Tampa Florida apparently gets lots of visitors. But many just pass through. Lots flit through on their way to join the cruise ships departing from the growing port. Others use the highly rated airport as a gateway to speed through on to the theme parks of Orlando, or to vacation on the gorgeous beaches of St Petersburg close by.
They are making a mistake. Tampa is definitely worth spending time in.
I was invited to spend five days in the city and I was impressed with what I discovered. There was a real sense of energy and positivity. Importantly for visitors, I found a myriad of things to see and do. These included thrills, wildlife, culture, art and incredible places to eat.
What follows is my recommendation on the must-see and must-do sights, activities and the best things to do in Tampa.
Busch Gardens Tampa
Busch Gardens is totally fantastic. It combines an extensive range of animals with extreme rollercoaster thrill rides around an African theme. The park covers a vast area zoned into different regions like Edge of Africa, Nairobi, Congo and Pantopia. The Serengeti Plain takes up an enormous section of the park, and you can experience it either on the free trains that travel around the park or on the Serengeti Safari. This has an additional charge but gets you really close to the animals on an open-topped truck. It includes feeding giraffes by hand. An incredible and moving activity.
If you like rollercoasters you will be ecstatic in Busch Gardens. They have some of the longest, scariest and most intense rides I have seen. These are for people who like their adrenaline rush at the top of the scale. If you do not like riding, watching people on them is also mesmerizing.
Find out more: https://buschgardens.com/tampa/
Ybor City is a fascinating historic district with an enthralling history and many riveting stories.
Mr. Vincente Martinez Ybor created the city named after him in an alligator infested swamp outside of Tampa. He used it to resettle his cigar factory from Key West that was suffering from constant labour troubles. The Cigar Capital of the World emerged, with 237 factories producing a staggering 700,000,000 (!) hand rolled cigars at its peak in 1927. A diverse mix of Cubans, Spanish, Germans and Italians were drawn to the city, which created a vibrant culture. To fully appreciate the drama, rise and eventual decline of Ybor City I strongly recommend going on a guided tour rather than exploring alone.
Ten blocks are designated a National Historic Landmark District. Many original buildings, including the huge Ybor cigar factory, and homes survive. Unfortunately, some sections of the town were bulldozed down in a misguided and failed urban renewal scheme decades ago. The city is now rebuilding and renewing Ybor City following strict design and restoration guidelines.
You can also stand on the only piece of land that the Cuban government owns in the United States. It is called the Jose Marti Park. It is named after a hero of the Cuban independence struggle who campaigned, and raised money, in Florida and Ybor City to help fund the War of Independence against the Spanish.
Make sure to visit the over 100-year old La Segunda Central Bakery. It has a small shop selling its infamous Cuban bread, traditional Cuban sandwiches that originate from here and other cakes and pastries.
To find out more:
- Ybor Walking Tours: http://www.yborwalkingtours.com
- La Segunda Central Bakery: https://www.lasegundabakery.com
- Ybor City Online: https://yborcityonline.com
Tampa Waterfront and River
A key, and beautiful, feature of Tampa is the waterfront and river. There’s three ways I can recommend to enjoy and explore it:
- Take the Pirate Water Taxi and cruise along the Hillsborough River and the Garrison Channel. It’s a gentle and civilised way of seeing Tampa. You sit back as the taxi’s Captain gives a running commentary about what you are passing and seeing. It runs from outside the large Conference Centre to the Water Works Park and Ricks On The River and back. http://www.piratewatertaxi.com
- If you’re feeling more energetic, try the Tampa Bay Water Bikes. These are very stable and easy to peddle contraptions than enable you to make your own way down the river and back. It’s really good fun. http://www.tampawaterbikes.com
- The Tampa Riverwalk also starts at the Convention Centre and runs for miles along the river right out into the suburbs. It combines paths and walkways built above the water. Along the route are information signs and busts of famous and influential Tampa residents across the years. https://thetampariverwalk.com
Henry B Plant Museum
My interest in visiting was sparked by two things. I spotted this weird and distinctive looking building on the Pirate Taxi and Tampa River Walk. The turreted building is vast and impossible to miss (and stare at). When I discovered Henry B Plant built it as the luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel, back in the 1890s, to attract the wealthy to use the railways he had connected through Florida I had to go. The railway was one of the key factors that encouraged Ybor to move his cigar factory to Tampa over alternative locations he had considered.
The hotel was only open between December and April each year during the cooler Florida winters. It had no air-conditioning and the rich could not be enticed to visit the rest of the year.
The University of Tampa now uses most of the building as lecture rooms. Part of the ground floor hosts the Henry B Plant museum. This contains original furniture, fixtures and other artefacts from the original hotel. It tells the story of his contribution to the development of Tampa and stories of the guests and what the hotel offered them. I found it fascinating.
Find out more: http://www.plantmuseum.com
Tampa Museum of Art
If you’re looking for culture and art you will find it at the beautiful riverside Museum of Art. It hosts a diverse collection ranging from Greek, Roman though to Modern Pop Art. There are travelling exhibitions throughout the year too. The SONO cafe on the ground floor of the museum is a popular meeting point.
In addition to the artwork, people are drawn to the Museum for the gorgeous views from the park that surrounds it of the city skyline and across the river of the Henry B Plant Museum building.
It is easily reached along the Tampa River Walk and a short walk from the Conference Centre.
Find out more: http://tampamuseum.org
Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park
This is a great zoo with a more diverse range of animals from more regions than you will see at Busch Gardens. The sections include Africa (with elephants, rhino, giraffe and zebra), Asia (with leopard, sloth bear, Indian Rhino and an aviary), Primates, Florida (with a Manatee Centre, Stingray Bay, Flamingo, Black Bear and Florida Panther) and Wallaroo (a kid’s area with water play, petting zoo and other activities).
Throughout the day the zoo hosts a series of interactive events and activities to let guests get closer to, and learn more, about the animals. One of my favourites was the Macaw flyby, where after a countdown two young children pressed a button-releasing a group of brightly coloured Macaws. These swooped over our heads a few times before settling on a sign to be fed, while a zoo trainer told guests about the birds.
Find out more: https://zootampa.org
This is a highly respected aquarium not only for its exhibitions and outreach programs and camps but also for its conservation activities. These focus on sharks, sea coral and sea turtles.
The main areas in the Florida Aquarium are the Journey To Madagascar, Coral Reef, Stingray Beach, Wetlands Trail, Bays & Beaches and outside there is the Splash pad, a play area for children.
Find out more: https://www.flaquarium.org
There are two things I recommend trying in Tampa if you are looking for a break from sightseeing:
- Top Golf. This is a sprawling hi-tech driving range on three levels. The game involves trying to hit golf balls into targets spread across the range. The sophistication of the games can vary based on your skill level. It is huge fun, even if you cannot play golf like me. It has surprisingly great food too. https://topgolf.com/us/tampa/
- David J Straz Center for Performing Arts. This is a huge complex with five theatres. They have an Opera season, Orchestra season and then have a series of touring productions of major Broadway shows. https://www.strazcenter.org
It was clear to me that the people of Tampa are extremely passionate about sport. There are three professional teams in the city that I recommend you try to catch a game while you are visiting. They are:
- Ice hockey: Tampa Bay Lightning. https://www.nhl.com/lightning
- American football: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. http://www.buccaneers.com
- Baseball: Tampa Bay Rays. https://www.mlb.com/rays
The Tampa food scene is dynamic and there’s lots happening. I ate an amazing range and quality of food. So much so that I have a specific post about the places I ate at and recommend: https://www.tipsfortravellers.com/best-food-in-tampa/
There are at least two unique experiences I recommend you try:
- Food Halls. Visit one of the trendy and popular food halls. These are a reinvention and upmarket interpretation of food courts. One is Armature Works in a beautiful restored building where trolley buses used to be stored. The other, which I really loved, is the Hall on Franklin. http://armatureworks.com and https://thehallonfranklin.com
- Goodie Goodie Burgers. This is a modern incarnation of a Tampa institution that disappeared that has been brought back by the Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. The chain originally launched in 1925 and the last store of the original closed in 2005. This new version uses many of the same recipes, furniture and even the signage. http://goodygoodyburgers.com
The range of things to see and do in Tampa impressed me. I was also taken by the passion and energy that the locals had for their city. It is clearly going through a reinvention and developing. It is worth considering adding it to your Florida vacation list.
You can also watch my recommendations in my video below too:
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.
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