Driving to Florida: Philadelphia to St. Petersburg-Clearwater
As your tour guide for the drive from the City of Brotherly Love to the Florida vacation destination of St. Petersburg-Clearwater, I first want to assure you that the Sunshine State can provide satisfying equivalents to your daily cravings.
No scrapple with breakfast? We have grits.
Miss your cheesesteak? We have grouper sandwiches.
Where’s the Acme? We have Publix.
How do I know that you’ll be happy here? Besides the year-round balm that is the Florida weather, rest assured that I am one of you.
Philly-born and -raised. Rowhouse kid. Bridge and Pratt El stop. Go Birds.
In short, I am asking you to trust the process. Or just click on the links provided for visual proof.
Here’s my point today. Add a couple days at the front and/or back end of your Florida vacation and consider some of the remarkable things to do on your Sunshine State odyssey, whether your drive takes you down I-95 and across I-4 or down 301 and I-75:
- See alligators and manatees and countless species of birds in any one of several dozen state parks, national forests, and freshwater springs.
- Drive one of Florida’s 26 designated scenic highways. There are a dozen rides worth a side trip on your route, such as the Florida Black Bear National Scenic Byway.
- That hint of adrenalin you are feeling? You are in Central Florida, the Theme Park Capital of the World. Off I-4, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, there are attractions that stoke your appreciation of history and Florida wildlife, tap into your love affairs with comic-book heroes and galaxies far, far away, and leave you screaming at every free fall and splashdown.
You can create your own travel itinerary for driving from Philly to St. Pete-Clearwater with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool, but here are some more thought starters on what you can appreciate on your road trip through Florida, and what to expect when you reach Tampa Bay.
Distance from Philadelphia to St. Pete-Clearwater: approximately 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers).
Driving time: Two full days minimum.
Best route(s): I-95 south to I-10 west to U.S. 301 to I-75 South; or I-95 south to I-4 west to I-275 south.
Fuel costs: use this calculator.
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare
Rest areas: Interstate 95, Interstate 75.
Amtrak train. Travel time: 24-27 hours.
Greyhound bus. Travel time: two days.
PLACES TO STOP ALONG THE WAY
In the Philly vacation vernacular, “downashor” is a summer tradition. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the weekend destination is often one of the South Jersey shore points.
Philly is a capital of American history. Independence Hall. Betsy Ross House. Valley Forge.
Florida has America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, settled in 1565. Eight flags have flown over Fernandina Beach, the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Florida is America’s launchpad. And we have fountains of youth, but they’re even better than the legend.
Here are some more worthwhile pit stops …
The sound of the surf will remind you of Wildwood or Cape May, but the differences here are compelling. Is that a horse? On Amelia Island, yes. Are those tree skeletons? That’s Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island. Is that sand or cinnamon? That’s Flagler Beach.
Time allowance: 1-2 days.
Distance from St. Pete-Clearwater: 180-260 miles (290-420 kilometers)
Crystal River is the aptly branded Manatee Capital of the World. In the winter months, the gentle sea cows swarm here to the 72-degree springs. Any respectable lifetime bucket list should include a snorkeling trip among these curious half-ton herbivores.
Time allowance: 4-6 hours.
Distance from St. Pete-Clearwater: 76 miles (122 kilometers)
The joyful foundation of the LEGOLAND experience is generations of love for these adaptable, multi-colored bricks. The Central Florida attraction has rides, a hotel, a water park, plus Lego-styled tributes to popular culture in its Miniland.
Time allowance: 1-2 days.
Distance from St. Pete-Clearwater: 78 miles (125 kilometers)
The Columbia, founded in 1905, is Florida’s oldest restaurant. The Ybor City neighborhood, the not-so-long-ago hub of Tampa’s cigar industry, reflects in its architecture, culture, and cuisine the Cuban and Spanish influences of its earliest residents. The Cuban sandwich is a must-experience Florida food icon.
Time allowance: 1-2 days.
Distance from St. Pete-Clearwater: 26 miles (42 kilometers)
WELCOME TO ST. PETE-CLEARWATER
When I moved to St. Petersburg in March 1984, my first full day was 75 degrees, blue sky, and a lower-level box seat at a spring training baseball game.
Truth be told, in the 13 spring training ballparks around Florida, all the box seats are lower-level. But the fact remains: For a baseball fan, the Grapefruit League in March is a spiritual experience.
And Clearwater is the longtime spring home of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and the summer home of the Phillies’ minor-league affiliate Clearwater Threshers.
Spectrum Field amenities include the mandatory (cheesesteaks), the local (craft beer), and the pleasantly informal (berm seating on a grassy slope beyond the outfield wall).
They are natural beauties backed by tall, slim pines; popular destinations framed by beachfront neighborhoods and resort hotels; island residences of migratory birds.
Sunsets are a communal moment on this peninsula. Try one from the roof of the Hurricane Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille or on Pier 60 in Clearwater.
An emphasis on community inspired St. Petersburg city founders to set aside legacy public space along the Tampa Bay waterfront.
A car is an unnecessary burden in the downtown. Start at the 1920s Vinoy hotel and walk south on Beach Drive, a tony, residential-retail stretch of five blocks that includes pastel condo towers and, at street level, al fresco dining, the Museum of Fine Arts, and lots of people watching.
Farther south along the bayfront is the Dali Museum, a structure that is nearly as surreal as the masterworks inside.
Turn right (west) on Central Avenue and feel the city’s young pulse: the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the hip 600 block, the Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center, the craft beer core, the brilliantly distracting murals.
The arts and an appreciation for neighborhood identity revived St. Petersburg in the early 21st century. The Deuces, or 22nd Street S, is the spine of the city’s historical African-American neighborhood. The annual Collard Greens Festival celebrates community each year.
Jon Wilson wrote: “At its peak during the early 1960s, more than 100 businesses, retail stores, professional offices and entertainment venues thrived on the thoroughfare. … Today, a detailed African-American heritage trail reflects the street’s glory days. Nineteen signs in shiny blue and gold, the colors of the city’s historic black high school, tell of pioneers, the rise of entrepreneurial spirit, the vibrant personalities, the building of a city within a city, and the community’s inevitable neighborhood highs and lows.”
For a more visual illustration of highs and lows, get up at dawn and drive south from downtown St. Pete about seven miles on I-275 to watch the rising sun illuminate the golden cables of the Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay. In the afternoons, depending on the direction of the breeze, the shallow bays on either side of this ribbon of road are a playground for kiteboarders.
P.S. There are 11 Wawas in St. Pete-Clearwater making soft pretzels and hoagies daily.