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In St. Pete, Easy Does It

 

Once known as a retirement haven, the Gulf Coast city has gotten better with age.


 St. Pete

Copyright Robert Kusch

St. Petersburg faces two large bodies of water, Tampa Bay (background) on its eastern shore and the Gulf of Mexico on its western shore. The gentle breezes coming off the Gulf provide optimum kite-flying conditions on a clear and sunny day in a St. Pete park


St. Petersburg is a city with a split personality: urban sophistication in the downtown–midtown area, where some of the city’s best cultural, dining and retail venues can be found, and the more laid-back attitude on the fringe of the city that encompasses St. Pete Beach, a barrier island with a shirt-and-shoes-optional vibe.

Start near the heart of the city, along Central Avenue in midtown, where you’ll find the Grand Central District with its charmingly restored historic buildings. Here, art galleries, antique furniture shops, contemporary and vintage clothing boutiques, and distinctive restaurants and bars line both sides of the street.

The Grand Central District is also home to Haslam’s, billed as the largest new and used bookstore in Florida. It’s been around since 1933, and is now in its third generation of ownership by the Haslam family. More than 300,000 books line the shelves of the giant store, a bibliophile’s dream destination that hosts frequent book-signing events with bestselling authors, including Florida writers Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey.

Nearby, Beak’s Old Florida is a tavern that combines ultra-kitschy surroundings with an exceptional list of microbrews and boutique wines, plus a menu of grown-up comfort food. Inside, the décor features light-up Santas, bead-bedecked mannequins and vintage naked-lady pictures. Sweet-tooth cravings can be satisfied at The Cupcake Spot down the street, where the simple cupcake has been transformed into a gourmet treat with flavors such as red velvet, butterscotch and carrot cake.

In downtown St. Petersburg near the bay, you’ll find a few touristy spots well worth braving the sunburned, T-shirted throngs to visit, including Baywalk and The Pier. Both of these open-air shopping and dining areas often hold special events such as concerts and dances.

The Salvador Dali Museum, which houses the largest collection of the surrealist artist’s works outside of his homeland of Spain, is also downtown. The collection is comprised of 2,140 pieces of Dali’s work, including 96 oil paintings that illustrate the evolution of his provocative style from 1917 to 1970. All of the art will be on the move by the end of next year: The museum broke ground last December on its future, far larger home a few blocks from its current location. It’s just one of the many museums and galleries within a few blocks of each other, including the Smithsonian-affiliated Florida International Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, with its fine collection of works by well-known masters; the Arts Center, where the first-ever permanent exhibit of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s works is under construction; and the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The Other Side of St. Pete
If you’re in the mood for a more casual experience, head for the city’s fringes. You’ll find as much laid-back charm as you can handle at The Chattaway, a St. Pete institution famous for its extra-tasty burgers and onion rings since the 1950s. You should have no trouble finding the place if you’re in the neighborhood of Bartlett Park south of downtown: just look for the border of plant-filled, brightly painted claw-foot bathtubs that ring the property. Just past the bathtubs, a burbling fountain spills into the stream that meanders through the expansive outdoor seating area; inside, the large dining room looks as if it’s been decorated by a tea-loving Anglophile with an obsessive fascination with Britain’s royal family.

St. Pete

Copyright Robert Kusch

The historic Renaissance Vinoy is a distinctive landmark in downtown St. Petersburg

One of the best places to sample the party-time atmosphere on St. Pete Beach is Woody’s Waterfront, a no-frills bar and grill that overlooks the Gulf Inlet. The outside deck frequently is packed with locals who come for the cheap beer and friendly vibe. If there’s no table available, it usually doesn’t take long for someone to offer newcomers a seat—except at sundown, when it’s standing room only. Woody’s is adjacent to the aptly named Sunset Park; folks gather daily at the park and bar to see the sun sink below the horizon, its rays painting the sea and sky with vibrant colors.

A pair of distinctive landmarks seem to gaze at each other from the two sides of St. Petersburg. The Renaissance Vinoy downtown and the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach have a lot in common: both circa-1920s pink-painted palaces feature fanciful Moorish-influenced architecture and both survived neglect and abandonment before their respective restorations.

Today, they’re four-diamond destinations and the two “it” places to stay in St. Pete. But it’s not necessary to book a room to enjoy their considerable charms; a sumptuous Sunday brunch at the Don or a martini at Marchand’s Bar & Grill, the elegant bar–restaurant at the Vinoy, imparts a taste of the experience without the expense of an overnight stay.

Plenty of other, more affordable accommodations in town offer a glimpse of St. Pete’s past, including the Ponce de Leon. A chic boutique hotel dating to 1922, it’s located downtown just a stone’s throw from the city’s cultural attractions. And St. Pete Beach still boasts a few of the old mom-and-pop concrete-block motels that once peppered this thin strip of sand fronting the Gulf of Mexico. One that has managed to duck the wrecking ball is the mid-century Sun-dial, a retro-modern blast from the past complete with a shuffleboard court.

At one time in St. Petersburg, shuffleboard was symbolic of the city’s reputation as a retirement center, inspiring jokes that it was “God’s waiting room.” St. Pete remains an “aged” city in appearance, but it’s gotten younger on the inside.

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