Busch Gardens, The Dali Museum, and The Chihuly Exhibit offered me media rates for my visits. All other expenses – and all opinions – are my own. Some links in this posts are affiliate links.
I’ve been going down to Florida for most of my life. As a kid – and into my 20’s – I went to visit my grandparents in Hallandale, near Ft Lauderdale on the east coast. Pre-Kids, my husband and I used to hit South Beach for the restaurants and fun club scene. I’ve been to Orlando with theme parks and without, and for the past 15 years – I’ve been going to visit my own parents on LongBoat Key near Sarasota on the West Coast of Florida.
I’ve written before about how different LongBoat Key is from the Florida I’d always known before – the east coast. But I’d never before taken the short drive from LongBoat to Visit St. Petes/Clearwater to check it out.
I didn’t know what I was missing.
Our first day we headed to Tampa to spend the day at Busch Gardens. Unlike most amusement parks I’ve been to, other than a small presence by the Muppets, Busch Gardens is blissfully marketing-tie-in free.
It’s not a theme park so much as an amusement park This place is all about the rides. The lack of licensed characters everywhere, and the abundance of plantings and super-close animal exhibits all combine to make a day at Busch Gardens fun and relaxing. (if line filled – lots of long waits!)
Unless you’re planning on mostly hitting the animal experiences (feed giraffes! Get close to the elephants), Busch Garden’s rides are mostly geared towards older kids (they’re kind of scary) but my kids were thrilled, and there was just (just!) enough to keep my friends’ younger one from being bored.
After our day in the park we drove the 20 or so minutes into downtown St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg: Southbeach Quality Restaurants, “Best Family Beach in America” and Shopping without the ‘Tude
St. Pete’s felt like a less frenetic South Beach – lots of restaurants along the water, a serious foodie scene, and plenty of scantily clad women in high heels. But the overall vibe was so much mellower – so NOT see and be seen, that is was a pleasure.
We stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites, a perfectly located hotel that has so clearly been recently renovated, it practically gleamed. For a super reasonable
price, we got a big room with two queen sized beds, a queen sized pull out, warm cookies upon check in, and an abundant free breakfast – including waffles, eggs, fresh fruit and yogurt – the works.
Bonus: The hotel was only a quick walk to the many, many great restaurants and attraction in the area.
Our room wasn’t just super-spacious, it came with that most important amenity: Free Fast Wi Fi. Overall, I was amazed. “Budget friendly” and those kinds of extras don’t usually go together. Between the location, the cleanliness, the professionalism of the staff and the breakfast (there’s even a small pool) I would totally recommend it to anyone. (And just to clarify: my stay was 100% on my own dime. No promotion of any kind. )
Top Quality Eats
We went to the not-inexpensive but worth it Z-Grille for dinner, where our most memorable dish was the seafood nachos, which ROCKED, and where the vibe was accessibly cool. We could have been in downtown NY – but for the MUCH better weather.
In the morning, we walked from the hotel to St. Pete’s wonderful farmer’s market, filled with artisinal treats, organic snacks, baked goods, and more.
World Class Art
The Dali Museum, a spectacular building in and of itself, that houses a giant collection of Salvador Dali’s work. The free tours, led by volunteer docents, start every hour, and our tour guide was super knowledgeable, funny and charming. Even my teenagers were riveted. No small feat.
Dali’s art is odd – and perfect for kids. They can find hidden pictures, and follow the free audio guide designed just for kids, and delineated by a mustache at the featured pieces. The adult audio guide was equally well done – if a bit long winded at times. ( I alternated between listening to the docent and to the guide) Another plus if you’re traveling with kids: the museum is not too big, so by the time they start complaining…you’ll be done!
The Chihuly Exhibition was next on our list. At the Morean Arts Center, the Chihuly exhibit is a small but impressive collection of the glass artist’s work. Colorful, unique and striking, this collection- with it’s magnificent spheres, brightly colored tentacles and colored glass ceilings, is a kid-pleaser. These pictures don’t begin to do it justice. But given it’s size, unless you also take advantage of visiting the Art Center Itself (about two miles away) and seeing or trying the glass blowing or pottery making, the price tag (Adults, $19.95, students $12.95) may feel a bit steep.
Since we only had one full day in St. Petersburg, we didn’t hit the beach, but according to their visitor’s information center, it’s pretty spectacular:
Ft. DeSoto Beach, located off of St. Petersburg’s southern tip, has been named the number one beach in the United States. Named after the historic fort located on the 900-acre county park, visitors can tour the five interconnected islands that comprise the park. More than a beach, Ft. DeSoto includes a year-round county campground, miles of nature trails and paved fitness trails, 2.25 miles of canoe trails, an 800-foot boat launch with floating docks, fishing piers, picnic pavilions with grills, a concession stand and restroom and shower facilities. From the island’s southern shores, visitors enjoy a sweeping panorama of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Still can’t imagine Florida without a certain other theme park? No worries — it’s a quick drive (under two hours) and then you can leave there, and escape to the civil, hip, un-touristy town that is St. Petersburg.
Overall, It was a fabulous day in a charming city…and if you’re planning your next Florida vacation, I highly recommend a visit to St. Petes/Clearwater.