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An Insider’s guide to Gulfport: Plan your trip, where to park, the beach scene

People don’t come to Gulfport for the beach. They come for the characters, the eclectic art scene and the food. Between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, it's a city that beats to its own drum, with a lively main street of bars, restaurants and local music, and a waterfront historic casino that still hosts weekly dance classes.

Incorporated in 1910 after a series of name changes (Disston City, Bonifacio, Veteran City), Gulfport offers an offbeat day trip or fun one-night stay for the foodie or outdoor adventurer who is cool with a "no frills" attitude.

The vibe isn't quite as quiet as Cedar Key, and it's not as lively as the Florida Keys, but Gulfport is as downright funky as both places.

Cruise through the brick-lined neighborhood streets and you'll see "Keep Gulfport Weird" signs dangling from neon-colored mailboxes in front of charming Old Florida-style homes with wrap-around front porches. And watch out for the locals who cruise by on pirate-themed golf carts or motorcycles on Shore Boulevard on their way to karaoke at O'Maddy's Pub.

Plan your trip

Tampa International Airport (TPA) is the main airport hub for the region over the Howard Frankland Bridge in Hillsborough County. All major airline carriers fly in and out of this regional and growing hub.

St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) is physically closer to Gulfport in Pinellas County, but offers a select range of flights, mostly by discount airline Allegiant Air. That said, it’s a small and quick airport to navigate.

Gulfport is easy to get to via car from all major metro areas in Tampa Bay. It's at the southern end of Pinellas County, but is less than a 15-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg or St. Pete Beach. It's a 40-minute drive from Clearwater Beach.

Beach Boulevard is the main road that leads into the city off 22nd Avenue South. Most of the city's businesses are located on Beach Boulevard, which dead-ends into the town's historic casino. Some waterfront restaurants extend out on Shore Boulevard, too.

Parking

Gulfport has ample free parking available. There is a free lot in front of the beach access  on Shore Boulevard, and free spaces available along Shore and Beach boulevards. On the off chance that parking is hard to come by, visitors can parallel park on the neighborhood streets just a few blocks off the main commercial areas.

Gulfport also operates its own trolley, which visitors and residents can ride around the city for free. It operates every first Friday and third Saturday evening from 6 to 10 p.m. You can park at Wood Ibis Park, the Recreation Complex, the public library, the senior center or Chase Park and wave down the driver to get a ride. More information about the trolley is here.

Beach scene

Gulfport does have a public beach area on Boca Ciega Bay, which offers impressive views of the neighboring Tierra Verde neighborhood and the historic "Pink Palace," the Don CeSar resort on St. Pete Beach. It's a great spot to watch the sunset.

But the beach is small and pales in comparison to its better-known neighbors, like Pass-A-Grille and St. Pete Beach. Since Gulfport's beach is on the bay and not the Gulf of Mexico, the water can be murky and the shoreline is often stuffed with seaweed.

Gulfport's beach has suffered in recent years because of the city of St. Petersburg's failing sewage system. Sewage has been pumped into Boca Ciega Bay, and while the water has been deemed safe to wade in, it's really not recommended.

The beach is just steps off Shore Boulevard, which hosts a slew of restaurants and bars. The beach area hosts several local volleyball leagues and tournaments. Local yoga classes are sometimes take place in the mornings, too.

There is a public fishing pier at the east end of the beach which is popular with the locals. Sea trout, snook, amberjack and Spanish mackerel are the local catch.

More about Gulfport

ALSO READ: Things to do, places to eat and drink, where to stay, events and shopping

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