Just off of Tampa Bay on the gulf coast is a chain of barrier islands that are home to some of the prettiest beaches in Florida: Clearwater Beach and St Pete Beach. I’m talking about beaches that regularly win awards and get voted as “best beach in the US.” And the beaches are gorgeous… white sand, turquoise water, decent shelling. Throw in a lot of resorts and condos plus plenty of “things to do” nearby in St Petersburg and Tampa and it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular beach vacation destination.
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To get to St Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach, you’ll most likely fly into Tampa International Airport (TPA). From there it’s about a 30 minute drive to both beach areas. There is also the smaller/closer St Pete-Clearwater International Airport that gets flights from the budget airline Allegiant.
I recently spent a belated spring break in the St Pete area and then doubled back to check out Clearwater later in the summer. So I’ve now stayed in several different places, quizzed many locals, driven absolutely everywhere, and I feel like I’ve got a good feel for what this area is really like.
If you’ve spent much time on my blog, you know that I don’t beat around the bush. I’m somewhat “famous” for giving you the real scoop, the insider details, and my very real opinions based on WHAT I LIKE AND DON’T LIKE.
Well, I guess that kind of gives you an idea of where this is going ; )
To give you the short version…I really did not love St Pete Beach OR Clearwater Beach. I’ve been to a lot of beaches (not just around the world-Hawaii and the Caribbean), but also in Florida so I feel like I have a lot to compare. It’s not the beaches themselves that I didn’t care for (they’re pretty great!)…it’s the towns/surrounding areas.
I will preface this post by saying that A LOT OF PEOPLE go to Clearwater Beach and St Pete Beach every year and absolutely love it. It’s a great spot for many people, but if you’re reading my blog it’s because you 1) want to know what I think about places and 2) trust/relate to my judgment and feel like we have similar travel styles.
And as always, instead of just saying I don’t like something, I prefer to give a LOT of details and describe places and situations as best I can so you can determine if my opinions might hold true for you (or if they’re completely irrelevant to what you like/how you like to do things).
So without further ado, let’s start with St Pete Beach:
St Pete Beach
St Pete Beach is the southernmost (developed) barrier island in the chain off Tampa Bay. It’s one long stretch of white sand beach lined with resorts, condos, and small hotels. Overall, the beach is very good. Great sand, great turquoise clear water, and surprisingly good shelling. There’s a good mix of resorts (hello Don CeSar you are amazing!), large condo-tel complexes that feel a lot like resorts, and small beach hotels and motels in a wide range of quality. There are more than enough restaurants, beach bars, ice cream shops, etc. to keep you busy for a weeklong trip.
BUT OVERALL, I did not care for the vibe in St Pete Beach. Most of the main road/strip felt a little seedy. A lot of strip malls, tiny sidewalks where you felt like you were walking right by the traffic, etc. 7-Elevens, Dunkin Donuts, cell phone stores, Wings (the big slightly tacky beach shops)…all mixed in with local restaurants here and there, a Twistee Treat, and auto repair shop. To me, the main strip in St Pete felt like that kind of rough/rundown part of town that you try to avoid.
Now, for sure the entire island is not like this…but the main high traffic area definitely was.
As a general rule of thumb, the farther south you go on the island, the better it gets.
The northernmost part of St Pete Beach is actually tucked behind Treasure Island (there’s no beach, it’s more of a water channel), so I’m going to start out with the area that’s the northernmost BEACHFRONT (which is actually more towards the middle of the island) and work my way south.
The first part of my trip, I stayed in this area at the Postcard Inn, and I’m just going to tell you…I did NOT like it. The beach is beautiful (it’s pretty much the same in the whole area), but it has a STRONG spring break/party vibe. I stayed here the first of April so I thought maybe it was just the time of year, but I had MANY locals tell me that no, it’s like that all year long and this little pocket of beach is the epicenter of the area’s party scene. This makes sense because 1) The majority of people partying on the beach (and at the hotel beach bars) seemed to be Florida locals that had come to the beach for the day (I know this because they were so loud that I now know every detail of where every person around me lived, worked, and went to high school and also because while waiting for an Uber to take us to dinner at the hotel, a steady stream of them passed through to get Ubers to take them home because they couldn’t drive. Yikes.) and 2) the beach bars at the Postcard Inn (PCI) and the Beachcomber (Jimmy B’s) target a party scene for locals (people not staying at the hotel) by advertising that their bars are open to the public and making it easy to get Ubers/Lyfts from the hotel lobby.
Honestly, it was an odd dynamic because there were a lot of families staying at the Postcard Inn (at the pool and on the beach) and in that general area but I’ve also never heard more people talking about drugs (I wish I was kidding haha) and incessant f-bombs. Besides the beach scene, this part of St Pete Beach has a “strip vibe” that I mentioned above. Along the main road, there were a lot of strip malls with the typical beach shops, Twistee Treats, etc.
Overall, this part of the island reminded me of parts of Branson (not the nice parts!). If you like a lot of action/noise, this is the part of the island you want to be on, however I will say it was less of a Miami party scene and more “redneck yacht club” vibes. If you know, you know.
If this is what you’re looking for (hey, there were a LOT of people having a REALLY good time ; ) here’s where to stay in the area:
Postcard Inn on the Beach: I spent the first part of my trip here. It’s really “Instagram cute,” but a little more worn than it looks on the website probably. It was clean enough, had good breakfast options in the lobby, and a pretty good sized pool. There were a lot of families staying here. It’s very much a motel on the beach, but it’s also priced like one (except on the weekends!). Pricing starts at $159. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
The farther south you go on the island, the nicer places seem to get. There are quite a few places mid-island that are nice properties, but are still close to all of the hustle and bustle. Meaning…the beaches are still going to be crowded, but it doesn’t have a wild vibe. You’re also closer to some convenient amenities like Publix, Walgreens, and Chick-fil-a!
The southernmost resort/hotel on the island is the Don CeSar and that’s when you feel like you’ve left St Pete Beach and entered a different world. In a good way.
The Don Cesar Hotel: I wrote a detailed review of my stay at the Don CeSar here. The short story is…this place is amazing. It’s the only place I would stay in the area (St Pete Beach and Clearwater) and it’s a place I will definitely come back to. It’s definitely a destination resort and while it’s not quite Four Seasons level, the price is usually a lot better as well. It’s hard to find a nice beach resort on the gulf side of Florida, and this spot is a gem. Pricing starts at $279. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Pass-a-Grille: South of the Don CeSear, you’ll come to Pass-a-Grille which is a mostly residential area that makes up the entire southern part of the island. I loved this area so much and it’s where we ended up spending pretty much every evening of our trip. I did a whole post about this area that you can check out here. If I’m not staying at the Don CeSar I would definitely do a Vrbo rental in Pass-a-Grille. While it’s technically on the island that is St Pete Beach, it feels like a whole separate place.
Clearwater Beach is the northernmost (drivable) barrier island in the chain and just like St Pete Beach, it’s a hub of beach activity. But it has an entirely different vibe. Not necessarily better (but maybe depending on what you like) but different.
I’ll put it this way…as soon as I drove across the bridge into Clearwater Beach, the first things I saw were: Bubba Gump’s, Hooters, and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop. And I kind of feel like that’s everything you need to know about Clearwater Beach. If that sounds awful, you’re not going to like it. If you’re thinking…”what’s wrong with that?” then you’ll probably like it.
But I’ll elaborate.
Clearwater Beach felt more compact and walkable than St Pete Beach and overall seemed a lot better setup for a large number of visitors. Around the bridge onto the mainland (more towards the southern part of the island-I think the northern part is more residential) there’s high rise buildings (hotels and condos) on both sides of the street. The sidewalks were pretty wide, there were plenty of crosswalks, etc. and the streets were lined with the kind of places most tourists like (chain restaurants and stores, etc.). There were a lot of people out walking around and it felt like a normal Florida tourist area. The Clearwater Pier 60 is right here and you can find pretty much any kind of water activity you could dream of.
I can’t say that it’s the kind of place that I just love, but it’s probably much more what most beach visitors are expecting from a Florida tourist destination. It seemed similar to Panama City Beach, Destin (but more compact), and Coco Beach.
There are several fairly nice resorts in the area:
Opal Sands Resort: This place actually looks very nice and seems more secluded than most places in the area, but it’s still close enough that you could walk to all the shops and restaurants. Pricing starts at $395. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Sandpearl Resort: Very nice beach resort at a more friendly price point. Pretty much in the thick of it all. Pricing starts at $215. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
Hyatt Regency: Not THE “Pink Palace” (that would be the Don CeSar), but ANOTHER pink hotel! It had a nice look and was right smack in the middle of the high pedestrian traffic area. Pricing starts at $195. Click here to check pricing and availability during your stay.
St Pete Beach vs Clearwater Beach
So which one is better, St Pete Beach or Clearwater Beach? They’re neither one my ideal Florida beach destination, but if I had to choose I would say…it depends ; )
If I’m staying at the Don CeSar or in Pass-a-Grille I would definitely choose St Pete Beach. If I’m not staying at either of those places and wanting the full on Florida beach vacation experience (filled with seafood dinners at the crab shack, parasailing, buying puka shell necklaces at Ron Jon’s, etc.) then Clearwater Beach feels a lot nicer than St Pete Beach.
Other Places in the Area
Treasure Island: Treasure Island is the barrier island just north of St Pete Beach and I would say it’s a middle ground between St Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach. It feels a little more like Old Florida (there are some cute vintage feelish small hotels) than Clearwater Beach but it’s not quite as rundown as parts of St Pete Beach feel. The Thunderbird Beach Resort looks cute (very retro vibes!) or check out the Treasure Island Beach Resort.
Madeira Beach: The island between Treasure Island and Clearwater Beach has several different communities/areas. The southernmost part is Madeira Beach and it’s pretty popular. It’s not a place that appeals to me, but John’s Pass is in the area and that’s a big draw for some people. It used to be a quaint fishing village and now it’s a boardwalk with a ton of big chain shops and restaurants. In that way, it’s similar to Clearwater Beach, but it’s not nearly as crowded and everything is more spread out.
Indian Rocks Beach: Of all of the places that I drove through in this area, Indian Rocks Beach would probably be the only place that I would say I liked. It had a nice variety of places to stay (houses and small condos/inns) plus a good number of restaurants scattered around. Some of these communities were nothing but condos for miles so you’d be pretty isolated and dependent on cooking at your own place which isn’t how I like to vacation. Search for Indian Rocks condos and vacation rentals here.