If it’s been a while since you’ve ventured to the stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast around St. Petersburg and Tampa, you’re in for a surprise.
The Tampa Bay area is one of the top cities in the U.S. attracting millennials, with corporate tech talent and postgrads alike heading to the “growing hub of creativity.” (Weather ain’t bad, either.) And in neighboring St. Pete, too, a youthful, creative vibe prevails.
Downtown St. Petersburg feels particularly vital of late, anchored by an intuitive new pier (the St. Pete Pier) that seamlessly connects the waterfront and downtown with a public beach on the bayfront, a rooftop tiki bar, an ecodiscovery center with an overwater walkway, and a pirate-themed playground among its many amenities.
And Tampa’s Riverwalk is in a constant state of evolution as new residences and restaurants shape the downtown area into a lovely, livable place with plenty of tourist appeal, too.
The best new hotels to check into
Towering over downtown Tampa’s Water Street District along the Hillsborough River and surrounding shipping canals, the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street opened its doors in 2021 as the city’s newest true luxury hotel. The Spa by JW here quickly became the top wellness spot in town. There’s a happening pool deck and bar on the sixth floor, and when the rooftop raw bar eventually opens on the hotel’s 27th floor (slated for sometime in 2022), it will overlook the best views in town.
In Tampa’s historic Latin quarter, Ybor City, Hotel Haya is a stylish homage to midcentury Havana with an equally stylish restaurant, Flor Fina, known for its rotating ceviche menu. See also in Ybor City: the excellent Sicilian restaurant, Casa Santo Stefano, which opened in late 2020 in an early 20th-century macaroni factory.
New on the Gulf Coast beach scene in August 2021, the 156-room Bellwether Beach Resort fronts St. Pete Beach and perfectly captures the town’s vintage vibe, with a rotating restaurant on its top floor and candy-colored decor that screams retro Sunshine State.
And in Tampa’s trendy residential SoHo district, the foodie-focused Epicurean Hotel is expanding in 2022 with scores of new guest rooms and suites, plus a new fourth-floor terrace.
Where to eat on the water
With lots of year-round sunshine, and Gulf of Mexico and bay breezes to keep things comfortable, outdoor dining has been the standard long before pandemic times.
In downtown Tampa, along the Hillsborough River (where dolphins often swim by), order from the counters at Heights Public Market at Armature Works—a food hall set inside the old streetcar warehouse. A few blocks away, in the Water Street Tampa district, Sparkman Wharf hosts the city’s hottest chefs, who serve take-away eats from shipping containers along Garrison Channel.
Crowning the new St. Pete Pier, Pier Teaki has rum runners and mai tais in cups that will make you want to party; enjoy great grouper sandwiches with views overlooking Tampa Bay and downtown St. Pete.
And modern Greek cuisine gets the spotlight in Tarpon Springs at Dimitri’s on the Water, right on the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, where you can tuck into fish gyros and souvlaki with views of the Anclote River.
The must-hit city for art lovers
Famous for the Dalí Museum—housing the largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí outside of his native Spain—downtown St. Petersburg (locals call it St. Pete) has become one of Florida’s museum magnets.
Running from January 29 through May 22, 2022, the museum’s Picasso and the Allure of the South exhibit spotlights masterworks by Pablo Picasso through a lens of place and cultural context as influenced by the artist’s time in southern Europe.
September 2021 saw the opening of the five-story Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement in downtown St. Pete, a dramatic building with a spiral staircase made from Venetian plaster. It houses 800 works from the century-old arts and crafts movement.
Sixty local and international artists with Florida ties were commissioned to bring Fairgrounds St. Pete, opened in 2021 in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District, to life. The 15,000-square-foot immersive indoor exhibit that melds art with technology is a walk-through installation with surprises in every room.
Along Florida’s powdery Gulf Coast beaches, the winter months are prime time for snagging a waterfront camp site at Fort De Soto Park, a pristine sandy expanse of five interconnected islands. Pair that with a stop at the Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach, where you can see the gentle giants by the scores where they reliably gather in the warm waters near an electric plant’s discharge channel.
Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin is another favorite state park with miles of undeveloped beaches for sunbathing and shelling (and where you might spot eagles and gopher tortoises). For a fun day trip to an offshore island accessible only by boat, take the 20-minute ferry from here to Caladesi Island State Park, where nature trails, tangles of mangroves perfect for kayaking, and more of Florida’s finest untouched sands await.
Coming in 2022
The Tampa Edition is scheduled to open in 2022 (exact date still TBD) within downtown Water Street District, with 172 guest rooms and suites.
One of the biggest pride marches in the United States, St. Pete Pride will mark its 20th year in June 2022 with four themed weeks held throughout the month to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. Last year’s event drew more than 250,000 people and this one promises to be even grander.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to St. Pete–Clearwater
Terry Ward Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.