Best Attractions in St. Petersburg-Clearwater and BeachesIn an area with dozens of attractions and points of interest, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Maria White
In Largo , a collection of original historic buildings in Heritage Village presents a snapshot of Florida's settlement period, and native plant collections and other things to see thrive in the 150-acre Florida Botanical Gardens .
In nearby St. Petersburg , creatures big and small have their pick of scenic sanctuaries. Dance with blithe tiger swallowtails and viceroys at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve —where more than 50 species of meandering butterflies have been identified—but do your best not to disturb the park's more timorous residents, the gopher tortoises. Part of the Florida Birding Trail, the 245-acre wildland also lures bird-watchers seeking inspiration from such dazzling aviators as anhingas, blue jays and eagles.
Also home to plenty of wildlife, Egmont Key State Park , reachable only by boat, draws gallivanting natives and clued-in tourists with its secluded beaches littered with shells and things for couples to do. As if this wasn't enough for a day of fun in the sun, the park also tempts visiting explorers with nature trails that wind through the historic ruins of Fort Dade, built when the Spanish-American War was imminent. Another beguiling element of the island, which is situated at the mouth of Tampa Bay, is a lighthouse constructed 1847-48.
Hike or canoe through Weedon Island Preserve and you're bound to come across more than a few feathered or scaly organisms amid its 3,700 acres, most of which comprise aquatic and wetland ecosystems. Of course, you're not the first two-legged creature to experience this former island's natural treasures. At the preserve's cultural and natural history center, you'll learn about the native men and women who began cultivating their society here almost 2,000 years ago.
Another majestic haven got its start in the early 1900s, when plumber and recreational gardener George Turner Sr. drained a shallow lake in St. Pete and started planting. Now known as Sunken Gardens , the attraction is prized by both petal-loving humans and dawdling flamingos. Bring your camera and snap a few pictures of delicate orchids while exploring on your own, or sign up for a guided tour to learn more about the site's stunning array of tropical plants.
You might find yourself at an impasse once you dock your vessel at Fort De Soto Park . The 1,136-acre expanse made up of five interconnected islands offers many things to do, though its sandy shores typically garner the most attention. In 2005 Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (aka “Dr. Beach”), the director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami, named Fort De Soto the nation's top beach; you and the approximately 2,699,999 other annual visitors will quickly discover Leatherman knows his stuff. If you need a break from the sand, investigate Fort De Soto , a military structure named after Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto built during the Spanish-American War.
If lazing on a picture-perfect beach under the sunny sky is your idea of group travel, here are some other passive pastimes that involve sun and sea. From Clearwater Beach , the yacht Starlite Majesty and the riverboat of Calypso Queen Cruises explore Clearwater Harbor at a leisurely clip, while the speedboat Sea Screamer putters politely out of the harbor and then rips across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, often preceded by a dolphin escort. Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise , on a reproduction galleon also departing from Clearwater Beach, weaves pirate lore with local history for one whale of a sail. Sea Life Safari in Clearwater educates passengers about native marine life through the use of licensed trawl nets. Starlite Sapphire Dining Yacht , docked in St. Petersburg, cruises around serene Tampa Bay and along the inland waterways. You'll find similar travel tour operations in nearby Madeira Beach , St. Pete Beach and Tarpon Springs .
When you're ready to cool off, don't head back to the hotel; this destination area offers plenty of indoor pursuits, too. The Dalí Museum is one of St. Petersburg's AAA GEM attractions. Within the world's most comprehensive grouping of Dalí's works are eight of the artist's large-canvas masterpieces, including “Hallucinogenic Toreador” and “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” This romp through the surreal life and artistic outpourings of a self-described genius-madman has real shock value, and there are plenty of things to see.
Shocking or disturbing might describe the effect that The Florida Holocaust Museum has on visitors, but a message of hope permeates the powerful images, personal accounts and artifacts. At the center of St. Pete's other AAA GEM attraction is a 15-ton freight car that was said to have been used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other prisoners to concentration camps. One of only a few left in the world, the boxcar is a profound reminder of the 20th century's most horrific event.
One of the newest places to go is The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in downtown. The 3,000 works of art are inspired by the landscape, wildlife and peoples of the American West.
What do a rosy-cheeked young village girl, fog-swirled British Parliament buildings and a vibrant poppy flower have in common? Depicted with a few prudent brushstrokes, each is part of the permanent collection on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The art gallery also showcases photography, Greek and Roman relics, and pre-Columbian and Asian works. Opened in 1965, the museum's original Palladian-style building (a contemporary wing was added in 2008) is easy to spot—just look for the massive kapok tree, with its gnarled, blossom-adorned branches, growing beside it.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
St. Petersburg Clearwater, FL
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650 Bay Esplanade. Clearwater Beach, FL 33767