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Bayside Beauty: Tampa/St. Petersburg—Finding a refreshing new take on the arts, culture, and food in sun-kissed Florida

Bayside Beauty: Tampa/St. Petersburg—Finding a refreshing new take on the arts, culture, and food in sun-kissed Florida
May 2023
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For the first of our One-Flight Wonders series, we’re making a stop on the artsy “Glass Coast” of St. Petersburg, Florida



Upon learning that one of the leading avant-garde artists of the 20th century likened a bayside stretch of Florida to the Mediterranean fishing village he adored, I thought, “Let’s go.” And we did just that one weekday afternoon, catching a nonstop flight from Charleston to Tampa (about 80 minutes in the air, CHS to TPA), arriving in downtown St. Petersburg just in time for sunset.

This is the shoreline that reminded Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) of seaside Spain. Overlooking the South Yacht Basin of the municipal marina, the Dalí Museum houses the largest collection of the surrealist artist’s works in North America. While it’s a primary draw for this visit, I’m curious about the broader arts and culture scene, too.

With famous Gulf Coast beaches a few miles to the west, downtown St. Petersburg is on the Tampa Bay side—a Florida locale that many friends first visited on spring break road trips in college and that’s inspired endearing nicknames, like “the Burg” and “St. Pete.” About 500 miles southwest of Charleston and just across the bay from Tampa, it’s a classic Florida destination that I’d heard has been evolving lately—still funky, but with a new vibrancy based on impressive cultural investments in the arts. Intrigued, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I set out for two days and nights to explore and be inspired.

Hi, St. Pete

Views from our airport Uber ride (a Tesla—the first of several EV ride-shares this trip) are of tall, spiky palm trees arcing toward high rises in downtown St. Pete. First stop is our lodging, the century-old Cordova Inn, where guests step across a wide front porch lined with rocking chairs to check in. Inside and out, the inn looks like a vintage Florida postcard image tucked into a modern city block. The concierge notes they’ve just broken ground on a modern addition on the corner lot next door.

Following the sun’s lowering beams, we quickly drop our bags in our second-floor room and walk toward the bay. In just a few blocks, we’re joining other sunset-watchers along Bayshore Drive and on the paths and walkways of the St. Pete Pier, a public parkland that extends over water for 26 acres, flanked by yacht basins full of boats. A visitor shuttle continually loops to the end and back. About halfway out, a yoga class stretches and bends under an installation by American fiber artist Janet Echelon, its billowing illuminated netting changing colors as night falls. Meanwhile, green-feathered wild parrots squawk and circle near massive, vine-draped banyan trees.

After sunset on nearby Central Avenue, everyone seems to be out strolling and people-watching. We tuck into front window seats at the urban-cool Italian restaurant Il Ritorno, where the view alternates between the parade of passersby in shorts and mini-dresses and the busy open kitchen. Chef-owner David Benstock, who grew up in St. Pete, returned after stints in Italy and New York. His menu includes interesting house-made pastas—mezzaluna “half moons” with short ribs, for one—along with cheese boards and seafood dishes, including charred octopus and hamachi crudo with yuzu fruit and pineapple. The restaurant’s name is spelled in neon letters on one wall, and sauces are artfully swirled on plates—influences of the city’s art are here, too. The chef says he often walks down Central for inspiration for his cooking and plating and that a favorite stop is Florida CraftArt, a nonprofit hub showcasing more than 200 Florida artists.

Tropical & Urban: A sunset view of the St. Petersburg skyline from the St. Pete Pier; (right) the Museum of Fine Arts

Art Walk

The sun’s shining brightly the next morning—the city once claimed a world record for the longest stretch of sunny days at 768. A full day of art museum-hopping is easy to do in St. Pete. It’s just a matter of choices—including the bay-facing Museum of Fine Art and the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Arts. Glass is a major part of the art world here, too, so much so that there’s another nickname, the “Glass Coast,” for this part of Florida—home to the permanent Chihuly Collection by master American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly at the Morean Arts Center and the largest collection of contemporary glass sculpture in the US at the aqua-blue Imagine Museum on Central Avenue.

Just outside of the Dalí, a sailboat glides into the marina basin on a whisper of bay breeze. The boxy, three-story museum is wrapped in curving glass extensions. Inside, a steady stream of visitors flows through its sunlit atrium, and a staircase spirals upward, almost like the artist’s wildly twisted mustache.

In the gallery rooms, visitors looking at original works talk of how they see movement. “It was moving, changing,” a woman says in a French accent, about a painting of a fruit-laden table with folds in the white tablecloth. I look closer and see motion, too, as if the still life isn’t still, but perpetually sliding forward. Large and small paintings and sculptures are on display, including portraits, still lifes, and a Picasso-esque vase from Dalí’s early career before the turn to surrealism. Around the corner, there’s an interactive life-size film of the artist talking. Press the screen to start, and it feels as if you’re meeting his gaze as he describes and recommends the King Cole Bar, his favorite spot in New York in the 1960s and ’70s.

Our next stop is at the massive Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, where the architecture itself is a work of art. Opened in 2021, it features another remarkable staircase, this one wider and gleaming in polished white stone. It’s the centerpiece of the five-story building that displays lamps, tables, and cabinetry of the era as art pieces.

And in the early 20th-century grandeur of the “royal pink” bayside Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, we wander the wide, tiled halls with original cypress beams above. I peek into the ballroom to see the mammoth Dale Chihuly blown-glass chandelier that was commissioned for the resort’s major renovation underway this year. The piece is a showstopper: Hanging in the center of the room and looking as delicate as a mass of balloons, yet weighty and elegant, too, the sculpture epitomizes St. Pete style.

Central Again

We keep returning to Central Avenue, the heart of the city. First, it’s for dinner at Wild Child, which has a Caribbean vibe and serves up plenty of rum- and Mezcal-based cocktails with names like “Lost Weekend” and “Golden Eagle.” The food is vibrant-colored, fun, and fresh—beet salad, ceviche with plantains fried in long strips, a flipped paella (so the crisped rice is on top), and grouper over coconut rice.

The next day at Casita Taqueria just down the street, we meet Jenee Priebe of the Shine St. Petersburg Mural Festival, an annual gathering in October. She explains how new murals are commissioned each year to add to the dozens already in place—nearly 150 since 2015. Tours are led year-round, adding life and energy to the blocks. The works aren’t random graffiti, Priebe explains, but a major, city-endorsed attraction along and near Central Avenue—murals by local, regional, and international artists span sides of buildings and along the rear alleyways. It’s been transformative for the city, she says. “People follow the art.”

Tampa Finale

The return flight isn’t until early evening, so there’s time for a fast dip into Tampa culture before heading to the airport. In the historic blocks of the Ybor City neighborhood, roosters stroll past café-goers, who come for food, music, and hand-rolled cigars. No high-rises here, but lines of two-story, wooden and brick buildings built by and for immigrants—mainly from Cuba, Spain, and Italy—who moved to Tampa in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work in cigar manufacturing.

At the Columbia Restaurant, open since 1905, we order a plate of mojito chicken and a Cuban sandwich on pressed, crusty bread that’s sliced into a wedge. The tuxedo-wearing server explains that Flamenco dinner shows are held regularly in another of the 15 colorful dining rooms in this block-long landmark, owned by the same family since its founding and decorated with indoor fountain sculptures and Don Quixote paintings.

A few miles away, we stop for a closer look at the towering silver minarets and domes of the opulent, 1890s winter resort known as the Tampa Bay Hotel. The immense Gilded Age-era building is now a museum and the grounds are open as the city’s largest public botanical gardens, part of the University of Tampa. Here and there, college students nap in hammocks attached to towering palm trees. On the opposite side of W. Kennedy Boulevard, we end this fast Florida getaway in the brick and marble hallways of the historic Oxford Exchange—originally built as horse stables for the resort, and now an elegant restaurant, bookstore, and all-day venue for beverages. My order before we go? An iced tea please, the one named Florida Orange Blossom.

Destination - St. Petersburg, Florida

Flight: From Charleston International Airport, Breeze airline offers a nonstop (1 hour 20 minutes) to Tampa International Airport (TPA). The “Nicest” service class is comparable to other carriers’ first class—ultra-roomy seats, checked bag allowance, and snacks, as well as in-seat air conditioning and USB power outlets. flybreeze.com

Local Transport: It’s possible to get around without a rental car. Rideshares are available (TPA is 20 minutes to downtown Tampa and 30 minutes to downtown St. Pete); rent bicycles and scooters in downtown St. Pete; or take the Cross Bay Ferry between Tampa and St. Pete, thecrossbayferry.com

Tampa Time Travel: Founded in 1866, the Ybor City Historic District is a National Historic Landmark. An amalgam of Cuban, Asian, and European immigrants, the neighborhood’s original cigar factory buildings, Columbia Restaurant (est. 1905), live music venues, and storefronts are still intact, within a 10-mile drive of Tampa International Airport.

A Tampa Bay Getaway

Stay

Cordova Inn: Circa-1921 boutique hotel in the downtown waterfront district. 253 2nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; cordovainnstpete.com

The Birchwood: Waterfront boutique inn with a rooftop bar. 340 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg; thebirchwood.com

The Vinoy Resort & Golf Club: Newly renovated, circa-1925 hotel with pool, spa, tennis, and restaurants. 501 5th Ave NE, St. Petersburg; marriott.com 

Eat

Café Gala: Spanish fare and bay views at the Dalí Museum. 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg; thedali.org/visit/store-cafe/cafe-gala

Casita Taqueria: Authentic tacos with house-made corn tortillas, cold beer on the patio. 2663 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; casitatacos.com

Columbia Restaurant: Historical landmark with Flamenco shows, sangria, Cuban sandwiches, and crab croquettes. 2117 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City, Tampa; columbiarestaurant.com

Il Ritorno: Modern Italian with house-made pastas, cheese boards, and seafood. 449 Central Ave. N, St. Petersburg; ilritornodowntown.com

Paradeco Coffee Roasters: Deco-inspired decor with single-origin roasts and smoothies. 111 2nd Ave NE, St. Petersburg; paradecocoffee.com

Wild Child: Neighborhood bistro with a fiesta feel; tropical cocktails, seafood, and brunch. 2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; wildchildstpete.com

Shop

Florida CraftArt: Fine craft art and mural tours. 501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; floridacraftart.org

Imagine Museum store: Fine-art glass. 1901 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; imaginemuseum.com

Oxford Exchange: Books by Florida authors, John Derian porcelain, housewares, and gifts. 420 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; oxfordexchange.com

Sunni Spencer: Resortwear boutique at the Vinoy Resort & Golf Club. 501 5th Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; sunnispencer.com

Explore

Chihuly Collection: Large-scale installations by the renowned glass artist at the Morean Arts Center. 720 Central Ave St., Petersburg; moreanartscenter.org

The Dalí Museum: 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg; thedali.org

Henry B. Plant Park: Botanical gardens at former Gilded Age hotel. 401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; plantmuseum.com

Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement: 355 4th St. N., St. Petersburg; museumaacm.org

St. Pete Pier: 26 acres of public green space, art, food, and drink on Tampa Bay. 600 2nd Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; stpetepier.org

Plan Ahead

Shine St. Petersburg Mural Festival: See new murals by contemporary local, national, and international artists come to life from October 13-22, 2023; stpeteartsalliance.org/shine-mural-festival/

 

Check out the SHINE Mural Festival 2022 in St. Pete: