If you’ve poked around my blog at all, you probably know that I LOVE Hawaii. I used to live there and still travel there a LOT, but living in the midwest (and with the last year being CRAZY travelwise), I find myself being drawn more and more towards Florida. It’s closer (making it quicker, cheaper, and easier to get to), the beaches are beautiful, and there are hundreds of different unique destinations within the state.
When I was planning my first post-COVID trip for early April, I felt a lot more comfortable staying close to home and heading to Florida instead of venturing to the other side of the world. But where to go in Florida? It’s a big state and there are a lot of great beaches!
After taking a look at trusty TripAdvisor, I settled on St Pete Beach. TripAdvisor named St Pete Beach the #1 beach in the country for 2021 (according to TripAdvisor’s annual Traveler’s Choice rankings), and they’ve never steered my wrong. Easy enough to fly into Tampa International Airport (TPA) on my favorite Southwest Airlines and the Don Cesar Hotel was calling my name. Trip planned.
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St Pete Beach is a barrier island in the Tampa Bay area on the gulf coast of Florida. It’s part of a chain of barrier islands whose beaches regularly make “best in the USA/world” lists (Clearwater Beach, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island Beach, etc.). St Pete Beach is only about 30 minutes from the Tampa International Airport and a quick drive away from downtown St Pete which is becoming one of the trendiest places to live in Florida. So unlike some vacation destinations in Florida that are a little sleepy or far from major cities, if you stay in St Pete Beach, it’s easy to take advantage of everything that downtown St Pete has to offer.
Read my detailed guide about where to stay on St Pete Beach. I’m talking 3000 words on the vibes of different parts of the island (there was one part I didn’t like at all and another part I LOVED).
In this post, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how I spent my five days in St Pete Beach plus some ideas of other things to do in the St Pete Beach and Clearwater area.
I flew into TPA (landed around noon) and hopped in an Uber over to St Pete Beach. There were about 4-5 Southwest flights that all arrived at the same time making baggage claim pretty chaotic and Uber prices at peak. If prices are above $50 for a ride out to the island, I would suggest hanging around 10-15 minutes and letting the rush pass. It usually averages $35-40 (it was as high as $90 when I first started to look).
We decided not to rent a car on this trip because we honestly didn’t plan to do much other than lay around the beach and pool and figured it would be easy enough to get Uber/Lyft riders for dinner (plus car rentals were $$$ and factoring in parking at the resort), but I’ve got to warn you…once we were on the island, it was HARD to get Ubers even for short distances (1-3 miles). There was a real shortage of drivers and it seemed to be a problem for everybody. We ended up walking as far as 1.5 miles to and from dinner spots back to the hotel some nights.
There is the Suncoast Beach Trolley that goes up and down the coast, but we were never going quite far enough for it to seem worth figuring out.
SUPER TIP!!! On the last night of our trip, a lady told us about Freebees! It’s a free ride service via electric car (like a golf cart on steroids) that’s subsidized by the city. The company started in south Florida and has recently expanded to St Pete Beach. Download the app and you can request a ride if you’re within the zone. It mostly covers the southern end of the island (Pass-a-Grille) up to Dolphin Crossings (where the Publix and Walgreens are). So if you’re staying in that part of the island (the Don Cesar Hotel falls in this area), this is THE BEST WAY TO GET AROUND. It’s 100% free, but I like to tip $3-5 per ride.
The details on this trip: We spent the first two nights at the Postcard Inn in the middle of the island. Read this post for the full rundown but long story short I didn’t like it. It was the weekend and it was a pretty raging spring break scene (which I heard from locals is pretty much the deal year round). We spent pretty much the entire time at the pool or the beach. Loved Shop Betty (next door), PS Grind coffee shop (in the lobby), and walked to the Toasted Monkey one night for drinks, grouper sandwiches, and key lime pie. If you’re walking in this area, it’s a lot better to walk through the neighborhoods (there’s way more foot traffic too) than along the strip. The second night we managed to get an Uber down to Pass-a-Grille to see if we liked that area any better and WE DID. That’s where we ended up most nights for the rest of the trip.
For the last three nights of the trip, we moved down to the Don Cesar Hotel and I can 100% say it’s THE place to stay in St Pete Beach. It’s only about 1.5 miles south, but it’s a WORLD AWAY. We honestly didn’t ever care to leave. We spent every day at the pool (early morning walks on the beach) and ventured down to Pass-a-Grille (it’s an easy 1.5 mile walk down the beach) every night except for one when we ate at the Society Table (the casual restaurant at the Don Cesar).
So as you can see, we honestly didn’t do too much besides the beach and the pool, but I’ve done a ton of research (and talked with so many locals and visitors) and compiled a pretty good list of things to do in St Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach (including things I want to do next time).
So far starters, here are the things you can do anywhere in the St Pete and Clearwater Beach area:
THE BEACH: This is why you came, right? The sand along these islands is super soft, super white, and very inviting. It’s not hard to spend days just doing the beach and all that involves.
Shelling: I was pleasantly surprised by how good the shelling was in St Pete. Now, it’s nowhere near as good as the big Florida hotspots (looking at you, Sanibel!), but for the casual sheller, I thought there was a pretty good variety. The early bird definitely gets the worm!
Watersports: All up and down the beaches (concentrated in areas in front of the big resorts usually) are stands that advertise parasailing, jet skiing, banana boat rides, etc.
And now, onto the specifics:
Things to Do in St Pete Beach
Pass-a-Grille:This quickly became my favorite area on St Pete Beach. This community at the southern end of the island largely has a residential feel and it couldn’t be more night and day from the rest of St Pete Beach. Even if you’re not staying down here, you’ll at least want to spend an evening in the area. Most of the best meals of our trip were in downtown Pass-a-Grille. Dewey’s at the Berkeley Beach Club is a MUST and Grace was also very good. The Hurricane Seafood Restaurant has an amazing rooftop bar that has good drinks and appetizers. Also, getting ice cream from Paradise Sweets is a town tradition. I strongly recommend getting your ice cream BEFORE sunset as the line gets really long after. Everyone gathers in front of the Paradise Grill (and along the beach) for sunset every night (there’s usually a lot of cheering!). There are several shops on 8th Street but they all close at 5 so go earlier if you’re wanting to check them out. I also think Shaner’s Market is a don’t miss if you’re staying in the area. They make sandwiches to go (perfect for a picnic!) and in addition to a small grocery selection it’s probably one of the best places to get meat (including seafood) on the island.
Shell Key: If you’re a big sheller, you’ll definitely want to do a tour that takes you to the secluded barrier island of Shell Key. It’s only accessible by boat. You can either arrange a private tour, take the public shuttle, or go on a kayak tour. This was the #1 thing I wanted to do, but I waited too long to book it and everything was sold out. Check out this kayak tour and this private boat tour. Or you can book the Shell Key Shuttle here.
Egmont Key State Park: This scenic barrier island just 1.5 miles south of Fort De Soto State Park is a national wildlife refuge and a popular day trip from St Pete Beach. It’s only accessible by boat and most of the year has good conditions for fishing, shelling, and snorkeling. Book a tour to explore the island here.
Dolphin Cruises: There are so many dolphins in the area around Tampa Bay so dolphin cruises are a super popular thing to do. Pretty much wherever you’re staying along St Pete Beach will have a boat that picks you up right on the beach to take you out for a spin. Some even go around sunset. Book this dolphin cruise that also includes a snorkeling stop.
Fort De Soto State Park: This popular state park is comprised of five small islands at the south end of St Pete Beach. It is accessible by car. In addition to a beautiful beach, you can rent canoes or kayaks (watch out for manatees!), fish from the pier, bike the park’s paved 7 mile trail (regular bike rentals as well as 8 seater Surrey bikes are available), or even visit the historic fort and museum. The fishing pier is also a launching point for boat or kayak tours to nearby Egmont Key.
Shopping: I’m not a mega shopper (I’m picky!) and overall I wasn’t too impressed with the shopping in St Pete Beach, but I’ve got to tell you about Betty Shop. Right next door to the Postcard Inn (the first place I stayed) is the CUTEST shop. Not a cheesy souvenir in sight…this shop was reminiscent of the type of boutiques I like in Hawaii. Definitely worth a stop.
Things to Do in Downtown St Pete
Go to a Museum: If you’re looking for some culture, you need something to do on a rainy day, or you’re just a “museum person,” St Petersburg has some truly world class museums to keep you busy. I really wanted to visit the Dali Museum on this trip (especially since they had the traveling Van Gogh Alive experience), but I waited too long and couldn’t get tickets (story of the trip!). Also in the area (and very much worth checking out) are the Florida Holocaust Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, and the Chihuly Collection.
Go to a Tampa Bay Rays Game: If you’re a baseball fan, there’s nothing more fun than going to a Rays game! They play in a dome so even if it’s a rainy day you’re guaranteed some fun.
Shopping: I didn’t get to check out downtown St Pete, but I’m told the area to head to is Central Avenue. For everything. Also, the Saturday Morning Market is worth checking out.
St Pete Pier: The big thing I didn’t love about St Pete Beach is there was nowhere to really hangout after dark (besides a bar), but if you have a car and can get to St Pete Pier I think it’s probably the perfect place! Plenty of restaurants, outdoor art exhibits, splash pads and playgrounds, a fishing dock, and a lot of waterfront walking make this new state of the art attraction definitely worth visiting.
St Pete Shuffleboard Club: Sounds funny, but this looked like one of the coolest things to do in St Pete. They were limiting guests due to COVID when I went, but it’s at the top of my list next time I’m in the area. It’s the oldest (and biggest) shuffleboard club in the world and on Friday nights (this was pre-COVID and it hasn’t resumed yet) it’s open to the public. While shuffleboard is usually synonymous with the retired set, throw in a partnership with the brewery next door and it’s become an ironic turned hip weekly event that 200+ people turn up for. It’s something that seems like it could only happen in Florida. Keep an eye on their reopening date for public events.
Sunken Gardens: The Sunken Gardens are the classic roadside attraction in the area. The gardens are over 100 years old! Admission is $12/adult and $6/child.
Things to Do in Clearwater Beach
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a major attraction, but what makes it special is its strong roots in the rescue, rehabilitation, and (when possible) release of marine life. The aquarium’s most famous resident is Winter, a dolphin who was rescued from a crab trap when she was just a couple of months old. Not able to survive on her own, she’s most notable for her prosthetic tail! You can meet Winter (as well as two other rescue dolphins) as well as take guided tours around Clearwater Bay here.
Honeymoon Island State Park & Caladesi Island State Park: The next time I come back to this area, I’ve already decided I want to stay in Dunedin so I can check out Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island. You can drive to Honeymoon ($8/car entrance fee), but you can only reach Caladesi via ferry from Honeymoon Island. Supposedly, the beach is better at Caladesi Island.
Favorite Restaurants in St Pete Beach
Dewey: Best meal and overall favorite restaurant of the trip although the main dining room doesn’t have a view. There is a rooftop lounge that serves a cold bar.
Grace: Really enjoyed their patio. Solid cocktail menu. Loved the homemade pasta.
Hurricane Seafood Restaurant: Great rooftop lounge with typical beach bar drinks and food.
Toasted Monkey: The only spot we really tried farther north up the island. Very lively in the evenings and the best grouper sandwich I had on the trip.
Shaner’s Market: Cute little market to stock up if you’re staying in Pass-a-Grille but they also do made to order sandwiches (breakfast too). Short walk to the beach if you want to do a picnic.
Where to Stay in St Pete Beach & Clearwater
The Don Cesar (St Pete Beach)
TradeWinds (St Pete Beach)
The Coconut Inn (Pass-a-Grille)
Opal Sands (Clearwater Beach)
Sandpearl Resort (Clearwater Beach)