of Venice on the western wall; it’s the last of many originally there.) Also notice the glass bricks in the sidewalk: They light the building’s rare basement.
1916 Open Air Post Office
3135 First Ave. North, St. Petersburg
Snell Building and Arcade
405 Central Avenue
Hang out on the St. Pete Pier
The first pier in St. Petersburg dated to 1889 and over the years, piers have served many purposes and had several iterations.
The newest pier design opened in 2020 and it has more shade, recreation, art, activities and transportation options than in the past, winning widespread accolades and recognition.
While the pier is all new, there are two things that Old Florida fans will want to see here.
First, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, founded in 1922 is located at the start of the half-mile-long pier.
Second, farther down the pier, there is a monument and extensive markers telling the story of the Benoist Airboat, considered the world’s first airliner. It began service here in 1914 with a 23-minute flight 21 miles across the bay to Tampa. Tickets were $5 each way. Much more about the airboat (we’d call it a seaplane) is found in the Museum of History.
In front of the history museum are two things I loved: A statue of a newsboy and a green bench. Both represent icons special to St. Petersburg. The newsboy references the famous offer by the Evening Independent that it would give away the newspaper free on any day the sun doesn’t shine – a promotion gimmick that worked beautifully to forever link the idea of St. Pete and sunshine.
The green bench, of course, references the famous benches that lined St. Petersburg streets by the thousands. Originally popular with tourists, after World War II the benches were more often filled with bored looking gray-haired retirees and came to epitomize the image of St. Pete as a geriatric destination.
Late-night comedian Johnny Carson made fun of St. Pete, where he said old-age tonic Geritol was on tap, and where the city catered not to the “newly-wed, but to the nearly dead.”
The benches were quietly “disappeared” by the 1970s, and the one in front at the base of St. Pete’s Pier is your rare opportunity to sit in one.
While you’re at the pier, here are a few tips:
- You’ll end up parking downtown (here’s parking information), so when you get to the pier, which is a half-mile long, it’s good to know there is a free shuttle that goes up and down the pier every 10 minutes making four stops.
- The structure at the end has a restaurant, Teak, with absolutely dazzling views. We got drinks and fish tacos at the open-air bar at the top level. It’s pricey but you cannot beat the views of both the skyline and the bay. The Teak restaurant accepts reservations; the rooftop bar does not and there can be a wait during busy times. Going 5-ish on a summer weekday, we were able to get a good table in the shade immediately but a bit later others had to wait. Other waterfront alternatives on the pier are Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro.
- Take your time exploring the pier; there’s a lot to see. For example, that big fish net overhead is an art installation composed of 180 miles of twine called “Bending Arc” by Janet Echelman. (Go under it and look at the sky through it.) There is also a beach here, a playground and a splash-pad water for kids.
- For another Old Florida experience, you can take a tour boat from the pier to historic Egmont Key in the mouth of Tampa Bay. We visited it (via Fort De Soto Park) and wrote about Egmont Key here for Florida Rambler. The Pelican’s boat ride is an hour long; it goes past the St. Petersburg skyline and under the Sunshine Skyway. Here’s more about the Pelican tour to Egmont Key, which costs $69 for adults; $49 for kids.
St. Pete Pier
600 Second Ave Northeast, St. Petersburg
More things to do in St. Petersburg
Remember how I said I wanted to go to museums? Well, in St. Pete, you have a vast choice. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the many excellent museums that have opened.
We went to the newest addition: the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which opened in fall 2021 in an eye-popping five-story building with a grand atrium full of natural light and a spiral staircase that is itself a work of art.
We’ve made more than one visit to the Dali Museum, which I loved, even though I’m not a fan of Salvador Dali’s works. Next time we visit, we’ll see the The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art or perhaps the Imagine Museum or the Chihuly Collection or the Museum of Fine Art St Petersburg, all of which get excellent reviews. (This is one thing that makes St. Petersburg a good place to visit in the summer; there are so many excellent indoor activities.)
We enjoyed local craft beer everywhere we went; St. Pete is a great beer town. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on how to sample local beers and local art. Arts & Brew walk: Explore St. Petersburg brewpubs and galleries
More things to do in St. Petersburg area
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.