10 Museums Worth Visiting in St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL

Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Dunedin Historical Museum
Photo courtesy of Leepa Ratner Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond
By Michelle da Silva Richmond, St. Petersburg / Clearwater Local Expert

It has often been said that in order to appreciate the present, we must look into the past. Whether or not this is true, museum-hopping can be fun - and doesn't have be to saved just for rainy days.   

The St. Petersburg-Clearwater area has much to explore - even if you aren't a history buff - with choices ranging from the poignant to the playful.

One of the most impressive is the Florida Holocaust Museum, where that sad chapter in history is reverently honored. 

Another excellent choice - the Armed Forces Military Museum - pays tribute to the men and women who served, highlighting, preserving and remembering the sacrifices they made for our freedom.

Other repositories of the past, such as: the St. Petersburg Museum of History, Dunedin Historical Museum and Gulf Beaches Historical Museum showcase area history in a comprehensive time capsule.

Art lovers will appreciate the Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and Leepa-Ratner Museum of Art.

For something more whimsical, automobile aficionados shouldn't miss the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum's large collection of vintage vehicles from Europe and the US.

For a proverbial "beach community," this area has an impressive number of options.

10. Gulf Beaches Historical Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Proof that great treasures often come in small packages can be found in this small museum tucked into Pass-a-Grille's National Historic District. Built in 1917 as the first church on the area's barrier islands, it served as such until 1959, when it was sold to Joan Haley, who made it her residence until 1989. Haley willed it to Pinellas County and it opened as a museum in 1993 with a collection of historic artifacts, WW II exhibits, and relics from the Don Cesar. Those, along with antique photos, postcards, newspaper clippings and school memorabilia offer a glimpse into the development of the South Pinellas Beach communities. The non-profit museum is manned by local volunteers and is funded through membership and donations and proceeds from the small gift shop.

9. Dunedin Historical Museum
Photo courtesy of Dunedin Historical Museum

Located in the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot, this museum has been consistently named "Best Historical Museum in the Tampa Bay Area" by Tampa Bay Magazine. The building itself - built in 1924 - has been transformed into a charming repository of regional history with interactive and special traveling exhibits which draw people of all ages. The history of the town's Scottish heritage, along with the account of its pioneers, citrus industry and railroads are proudly on display in some 2,000 artifacts and 2,500 photos. Also featured is the background on Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands. Railroad memorabilia traces the evolution of early railroad companies in Florida and a permanent exhibit outlines Dunedin's pioneering families and its multicultural origins.

8. Leepa Ratner Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Leepa Ratner Museum of Art

Opened in 2002 on the Tarpon Springs Campus of St. Petersburg College, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art was named for art donors Allen and Isabelle Leepa and artist Abraham Rattner. Showcasing 20th and 21st century modern and contemporary art, it houses more than 6,000 pieces. A host of educational programs for people of all ages complement the eight permanent galleries and year-round special exhibits. Art classes, workshops and cultural trips are all part of the mix, while an interactive gallery affords a unique opportunity for a hands-on experience. Family programs are especially popular as they offer community events, treasure hunts, games, puzzles and much more. Isabelle's Museum Store features a selection of art-related items including books, posters, decorative objects and creative toys.

7. Great Explorations Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Since 1987 this popular non-profit organization has been wowing children 10 and under with a veritable treasure trove of activities and exhibits. Spread throughout its 24,000 feet of "learning space," are exhibits and programs encouraging kids to follow the museum mantra: "Make a discovery, make a mess and even make a new friend." But it's not just a museum. It's a fun learning experience with activities to keep them busy for hours. At "Publix supermarket," they learn how to shop and make healthy choices; the firehouse teaches them fire safety at home, while an interactive zone focusing on health and nutrition - created by Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - allows them to "check in" patients, play a game of "Operation" and more. There's even a "pizza kitchen," where they can take orders and "make" food. The Critter Cave allows them to peek into the intriguing world of arachnids and reptiles.

6. Tampa Bay Automobile Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Automobile enthusiasts of all ages will appreciate the display of 70 vintage cars on parade as part of the private collection of French entrepreneur Alain Cerf and his family. Amassed over a period of 30 years, the exhibit contains mainly European-built vehicles (there are 11 from the US) and is focused on cars which demonstrate "special creativity and imagination in their history and engineering." All cars are in running shape and are taken on the road regularly. Vehicles range from the 1930s to 1990s models in addition to a replica of a 1770 steam carriage. If you're lucky enough to meet the very knowledgeable staff member Gary - or even Cerf himself - they will regale you with interesting anecdotes about the backgrounds of many of the vehicles.

5. St Petersburg Museum of History
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Lending credence that often, good things come in small packages, the St. Petersburg Museum of History is a veritable time capsule of local lore tucked into a scenic downtown venue. The oldest museum in the city, it houses a collection of historical artifacts and a poignant tribute to the first commercial flight on Jan. 1, 1914, along with a host of traveling exhibits featured throughout the year. Baseball fans will be impressed by the collection of autographed baseballs - the largest in the country. Of special note is the Lady of the Nile, a 3,000 year-old mummy tucked into an ancient sarcophagus. Expansion plans are in the works so not all of the artifacts are currently on display.

4. Armed Forces Military Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Military history is on parade in the beautifully appointed Armed Forces Military Museum. Open since 2008, the museum honors all branches of the service, showcasing 100,000 artifacts and 50 operational vehicles set in 50,000 sq ft of space. Striking dioramas and exhibits pay tribute to wars starting with WWI through the Vietnam War. Expansion plans call for a Desert Storm and "current conflicts" dioramas. Poignant memorabilia - including a WWI trench, WWII Pearl Harbor and South Pacific exhibits and more are enhanced by actual audio broadcasts of important events. A WWII D-day landing in a mock-up of a French village is especially moving. Rides offer an opportunity to climb on board a WWII M8 reconnaissance vehicle or experience simulators to participate in various battle campaigns in WWII or Desert Storm.

3. Museum of Fine Arts
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Opened in 1965 the Museum of Fine Arts features thousands of art objects spanning early antiquity to the present in one of the finest art collections on Florida's West Coast. Founded by Margaret Acheson Stuart, it was the first art museum in St Petersburg to be located along the downtown waterfront. It features a comprehensive permanent exhibit as well as varied slate of traveling shows. Art, artifacts and majestic sculptures hail from ancient Greece, Rome, Asia and South America. Masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Whistler, Cézanne, O'Keeffe and others lead the list of artists on display. Perhaps the area's best kept dining secret is the MFA Café, which serves a full seasonal menu with fresh salads, sandwiches, soups and desserts for lunch Tues. - Fri 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and brunch Sat. - Sun. 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.

2. The Dali Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Located along St Petersburg's scenic waterfront, The Dali Museum is home to an important collection of Salvador Dali's art, spanning his lifetime. The dazzling building itself is a masterpiece with more than 1,000 triangular-shaped glass panels encasing it. Inside, you'll find more than 2,000 works - the largest collection outside of Europe - including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, photographs, sculptures and other objects d'art. Free audio headsets offer detailed explanations of some of the paintings and a variety of programs, such as lectures, films and workshops are offered. In addition to the permanent exhibit, a host of rotating artists and photographers are featured throughout the year. A gift shop boasts a large assortment of Dali-inspired memorabilia and the charming Café Gala - named after Dali's wife -serves fresh tapas, soups, salads, light bites and pastries inside or out on the Avant Garden patio.

1. Florida Holocaust Museum
Photo courtesy of Michelle da Silva Richmond

Man's inhumanity to man is poignantly on display in the tastefully appointed Florida Holocaust Museum in St Petersburg. Founded in 1989 by Holocaust survivor Walter P. Loebenberg, the museum showcases the tragic plight of Holocaust victims via a series of personal histories, photographs and artifacts. Tattered clothing - including camp uniforms and tiny shoes worn by young victims of the atrocity - and movie clips offering narratives by Holocaust survivors complement the sobering exhibit. A boxcar once used to haul prisoners to concentration camps offers another sad page to the museum. Audio headsets offer a description of what's on the first-floor, while the second floor gives a haunting overview of the Women of Ravensbrück, the concentration camp exclusively for women.