Soak up culture, beach vibes and seafood in the Sun Coast.
The region of western Florida that contains the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg is nicknamed the Sun Coast for good reason: It clocks the most days of sunshine per year in the Sunshine State.
Despite the omnipresence of vitamin D, though, and the fact that Tampa is the third most populous city in Florida, this sun-soaked oasis is still relatively underrated when compared to more well-trodden travel destinations in the state like South Beach, Orlando and the Keys. But in addition to a particularly bucolic beachfront in St. Pete, this Gulf Coast locale is an epicenter of culture, cuisine, wildlife, historic architecture and all-around fun.
Where to Stay
It’s not too often one gets the opportunity to stay in a hallowed property so ornate and distinct that its nickname is the “Pink Palace.” Rising like a pastel-hued beacon over St. Pete Beach, The Don CeSar celebrated its 95th anniversary at the beginning of 2023, following a 2021 aesthetic renovation across its 227 guest rooms and suites, as well as its six restaurants, shops, two pools, sprawling spa and two-story penthouse.
Managed by Davidson Resorts, the aptly palatial abode is so legendary that it’s hosted the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in 1989 it joined the National Trust’s elite Historic Hotels of America roster. To stay here is true luxury, complete with swanky fine dining at Maritana, posh pools and frozen cocktails on the beach delivered by servers to private cabanas.
For something more metropolitan, hole up at Midtown Tampa, a new urban development in the heart of Tampa. The sleek 20-acre complex is anchored by a smattering of restaurants, shops, outdoor entertainment and boutique hotels. While The Don CeSar reigns as a classic, Element Tampa Midtown is a hip newcomer that puts guests in the heart of an exciting new neighborhood while still being mere minutes from downtown attractions.
The hotel has more of a residential vibe designed to make guests feel like locals, with spacious and well-appointed rooms and suites, a rooftop pool and restaurant, a 24-hour fitness center and living room-like common areas equipped with kitchens and couches. Most uniquely, the Element brand partnered with sustainably minded Lettuce Grow to enhance its food with fresh herbs and greens, using recipes provided by equally sustainably minded and Michelin-starred chef Sammy Monsour.
Where to Play
Between the urban amenities of Tampa and the coastal treasures of St. Petersburg, the Sun Coast offers a luminous array of attractions to energize any visit.
In Tampa, start with a scenic stroll along the 2.6-mile Riverwalk, a paved pathway that runs along the Hillsborough River and links restaurants, businesses, outdoor art and museums en route. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for Tampa’s most famed aquatic residents: manatees. Even if you don’t see any in the river, just pay a visit to ZooTampa. Located in pastoral Lowry Park, the zoo is not only home to underwater viewing areas but also a nonprofit rehabilitation center for injured manatees.
Elsewhere, Tampa offers opportunities for old tradition and new innovations. For the former, historic Ybor City boasts an iconic thoroughfare of Cuban cigar shops and restaurants along 7th Avenue, along with the Ybor City Museum that delves deeper into the region’s cigar industry from inside a ’20s-era Cuban bakery. On the newer side of things, Sparkman Wharf is a veritable waterfront playground teeming with events, bars, a beer garden, shops, a bowling alley and restaurants both casual and sophisticated — all alongside a huge lawn and the Ybor Channel.
In St. Pete, the star attraction is St. Pete Beach, famed for its sugary white sands, crystal-clear waters and miles of prime seashore. While there are numerous sections and access points, particularly popular spots include Upham Beach Park for family fun or Jimmy B’s Beach Bar for tropical cocktails, daily live entertainment and seafood snacks like shrimp skewers and fish tacos.
On the opposite side of the barrier island, jutting out into Tampa Bay like a boardwalk behemoth, the St. Pete Pier is a mecca for skyline views (especially stunning at sunset), dining, drinking and entertainment, including outdoor art installations and concerts sprawled across 26 manicured acres of lawn. For the little ones, the Discovery Center and Wet Classroom is an opportunity to learn hands-on about local aquatic life.
For a different kind of gallery experience, swing by The Dalí Museum, mere blocks from the pier. A slice of Surrealism in the heart of St. Pete, the enthralling museum houses myriad works created and inspired by the distinguished Spanish artist, including one painting of his famed melting clocks, and exhibits that use artificial intelligence to take guests on a tour of his life by the artist himself.
Where to Eat and Drink
Rest assured, the beach bar scene on the Sun Coast is about as toe-tapping as it gets. But beyond piña colada-slinging staples like Jimmy B’s Beach Bar and Undertow Beach Bar, there’s a wealth of flavors worth exploring in this low-key foodie mecca.
In St. Pete, casual beach bars are contrasted by high-end hot spots such as Allelo, a gorgeously designed Aegean restaurant piling plates with salsa-clad branzino, eggplant with citrus yogurt, snapper crudo and octopus with romesco and chicharrón.
The cocktails at Allelo, as well as at other restaurants like Maritana at The Don CeSar, are top-tier, but the St. Pete brewery scene is booming in its own right. Case in point: the effortless coolness of Green Bench Brewing Company, a downtown watering hole that crafts a unique portfolio of beers, ciders and even mead, pouring it all out in an industrial-chic taproom with a tropical patio.
In Tampa, the city continues to prove the enduring synergy of the old and the new. It’s the kind of hungry food town where historic fixtures are just as revered as the buzzy newcomers. For instance, Gaspar’s Grotto is an Ybor City icon that does kitsch with class. Flanked by cigar shops and mojito bars, with wild roosters roving the spacious patio, the pirate-themed bar and restaurant is a fun fixture for Cuban sandwiches, shrimp-filled quesadillas and medallion-shaped chicken doubloons.
Meanwhile, The Pearl is a newly minted modern tavern in downtown Tampa’s Water Street district, shining bright with oysters and seafood dishes from executive chef Olivia Giesler. A modern tavern, the restaurant is convivial and polished, offering a crowd-pleasing spread of smoked whitefish, jalapeño corn spoon bread, clam chowder, Thai curry mussels, fish and chips and much more.