If you haven't ventured over to downtown St. Petersburg in a while, you're in for a surprise. A big surprise.
Named in 1892 after the hometown of a Russian railroad magnate who helped develop it, over the past decade St. Pete has morphed into one of the top go-to destinations in the Southeast. Once taunted for its green benches, bingo nights and sluggish snowbirds, today St. Pete is a textbook case for urban reinvention.
Evidently, "God’s waiting room" has moved on.
With the city's demographics shifted in a more youthful direction, downtown is thriving thanks to a resurgence of condos on the water and a burgeoning bar and restaurant scene. Anchored by the posh Vinoy Renaissance Hotel, Beach Drive serves up a myriad of cafes and gourmet restaurants from Central to Fifth Avenue NE. The Canopy, perched atop the Birchwood Hotel, provides an escape from the downtown bar scene norm as you look out across Tampa Bay with one of its tropical-inspired cocktails in hand.
St. Pete may be a mid-sized city, but the arts scene is major. Visitors will find top-tier art museums, a wealth of art galleries, independent working artists thriving in the Warehouse Arts District, and a stunning collection of outdoor murals.
Star power reigns at the Salvador Dali Museum that sits on a prime spot overlooking Tampa Bay. A mind-bending, and bulbous architectural wonder, it pays homage to the Spanish artist’s provocative surrealistic masterpieces. Dali's (1904- 1989) artwork is intriguing, mysterious and some paintings, downright creepy.
So how did those coveted pieces wind up here? In the 1970s St. Pete officials agreed to build a museum for Reynolds and Eleanor Morse’s treasure trove of the artist's works. Relocating from its original site, this Dali museum opened its doors in 2011, and the $36 million venue has played a large part in making the city a destination for culture lovers from around the globe.
It boasts the largest collection of Dali's work outside of Spain. Topped by a geodesic bubble comprised of 1,062 triangular pieces of glass, it stands 75 feet at its tallest point. Another architectural feat is a soaring spiral staircase that rises upward to the third floor resembling a strand of DNA. The helix was recognized by Dali as the presence of the divine in nature.
“Ferran Adrià: The Invention of Food”, a recent exhibition,showcased the chef's journey to worldwide recognition which began on Spain’s Costa Brava, just a few miles from Dali’s home. At his restaurant El Bulli Adrià advanced the use of transformative, avant-garde cooking. The exhibit spotlighted images of the chef’s spectacular culinary creations paired with their inspirations from the natural world along with notebooks that provide an insight to the chef's creative processes and innovative thinking. The Dali's next show is Frido Kahlo running December 17th through April 1st.
A number of other galleries and other museums dot the area such as the Museum of Fine Art where you can discover 4,500 years of civilization in thousands of objects. Highlights include masterpieces by Euro masters Monet, Cezanne Renoir and others.
The Chihuly Museum celebrates Seattle superstar glass-sculptor Dale Chihuly. It recently relocated to a building across from the Morean Art Center in the Central Avenue art district. Step inside and get lost in a swirl of glass sculptures that team with wood-plank walls and marble floors. It includes all of the artist's signature works: Chandeliers, Mille Fiore, Persian Ceiling and Float Boat, installations with hundreds of individual components. Chihuly is credited with revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement, elevating the medium from craft to fine art. Across the street, visitors can feel the heat at glass blowing demonstrations.
A stunning Chihuly chandelier hangs in the center of the historic Grand Ballroom of the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel that opened in 1925. Celebrated for its exterior pinkish color, the hotel's Moorish influence is evident in its decorative archways and ornately carved stone treatment at the front entrance. Today, with a fresh and modern redesign The Vinoy might be tagged a place where historical meets hip. They've infused a sea of turquoise into a 90-year old lobby complimented by a quarry glazed tile floor.
Settle in for a specialty cocktail on the sweeping veranda with plush sofa seating, a fire pit and a cozy bar that offers an inviting spot to meet locals and fellow travelers. A picturesque marina lies across the street, while a premium fitness center, pool and day spa serve up plenty of options. Vinoy "navigators" tell tales of the hotel's colorful history and point you toward fun restaurants or neighborhood treasures.
After a visit to Chihuly we strolled over to Bodega not far from Tropicana Field. A Cuban eatery that draws a big lunchtime crowd, it's housed in a tiny box of a shop with yellow awnings and chalkboard menus. Walk up to the window and place your order then snag a causal sidewalk table. Bodega is justly famous for its Cuban sandwich-- crunchy La Segunda bread, gooey Swiss, a generous flurry of shredded pork topped with zesty garlic-lime sauce. Team it with a side of jicama slaw, fortified with lengths of limey, crunchy jicama, curls of red onion and planks of cuke.
Afterwards we drove 14 miles south to Fort DeSoto Park that boasts two fishing piers, historic fort, bayside campsites and a paved trail that appeals to both cyclists and inline skaters. We were headed to see Aaron who runs Topwater Kayak Outpost. With acres of grass flats and shallow water entry, it's the perfect spot to rent a single or double kayak or canoe. We paddled along a string of mangrove tunnels (they block the wind) just waiting to be explored. Mangrove forests are brimming with life. You see jumping mullets, silverfish and manatees. Wading birds such as great blue herons, great egrets, ibis and plenty of osprey often zip by not far above you. We even spied a young bald eagle perched on a treetop.
That evening we hoofed up to Farm Table Kitchen that sits above Locale, an expansive gourmet food market. They are both operated by renowned chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona in the Sundial area. It's a 145-seat, sit-down ambitious restaurant that has been going gangbusters since it opened its doors in 2015. Our server Anna was attentive and knew her stuff. You will be pleased by a strong lineup of cocktails, Florida-based craft beers and reasonably priced wines.
The olive oil poached grouper's bright flavor was enhanced with was served with toasted farro, edamame beans and preserved lemon while the cavatelli was served with spot-on ragu which used more of Locale's lovely homemade sausage and dotted with herb ricotta.
It's just another slice of the art-and-food fueled renaissance of this sun-kissed, magnetic destination.