Forget that musty misconception that downtown St. Petersburg is where the elderly play shuffleboard until they die. Today’s St. Pete, with its burgeoning arts scene, is so lively, interesting and full of hipster cheer that it makes a fun, and certainly convenient, weekend road trip.
The world-class Dali Museum put the city on the international museum map when it opened its present doors on 1-1-11. The architecturally unique museum sits on a serene part of the St. Petersburg bayfront; architect Yann Weymouth of HOK calls the undulating geodesic panels that appear to break through its outer walls, “the glass enigma.” It replaced a nondescript building half its size that since the 1980s had housed the largest collection of the famed Spanish Surrealist’s works outside of Europe. (Google the fascinating story of how the collection came to roost in what was then considered stuffy St. Pete.)
Besides mind-bending masterworks by Dali—stand back a good distance from Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln and you’ll see what we mean—you must not miss the Frida Kahlo exhibit on display there through April 17. It includes some 60 paintings, drawings, personal photographs and film clips of and by the iconic 20th-century Mexican artist. The galleries were packed with visitors when we toured the museum shortly after its opening. To enhance the experience, avail yourself of the audio tour, recorded by none other than actress Susan Sarandon. And take time to snack; we hear raves about the authentic tapas menu on offer in the museum’s Café Gala (named after Dali’s wife and muse).
A mile up Central Avenue, the Morean Art Center and Chihuly Collection have handsome new homes. We browsed through the ground-floor galleries and gift shop, but the real attraction is the permanent collection of works by world-renowned glass master Dale Chihuly. We admit we’d thought Chihuly’s work to be overexposed. But we were blown away (pun intended) by the depth, breadth and beauty of this exquisitely lit collection. Go, go, go. A nice bonus, our ticket got us entry into the hot shop right across the street, where we observed an interesting narrated glassblowing demonstration. (Can’t get enough art glass? Check out the Duncan McClellan Gallery, located in a converted tomato-packing facility in the nearby Warehouse Arts District, which is home to some 200 working artist studios.)
Be sure to look for the 30-plus one-of-a-kind wall murals that have been created by graffiti artists over the last couple of years à la Miami’s Wynwood Walls. The Shine Mural Festival, whose third edition will be in September, celebrates their artistic energy. It recently inaugurated a monthly mural bike tour; visit shineonstpete.com for tickets. And a popular mural walking tour departs Saturday mornings from Florida CraftArts, a statewide nonprofit that champions fine-craft artists through workshops, exhibitions and education. (Nice gallery and gift shop there, too, representing some 200 fine-art crafters from across Florida.)
St. Pete’s downtown music scene is also hopping. The 2,031-seat Mahaffey Theater presents national acts as well as concerts by the Florida Orchestra. The Palladium, an old church converted into an 850-seat hall and an intimate 175-seat “listening room,” hosts affordably priced jazz, blues, even opera and chamber music. Jannus Live, formerly Jannus Landing, is a cool outdoor venue near the bayfront. The State Theatre, a 1920s-era Beaux Arts concert venue, hosts independent acts like former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra and singer-songwriter Sarah Watkins. And the city’s growing craft brewery scene offers live music, too.
We needed a respite after all that art and found it at the majestic Vinoy Renaissance Resort, where we joined the hour-long historic walking tour led by hotel historian Elaine Normile. Opened in 1925 and the place to spend the winter for decades, it was abandoned and left to the elements for 18 years. But the grand Mediterranean Revival hotel underwent a glorious $93 million restoration and reopened in 1992.
Normile pointed out its many Spanish, French, Italian and English architectural influences and recounted stories about the celebrities and politicians who stayed there in its heyday. We couldn’t help thinking about the sad fate of Sarasota’s John Ringling Hotel and what might have been. Afterwards, we dined in the original restaurant, now called Marchand’s, on a sumptuous three-course menu that’s included in the cost of the tour.
Before heading back over the Skyway, we popped into the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, where the eclectic collection includes everything from antiquities to contemporary photography. Imagine our delight when we saw that on exhibit through June 4, with works by Ed Ruscha, Stephen Shore and many more, is The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip. An ideal way to wrap up our road trip to a wonderfully art-filled destination.