Tucked inside Tampa Bay on Florida’s west coast, the laid-back city of Tampa has evolved into a popular beach destination and a bustling cruise port. Its waterfront is jam-packed with sights, sounds and surf, and is just a quick hop away from historic St. Petersburg and from Clearwater, gateway to some of Florida’s best beaches.
Historic sights can be found along the brick-lined walkways of the Cuban-influenced Ybor City, which is dotted with wrought-iron balconied buildings. You’ll also spot flamenco dancers galore and old factories selling Florida’s best hand-rolled cigars, not to mention Major League teams batting up for spring training.
Families will love the area’s theme parks and zoos, while art lovers can check out the Tampa Museum of Art and the Dali Museum in neighboring St. Petersburg. And if you want nothing more than to lie on a beach, there are dozens of stretches of sugary-soft sand within an hour’s drive.
The Ybor City Museum offers tours of a restored cigar worker’s house (La Casita) as well as walking tours of the historic Ybor City district. The museum complex includes the amazing Ferlita Bakery building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there is a lovely ornamental garden too.
Try to find Nemo at the Florida Aquarium. Popular programs include “Swim with the Fishes,” which allows kids age 6 and up to paddle around in a coral reef tank, and the more adventurous “Dive with the Sharks” (for certified SCUBA divers at least 15 years of age).
Animal lovers have a number of fun options in the Tampa area, including the Lowry Park Zoo, the Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric (open part of the year only), and the Big Cat Rescue Center, which saves lions, tigers, bobcats and more from situations such as performing acts or misguided pet owners.
Inside the old Tampa Bay Hotel is the Henry B. Plant Museum, named after the railroad magnate who helped develop Tampa into the city it is today. This Victorian palace displays stunning European furnishings and art.
Learn about the local Native Americans, the first Europeans to land in the area and the history of the area’s immigrant cigar workers at the Tampa Bay History Center.
You’ll find everything from contemporary art to Greek and Roman Classical artifacts at the Tampa Museum of Art. It’s not particularly large, but it enjoys a scenic location right on the riverfront.
See who’s up at bat during spring training — since several Major League teams call this part of the world home in February and March. The Phillies are based in Clearwater, the Tigers play in Lakeland and the Yankees have set up shop in Tampa.
Kick back in Clearwater on its award-winning three-mile stretch of beach. Pier 60 Park is a wonderful family complex, offering not just the expansive beach, but also covered playgrounds, fishing, live music and a glorious Gulf of Mexico sunset any day of the year.
Clearwater is home to several other popular attractions and activities, like the Captain Memo Pirate Cruise, which sets out from the Clearwater Marina for two-hour sails; kids don pirate hats and go out on a treasure hunt while moms and dads relax with complimentary beverages and keep an eye out for dolphins. Or walk the trails and boardwalks inside the Moccasin Lake Nature Park, a 51-acre preserve with a nature center for rehabitated birds.
You’ll melt when you see some of the rescued marine animals, such as Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles and otters, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The most popular critter is Winter the dolphin, who starred in the movie “Dolphin Tale.”
Stroll through St. Petersburg’s bloom-filled Sunken Gardens to see an exotic collection of more than 50,000 tropical flowers and plants. Don’t miss the butterfly garden.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. It’s the world’s most comprehensive and incredible collection of works by the famous Spanish master (there are more than 2,000 works of art here). Gallery tours are free with admission and are useful in understanding the sometimes cryptic nature of Dali’s work. Also in St. Petersburg is the Morean Arts Center, home to a colorful collection of glass art by Dale Chihuly.
Discover local street art with the St. Pete Mural Tour, a 90-minute walking tour held every Saturday morning.
One of the largest Holocaust museums in the country, the Florida Holocaust Museum played a critical role in shaping legislation that made Florida one of the country’s first states to mandate Holocaust education in public schools. Exhibits include a train car that transported Jews during World War II as well as a moving collection of art.
The Tampa area is well known for its many white sand beaches. Indian Rocks Beach, along Gulf Boulevard, is conveniently accessible from the city (and there are plenty of restaurants nearby). Clearwater Beach is a gorgeous swath of sugar-fine white sand that offers everything from swimming to volleyball. At St. Pete Beach you can rent a Jet Ski, or go SCUBA diving, parasailing or fishing. If you’re seeking solitude, head to the quiet sands of Caladesi Island State Park, on one of Florida’s last undeveloped barrier islands (it’s accessible by ferry from Honeymoon Island).
For leisure strollers, nothing beats the turn-of-the-century fishing village of John’s Pass, between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, where old tin-roofed wood shacks offer up art galleries, cute shops, beach bars and restaurants. Or consider visiting the quirky town of Gulfport, with plenty of fun boutiques and a twice-monthly Art Walk (on the first Friday and third Saturday evenings each month).
For those desperate to discover their inner deep-sea fishermen, there are party-central boats at Hubbard’s Marina on Madeira Beach.
It may not be Disney World, but Busch Gardens is no second fiddle. It’s got it all: thrilling coaster rides, great entertainment and food, and a large zoo, where you can see lots of animals roaming freely. Take a ride through the Serengeti Plain, sign up for a nighttime safari or take a Tiger Insider Tour to learn about the care and feeding of this endangered species. For thrill seekers, there’s the Montu — one of the world’s largest inverted roller coasters — as well as about a dozen other rides.
For all things nature just 25 minutes from Tampa and close to Busch Gardens, take the two-hour or full-day Canoe Escape down the Hillsborough River through a 16,000-acre wildlife preserve. You’ll paddle down “alligator alley,” where dozens of gators, including some 11-footers, sunbathe on logs and dive into the river from the river’s banks. Tour guides also point out snakes, turtles, river otters, fish and birds of prey as they relax in their natural habitat. Hourly rentals also are available.
We dare you to freefall at Skydive City. About 45 minutes from Tampa, this is one of the best places for skydivers — even first-timers.
Tampa is a fun place to eat on any budget. Catch a flamenco show while you eat in Ybor City, enjoy fresh-caught seafood or take a romantic sunset cruise complete with dinner and dancing.
Opened in 1905, Columbia Restaurant is one of Florida’s oldest restaurants — and an Ybor City institution. Filled to the nines with kitsch and history, this huge eatery also has great food. If you find yourself here in the evening, get a table near the dance floor for up-close view of the colorful flamenco dancers.
Along with the usual meat-and-potatoes favorites, the very popular Bern’s Steak House offers a long list of caviar dishes that’ll knock your socks off. Reservations highly recommended.
Don’t miss the beloved Fourth Street Shrimp Store if you’re in St. Petersburg. Boiled, fried, scampied — doesn’t matter. It’s all good. So’s the clam chowder.
One magazine chose the Mill as the best new restaurant in Florida when it opened in 2015. Located in St. Petersburg, the Mill serves inventive American cuisine with international influences — like red curry coconut braised short ribs and jerk marinated grilled shrimp.
Mise En Place serves up excellent New American cuisine that Zagat raves about. For a special night out, try the five-course tasting menu.
A St. Pete institution, Skyway Jack’s has a huge breakfast/lunch menu featuring yummy French toast, scrapple and the freshest just-squeezed orange juice.
Aboard its fleet of 130- to 180-foot yachts, Yacht StarShip Dining Cruises has been taking visitors on made-to-order lunch and dinner cruises on the bay since 2001. There’s an open-air deck for cocktails and dancing to live music.
Shopping in Tampa
The Tampa area is home to a wide range of shopping opportunities, from mega-malls to antique shops and used bookstores. One popular souvenir is hand-rolled cigars from Ybor City. You’ll need a car to reach many of the areas listed below.
The enormous mall at International Plaza and Bay Street is home to department stores Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom as well as some 200 other shops and boutiques, including Gucci, Kate Spade and J.Crew.
Head to historic Ybor City for art galleries, vintage fashions and hand-rolled cigars — and a trip to Centro Ybor, a popular mall. The weekly Ybor City Saturday Market is a popular place to go hunting for regionally grown produce, freshly baked breads, unique gifts, and local arts and crafts.
Outside downtown Tampa are the upscale boutiques and restaurants of Hyde Park Village, including names like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn. Art festivals, concerts and other events are regularly held here.
Bibliophiles should make a beeline for the Old Tampa Book Company, offering rare and used books. Or, if you’re in St. Petersburg, try Haslam’s, which has been in business since 1933.
For fun, cheap finds, check out Tampa’s Big Top Flea Market, open every Saturday and Sunday. More than 500 vendors offer everything from handbags to house plants.
Antique buffs should head to St. Petersburg and wander the aisles of the numerous antique shops along a five-block stretch of Central Avenue.