At almost 32 years old, I had never been to Florida until we took a vacation there last week. Okay, now that you're done gasping and judging me, let's move on.

From the Bucket List to Reality

A few years ago, I randomly read about The Happy Mural Project and how they were painting a sunflower mural in St. Petersburg, Florida. Being the art lover and sunflower enthusiast that I am, I instantly added this place to my bucket list because I had to see this mural in person. Their whole mission is to inspire happiness, and who doesn't want more of that?

From their Facebook page:

"Happy people inspire others. Inspired people change the world. The Happy Mural Project is more than just sunflowers on a wall, it is a movement that will uplift the community in an atmosphere of positive engagement. We just want to see the world smile!"

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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When my boyfriend and I decided to brave the high gas prices to take advantage of some time off work, I immediately suggested St. Petersburg. After a little discussion, we reserved our AirBnB, packed our bags, and loaded all three dogs into the car for the 13-hour drive from Evansville to the up-and-coming city of St. Petersburg.

Not Your Average Tourist Spot

If I could sum up our five days in St. Petersburg in three words, they would be Dog-Friendly, Culture, and REAL.

Located 23 miles from Tampa, nothing about this town screamed of tacky tourism gimmicks! We fell in love with the city's individualism and character. From an abundance of restaurants with a variety of cuisines, amazing beaches, and immersion in art and culture, we were able to enjoy experiences that felt local and unique.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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No One Does Dog-Friendly Like St. Petersburg

Another major perk for us as dog owners is that the entire town allows dogs almost anywhere. Most of the restaurants had dog-friendly seating, stores would allow you to shop with them, and there were beaches completely dedicated to our furry family members with numerous choices of dog parks. They even had a place called The Dog Bar where you could purchase a membership for your pup so that you can enjoy a drink with your friends and your canine companion can socialize with other pups while off-leash.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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We visited the dog beaches at Fort Desoto Park and Pass-A-Grille. They were both clean and well-maintained. Since we went on weekdays during the day, we never encountered a crowd. Our dogs were able to run in the powdery sand and swim off-leash without any worries.  At Fort Desoto, after a long day of swimming, our dogs loved the dog park where we were able to hose off all of the sand and let them run to dry off.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Beach, Please! 

Of course, it IS Florida and some beach time is almost required. If you aren't traveling with dogs, there were plenty of beaches for humans only. There were so many beaches in the area to choose from that there was no way to visit them all. We enjoyed warm, clear waters and soft white sand with an abundance of cool shells. Not only were the beaches family-friendly, but they also were a beautiful place to enjoy a sunset on a date night. On Pass-A-Grille Beach, we were even treated to dolphins surfacing along the horizon as the sun went down.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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So Much To Do, So Little Time

Outside of beach time, there was so much in St. Petersburg to do that anyone could find something to entertain them. From shops to a variety of attractions to see, there wasn't even a second of boredom.

We ventured into Clearwater roughly 24 miles away to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This aquarium is not like your typical aquarium with its heavy focus on rescue and rehabilitation. There was a limited selection of animal life but plenty of educational experiences like a walk-through of their animal hospital and hands-on activities for children. They also offer a complimentary 30-minute boat tour with general admission.

This aquarium is most famous for Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail who passed away last year. Her story is featured in the movies "Dolphin Tale" and "Dolphin Tale 2." You can see many of the set props on display here as well as visit Hope, the dolphin who lived with Winter and is the star of the sequel. If you are looking for a more traditional aquarium experience, the Florida Aquarium is just a short drive away located in Tampa.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Another cool experience was the dolphin tours. There were many to choose from but we chose to do the one with Hubbard's Marina in John's Pass at Madeira Beach. In 90 minutes, we were treated to tons of close-up dolphin views including a mom with her baby. It was fairly inexpensive and well worth the $30!

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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St. Petersburg is also known for its art community. Aside from the museums like the Imagine Museum and Museum of Fine Arts that we visited, the entire town is a gallery in itself with murals on almost every corner everywhere you looked. All of the museums also offer discounted rates on Thursdays which was a nice perk of our budget-friendly vacation. You can also visit the popular Dali Museum, but it sells out fast so make sure to reserve tickets in advance so you don't miss out like we did. If museums aren't your thing, there is plenty of free art around town to see as well as the immersive experience at The Fairgrounds where you can even do a scavenger hunt!

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Make Sure to Bring Your Appetite!

If you think choosing what to do looks hard, you aren't prepared for the number of food options there are in St. Pete. There were so many restaurants of so many different cuisines. We were very selective of where we ate so we could try a different cuisine each night. For breakfast, Pete's Bagels had the best bagels I have ever eaten (Sorry, Donut Bank!). From Mexican at the Red Mesa Cantina to seafood from Fresco's Waterfront Bistro or Italian from Buona Ristorante, there was nothing that we didn't find absolutely delicious. Each place offered its own unique experience from outdoor garden seating or ocean views, but no place was as unique as the 2D Cafe. This cafe took art to a whole new level as the entire interior was designed to look like a two-dimensional drawing. Probably the coolest place I have ever enjoyed my coffee!

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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If you are left with even a smidge of room for dessert, the boozy ice cream from Beans & Barlour or authentic gelato from Mammamia or Paciugo's were the best end to the hot days.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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Need a break from dining out while enjoying your vacation? I highly suggest checking out Mazzaro's Italian Market. With imported goods from Italy and authentic take-and-bake meals, my Italy-loving heart was excited to make a meal in the kitchen of our vacation rental. We even bought an electric, iceless cooler while in Florida to haul all of the desserts, pasta dishes, and meats back to Evansville.

Seriously, Just Go!

If you are looking for a break from the tristate and planning a trip to Florida, you can't leave St. Petersburg out of your travel plans! The town is full of fun, unique experiences while giving you a relaxing, quiet getaway from all of the touristy rush.

Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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LOOK: See America's 50 Best Beach Towns

Every beach town has its share of pluses and minuses, which got us thinking about what makes a beach town the best one to live in. To find out, Stacker consulted data from WalletHub, released June 17, 2020, that compares U.S. beach towns. Ratings are based on six categories: affordability, weather, safety, economy, education and health, and quality of life. The cities ranged in population from 10,000 to 150,000, but they had to have at least one local beach listed on TripAdvisor. Read the full methodology here. From those rankings, we selected the top 50. Readers who live in California and Florida will be unsurprised to learn that many of towns featured here are in one of those two states.

Keep reading to see if your favorite beach town made the cut.