TRAVEL TIPS: VACATIONING IN ORLANDO FLORIDA? POP OVER TO ST PETERSBURG!
Are you planning a vacation to Orlando, Florida to visit Disney World, Epcot Center or Sea World? Got some spare days you’re not sure what to do with?
Or maybe after you’re in Orlando for a few days you’ll become exhausted and overwhelmed by the bustling Theme Parks and need to escape for 1-2 days to real life and a quieter location. Orlando’s dazzling world class attractions can be thrilling but, let’s face it, it’s a completely artificial environment that can become rather exhausting at times. If you find yourself screaming for a brief escape from the madness or you already know you want to mix up your vacation a bit, here’s my suggestion:
Go visit nearby St Petersburg, just a 2-hour drive from Orlando.
Why St Petersburg?
* Beaches, Museums and Galleries, Ethnic Restaurants, Boutiques, Fresh Markets, Historic Hotels and Homes
* Easy access by a 2-hour scenic drive through subtropical landscapes and over stunning Tampa Bay Bridge, affording gorgeous views.
Art and Museums
St Petersburg has been nominated 2 years in a row (2010-2011) as America’s #1 mid-size city for the arts. There’s good reason: Two special world-class museums are located in St Pete, namely, The Dali Museum and Chihuly Glass Collection. In addition, the local art scene is simply thriving, with dozens of art galleries and studios with artists making everything from paintings to glass works to pottery and ceramics to furniture, woodwork, and metal sculptures. Throughout the year, several art festivals are held, showcasing both locals and artists from all over the country in blocks’ long festivals.
If you’re looking for beaches, St Petersburg offers the closest Gulf Coast beaches to Orlando. Downtown St Pete actually has a small beach on Tampa Bay. It’s backed by a miles-long, lush coastal park. Larger Florida beaches on the Gulf are located just a further 30 minutes from town at St Pete Beach, Treasure Island, and Pass-A- Grille. All are graced with super-fine, powdery white sand and warm seas.
Saturday Morning Market
Every week St Pete’s famous Saturday Morning Market opens early and stays festive until late afternoon. It’s the largest fresh market in the entire US Southeast. On offer are fresh fruits and vegetables, gourmet cooked meals, bakery breads and desserts, art, imported and handmade clothes, cheeses, and plants. Market visitors are serenaded by bands, which kick off about 10 am and play until closing time. The market is extremely popular with locals, who gather to socialize, browse, eat, stock up on gourmet groceries, and walk their dogs. There are so many leashed dogs that it’s practically a dog meet.
St Pete boasts authentic food from all over the world. Downtown you’ll find Thai, Japanese, Indian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants. All employ chefs from the original countries. That makes for delicious cuisine. Of course you’ll also find pizza, standard American food, seafood, and cafes.
Historic Hotels and Homes
St Pete is one of Florida’s first towns, with its roots at the turn of the century. Dotted around town are many splendid historic buildings such as the open air post office, the grand homes of the Northeast District, bungalow homes, and the famous turn-of-the-century Vinoy Hotel, which sits proudly along Tampa Bay.
Getting from Orlando to St Pete
Driving from Orlando, it’s a straight shot on I-4, southwestward, for 2 hours. After passing through pretty Florida interior scenery, you’ll drive straight through Tampa city then over the spectacular Tampa Bay Bridge into St Pete, which is situated just on the other side of Tampa Bay. While crossing the bridge, you’ll have magnificent sweeping views of the bay, complete with boats and beaches.
I definitely advise against flying between Orlando and St Pete. There are no direct commercial flights between the two cities. Despite their close distance to each other, a flight would entail a connection in New York, Miami or another Florida city. So a flight would actually take longer than driving, plus cost you a bundle of money. After all that, you’d actually end up at Tampa Airport, not St Pete! From there you’d have to take a taxi, bus or rental car to St Pete. Much easier, faster, and cheaper to drive.
Planning Your Trip
If you’ve decided to combine your Orlando vacation with a trip to St Pete, which city should you visit first? Should you first go to St Pete and then Orlando, or visa versa?
I’d recommend flying into Orlando and then driving to St Pete, rather than visa versa. Why?
Flights to Orlando and flights to St Petersburg are pretty equivalent in terms of frequency and price from most destinations. But flying into Orlando offers a couple other advantages.
First of all, flights to St Pete actually arrive at Tampa International Airport, St Pete’s sister city across Tampa Bay, as I mentioned above. You don’t actually end up in St Petersburg! Although Tampa is only a 20-30 minute drive across the bay, it’s still an extra leg of the voyage, and you’d have to either take a taxi or rent a car.
Secondly, if you’re heading to Orlando, you can take advantage of many package deals that include both airfare and hotels. If you’re staying at one of the Walt Disney World resorts, packages include transfers to/from the airport. Much more convenient.
Besides, I presume you’re primarily headed to Walt disney World and/or other Orlando Theme Parks, and adding a shorter side trip elsewhere. So it makes sense to base yourselves in Orlando. However, if St Petersburg’s many charms sound enticing, you could opt to spend a week relaxing at St Pete’s art scene, museums, and beaches. You could stay at the magnificent Vinoy Hotel or one of St Pete’s charming Bed n Breakfasst. Then take a shorter 1-2 day trip up to Orlando. Your call, really.
If you’d like to learn more about St Pete, check out some of my other articles: