Photos by Dori Arrington
St. Petersburg, Florida
After a conversation with his niece, the author charts a course for the up-and-coming “Burg.”
When my niece Katie said she wanted to move to a cool town after graduating college, I expected the likely candidates to be Austin, Boulder or the Portland of either coast. Imagine my surprise when she said St. Petersburg. “Really?” I replied. “St. Petersburg has so many elderly residents, it’s been called ‘heaven’s waiting room.’” She smartly replied, “Maybe years ago, but not anymore. You should check it out. The ‘Burg’ is a happening place for a lot of young people now.” We had this conversation at an opportune time, as my wife Dori and I were just discussing stops on our winter cruise south. We were nearing Stuart and the entrance to the Okeechobee canal, an easy way to cross from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. We’ve -always liked the calm blue water of Florida’s Gulf Coast, so we -decided to go check out what was happening in the Burg.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Docking at the Safe Harbor, Harborage Marina, we immediately noticed the number of young people at the adjacent University of South Florida campus. On the southern edge of downtown, the campus transformed the neighborhood into a coruscating community of student life. Within a day of arrival, we realized St. Petersburg is one of the most walkable cities we’ve ever visited. They take pedestrian safety seriously: Most crosswalks are equipped with brightly flashing signals that stop vehicle traffic. Cycling is also a popular mode of -transportation around town, made easy by the flat terrain and well-marked bike lanes. There is even a bike shop in town that specializes in folding bikes.
Our first outing was an excursion to Florida’s largest farmers market on Saturday morning. St. Petersburg’s farmers market is more like a large festival with food, crafts and music. We were only -minutes into the market when we saw what Katie meant: This was one of the youngest gatherings we’ve seen anywhere in Florida. It was also apparent that this was a community event. Neighbors greeted each other with an equal number of children and dogs at their side.
The market is held in the parking lot of Al Lang Stadium, the -waterfront home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, St. Petersburg’s professional soccer team. The team has an outreach program to local youth soccer leagues and receives strong community support in return. If soccer isn’t enough to satisfy your sports appetite, just minutes away from downtown you can enjoy Major League Baseball at its best, with the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field. “The Trop” is the only non-retractable domed stadium in Major League Baseball, making it a year-round indoor venue.
Beyond professional sports, St. Petersburg appeals to a diverse set of interests, with art topping the list. For a relatively small town of only 265,000 people, its art galleries and museums rival those of any city in the world. Leading the list is The Dalí, an avant-garde building housing the largest collection (outside of Spain) of Salvador Dalí’s fantastical work. In addition to the Dalí, St. Petersburg also has the largest collection of Dale Chihuly’s glass work outside of his hometown of Seattle. Florida’s Gulf Coast—from Tampa Bay down to Sarasota—has become a Mecca for world-class glass blowers. St. Petersburg leads with Duncan McClellan Studios and the Morean Arts Center. Visitors to each can watch the artists at work.
While glass is probably the premier form of art in St. Petersburg, it’s not what you see the most of. Thanks to open-minded civic and business leaders, once-disparaged graffiti painters have grown to become accomplished outdoor mural artists. Buildings and outdoor structures are emblazoned with color and creativity. Nearly 100 pieces of exhibitionist art decorate the landscape around town. Walking tours to see and learn about the murals, many conducted by the artists themselves, are popular.
Many of Florida’s coastal communities go through a transition in the fall and spring, as retirees come and go from seasonal homes. The towns take on a different feel in winter than in summer. Many businesses are dependent on the winter season when the population peaks. St. Petersburg was at one time a leading community in this lifestyle, but the influx of young professionals with growing families has evened out the seasonal cycle. With a median age around 42, St. Petersburg is one of the youngest towns in Florida. Throughout the year, the sidewalk cafes along Beach Drive are full of diners enjoying the waterfront views and vitality of the nearby shops, galleries and museums.
Young and old alike enjoy the sought-after waterfront living in the peninsula communities of Pinellas County on the western side of Tampa Bay. The adjacent towns of Gulfport, St. Pete Beach, -Clearwater and Dunedin each have a feel of their own, and add to the allure of the greater St. Petersburg area. Sun, water, youthful -energy and artistic creativity make St. Petersburg a must-experience cruising destination.