Outdoor Adventures and Indoor Fascinations Await Tampa Visitors
By Skye Rodgers
Tampa Local Expert
Many visitors to Tampa Bay are looking for the nearest beach as soon as they step off the plane. Granted, the beaches are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation, and there's nothing wrong with a little R & R, but here's a tip: there's a lot to see and do within Tampa's city limits. From world-class museums to fun family adventures, there is something for everyone on this list of Tampa's 10 best attractions and activities.
Given Tampa's warm, sunny weather, many of the top things to do involve being outdoors. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is the city's top family attraction featuring fascinating creatures, extreme roller-coasters and world-class entertainment. This is a theme park that rivals the best Orlando has to offer, all at a better price. Visit their huge waterpark, Adventure Island located just down the road and save even more with the purchase of a combo ticket.
Tampa also features several inspiring, educational and entertaining museums. One of the more recent additions is the innovative Tampa Bay History Center. Take a walk through the fascinating history of the area's rich history and culture through interactive exhibits and stunning displays. Work up an appetite and visit the Columbia Cafe located in the museum that serves up the same traditional Cuban and Spanish fare as the famous Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
Hillsborough River State Park
To see natural Florida without having to drive very far out of town, Hillsborough River State Park is your best bet. Located upriver from downtown Tampa in northeastern Hillsborough County, this is one of Florida's oldest and most popular state parks. The list of things to do here is expansive, starting with both full-facility and primitive camping. Canoes and kayaks can be rented to go down the river. Carefully, though, as the river is fast moving and considered Class II rapids. There are also numerous picnic areas, a public pool, and numerous hiking trails where, if you're lucky, you will be able to spot some native Florida wildlife. (813-987-6771)
Yes, a sidewalk is one of Tampa's best attractions. Before you start with the jokes, this is a very special sidewalk. Running from just north of MacDill Air Force Base to downtown Tampa along Hillsborough Bay, the sidewalk that runs along Bayshore Boulevard is the longest continuous sidewalk in the US. It is south Tampa's unofficial gym, where at all hours of the day you can find many people walking, jogging, biking, and rollerblading down the nearly flat pavement. With the water on one side and some of Tampa's most expensive real estate on the other, the scenery can't be beat. It's also the location of our most important celebration, the annual Gasparilla parade in late January. Bayshore is simply the city's most distinctive feature.
Tampa Museum of Art
Eight riveting galleries await guests at the Tampa Museum of Art, a boldly designed riverfront museum housing six temporary exhibits and an extraordinary permanent collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and 20th-century sculpture. After browsing the galleries, visitors can wander through the serene riverfront sculpture garden before indulging in cool, creamy gelato at Sono Cafe. Head next door to check out their beautiful museum shop where you can find unique gifts and souvenirs of your visit. Special events like Saturday morning yoga provide innovative ways for patrons to immerse themselves in the exhilarating world of art. (813-274-8130)
Henry B. Plant Museum
Built in 1891 by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, this history museum is located in what was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, an extravagant resort that drew such guests as Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth. Now home to the University of Tampa, Plant's accomplishment is made all the more amazing when you realize that when it was built, the hotel was surrounded only by swampland. Now exquisitely restored, the hotel's striking Moorish architecture, lavish furnishings and vibrant gardens provide an awe-inspiring glimpse into the early years of Florida tourism. Sure, it makes returning to a modern-day hotel room a bit sad, but this opulent palace is a definite must-see. (813-254-1891)
Lowry Park Zoo
Everybody loves a zoo, and Lowry Park Zoo is one of the cleanest, best organized you will find anywhere, so much so that it was recently voted the best zoo in the country by Parents Magazine. All of your favorites are here, including African species like giraffes, rhinos, and hippos, Asian animals like lions and tigers as well as animals native to Florida, like various species of alligator and crocodile. Once they've made their way around to all of the animals, the kids can play in the Australian-themed children's area that includes rides and other games. (813-935-8552)
Ybor City Museum State Park
Built to preserve and celebrate Ybor City's colorful history, this acclaimed museum is a highlight of Tampa's colorful historic district also known as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Housed in the renovated historic Ferlita Bakery, the museum boasts temporary and permanent exhibits that bring to life Ybor's golden age. Outside you'll find a peaceful 19th-century-style garden to relax in and you can also tour a "casita," representative of a typical cigar worker's home. On Saturdays, visitors can also enjoy a walking tour of this lively city still filled with the aroma of hand-rolled cigars. (813-247-6323)
Tampa Bay History Center
The Tampa Bay History Center, a 60,000-square-foot waterfront museum, presents 12,000 years of Tampa Bay history through innovative, interactive exhibits that enthrall visitors of all ages. Patrons can browse a 1920s-era cigar store, explore a vast array of Seminole artifacts, and view over 1,000 Tampa cigar industry-related objects. With dramatic theater presentations and captivating displays, even the staunchest museum skeptic will be giddy with a sense of historic adventure. There is a wonderful museum gift store where you can find unique Tampa souvenirs and if you're hungry, try the onsite Columbia Cafe. Sister to the famous Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, this version serves many of the same Spanish delicacies. (813-228-0097, 813-274-8130)
One of the best aquariums in the southeast, this amazing attraction truly explores sea life by featuring more than 20,000 plants and animals in fresh and saltwater environments. Exhibits document the movement of water from wetlands to ocean and include a million-gallon coral reef display that houses fish of all kinds. Twice each day, divers feed sharks living in the deep water aquarium, and other areas showcase river otters, alligators and stingrays. Kids in particular enjoy the "Penguin Promenade" (Daily 10am-3pm), where they're allowed to get up close and personal with African black-footed penguins. A gift shop and restaurant are on the premises. (813-273-4000)
The Tampa Riverwalk is a scenic exploration of the downtown riverfront. A good place to start is the Straz Center for Performing Arts, however, you can join the walk from anywhere along the route (see their website for a map). The Riverwalk takes you past most of the popular downtown attractions including the Tampa Museum of Art, Curtis Hixon Park, the Convention Center, the Tampa Bay History Center, and the Channelside Bay Plaza, before ending at the Florida Aquarium. Along the way you will pass interpretive exhibits highlighting Tampa's history and numerous public art exhibits. The path is almost 2.5 miles long, but there are plenty of spots to stop for a rest and grab a drink or a quick bite along the way. ((813) 319-8441)
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Wild animals and wilder rides await visitors at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The 335-acre Africa-inspired theme park's six infamous roller coasters, 2,000-plus animals and entertaining live shows provide truly unforgettable thrills. There is something for kids of all age at this world-class park. Adventure lovers can brave SheiKra, a floorless dive coaster with a 200-foot, 90-degree plunge while animal enthusiasts might enjoy hand-feeding kangaroos and wallabies at Walkabout Way or enjoying majestic views of free-roaming giraffes, zebras and white rhinos on the Serengeti Railway. Be prepared to walk in order to explore all areas of the park. There are several restaurants and numerous vendors throughout the park to keep you fueled on your journey. (813-987-5082, 888-800-5447)
About Skye Rodgers
Skye has lived in Tampa for over 16 years and spends much of her time exploring the region and discovering its hidden treasures. As a native of Canada, Skye has happily embraced the no cold, no snow climate and enjoys basking on the beautiful beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and navigating the waters of Tampa Bay. When not out exploring Tampa, Skye is a freelance writer and public relations professional. She currently provides public relations counsel on a freelance basis to non-profits, social enterprises and small business.
Read more about Skye Rodgers here.