A 36-Hour Guide to Florida’s Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem

Post originally Published March 19, 2024 || Last Updated March 19, 2024

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A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Hit the Beach in Clearwater

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida’s Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem

With miles of white sand and calm, clear waters, Clearwater Beach is consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in the country. As part of Florida's Gulf Coast, it offers stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico that simply can't be beat. The beach has something for everyone, from families looking for a relaxing day by the ocean to spring breakers ready to party.
Clearwater Beach is located on a barrier island off the west coast of Florida, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It stretches for around three miles, with plenty of space for sunbathing, building sandcastles, and playing beach volleyball. The soft, powdery sand is pure white, making it seem almost unreal. The ocean waters are a bright turquoise, gently lapping at the shore. It's an idyllic beach scene straight out of a postcard.

One of the best parts of Clearwater Beach is how accessible it is, with parking lots and walking paths leading right onto the sand. There are also shops, restaurants, and hotels along the beach road, allowing you to spend the whole day enjoying the oceanfront. Stop for a burger and milkshake on the pier, or lounge at a beachside cafe with frozen cocktails. Families will love playing at the playground right on the sand.
No beach day is complete without actually getting in the refreshing Gulf waters. Clearwater Beach has calm waves, making it perfect for swimming and floating leisurely. Try paddleboarding or kayaking to really take in the scenery. Snorkeling reveals colorful fish swimming below the surface. You can also rent jet skis and parasail for an adrenaline rush. At the end of the day, stay to watch the spectacular sunset over the Gulf.
While the beach itself is the main attraction, there are some additional sights worth visiting nearby. Stop by Pier 60 for the nightly festival, with live music, artisans, and street performers as the sun goes down. Check out Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays. And you can't miss seeing the grand Belleview Biltmore Hotel, a historic beach resort.

What else is in this post?

  1. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Hit the Beach in Clearwater
  2. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Paddle Through the Mangroves of Tampa Bay
  3. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Go Fishing Off the Coast of St. Petersburg
  4. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Explore the Outdoors in Fort De Soto Park
  5. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Marvel at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Pete
  6. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Grab a Bite at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill
  7. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Take in the Nightlife in Historic Ybor City
  8. A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Relax at a Tampa Spa Before Heading Home

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Paddle Through the Mangroves of Tampa Bay

Sliding your kayak or stand-up paddleboard through the maze of mangroves in Tampa Bay is an unforgettable experience. These critical coastal forests play a vital role in the local ecosystem while providing a peaceful, natural getaway from bustling city life. Gliding amongst the arching aerial roots as the sun flickers through the canopy, it's easy to feel at one with nature.

Mangrove forests only grow in specific subtropical and tropical areas where saltwater meets freshwater. The iconic stilt-like tangles of roots help the trees cope with rising and falling tides. These remarkable trees stabilize the coastline, provide a nursery for baby fish, filter pollutants, and capture carbon. Exploring the mangroves by boat allows you to get an up-close look at their ecological importance.
The best place to launch your kayak or paddleboard is from Bunces Pass Park in Pinellas County. This 300-acre coastal preserve sits right on the shores of Tampa Bay, with convenient amenities like parking, restrooms and board rentals. Once on the water, you're enveloped in the beauty of cabbage palms and thick mangroves. Wind your way into narrow channels sheltered by arching branches tattooed with oysters. Watch for herons, egrets, ospreys and other seabirds amongst the leaves.

Kayaking or paddleboarding through mangroves is the perfect peaceful nature escape - no loud motors here. The only sounds are the lap of water on your hull and chirping birds above. Drifting with the incoming tide, you feel a world away from city life. Yet just offshore, yachts and skyscrapers dot the horizon.

Respect for these fragile forests is a must. Never grab overhead roots or branches to stabilize yourself, as they can easily break. Make sure to apply (and reapply!) biodegradable sunscreen, as chemicals can damage the ecosystem. Mangrove forests face threats like coastal development, so our responsible impact is critical.
After a few dreamy hours immersed in nature, paddle back out of the maze of mangroves to return to Bunces Pass Park. The beach here offers picnic tables and grills for a waterfront picnic lunch. Rinse the salt and sweat off with a quick dip in the bay before heading out.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Go Fishing Off the Coast of St. Petersburg

With sparkling blue-green waters and abundant sea life, the Gulf Coast off St. Petersburg is a fisherman's paradise. The region offers some of the best saltwater fishing opportunities in the state of Florida. From offshore big game catches to skinny water flats fishing, there are endless ways to experience the thrill of hooking that trophy fish.

Offshore fishing charters depart daily from local marinas, taking anglers into deeper waters of the Gulf in search of trophy sport fish. Common catches include grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi, tuna, amberjack, cobia, and the mighty tarpon, growing over 8 feet long. Deep sea fishing charters provide all the gear, so even beginners can reel in massive fish after an epic battle. The knowledgeable captain and crew will fillet and bag your catch so you can enjoy the freshest seafood dinner.
For a more low-key fishing adventure, there's incredible pier fishing all along the Pinellas County coastline. Grab a pole and tackle, stake out your spot on one of the public fishing piers, and try your luck catching pompano, redfish, snook, mackerel, and spotted sea trout. Local piers range from the iconic St. Pete Pier and Treasure Island Fishing Pier to Sleepy Lagoon Park and Redington Long Pier. Pack a cooler and spend a full day fishing, picnicking and people-watching on the pier.
Wading into the shallow grass flats and mangrove edges, fly fishermen stalk fierce predators like tarpon, redfish and trout. This technical style of fishing allows anglers to sight-cast to fish in clear, shallow waters. Poling silently over the flats in a skinny-water skiff, you'll need precision casting skills and the right fly patterns. A great view to hook tarpon rolling at the surface makes this a thrilling way to fish.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Explore the Outdoors in Fort De Soto Park

Spread out over five small islands, Fort De Soto Park offers over 1,100 acres of pristine coastal habitat to explore. Located at the mouth of Tampa Bay, it's one of the largest public recreation areas in the state of Florida. With mangrove swamps, palm hammocks, wetlands and seven miles of beach, the diverse natural landscapes beg to be explored. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to the park to hike, bike, kayak, birdwatch and simply immerse themselves in subtropical nature.
One of the best ways to explore Fort De Soto is by bicycle on the paved multi-use trail that winds through wetlands and palm forests. Pedaling beneath a shady canopy of cabbage palms and oaks draped in Spanish moss imparts a sense of Old Florida wilderness. The trail loops right along the water, with views over mangrove-fringed tidal creeks. Bikers share the paths with joggers, rollerbladers and families out for a stroll. Plentiful benches allow places to stop and snapshot the scenery.

Kayaking through the maze of mangroves offers an up-close view of these vital coastal forests. Paddling in sit-on-top kayaks rented at the park, glide along shadowy channels. Watch for egrets, herons, ospreys and pelicans amongst arching prop roots. This is nature at its most pure and timeless. Respectful silence allows you to become one with the environment.
Those wanting to stretch their legs can choose from over 11 miles of hiking trails through secluded natural areas. Shaded paths like Bayside Trail and Arrowhead Trail wind through palm hammocks and coastal thickets. Keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, bobcats, raccoons, gopher tortoises and over 300 species of birds. Hitting the trails early in the morning maximizes wildlife viewing opportunities.

Of course, the real showstopper at Fort De Soto is the beach, repeatedly ranked among America's most beautiful. Visitors are dazzled by over 7 miles of snowy sand lapped by green-blue waters. Beachcombing, sunbathing, swimming and simply sinking your toes into soft sand makes for a perfect beach day. Photographers flock here to capture stunning sunrises and sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. Clear waters offer excellent swimming and snorkeling opportunities.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Marvel at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Pete

A highlight of any trip to Florida's Gulf Coast is a visit to the remarkable Salvador Dalí Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. As the largest collection of the Spanish surrealist painter's works outside of Europe, this world-class museum provides an unparalleled opportunity to admire Dalí's groundbreaking art and eccentric imagination.

Stepping into the museum, you are greeted by Dalí's iconic melting clocks, with the distorted timepieces aptly reflecting his exploration of the subconscious mind. As you explore the extensive galleries, prepare to be challenged, provoked, delighted and amazed by the sheer diversity of Dalí's oeuvre. From his early impressionist works to the opulent, Freudian dreamscapes he pioneered, it's a surreal journey through one of the 20th century's most inventive minds.
Beyond the collection itself, the museum's architecture and presentation enhance the experience dramatically. The striking waterfront building, with its signature geodesic glass atrium and spiral staircase, seems an appropriate shrine for Dalí's revolutionary vision. Clever curation like a recreation of the artist's studio and insightful multi-media displays provide fascinating context on Dalí's fascinating life.

Speaking of his remarkable life, the collection itself brims with insight into Dalí's influences and relationships. It includes pieces he created alongside his muse, wife and fellow surrealist Gala Eluard Dalí. Several prominent works feature his famous melting clocks, showing his obsession with capturing time and fabricating alternative realities.
For many, the highlight is Dalí's masterpiece The Hallucinogenic Toreador, occupying an entire gallery with its psychedelic depiction of the Venus de Milo. Standing before the mammoth painting, scrutinizing the intricately-detailed imagery, you begin to comprehend Dalí's mind-bending vision and peerless technical skill.

Beyond showcasing Dalí's art, the museum hosts fun events like Wednesday wind-down yoga nights, expert lectures and film screenings. Even the gift shop is a trove of Dalí-esque treasures, letting you take some whimsy home. A lovely waterfront cafe offers tapas and drinks on the terrace, should all the surrealism make you peckish.

There is no doubt St. Petersburg punched above its weight in landing this world-class art museum. While smaller than nearby cities, its vibrant arts scene and beautiful waterfront make it the perfect home. Dalí would surely approve of the museum's grand architectural presence, dominating the downtown waterfront like one of his own landscapes.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Grab a Bite at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill

After a day spent under the Gulf Coast sun, nothing satisfies quite like the fresh catch at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill. This iconic seafood shack sits right on the edge of Clearwater Beach, drawing hungry crowds with its big flavors and laidback vibes. Ask any local for restaurant recommendations, and Frenchy's will inevitably top the list.
Hidden behind a neon pirate sign, Frenchy's occupies a converted two-story home just steps from the sand. Despite its wild popularity, the place maintains a come-as-you-are appeal. Folks arrive in flip-flops and coverups, zoning in on platters of crab legs and shrimp fresh off the boat. Join them on the deck under whirring ceiling fans, or stake out a picnic table and inhale that clean ocean air.

While seafood rules the menu, you'll find creative takes like blackened grouper sandwiches and crabcake-stuffed flounder. Go classic with a mountainous platter of steamed crab legs, sucking that sweet meat straight from the shell. Their secret-recipe clam chowder is packed with tender clams in a creamy, peppery broth. Fried platters come piled high with golden shrimp, oysters or scallops for a crispy crunch.
Beyond just serving stellar seafood, Frenchy's honors the generations of fishing families who keep Florida fed. The restaurant got its start from Francis "Frenchy" Preston, whose family fished local waters for decades. His legacy lives on through the Preston Family Foundation, supporting coastal communities. Frenchy's stays dedicated to serving only wild-caught Florida seafood, never farmed or imported.

Pair your feast with a slice of Key lime pie, bursting with tart citrus flavor. Or save room for their mile-high coconut cream pie, an indulgent specialty. Sit back on the deck with a cup of strong Cuban coffee as you take in the sunset colors over the Gulf. Watch pelicans soar and dive for fish while the last golden rays glint off the water.

For many visitors, no trip to Clearwater Beach feels complete without a meal at Frenchy's. Between the laidback ambiance and ridiculously fresh seafood, it embodies the quintessential beach town experience. The food consistently delights, with generous portions that offer great value. Waiting for a table simply offers the chance to soak in more of that contagious, salt-tinged atmosphere.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Take in the Nightlife in Historic Ybor City

After the sun slips below the horizon, Ybor City emerges as Tampa's hottest nightlife district. Centered around 7th Avenue, the historic Latin Quarter comes alive once the moon rises over the old brick buildings. Neon signs blink to life, disjointed live music drifts from open bar doors, and the smell of roasting coffee permeates the warm night air. To experience Tampa's most vibrant after-dark scene, historic Ybor is the place to be.
Ybor evolved as an immigrant enclave in the late 1800s, becoming the "Cigar Capital of the World." Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants crafted a distinctive Latin culture that persists today. Meandering down 7th Avenue under strings of bright lights, you're immersed in Ybor's multicultural history. The narrow brick streets, wrought-iron balconies and faded signs transport you back in time.

Yet the energy crackling through the district is vibrantly now. On weekend nights, Ybor packs in everyone from club-goers in stilettos to bachelorette parties in matching tank tops. Pop into one of the famed cigar factories-turned-bars like Tabanero Cigars to watch rollers handcraft stogies. Sip your mojito as rhythmic Latin music sets the mood. The Columbia, a storied restaurant opened in 1905, dishes out Spanish fare like paella and sangria alongside flamenco dancers.
Ybor comes alive most as the night grows late. Thumping bass spills from cavernous mega clubs like the Honey Pot. Sultry Salsa beats simmer at the edge of the dance floor at Salsa Deli & Cafe. Slink into an unmarked speakeasy like the Mercury Lounge for craft cocktails in a retro setting. With new hot spots always popping up, Ybor reinvents itself as a nightlife destination.
Yet you can still glimpse the old Ybor amidst the revelry. Stop for café con leche brewed with beans roasted onsite at King Corona Cigar Cafe, like so many before you. Treasures hide behind scarred wooden doors, like the velvety vocals at Jazz House or prohibition-style scene at the Bricks. The garden at Stone Soup Co. offers respite under the stars, with craft brews and live folk music.
Late night, as crowds thin, Ybor reveals its layers once more. Smoke-filled cigar lounges host lively debates and domino games. Grab empanadas from La Segunda Bakery, a neighborhood staple since 1915. Watch the bakers start preparing tomorrow's irresistible Cuban bread. Even at 3 a.m., Ybor simmers with that cultural melange unique to this district.
To truly experience Ybor after dark requires wandering with an open mind and embracing the unexpected. Let your ears guide you to impromptu concerts in tucked-away bars. Follow the laughter spilling from unmarked backyards strung with lights. Soak in the gritty history and lively modern energy that coexist so fluidly. Ybor rewards those looking to experience authentic local culture, not prefab entertainment.

A 36-Hour Guide to Florida's Overlooked Gulf Coast Gem - Relax at a Tampa Spa Before Heading Home

After adventuring along Florida’s Gulf Coast, treat yourself to some pampering at a Tampa spa before heading home. A massage or facial provides the perfect bookend to a getaway spent exploring beaches, museums and nightlife. Tampa offers an array of upscale spas where you can unwind and recharge with professional treatments.
For the ultimate zen experience, head to The Woodhouse Day Spa Tampa, an oasis of relaxation in South Tampa. The pampering starts as soon as you walk in, with a eucalyptus-infused cool towel and cup of tea. Customizable massage and facial packages allow you to target just what your body needs after vacation exertions. Opt for warm river stone massage to melt away knots, or a collagen-boosting microdermabrasion facial to refresh your complexion.

The spa’s signature Minkyti pedicure provides serious relaxation, with a seaweed leaf wrap, paraffin treatment and warm neck wrap. Sinking into one of the oversized chairs in the darkened pedicure room, you feel your stresses slipping away. Finish off with a drink from their refreshment bar and a complimentary take-home loofah.

For a romantic couples’ experience, book The Escape package at the intimate Avani Spa at the Soho House Tampa. This stylish spa in the bustling Arts + Entertainment district provides a sophisticated oasis from city life. Their indulgent Escape ritual begins with a muscle-melting massage in a candlelit suite. Next, a soothing soak in a private cedarwood hot tub lets you decompress together. Complete the journey with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Tampa is also home to a world-class mineral springs spa at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa just north of the city. Since the 1920s, travelers have flocked here to soak in the healing mineral waters flowing from natural underground springs. The therapy pools range from 98–104 degrees to relax sore muscles and joints. Get your wellness fix with yoga, meditation and healing sound baths. Their crowning glory is the Spa Waterfall Massage, where water from the springs cascades down as you receive a Swedish massage. Talk about a multi-sensory experience!

Or stay right downtown at the chic, boutique Epicurean Hotel’s full-service spa Evangeline. Named for a healing herb, Evangeline specializes in herbal remedies and botanical ingredients. Treatments incorporate herbs grown right onsite at their rooftop garden. Restore inner balance with a soothing CBD massage combining cannabidiol, arnica and soothing lavender. Their HydraFacial resurfaces and nourishes skin using antioxidant botanicals.

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