While staying in the small town of St. Pete Beach, Florida, I was lucky enough to visit nearby St. Petersburg and see one of the most architecturally arresting -- there's no other word for it -- buildings I've ever laid eyes on.
Maybe it's the way the Florida sun gleams on the riveting structure rising from the waterfront, its 900 triangular glass panels snaking over the sides. Or maybe it's what's inside: the largest collection of Salvador Dali's work outside of his native Spain.
Whatever the reason, the $36 million, 66,400 square foot Dali Museum is a sight to behold both inside and out, earning awards such as top museum in the American South by the Michelin Guide; and landing on AOL Travel's list of of “buildings you have to see before you die.”
Housing more than 2,000 works of the master – 96 oil paintings including seven master works, watercolors, drawings, photographs, films, sculptures, and a massive archive – the building (nicknamed “The Glass Enigma”) was designed by internationally renowned architect Yann Weymouth.
Dali's spirit of playful imagination, disdain for authority, and a pervasive sense of humor and discovery reign supreme here. Take the excellent complimentary tour, where knowledgeable docents start at the third floor collection galleries. Or pick up a complimentary self-paced audio guide at the ticket desk. Either one is indispensable in deciphering Dali's complex works that often contain hidden images, puzzles, symbols, and inside jokes.
Remember Dali's famous melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory(1931)? (Note: The original is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, so don't look for it here.) You'll see more limp timepieces with The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory(1954) here, fragmented in smaller elements with rectangular blocks revealing more imagery and insight into the earlier work.
The monumentals are just that – soaring pieces that take your breath away with their scope and symbolism. The spectacular Gaia Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1976) is one of the last paintings he completed before his health began to fail -- Dali died in 1989 -- and one that you'll be telling your friends about for years.
Leave plenty of time to browse the extensive (i.e., huge) museum gift shop, replete with melting clock merchandise and other images of Dali's most famous works. Cafe Gaia offers light fare with a Spanish flair with indoor and outdoor seating and views of the waterfront. Relax in the Avant-Garden with its mystifying maze of hedges, grotto pond with bridge, and native flora.
From its mesmerizing 75-foot spiral staircase sculpture representing a single strand of DNA, to the continuously running loop of Un Chien Andalou (1929), considered one of the greatest surrealistic films ever made and co-directed by Dali himself, the museum will leave you dazed and yes, maybe a little confused – but in a good way. Even if you're not a fan of the mustachioed master, you can't help but get caught up in Dali's world – an irresistible combination of sheer madness and pure genius.
Getting there: Southwest Airlines has daily nonstops from Austin (AUS) and San Antonio (SAT) to Tampa Bay, Florida (TPA). St. Petersburg is 20 minutes from Tampa International Airport.
For ticket information and calendar of events, go to thedali.org