Imagine: vivid colors and expansive shapes that appear one way from a distance and completely different close-up. It’s everything art should be—enthralling, adventurous, and fun. It’s on the walls of museums and galleries, but it also appears in the form of vibrant street murals, captivating performances in historic theaters and intimate nightlife venues, and a pier that juts out over the crystal-blue waters of Tampa Bay.
This is the art scene of St. Pete/Clearwater, named a small U.S. city with a “big-time art scene” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2022. Whether your goal is to absorb internationally-recognized masterworks, or simply soak in the area’s art-centric culture between trips to beautiful white-sand beaches, the art scene here is truly one that must be seen to be believed.
Below, we’ve rounded up five reasons why a trip to St. Pete/Clearwater is truly an artistic experience unlike any other.
1. Public Art
If there’s an outdoor surface in St. Pete—a sidewalk, a wall, even the street itself—there’s a good chance it’s served as a canvas to one of the area’s many talented artists. The city is home to over 600 murals, some of which can be seen during a mural-focused walking tour through the Central Arts District, a great way to get the lay of the land while taking in some of the newest and most vibrant art around.
In October, the SHINE Mural Festival puts the spotlight on the art form, inviting renowned local, national, and international artists to create new murals each year in the art districts and surrounding neighborhoods of St. Pete. The muralists, given full creative expression, are invited to use the walls as their canvas, highlighting the power art has to transform spaces and unite community.
Year-round, public art is fostered through community driven collectives and initiatives like Creative Pinellas, a local non-profit organization that supports the art community through mentorship, events and grants to local artists. St. Pete/Clearwater even has its own public art and design program, including a collection of public artworks on display at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and other public spaces like municipal buildings and parks.
SPACEcraft aims to make creativity an active, hands-on experience. The project uses repurposed cargo shipping containers to create a modular network of creative spaces where people can interact and create together. Every eight weeks, the containers are relocated to a new park where community members can experience art via instructor-led or self-guided activities on the themes of Make, Play, Read and Grow.
At Boyd Hill Nature Park, see the fanciful sculptures of animals made from recycled materials such as car parts and scraps of sheet metal. The Armadillo is especially beloved, and often appears in the travel photos of St. Pete/Clearwater visitors.
Make sure to visit the St. Pete Pier to catch a glimpse of Bending Arc, an installation designed by storied artist Janet Echelman, who used 180 miles’ worth of twine to create a structure that, at night, is illuminated in shimmering shades of magenta and violet.
There are many reasons people make and enjoy art, but there is no artist quite like Mother Nature. To connect with more natural works of art, start with a visit to the Sunken Gardens; the garden is over 100 years old and home to some of the oldest tropical plants in the region. Here you’ll find a collection of over 50,000 lush plants, meandering paths, and a lovely butterfly garden. Stop in the lobby before exploring to see The Wave by Tim Prentice.
At the Florida Botanical Gardens you can explore over 120 acres of park grounds that showcase the local flora and fauna, including more than 60 acres of wild land that is being renewed with plants endemic to Florida. As you stroll through tropical fruit gardens, cross gently flowing creeks, or pause to ponder a remarkable cactus, it’ll be easy to admire the perfect composition, colors and beauty that only nature can make. Admission is free.
2. The Glass Coast
Glass art, one of America’s most intricate art forms, thrives in St. Pete, with extensive collections, artist studios, and galleries offering incredible pieces and earning the city the nickname “the Glass Coast.” Once thought of as more industry than art, glass art in St. Pete is an important part of the contemporary arts landscape, and a trip to the city is a perfect time to learn about this fascinating process firsthand.
Dave Chihuly, an artist who has expanded the form of glass art in thrilling ways over the last several decades, creates whimsical, abstract sea creatures submerged in full-fledged landscapes, and a visit to his collection includes a short documentary on his life and work. Another spot worth visiting is the Imagine Museum, a collection of contemporary glass art sourced from around the world.
If you’re looking to try your hand at glass-blowing, Zen Glass Studio and Morean Glass Studio both offer demonstrations as well as hands-on classes for beginners. With a newfound appreciation of the craft, be sure to visit any number of the area’s unique glass studios like Duncan McClellan Gallery, the Bula Barua Gallery, and the Marlene Rose Gallery where you might uncover a treasure that will remind you of St. Pete/Clearwater long after vacation has ended.
3. World-Class Museums
St. Pete/Clearwater is a museum-goers paradise. With dozens of museums and galleries, it’s possible to see an enormous collection of Western art, unique exhibits, and historic artifacts.
For a deep dive into one of the most interesting minds in the history of art, stop in at the Dalí Museum, which holds more than 2,400 pieces by the iconic Surrealist artist. The building, designed by Architect Yann Weymouth (also known for designing the glass pyramid at the Louvre), is a work of art unto itself, with its most striking feature being a geodesic dome made of 1,062 glass triangles.
There’s only one museum in the world dedicated to the history of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, and it’s right here in St. Pete/Clearwater. Set in St. Pete's downtown arts district, the Museum of American Arts & Crafts Movement (MAACM), a 137,000-square foot building with a dramatic skylight and a winding spiral staircase, is home to more than 2,000 pieces of tile, pottery, lighting, and furniture that speak to the rich history of American artisans and craftsmen, much of which influences interior design and culture today.
Other museums in St. Pete/Clearwater include the James Museum, a must-see for anyone interested in art depicting the peoples, landscapes, and history of the American West, and the Museum of Fine Arts, where visitors can feast their eyes upon masterpieces by Georgia O’Keefe and Willem de Kooning. If you’re ready for a pause, the sculpture garden and café at the Museum of Fine Arts are both fantastic spots from which to enjoy the beautiful St. Pete/Clearwater weather and views of the water.
Just a short drive beyond St. Pete lie several smaller museums with impressive collections. At the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, you’ll find 20th and 21st-century Expressionist paintings and an eye-popping 6,000 objects. For those that take a more practical approach, the Dunedin Fine Art Center offers art classes in addition to showcasing works by community artists.
4. Festivals of Art
If you have ever constructed and admired a humble sandcastle, a visit to St. Pete/Clearwater during the Annual Sanding Ovations Master’s Cup will be a dream come true. At the event, held in November in Treasure Island, visitors can watch as master sand sculptors use sand, water, and their vivid imaginations to create fairy-tale worthy buildings and scenes.
To witness even more sand art displays, Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival brings over 1,000 tons of sand to life during a 17-day festival at Clearwater Beach in April, complete with street performances, live music, and a colorful fireworks show.
The Mainsail Art Festival, held at St. Pete's Vinoy Park in April, features over 250 fine arts and craft exhibitors, and includes live performances, and delicious culinary creations in addition to the works on display. The festival, started in 1976, now attracts over 100,000 visitors each year and offers artists the chance to win prizes for their submission with the Best In Show taking home $10,000.
For gatherings of a smaller scale, visitors won't have to look far. Once a month, St. Pete Second Saturday Artwalk sees over 45 studios and galleries stay open late, so you can gallery-hop and then discuss what you’ve seen over refreshing drinks at one of the city’s hotspots. On the last Saturday of every month, head over to the tiny, charming town of Gulfport, where Gulfport Boulevard turns into a hopping block party with pop-up art installations and live music.
5. Intimate Performance Venues
Music lovers will have a ball in St. Pete with venues like Jannus Live, an open-air courtyard recently renovated, and the Mahaffey Theater, which regularly welcomes touring productions of Broadway shows and the world-renowned Florida Orchestra.
A night out at Floridian Social Club might include jazz, punk, rock, or ska depending on the night. Behind the Beaux-Arts exterior is an 8,600 square foot concert venue that feels like a turn-of-the-century nightclub, complete with hand-crafted cocktails and late-night eats sourced from some of the area’s coolest restaurants.
For historic architecture-lovers, a show at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater will be a true thrill. Once a home for vaudeville productions and silent movies, the wood stage dates to 1921, and today the 750-seat space is filled with both history and electrifying music of the moment.