Grab the kids and hit the area sands, piers, parks and shops. You won't believe how many fun things there are to do that cost little to nothing.
The St. Pete/Clearwater area is famous for its award-winning beaches and 361 average days of sunshine, both of which are free! The beach isn't the only thing for vacationers on a budget, though--there are plenty of other free and inexpensive attractions.
You don't need a car to enjoy these activities either. Unlimited GO Cards for buses and trolleys are available for just a few dollars a day and can get you all over the area, from Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach, to Boyd Hill Nature Park in south St. Petersburg.
Downtown St. Petersburg
Head over to the Dali Museum's fantastic new building in downtown St. Petersburg; a game of I-Spy inside the museum is sure to hold the kids captive. Given the surrealist artist's ability to trick the eye, the museum developed a scavenger hunt of sorts for visitors 12 and under. Ask for a checklist as you enter the museum, and challenge kids to find the hidden images and symbols in Dali’s works. Once participants have checked everything off the list, they can turn in the form to receive a surprise.
The Morean Arts Center is also a great family arts destination. They feature a glass hot shop and rotating exhibits ranging from glass plates and mirrors to vases with glass flowers and drawings from gifted local young people. If you get hungry, nearby Central Avenue and the surrounding area offer dozens of bistros and specialty restaurants featuring lunches for less than $10. Some pizza and sandwich shops also have meal specials including drinks for around $6. And you can always stop at a street corner and grab a hot dog or other local fare.
St. Pete Beach / Pass-a-Grille Beach / North Beach
Another great place to start the day is St. Pete Beach, voted TripAdvisor's No. 1 Beach in the U.S. and No. 5 in the world for 2012, based on millions of traveler reviews. At the southern end of the island, Pass-a-Grille Beach offers quiet stretches of beach and a charming historic district. Stroll through this Old Florida community and do some window shopping in one of the art shops. Or, grab an egg sandwich or fruit bowl at one of the local snack shacks or delis and head over to the nearby Merry Pier for breakfast on the water. You can also fish right off the pier--bait, rod and reel rentals are available at the dock.
It's also fun to play off the rich pirate lore of the area and stage a treasure hunt for the kids at nearby Fort De Soto Park, named America's best family beach by Parents magazine in 2011. While the kids are busy splashing in the lagoon formed by a sandbar off of North Beach, you can bury plastic coins and beads in the sand and scrawl out a map directing them to the treasure. Then, let them storm the pirate ship-themed playground adjacent to North Beach, or explore the park’s Spanish American War-era fort.
Savings on Tampa Bay Attractions
If you want to see top attractions around the area but don't want to pay full price, you can save with an advance purchase of CityPASS Tampa Bay. CityPASS gives you a package discount off of regular admission prices to five area attractions, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Chihuly Collection, Busch Gardens, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, and MOSI - the Museum of Science and Industry. Learn more and find out how to purchase your CityPASS Tampa Bay.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
Consider taking a trip to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. This 245-acre award-winning park is located along the shores of Lake Maggiore, and features more than three miles of trails and boardwalks. It is home to an aviary for permanently injured birds of prey, including an eagle, turkey vultures, hawks and owls, as well as numerous kinds of butterflies, alligators and five unique ecosystems. It is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and has an environmental education center with full-size replicas of the inhabitants of Lake Maggiore. It also offers a playground and picnic areas, making this a perfect spot for a family outing. Admission is $3 for adults and only $1.50 for children under 16.
See a Slice of Greece in Tarpon Springs
Head farther north to Tarpon Springs, and you will discover a unique Greek community. Home to the world-famous Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, a plethora of Greek restaurants, and a museum dedicated to the region's sponging industry, you will feel as if you have been transported to Greece itself. Take a leisurely walk around the waterfront or the shopping district and feel free to chat with one of the shop-keepers. They'll gladly explain all the uses and varieties of the sponges they gather, which make great souvenirs and gifts that can be had for only a dollar or two. Make sure you don't leave without seeing St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. This magnificent cathedral is patterned after St. Sophia in Istanbul and features 23 unique stained glass windows and 60 tons of Greek marble.
Nature and History Encounters in Largo
Pinewood Cultural Park in Largo presents an immersive lesson in history and ecology. Bring a video camera to the park's Heritage Village, a collection of historic structures gathered from around the area. You’re likely to find docents inside the circa-1907 House of Seven Gables and the 1950s-era mercantile store, and your aspiring filmmakers, journalists and historians can document their interviews with the docents.
In the adjacent Florida Botanical Gardens, suggest that the artists in the family compose their own field guides. They’ll find numerous specimens to fill their sketchbooks, from the blooming, leafy landscape to the butterfly garden.
Pier 60 Sunset Celebration on Clearwater Beach
Head to Clearwater Beach as the day starts to wind down. It's a great place to watch the sunset and most nights Pier 60 is home to a sunset celebration featuring jugglers, musicians and delicious food. The beach, chosen by USA Today readers as the "Best Beach Town in Florida" in 2013, couldn't be more family friendly. Anglers can cast lines 24/7 off the Pier, and if you are looking for a cheap date, it only costs a dollar to take a walk out to the end of the Pier. Want to take a stroll through paradise? Check out nearby Beach Walk, the palm-lined pedestrian thoroughfare that winds its way southward on Clearwater Beach past ice cream parlors and shops. It's a great place for people-watching too.
American Stage Theatre Company
End your evening at the American Stage Theatre Company in downtown St. Petersburg. This intimate venue puts on a wide variety of professional live plays (both dramas and comedies) in its new 182-seat Raymond James Theatre. The theater offers a full range of drinks and snacks for patrons' enjoyment, and has a courtyard for socializing during intermission. The best part? Many of the shows are performed multiple nights a week as "pay what you can" productions, leaving little reason not to visit this popular little stage.