Your happy vacation "assignment": Make it a quest to visit as many of St. Pete/Clearwater’s museums – and there are dozens – as you can for acclaimed art, cool culture and high-flying history. See masterpieces by Dalí, Picasso and Monet. Find out what a “flying boat” is and the role St. Pete had in its story. See an enormous collection of Western art. Along your journey, keep an eye out for sparkling glass pieces; St. Pete is known as an art glass mecca. Here are some wonderful museums that need to be on your itinerary.
Start in St. Pete, the heart of fine art in the region. Get surreal at The Salvador Dalí Museum, which boasts the preeminent collection of Salvador Dali's works. First, follow the labyrinth through the Avant Garden hedge maze overlooking Tampa Bay in the shadow of the Enigma, the mind-bending geodesic dome that covers much of the museum’s exterior. Inside, put yourself in the artist’s mind while seeing Dalí’s paintings and sculptures with their hidden details and complex themes. You can use the museum's app to enhance your experience.
Stroll up along the waterfront to see the works of classical and contemporary masters such as Renoir and Cézanne at the Museum of Fine Arts. This building houses a who’s-who of artists and their works, including Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament: Effect,” the “Invocation” bronze by Rodin, “Poppy” by Georgia O’Keeffe and “Female Nude” by Robert De Niro Sr. (the abstract impressionist painter was the popular actor’s dad).
Your next stop near the water is The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. Tom and Mary James so loved what they saw – and collected – in the American West that they created this 30,000-square-foot haven to share their artwork depicting cowboys, Native Americans, settlers and wildlife. Check the museum calendar for special events such as artist talks, kid-friendly family tours or Native American-made wine and chocolate tastings.
A few blocks away on Central Avenue, be dazzled after stepping inside the Chihuly Collection, where you’ll see the work of Dale Chihuly, the celebrated master glass artist. St. Pete claims this permanent collection featuring an explosion of fantastical colors everywhere – reflecting from the ceiling, on pedestals and hanging on walls. At the Morean Arts Center across the street, see local glass artists at work creating pieces in the Glass Studio. Head farther west on Central Ave. to the Imagine Museum, where you’ll see more than 1,500 top-quality glass objects made by contemporary artists from around the world.
The newest gem in St. Pete’s waterfront museum collection is the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Explore five stories of exhibits of beautiful and functional items made with natural materials in this country from the 1890s to 1930s. You’ll recognize the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Roycrofter artisans and fall in love with pieces by Margaret Patterson, Gustav Stickley, Newcomb Pottery and many others. There’s even a children’s gallery to encourage little ones to explore the world of art.
Drive beyond St. Pete proper to take in worthy exhibits at smaller museums. In Tarpon Springs, discover over 6,000 objects at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art on the St. Petersburg College campus. Among items in the permanent collection are 20th and 21st century Expressionist paintings by Abraham Rattner and his wife, Esther Gentle, in addition to works by Gentle’s son, museum benefactor, Allen Leepa. About a 20-minute drive south, the Dunedin Fine Art Center offers many art classes in addition to showcasing exhibits by community artists. Your kids will especially enjoy the interactive galleries in the center’s David L. Mason Children’s Art Museum.
History & Heritage Museums
The St. Petersburg Museum of History is perched right at the entrance to the new St. Pete Pier District, a location that makes it easy to explore the museum and then have a great meal and a drink along the waterfront afterwards. There's lots to enjoy here, including "Little Cooperstown" - the world's largest collection of baseballs; the Flight One Gallery that celebrates the world's first commercial flight from St. Pete to Tampa in 1914; and the Sunshine City Gallery, depicting the many colorful eras of the city's life.
At the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Pete, exhibits artfully detail the economic, social and political backdrop that occurred over decades and contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust. Listen to survivors’ recorded accounts of the atrocities, feel the fear and courage in their voices and study photos and artifacts documenting their experiences.
Named after the historian and civil rights activist, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in the Deuces Live neighborhood in St. Pete hosts exhibits, events and discussions to promote understanding of Black history. A Black Lives Matter street mural is in front of the museum - a contribution of many local artists. This museum is modest in size now, but there are plans in the works to expand it into a 29,000-square-foot space (stay tuned).
At the St. Pete Museum of History, learn about the first commercial flight in 1914 from St. Pete to Tampa.
Check out the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum, which chronicles the town’s development into a Greek enclave. It’s fitting that the setting looks over the bayou, where the sponge industry still thrives. The nearby Tarpon Springs Cultural Center hosts events and also shows a 20-minute film about town history. Tour a former Victorian mansion, now the Safford House Museum, to get a glimpse of what life was like in Tarpon Springs in the late 1800s.
The Palm Harbor Museum occupies the former Hartley House, which was once the site of a citrus ladder factory. Volunteers there plan and host heritage events, curate and exhibit artifacts, including those related to the area’s citrus industry.
A short drive south, the Dunedin History Museum offers an opportunity to learn about the city known for its Celtic roots; join one of the walking tours to explore the historic downtown – see the oldest house, ring a church bell and learn about its first residents.
For more local history, head to the Clearwater Historical Society and its Plumb House Museum, an 1896 building that was formerly a paint store and apartment, before it became a family home. The Indian Rocks Historical Museum in Indian Shores offers a self-guided app to take you on a 14-stop tour of the area. You can also download the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum’s walking tour brochure to explore Pass-A-Grille Beach and St. Pete Beach on your own.
The Gulfport Historical Society Museum offers walking tours on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay. Learn from the locals as they tell stories and legends about the eclectic community – including Morris, the ghost cat said to frequent the waterfront.
Looking to add a bit of whimsy to your museum-hopping quest in St. Pete/Clearwater? Indulge your favorite gearhead by stopping at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum in Pinellas Park to admire dozens of autos from the 1920s and ’30s. If you want up-close views of models like a Ruxton, Derby or Adler, this is the place to go.
In St. Pete, families can gather at Great Explorations Children’s Museum, where the kids won’t even realize they’re learning while playing at the Lego Wall or creating awesome art projects. The Dunedin Fine Arts Center also has a children’s museum.
Music fans will channel the Fab Four era while looking at memorabilia at the Penny Lane Beatles Museum in Dunedin. Be sure to chat up the host about the rare private collection that dates to 1961.