Trip Report: Exploring Tampa, Clearwater & St. Pete

July 3, 2020

Love St. Pete posts? Check out my other trip reports here & here!

My love affair with FL stems from my childhood and the numerous summers spent visiting family down there (Miami, Delray & Ft. Lauderdale just to name a few), as well as the obligatory trip to Disney any time we even set foot in the state. I love the beaches, the theme parks, the crystal springs, the palm trees (kind of obsessed with them), and yes, the heat (I will gladly take 365 days of boob sweat if it means I don't have to suffer through 4-5 months of cold weather). So naturally, FL is without a doubt, always my #1 destination of choice. There are lots of wonderful towns to explore, pristine sugar sand beaches to visit, and old cities steeped in rich history (I see you, St. Augustine)! But somehow, St. Pete has become one of our favorite places to vacation (this was our 3rd summer in a row) so a few weeks ago, my family & I roadtripped it down for a weeklong stay, which got rescheduled 3 times & almost didn't happen, due to the-virus-that-shall-not-be-named.

We love this area of FL because it has some of the best beaches and is pretty centrally located to lots of other fun cities & beach towns. Downtown St. Pete has a really cool & funky vibe, with a small town feel, and I could 100% see myself moving there one day (soon...if I get my way! But those who know me also know that I've been trying to make this my reality for years now).

Our first stop was Tampa. We had a few hours to kill while waiting for my sister-in-law's flight to arrive, so we posted up at Sparkman's Wharf, a cute waterfront shopping/entertainment/dining spot (jerk grouper sandwich? Yes, pelase)! There's a huge outdoor space and beer garden as well, so naturally, we had our first official drink of vacation here. Also: cute mural with the GPS coordinates!

For accommodations, we booked a 2 bedroom condo in Indian Rocks Beach, just 45 minutes west of Tampa. If we were going to the beach for a week, then I wanted to be on the beach for a week - like "step out onto my balcony and, boom, the ocean is right there" kind of be-on-the-beach. And thus it was so. I put one foot in that sand and I was home (cue *Knee Deep by Zac Brown Band*)

One of our must-do's on every St. Pete trip is to visit the Don CeSar (aka the Pink Palace). It's a gorgeous pink hotel built in 1928 that has been a WWII hospital, an Air Force recovery center, the regional office for the Department of Veteran Affairs, and finally back to the glorious hotel it is today (after a multi-million dollar renovation). Isn't she pretty?

Be sure to walk out to the beach and stop for a photo on the swing! This just had "Instagram" written all over it (thus, a husband's worse nightmare).

Something new we did on this trip was a visit to Sawgrass Lake Park where you can walk through one of the largest maple swamps on the Gulf Coast. There's a mile-long boardwalk, leading up to an observation tower. This place was quintessential FL (swampy/marshy areas and tons of plant & animal life), and we even spotted a baby gator! We didn't see the mama gator, but I'm sure she was eyeballing us pretty hard from her secret hiding spot.

After playing naturalist, we needed libations (the heat & humidity were starting to take their toll). The Getaway was the perfect spot to grab some drinks since it's right on the water. This place is a mood. When I think of the perfect beachy FL restaurant, this is basically what I'm envisioning: pastel Adirondack chairs & beach umbrellas, gorgeous waterfront views, tiki huts, and strong colorful drinks!

Ok I'm gonna take a sidenote here to talk about one of my other loves (ya know, besides FL): coffee. Obviously, it's not a real trip unless I explore some local coffee shops, and we did plenty of that on our trip. Some notable stops I recommend checking out:

Ok, now that I have regaled you with my coffee adventures, let's move on to downtown St. Pete! This city is way into art and there is a mural painted on just about every building you spot. I was kind of at the mercy of a toddler, so we weren't about to go driving around town looking for an obscure mural I saw on Instagram (though I have 100% done that before...), so I just kind of stopped at some along the way when the opportunity presented this one! Giant peacock on the side of a building? Ok, I can work with that!

One of my favorite areas of downtown St. Pete is Central Ave. There are lots of little shops, cafes & restaurants dotted along this street (Instalife tip: the "You Are My Sunshine" mural is around here). We grabbed lunch at Bodega, which I highly recommend. We ate there last year when we visited, so I already knew it was a must-do again. The lechon is literally like buttery pork heaven in my mouth & it's some of the most authentic & fresh Cuban cuisine I've had.

Next, we popped in to the Hyppo for popsicles since it was pretty hot and any time I'm in FL, I have to get one. I wish we had this chain in TN but for now, I'll just keep dreaming of the coconut lime popsicle.

So now, let's talk day trips. Like I mentioned before, where we were staying in Indian Rocks is pretty close to all of these other cities & towns. Honeymoon Island & Caladesi Island had both been recommended to us a few times, so we knew we would be checking out those beaches, and we went through the cutest little beach town to get there: Dunedine, FL.

Find this mural down by the marina!
One really cool thing about this town is the myriad of oranges painted everywhere! I kept seeing oranges on the front/sides/bottoms of buildings (literally everywhere) and wondered what the story was behind it. The oranges were all painted by artist Steve Spathelf, who was inspired by fruit crate labels and spearheaded the Dunedine Orange Festival, to pay homage to the town's history and ties to the citrus industry. Since the first festival years ago, there are now close to 200 orange murals painted around town, and it's become somewhat of a game to find them all! I had a lot of fun just hunting for them in the areas we visited (& trust me, it's not hard - these cuties are everywhere)!

We couldn't leave Dunedine without doing 2 things: sampling some beers from the oldest microbrewery in FL and trying a local restaurant. So we made a stop to Dunedine Brewery (bless places that have outdoor seating) and really enjoyed our brews.

Not far from Dunedine Brewery, we stumbled upon Happpy's Bayou Bites, a cute little walk-up trailer serving delicious Cajun & low country cuisine. All of the dining here is al fresco (but all shaded!) and they even had live music. We ordered the hush puppies and meat pies to snack on & both were delicious! Next time I'm definitely trying the gumbo.

The last blurb on today's epically long blog post is about a place I had previously mentioned in my other Clearwater post, which is Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. This place is 100% free to the public, which is always a bonus, but leave a donation if you can! Seabird Sanctuary is a nonprofit that focuses on the rehabilitation and release of various species of injured and orphaned birds (pelicans, owls, and turkey vultures just to name a few). Be sure to walk all the way back, as there's an observation tower with some great views of the ocean. There's also a cute (instaworthy) pathway that leads to the beach.

Ok, I know what you're probably thinking: um, so, where's all the beach posts? Did you even go to the beach? Yes, yes we did - a lot! But there was too much to unpack on that subject so I thought the beach discussion deserved it's own separate post. So stay tuned for the best beaches in the St. Pete/Clearwater area, coming up next!!


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