Are you visiting Tampa Bay for the first time? Below is a list of “Insider Tips” for things to see and do on your visit to this part of central Florida.
When I have visitors flying in to Tampa , I usually pick them up at Tampa International, unless they’re traveling via private jets charter, in which case they’ll land at the little airport near my house. If they are traveling with kids, the first place they want to see is Busch Gardens . Even with several outstanding themed animal exhibits including a 65 acre free roaming African Serengeti habitat, it is best known today for its collection of eight of the country’s best roller coasters and is a must see for kids of all ages who are at least “this high.”
Ybor, The Original “Little Havana”
One of the unique features of Tampa is its Cuban culture so I make sure we go to Ybor City National Historical District located adjacent to downtown and the home of the Tampa’s cigar industry for over 100 years. A stroll down Seventh Avenue displays a microcosm of society, from traditional Cuban coffee roasters, hand rolled cigar shops and nightclubs, to vintage stores, upscale art galleries and tattoo parlors, all situated within Ybor’s decorative original brick buildings heavily adorned with wrought iron trim. A must stop on Seventh Avenue is the Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, which takes up an entire city block and is a go-to place for Latin food and nightly Flamenco dancing since 1905. However, the best Cuban Sandwich and Devil Crabs are at Brocato’s where there’s always a line and where it’s almost a law that you strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting.
From Ybor, it’s a short trolley ride to the downtown Channelside waterfront shopping district where the Florida Aquarium has excellent natural displays of the “other” Florida in addition to the expected salt water creatures. I recommend the aquarium’s Wild Dolphin Cruise, a 90 minute boat cruise around Tampa Bay where up close viewing is the norm for over 500 wild dolphins which live in Tampa Bay. Because Tampa is on the water, has a river winding through it, and is surrounded by several natural springs, it is impossible to go far without water being part of the experience.
The best beaches are anywhere you want to dip your toes along the Gulf of Mexico. All of the area beaches are excellent and easily accessible with paid parking lots nearby or across the street. I especially like Pass-a-Grille Beach at the southern tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula because it doesn’t get as many tourists and has an old Florida beach town feel.
Touristy Things the Locals Love
If nostalgia combined with adventure is on the agenda, I’d recommend a short drive to Weeki Wachee Springs to see the famous underwater mermaid show, then afterward rent kayaks onsite and paddle down the crystal clear spring fed Weeki Wachee river where it’s common to encounter manatees swimming alongside your kayak. This can be a swimming trip, as most people pack lunches and pull their kayaks off to the shore and take dips along the way. And because of the force of the spring, paddling is almost unnecessary.
For visitors coming in February, the event to participate in is the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival and Parade, named after a notorious pirate named Jose Gaspar whose legend was adopted by Tampa in 1904 as a reason to have a city wide party during which “pirates” invade the city. Schools and businesses close as a few hundred thousand “pirates” line the streets for the parade.
For live music at night with local flair, Skipper’s Smokehouse is a favorite haunt for people of every age and background. It’s a comfortable inside/outside venue under 100-year-old live oak trees situated in the middle of a few open air buildings. The restaurant serves great bar type food which you eat on picnic tables right in front of the stage where dancing is encouraged and prevalent.
Tampa Bay Art Lovers
For the art enthusiasts, a trip across the bay to St. Petersburg is in order to visit the new home of the Salvador Dali Museum with the largest collection of his works anywhere. Just around the corner is the permanent Chihuly Collection featuring the blown glass creations of Dale Chihuly. And nearby Lakeland has the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, located on the campus of Florida Southern College, recently named the most beautiful campus in the country by Princeton Review. Even those who aren’t architecture buffs will find the guided tour interesting with the insights it provides on how and why this installation came to be.
Tampa Bay Food Favorites
For the best local style Italian pastries, Alessi Bakery which just celebrated its 100th anniversary is the place to go. Their specialty is guava turnovers which shouldn’t be missed.
And for an expensive but memorable meal, there’s Bern’s Steak House. Bring your wallet for this one and plan to splurge. Bern’s is a perennial national award winner for steaks and top-notch service. They have the largest private wine collection in the world and the wine list is bigger than a phone book at over five pounds. After dinner it is customary for the server to offer you a tour of the wine cellar downstairs where you’ll walk through the kitchen to the cellar where they store over 90,000 bottles. The kicker is that this is only about 20% of their entire collection, the rest of which is stored in nearby warehouses.
The Tampa Bay Times is the best local newspaper if you want to know what’s going on in Tampa. Be sure to grab a copy for up to date information on events and news.
What are your favorite things to see and do in Tampa Bay, Florida?
Frank Lloyd Wright building photo courtesy of Courtney Robin Hill. Photo of Pfeiffer Chapel courtesy of Mary An Sullivan. Additional photos courtesy of websites.