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Pinellas County beach guide: Where to eat, drink and relax along the Gulf

Our top picks at 10 local beaches, from salty dive bars to dreamy getaways.
 
Visitors to the Don CeSar hotel, at 3400 Gulf Blvd, enjoy the water at St Pete Beach.
Visitors to the Don CeSar hotel, at 3400 Gulf Blvd, enjoy the water at St Pete Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 14, 2023|Updated Aug. 20, 2023

Note: This guide first appeared in our email newsletter series, One Day in Tampa Bay. Subscribe to that newsletter and check out our other offerings at tampabay.com/newsletters.

It’s no secret that Pinellas County beaches are considered some of the most pristine in the country. But with so much great sandy real estate, figuring out which beach to visit can be tricky. Add in busy holiday weekends, throngs of tourists and hourlong traffic jams and it can be easy to write off a beach day completely. Still, all it takes to have a successful trip is a little planning.

We’re sharing 10 of our favorite beach spots, starting at Honeymoon Island in north Pinellas and ending at Fort De Soto at the southern end of the county. Pick one or two for the day, using this guide as your reference. Feeling really ambitious? Follow us along for the drive and hit all 10.

To learn more about accessible beaches in the area, including parking, bathrooms, beach wheelchairs and ramps, check out this article from Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Stop 1: Honeymoon Island State Park

A kayaker surveys the sunset along Hurricane Pass between Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Dunedin.
A kayaker surveys the sunset along Hurricane Pass between Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Dunedin. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Honeymoon Island, a natural barrier island, features 4 miles of beaches. Though a bit rocky in patches, the dog beach here is one of the best places to bring your pooch. It costs $8 per vehicle to park inside the park, but parking in the sand and grass all along the Dunedin Causeway is free.

What to know: Be sure to catch the ferry over to Caladesi Island State Park, which can’t be accessed by road and feels like a secluded tropical paradise, with white sand beaches and lush mangrove trails. It’s pronounced cal-uh-DEE-see.

Where to eat: Right before the Dunedin Causeway, Frenchy’s Stone Crab & Seafood Market features grab-and-go items like key lime pie (slices or whole), sushi, chips and salsa, and various beverages. Stop in on your way to the beach, or swing by on the way home for sauces, seasonings and fresh seafood. Don’t skip the choose-your-own-adventure steamer bar, where diners can build steamed seafood combos.

Stop 2: Clearwater Beach

The scene at Clearwater Beach looking south from Pier 60.
The scene at Clearwater Beach looking south from Pier 60. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Drive south to Clearwater along the winding, scenic Bayshore Boulevard. Continue on through downtown Clearwater before turning onto the Clearwater Memorial Causeway and taking it to the end. Common activities at this tourist hot spot include watching sunset movies at Pier 60, browsing kitschy shops and staying at ritzy resorts, including a new eco-friendly hotel named after Winter the Dolphin.

What to know: Cruising over the causeway to Clearwater Beach is a total pinch-me, “we-live-where-you-vacation” moment — until you get stuck in traffic. Come during the week if you can, early in the day or right before sunset.

Where to eat: The Palm Pavilion, a Clearwater Beach mainstay since 1926, offers casual seafood dining with killer sunset views. For a swankier night out, hit up Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, grab a martini at the bar and soak up the 1950s vibes and live piano music. If you’re looking to really turn it up, Shephard’s Tiki Beach Bar & Grill is the place, with wild parties, DJs and bottle service.

Map

Click here to see the full map.

Transportation It’s easiest to beach hop with a car, but there are bike lanes all along Gulf Boulevard. If you’re coming from St. Petersburg, the SunRunner bus line runs trips from downtown to St. Pete Beach. And the Clearwater Jolley Trolley travels within the Clearwater Beach area. There also are bike lanes all along Gulf Boulevard.

Parking: Public parking lots are located at select beaches on Gulf Boulevard.

Bathrooms: Many beach access points with parking have public restrooms.

Stop 3: Indian Rocks Beach

Glenda Bushy and Julie Swanson dance while Jimmy Suvoy performs at Crabby Bill’s Restaurant during their Luau party on Sunday, June 20, 2021 in Indian Rocks Beach.
Glenda Bushy and Julie Swanson dance while Jimmy Suvoy performs at Crabby Bill’s Restaurant during their Luau party on Sunday, June 20, 2021 in Indian Rocks Beach. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Leave Clearwater Beach via Gulf Boulevard and cruise south through Belleair Beach. Indian Rocks Beach, nestled between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico, is named for a local legend. According to the town’s website, the story goes that a chief here was healed using waters from a rock-surrounded natural sulfur spring. There’s no word on how accurate that is, but a beach day here sure is rejuvenating.

What to know: Parking is sporadic, with spots distributed in small lots along Gulf Boulevard. Beach access, along with showers and bathrooms, can be found at 1700 Gulf Blvd. across from Guppy’s on the Beach. Bikes are available to rent at Sea Gypsy Beach Shop, and both Nekton Surf Shop and Island Surf Shop have surfboards and paddleboards. For some family-friendly fun away from the gulf, nearby Splash Harbour Water Park features two 42-foot-tall waterslides and a lazy river. For a bit of history, check out the Indian Rocks Historical Museum.

Where to eat: Don’t skip the excellent croissants, crepes and cafe au lait at Cafe de Paris. We recommend getting your goodies to-go so you can cross the street and eat right on the sand. Grab a seat at the Loading Dock outside the Original Crabby Bill’s for live music, strong drinks and a friendly locals crowd. For ice cream, Cuban sandwiches and souvenirs, Kooky Coconut is the spot.

Stop 4: Indian Shores

Mahuffer's Bar at Indian Shores is an essential beach dive bar.
Mahuffer's Bar at Indian Shores is an essential beach dive bar. [ DIEZ, CHERIE | St. Petersburg Times ]

Continue south along Gulf Boulevard, where a bike trail opens up. Hotels, docks and waterfront businesses dot the Intracoastal Waterway. Here you’ll find Indian Shores, whose claim to fame was Tiki Gardens, a popular tourist attraction that opened in the 1960s.

The Polynesian-themed spot, which drew half a million visitors annually, included a Tiki head-filled adventure trail, a gift shop and a restaurant called Trader Frank’s. It closed in the late ‘80s, and today the land is used as the Tiki Gardens Indian Shores Beach Access (19601 Gulf Blvd.).

Times tip: Come early to snag a parking spot — this lot fills up fast.

What to know: Indian Shores is home to Mahuffer’s, a grungy hole-in-the-wall beach dive decorated with bras and dollar bills dangling from its low ceilings. All of the drinks are pulled from coolers, and a giant green iguana lives in a cage on-site. A few doors down is Indian Shores Coffee, a great spot to grab a muffin and an iced latte before heading to the sand. It’s owned by the same folks who opened Black Crow Coffee Co. in St. Pete.

Where to eat: Indian Shores packs in a ton of eateries in one tiny town: Villa Gallace for Italian; Aloha To Go for Hawaiian treats; DJ’s Clam Shack for one of the best lobster rolls around; and Salt Rock Grill for steaks, seafood and views of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Stop 5: The Redingtons

Ana Stela,17, (right) and Ana Marcondes, 18, both visiting from Orlando, play volleyball on the beach.
Ana Stela,17, (right) and Ana Marcondes, 18, both visiting from Orlando, play volleyball on the beach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

There are roughly 3 miles between the towns of Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores, which feature wide beaches popular for fishing. Look for parking in the large, public lots or on metered side streets (which can sometimes be hard to spot, but always include a few spaces).

What to know: Looking for a staycation? Do like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio did back in 1961 and book a beachfront condo at the Tides Beach Club. Or head to one of the beach access points along Gulf Boulevard: 169th Avenue, 170th Avenue, 171st Avenue and 173rd Avenue all have good options.

Where to eat: For a quick breakfast, My Happy Place Deli serves croissant breakfast sandwiches and smoothies (with booze, if the mood strikes). Seabreeze Island Grill is the place for casual waterside dining. And the nearby Conch Republic Grill offers strong drinks and coastal fare — and is always packed.

Stop 6: Madeira Beach

Customers enjoy frozen custards at the Kohr Family Frozen Custard shop at John's Pass Village and Boardwalk on Nov 16, 2022, in Madeira Beach.
Customers enjoy frozen custards at the Kohr Family Frozen Custard shop at John's Pass Village and Boardwalk on Nov 16, 2022, in Madeira Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Just a mile south on Gulf Boulevard is Madeira Beach, part Old Florida fishing town and part vacation hot spot. Embrace your inner tourist at John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk, which rivals Clearwater Beach when it comes to kitschy beachside attractions, tchotchke shops and boat tours.

What to know: St. Pete Tiki Tours does daytime and sunset boat cruises through Boca Ciega Bay, which will take you through John’s Pass and into the gulf for sunset. Watch for dolphins! Meanwhile, nearby Smugglers Cove Adventure Golf dials up the putt-putt experience with a mini golf course boasting caves, waterfalls and live alligators.

Where to eat: You could pick from one of the many chain restaurants on the John’s Pass boardwalk (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Hooters, etc.), but we’d suggest swinging by Sweet Brewnette, a cozy, popular breakfast restaurant with smoothies, decadent coffee drinks and a full breakfast and lunch menu.

Stop 7: Treasure Island and Sunset Beach

Blackened mahi tacos are served at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Treasure Island.
Blackened mahi tacos are served at Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Treasure Island. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Our next destination along Gulf Boulevard is Treasure Island. Continue to the southern portion of this beach town to Sunset Beach, a small but peaceful strip of sand with a name that nods to its dreamy evening views (more on this below). At 8000 W Gulf Blvd., there’s parking in the Tern lot, which refers to the many tiny seabirds you’ll spot on the sand.

What to know: Treasure Island sports some of the area’s widest beaches. It’s also home to funky retro hotels like the Tahitian Beach Resort and the Thunderbird Beach Resort. The town’s yearly Sanding Ovations sand sculpture competition is worth the inevitable parking headache. At the very southern tip of Treasure Island, Sunset Beach has become somewhat of a bohemian escape — the go-to spot for laid-back locals and the LGBTQ+ community.

Where to eat: Get your toes in the sand and grab a meal right on the beach at Caddy’s, which has live music every night and great views of the sunset. Nearby Sea Dog Brewing Co. features good fish tacos, a balcony overlooking the Intracoastal, plenty of parking and live music. VIP Mexican Restaurant is the spot for potent margaritas and some killer tacos.

Stop 8: St. Pete Beach

The Don CeSar Hotel is known along the Gulf Coast as the Pink Palace.
The Don CeSar Hotel is known along the Gulf Coast as the Pink Palace. [ Courtesy of the Don CeSar ]

Head back north on Gulf Boulevard and turn right onto State Road 699. Down Blind Pass Road, you’ll find the town of St. Pete Beach — never St. Petersburg Beach. Residents voted to permanently shorten the name in 1994. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you catch a glimpse of the Don CeSar, a grand resort built to look like a Mediterranean-style castle, known as Florida’s “Pink Palace.”

What to know: St. Pete Beach has one of the liveliest beach bar scenes, with spots like PCI Beach Bar, Undertow Beach Bar and Coconut Charlie’s. Beware the spring break crowds, which usually arrive sometime in March and can get a little rowdy — and which inspired the 2012 film “Spring Breakers” starring James Franco as a local rapper and drug dealer named Alien.

Where to eat: Get a happy hour margarita and some fried clam strips at Woody’s Waterfront and grab a seat on the water. Down the street, 82 Degrees at the Saint Hotel features more upscale dining selections and a good cocktail menu — all from an open-air, second-floor bar with views of the gulf. For a lovely brunch or lunch, check out The Helm, a St. Pete Beach restaurant that’s part restaurant, part seafood market and serves a mean lobster roll. For breakfast, both Frog Pond and La Croisette are great bets.

Times tip: Parking can be a hassle once you reach the beach, so consider transportation alternatives like the SunRunner, or the Clearwater Jolley Trolley for Clearwater Beach.

Stop 9: Pass-a-Grille

Friends Eric Wheeler and Peter Highland, both of Pass-a-Grille, enjoy the shade at Pass-a-Grille Beach.
Friends Eric Wheeler and Peter Highland, both of Pass-a-Grille, enjoy the shade at Pass-a-Grille Beach.

Keep driving south, past the Don CeSar, and you’ll hit beautiful Pass-a-Grille. Once a fishing village, the quaint town on the southernmost tip of St. Pete Beach is on the National Register of Historic Places and features plenty of Old Florida charm.

What to know: The beach is narrow, and don’t think the long stretch of parking guarantees a spot. You’ll want to get here early — or very late.

Where to eat: Grab a seat on the rooftop terrace at the Berkeley Beach Club hotel for unparalleled views of the gulf. The Hurricane deserves bragging rights for one of the area’s best grouper sandwiches, and the beach-adjacent Paradise Grille is the best place for a low-key beach meal

Stop 10: Fort De Soto Park

Sparky takes a big yawn while relaxing in his owner's lap, Karen Sellner, at the dog park area near the Bay Pier at Fort De Soto Park on Memorial Day in 2013.
Sparky takes a big yawn while relaxing in his owner's lap, Karen Sellner, at the dog park area near the Bay Pier at Fort De Soto Park on Memorial Day in 2013. [ Tampa Bay Times (2013) ]

Located at the southernmost tip of State Road 679 (aka the Pinellas Bayway), Fort De Soto is named after the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. This former Army post was sold back to the county at the end of World War II and dedicated as a public park (Pinellas’ largest) in 1963.

What to know: Fort De Soto comprises five islands and features 7 miles of sandy beaches stretched across a roughly 1,100-acre park. You can do it all here: kayak, paddleboard, bike, kite surf, hike, fish and camp. There’s a $5 parking fee, and visitors can pay using either a mobile app, pay-by-text, or at one of the parking terminals.

Where to eat: Swing by Billy’s Stone Crab for a drink and a snack in a treehouselike bar, perched high above the restaurant. For a more upscale vibe, the seafaring menu at Sea Worthy Fish + Bar — from the owners of St. Pete’s Brick & Mortar — can’t be beat.

Need a break after all the beach activities? Check out our other local guides

Contact Gabrielle Calise at gcalise@tampabay.com. Follow @gabriellecalise. Contact Helen Freund at hfreund@tampabay.com. Follow @helenfreund.