Why St. Petersburg, Florida, Is A Family Destination You Can’t Miss

The Don CeSar at sunset.

Known as “The Sunshine City,” St. Petersburg is a must for your next Florida family road trip. This artsy, funky, beach-loving city in Tampa Bay has it all — culture, art, thrills, nature. We’re talking award-winning beaches, trend-setting food and so many museums that you’re sure to find a new favorite.

Plus, St. Pete’s prime location on the Gulf Coast makes it ideal for a family road trip. Here’s just a taste of what makes St. Pete the ultimate must-see for your Florida bucket list.

Egmont Key

This is how it all started. I took one look at photos of Egmont Key and said, “We have to go here.”

You’ll need a boat to get to this pristine island off the southwestern tip of Tampa Bay. Luckily, Hubbard’s Marina offers convenient ferry service, a half-hour trip that often includes some historic narration and a chance for wildlife watching, making it part of the fun.

But even though the ride was cool, the real treat is the island. It has crowd-free beaches, great shelling, a lighthouse, and the ruins of historic Fort Dade. Any of these things on its own would be enough to make the trip worthwhile, but combined, it’s a bucket-list item.

The ferry leaves from Fort De Soto Park, yet another award-winning St. Petersburg beach, so save time to explore the fort ruins there as well. Hubbard’s also offers ferry service to Shell Key. Either of these trips, especially with Fort De Soto added on, make for a full day.

Fort Dade on Egmont Key.

Best Breakfast: The Wooden Rooster

But first, breakfast. If you’re starting your day in St. Pete, The Wooden Rooster is the place to go. The kids will love the pancrepe with maple syrup. You can get more creative. Maybe Norwegian-style with smoked salmon or Portuguese with black forest ham. Or indulge in the Berrylicious: lightly sweet, fluffy ricotta, generous on the berries. Wash it down with an iced pistachio latte. Pure bliss.

The Berrylicious crepe at The Wooden Rooster is the best way to start your morning in St. Pete.

If you’re not feeling breakfasty, there’s a caprese, apple melt, reuben, enchilada, and much more. I recommend the Philly—plenty of asiago yet not greasy. Order any of these all day long on a crepe, baguette, or 9-grain bread.

Location: Primo. You’re a stone’s throw from St. Pete’s famous waterfront. We found free parking.

Where to Eat at the Saturday Morning Market

If you’re in St. Pete between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Saturday from October to May, you have to stop by the Saturday Morning Market. It’s known as one of the best in the country, featuring live music, over 100 vendors, and an array of incredible food.

One such incredible dining option is The Twisted Indian. We’re so glad we found this food truck that serves up mouthwatering rice bowls, curritos (burritos, but better), and more fusion cuisine.

We tried the chicken tikka masala naanwich and lamb korma currito and loved both. The naan was soft, slightly chewy, and fresh, just as it should be. The korma was covered in a rich blend of spices that absolutely made the dish—it’ll have you licking the container.

A chicken naanwich from The Twisted Indian for an impromptu picnic at the Sunken Gardens.

Light or picky eaters? Try the yogi fries, and get the toppings on the side so they can choose their own adventure. And the mango smoothie is always a winner. They also have a kids menu and are opening a permanent location on Central Avenue in St. Pete in 2021. Visit their website for the latest.

St. Pete Pier

At 26 acres, the St. Pete Pier is the Southeast’s largest waterfront district, and as you might expect, there’s lots to do. There’s a weekend market, five restaurants, a beach, nature trail, fishing deck, loads of public art and prime boat-watching. You might even catch a pop-up performance. We saw a dance show.

The St. Pete Pier, courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.

Highlights for families include:

Playground by Earthscape: A natural-looking design with creative play areas for all ages.

Splash Pad: An open fountain that will delightfully douse you if you wish. It even lights up at night.

Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center: Educational and interactive exhibits, including a touch tank, to help you discover the surrounding ecosystem. When you visit, you may see seahorses dance or feel a crab’s empty exoskeleton. It’s pretty wild, and the folks who work here are experts and enthusiasts, thrilled to answer any fishy question you might throw at them.

The playground at the St. Pete Pier, courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.

The Dalí Museum

Also on the waterfront is The Dalí Museum. Their current exhibition, “Van Gogh Alive,” is a stunner, a floor-to-ceiling installation sure to mesmerize young and old alike.

Their “family mustache tour” on the museum app gives kids a way to connect with the art, and the outdoor sculpture garden is a great option when you need to break for a meal and sunshine.

Don’t miss the chance to talk to Dalí himself (and get a selfie with him) through the magic of AI.

Dali’s mustache made larger than life in the sculpture garden.

 

Where to Play: Outerlife Studios

Outerlife Studios is rated one of the top escape games in the world. (They’re currently at #7 nationally and #12 globally, if you’re curious.) I visited and can tell you the ratings are right. It’s immersive, surprising and challenging in the best of ways.

Each game requires teamwork to solve the puzzles and “escape” from your room before time runs out. What sets this place apart is the theming, special effects and intricate puzzles. The rooms feel as detailed as movie sets, and the variety of challenges means everyone has a part to play, and you’ll still be talking about escaping—or not—on the drive back home. It’s a great option for something a little different, and it even shows you how you work as a team, which is pretty cool, too.

As far as ages go, you know your kid best, but they do share recommended ages for each room. For example, Hero League, where you’re taking on a villain named Cyber Titan, is 6+, while Scorched, with its darker theme and special effects, is better for those 10 or older.

Coming soon: They’re building more rooms now, so check back to see what they’ve dreamed up next.

Best GF and Vegan Meal: Love Food Central

Near Outerlife Studios is one of the best vegan restaurants you’ll find. Better still, it’s all gluten-free. Welcome to Love Food Central.

Right off Central Avenue, this cafe is also close to Imagine Museum and Spitfire Comedy House (see below). Be sure to snap pics of murals along the way.

When it’s time to order, you can’t go wrong with the Awesome Burger, a bean and beet burger that lives up to its name: hearty, rich and all the better for being slathered in their signature spicy Awesome Sauce. There’s also soups, wraps (BBQ jackfruit — yum), bagels, and creative sandwiches like buffalo tempeh. But oh, the desserts! Check out their fresh daily selection, such as the decadent carmelita bar or a cream-free yet creamy pie. You can even top it with cashew coconut soft serve.

The delicious, vegan and gluten-free Awesome Burger with potato salad.

Spitfire Comedy House

Spitfire Comedy House is where locals go to get their laugh on. It’s generally recommended for the 18+ crowd, though if you have older teens, then the Friday night sketch comedy show “Love Hacktually” or the improv extravaganza “Whose Line St. Pete” are slightly more tame. We saw the latter and it was a great way to wrap up our day in St. Pete: lots of laughs, a great host, and a chance to shout out crazy inspiration for spontaneous, zany skits.

This place is also great for a date night because, let’s be honest, even on family road trips, it’s nice to have an adults-only break. If you’re leaving the kids, consider Disney on the Rocks. This edgy, musical satire answers the question: What happens when it ain’t all “happily ever after”?

Peter Pan and a few other rowdy Disney characters at Spitfire Comedy House, courtesy of Spitfire Comedy House.

Imagine Museum

A glass art museum isn’t the first place I’d think to take kids, and no, this place probably isn’t one for toddlers. But anyone old enough to know to look and not touch will be utterly spellbound.

The exhibits at Imagine Museum seem to push the boundaries of what glass can create. You’ll see it in every shape, style and subject: painted, blown, glowing, reflecting, flowers, aliens, abstract. Imagine Museum is just a mile down the road from the Chihuly Collection. We liked both but had more fun at this one.

They even have a scavenger hunt twice a month, free with admission, where kids can find mystery creatures scattered about the museum.

Glass globes at the Imagine Museum.

Pacific Counter

If you do walk (or drive) down Central Avenue to the Chihuly Collection, you’ll pass by a ton of eateries, and you’ll be hard-pressed to know which one to choose. Keep going one more block and stop. You’ve found Pacific Counter.

A seafood bowl at Pacific Counter.

What we love about this build-your-own bowl or burrito spot is its fresh coastal flavors. You can always opt for barbecue chicken, but it’s hard to when there’s tuna, salmon, calamari, and shrimp. I liked the krab salad best. And the toppings have the same West Coast fusion spin: Hawaiian salsa, edamame, kimchi, wonton crisps. I topped my bowl with mango chunks, coconut flakes, scallions, carrots, and portobellos.

It’s so healthy, you can indulge in a Dole Whip at the end and feel good about it. And it makes for a great grab-and-go picnic to enjoy at the stunning waterfront Vinoy Park or the Sunken Gardens.

Sunken Gardens

An oasis in the middle of the city, Sunken Gardens dates back over a century, best-loved for its tropical blooms and flock of flamingos. There are parrots, too, and you might even get one to speak if someone in your group keeps saying hello to them. (No guarantees, but it worked for us.)

Parking is free, and picnics are welcome with plenty of tables and wide open lawns, depending on your dining preference.

Bonus: The gardens are right next-door to the Great Explorations Children’s Museum, an interactive destination for little learners.

Flamingos and one non-flamingo at the Sunken Gardens.

The Don CeSar

Where should you stay in St. Pete? Here are some options, but wherever you choose, there’s one hotel you can’t miss: The Don CeSar.

The famous Pink Palace isn’t exactly a budget option, but this 1920s landmark features its own private beach, a spa, a pool that overlooks the ocean, and the chance to catch glorious sunsets since you’re facing due west. It’s family-friendly and luxurious at the same time.

You don’t have to stay there to take a peek at the splendor. Visit one of their restaurants or just stop into Uncle Andy’s Market for some homemade ice cream.

The Don CeSar at sunset.

About the Author

Cheryl Rodewig is storyteller, marketer, and award-winning feature writer specializing in travel. Her Venn diagram includes minimalism, waterfalls, French, and the em dash. Find her at cherylrodewig.com or on Twitter at @cherylrodewig.


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