That museum turned out to be a perfect start to a three-day getaway in St. Petersburg, Fla., where I knew I’d find lots of sun and sand — but also discovered an abundance of vibrant and surprising art.
Doubly so at the Salvador Dalí Museum (thedali.org), a waterfront gem devoted to the eclectic career of the world-renowned painter Salvador Dali. The Spanish surrealist is as famous for his trippy dreamscapes and melting clocks as he is for his kooky signature curlicued mustache.
It felt just right, then, that the museum boasts dramatic twists and curveballs of its own — both inside and out. Cookie cutter, it’s not.
A massive wavelike bubble made from more than a thousand triangular pieces of glass envelop the exterior walls, which are 18-inch thick hurricane-proof concrete.
Inside, a sinuous spiral staircase leading to second- and third-floor galleries celebrates Dali’s famous mania for the molecular shape of DNA.
So there’s eye candy galore before you even hit an exhibit. But of course, I still had to take in some of the 96 oil paintings, plus drawings, prints, photographs or videos and curios here that were done by Dali before his death in 1989 at age 84.
It all adds up to one of the most acclaimed collections of a lone modern artist in the world.
So I wondered, what’s it doing in St. Pete? Long story short: Ohio-based husband and wife collectors Reynolds and Eleanor Morse bought their first Dali in 1943 — “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope!” — a work that spoke of war and optimism. Bit by bit, the couple built a world-class collection.
When they announced in the 1970s that they were looking for a permanent public home for their treasures, St. Pete stepped up — first in 1982 in another space. The more dazzling Dali Museum opened in 2011, and it’s been a destination for art lovers since.
But it’s not alone in this Gulf Coast city. The Chihuly Collection (moreanartscenter.org/chihuly) at the Morean Arts Center offers its own visual feast of modern glass sculptures. American artist Dale Chihuly is one of the most renowned glass artists working today.
A striking array of his large-scale installations are housed here: colorful beach ball-sized spheres inspired by Japanese fishing floats; a delicate and dynamic forest of glass; a cascading chandelier and jumbo blooms gazed at from below through glass.
As I moved with other visitors from room to room, sighs of “Oh wow” and “Ohh” regularly filled the air.
A St. Pete perk: You don’t have to shun the sun to soak up art. Hundreds of murals catch the eye along streets and in alleyways. Since 2015, the annual Shine St. Petersburg Mural Festival (shineonstpete.com) celebrates the popular artform.
Murals, here as in many cities, express artistic statements of every stripe. They run from whimsical (interlocking rainbows) to wild (a shark bares its jaws at passersby) to whatever (a dinosaur in an AARP-sponsored mural). Other murals offer shout-outs to “Lizard King” Jim Morrison, 60s model Twiggy, local artists and even a grinning Mr. Sun, a character created in the late 1940s to promote St. Petersburg.
Fun fact: St. Pete holds the Guinness World Record for logging the most consecutive days of sunshine — 768, starting in 1967.
For more fresh air and a blast of old-school Florida charm, I also visited Sunken Gardens (stpete.org), a living museum. Business has been blooming at the four-acre “botanical experience” since 1935.
Mother Nature’s exhibits, connected by stone paths and small wooden bridges, feature thousands of tropical plants, plus cotton candy-colored flamingos, squawking parrots and orange and gold koi fish swimming lazily in ponds.
A shady little meditation patio in the garden was a good place to chill out. And, let’s be honest, to discuss your next meal. After all, art-gazing works up an appetite. And St. Pete offers tasty ways to satisfy it.
At Ichicoro Ane, a new downtown Japanese-inspired “eating and drinking den,” slurp-worthy ramen dishes rule. The brains here know how to use the old noodle. But small bites like crab-stuffed dumplings, chicken meatball skewers and pork belly-packed steamed buns also rock. “Ane” means older sister and this airy three-month-old restaurant expands upon a smaller flagship shop in nearby Tampa.
Choices for after-dinner drinks are boundless. The city buzzes with watering holes, sports and wine bars and too many craft beer breweries to count. I met family members — recent transplants to the area — and capped our first evening at Room 901 (901 1st Ave S.). It calls itself a “conversation bar” — no TV, loud music, games, just couches, beers and cocktails. The decor gave us something to talk about — donated paperback books doubled as wall coverings.
For lunch the next day, Bodega (eatatbodega.com) beckoned with its Latin street food. I’d heard that lines form early at this small-scale spot on Central Ave. — the eating, shopping and touring main drag. Sure enough, a queue had formed. No matter. The giant platters of slow-roasted pork with rice and plantains; and Cuban-style beef and pork burger crowned by crispy fritas (fries); and the spiky jicama slaw were all worth the wait.
I saved just enough room for a quick and refreshing gourmet ice pop at The Hyppo (thehyppo.com), also on Central Ave. My travel companion and I tried the pineapple upside down cake and creamy walnut flavors. Win-win.
We found more dinnertime delights at the Reading Room (rrstpete.com), where dishes are “wood fired” (including our delicious chicken and steak) and “garden inspired” (fruits and veggies grown on the grounds are used in the kitchen). The delicate brown butter cake was a perfect finale.
Pasta and grilled meats loom large at the bustling and casual FarmTable Cucina (farmtablecucina.com), a modern rustic take on Italian food in downtown St. Pete. Squid ink tagliatelle; and pappardelle with with gulf rock shrimp filled us up. But we couldn’t stop talking about the warm, tender and to-die-for baked-to-order focaccia preceding the mains. “Do you deliver?,” we asked, only half-joking.
And we meant to New York City — not to our hotel in St. Pete Beach. That’s where we began our days with a walk on the beach. We ended them with our eyes fixed on the blazing sunset. Talk about works of art.
If you go…
Fly: Nonstop round-trip flights from LaGuardia to Tampa, a 25-minute drive to St. Pete, begin at around $300.
Stay: The Spanish- and Mediterrean-inspired Kimpton Hotel Zamora (thehotelzamora.com) at St. Pete Beach overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway and Gulf of Mexico. You can slip into the pool for a refreshing dip or the restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Double rooms begin at around $244; suites at $276.
Get sm(art): A guided 90-minute mural tour offers insights to the growing art form. ($19 for adults; FloridaCraftArt.org)
Send a Letter to the Editor