Regionally, Tampa Bay encompasses four cities—Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Brandon. All border the largest open-water estuary on Florida’s west coast (covering nearly 400 square miles). The outdoor recreational opportunities alone provide reason enough to visit the region, but if aquatic activities aren’t your thing, the Tampa Bay area is packed with loads of other exciting experiences to be had. So, no matter if you’re the adrenaline junkie, shopaholic, art aficionado, or bar hopper, this area has got something for everyone.
Watch Now: Essential Things to See and Do in Tampa
See Manatees in Their Natural Habitat
Even though there are high-quality zoo and aquarium options in Tampa, they can get pricey if you're visiting with the whole family. Thankfully, the Manatee Viewing Center is a unique place to see these majestic sea cows without paying a dime. Seawater used by the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach is pumped back out into the Bay after being warmed (it's clean water, so there's no water pollution happening). In the winter when temperatures drop, the local manatees gather around the power plant to swim around in the warmer water.
Today, this area is a protected sanctuary and run by the Manatee Viewing Center. It's free to visit but only open when the manatees are around, usually from November to April. In addition to the sea animals, this habitat is home to other wildlife as well. There are butterfly gardens, a stingray touch tank, and a trekking route through the estuary for more animal sightings.
Grab a Bite With Friends at Armature Works
For a little taste of Brooklyn in Central Florida, visit Armature Works, a once-dilapidated warehouse that's been repurposed into a trendy food market and cultural center. Located in the historic Tampa Heights neighborhood on the shore of the Hillsborough River, this fun gathering place is one of the hippest spots in the city. The highlight is the Heights Public Market, a food hub of different restaurant stalls serving everything from vegetarian comfort food to artisan ice cream sandwiches. Indoor dining is available, but the market is best enjoyed on a sunny day when you can eat and drink outside overlooking the river.
If you happen to be in town on the second Wednesday of the month, head over in the evening for the monthly Heights Night Market. In addition to even more food trucks, you can also peruse and purchase locally made handicrafts.
Spend the Afternoon With Dolphins
Get out of Tampa Bay and head out into the Gulf of Mexico on a dolphin sightseeing tour for a chance to see these playful creatures in their natural habitat. Unlike an aquarium or a tank experience to touch dolphins, these porpoises are all free, so the tours are considered ecologically responsible. Boats travel out into Boca Ciega Bay and the Gulf where pods of dolphins are usually plentiful, so spotting them is usually guaranteed (just in case, be sure to seek out a company that returns your money if no animals are seen). You're also likely to see at least some other wildlife on your excursion, such as seabirds, manatees, and even sea turtles.
Visit a Theme Park
Located about fifteen minutes from the city center, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is a must for any thrill seeker visiting the area. The adventure park is not only packed with rush-inducing coasters, but it’s also home to Tampa’s largest zoo. With over 12,000 animals from 300 different species, Busch Gardens will not disappoint. It’s world-class thrill rides, heart-pounding excitement, and family-friendly entertainment all rolled up into one.
For a wet ‘n wild time, check out Tampa's only water park, Adventure Island. Immerse yourself in 30 acres of high-speed thrills and sunny tropical surroundings. Start your day at one of the park’s ten tube slides, then head to the 17,000 square-foot wave pool and enjoy the surf. Oh, and don’t forget to ride the park’s newest slide, Vanish Point. This 70-foot drop slide will leave you craving more.
Explore the City's Zoo or Aquarium
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo is recognized as the #1 family-friendly zoo in the nation by Child and Parents magazines. Over 2,000 animals in natural habitats populate seven main exhibit areas—Asian Gardens, Primate World, Manatee and Aquatic Center, Florida Wildlife Center, Free-Flight Aviary, Wallaroo Station, and Safari Africa.
If marine life is more your speed, visit The Florida Aquarium. See sharks, alligators, otters, and penguins, or you can even touch a stingray, bamboo shark, or starfish. For an even more hands-on experience, the aquarium offers Swim & Dive tours where visitors can actually suit up in scuba gear and swim with the fish and sharks.
Discover Something New at MOSI
You can easily fill up an afternoon exploring Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI). It's the largest science center in the southeastern United States, featuring 400,000 square feet of interactive activities and exhibits. MOSI also includes a planetarium and Florida's only IMAX Dome Theatre, projecting images on a five-story, dome-shaped screen for a truly immersive experience.
Wander Among Dinosaurs
They're back and they're life-size! Walk among 150 dinosaurs at Dinosaur World, located in Plant City, about a 20-minute drive from central Tampa. Search for authentic fossils and unearth a life-size dinosaur skeleton in the park’s boneyard. Even though it may sound a bit gimmicky, Dinosaur World is consistently selected as one of the top destinations in Florida. Interactive activities are fun for both young children and older kids with an interest in paleontology (or "Jurassic Park"). Let yourself be surprised at this endearing Tampa-area park.
Head to the Beach
The St. Petersburg-Clearwater barrier islands boast approximately 35 miles of white sand beaches and pristine Gulf of Mexico waters. The area's beaches are some of the finest in the nation—winning awards for everything from sand quality to environmental management. Famous ecologist Stephen Leatherman, more commonly known as "Dr. Beach," has repeatedly ranked two of the beaches—Caladesi Island and Fort DeSoto Park—on his annual top ten list and another—Clearwater Beach—as the best city beach in the Gulf region. This area is one of the few untouched beaches in all of Florida—you’ll absolutely feel like you’re on a deserted island.
Enjoy the Shopping
Tampa Bay is home to a wide variety of shopping venues. For an upscale shopping experience try International Plaza and Bay Street located near the Tampa International Airport, or Hyde Park Village near Tampa’s downtown. Both venues feature upscale shopping and dining experiences unavailable elsewhere in the area. Westfield Countryside Shopping Mall, in Clearwater, is unique because it features an ice skating rink in the center of the mall in addition to its large retail selection.
About 35 minutes outside of Tampa Bay you will find the small fishing town of Madeira Beach where John's Pass Village and Boardwalk is the main attraction. The outdoor venue features over one hundred merchants—from unique craft shops to eclectic antique dealers—so you are bound to bring home a one of a kind souvenir from here. Fresh seafood restaurants and water sport activity rentals are available, too.
Eat at Florida's Oldest Restaurant
Tampa's historic Columbia Restaurant is the oldest restaurant in the state of Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Opened in 1905, the landmark restaurant takes up an entire city block in the historic Ybor City district of Tampa. Its award-winning Spanish/Cuban cuisine features all the classics and a phenomenal wine list with more than 850 wines and an inventory of 50,000 bottles. The 1,700-seat restaurant features 17 dining rooms. Entertainment includes Spanish Flamenco dance performances nightly, Monday through Saturday.
Celebrate at One of the Area's Festivals
While locals will use any excuse to celebrate, visitors can get in on the action too during one of Tampa’s many unique festivals. The week-long Gasparilla Piratefest takes place in late January and celebrates the legendary pirate Jose Gasper who terrorized the waters of Western Florida in the late 18th century. The celebration culminates in one final day-long invasion parade and street fair that some say rival Mardi Gras.
The Florida State Fair takes place every February in Tampa. The fair features over 100 rides and games in addition to lots and lots of classic fair foods—cotton candy, ice cream, and fried everything. If March is the only time you can visit, there’s a fair then, too. Florida’s Strawberry Festival is an 11-day event celebrating the strawberry harvest of Eastern Hillsborough County. It’s a great time for the whole family, featuring live music, games, rides, and a whole lot of strawberries.
Visit Historic Ybor City
The Tampa Bay area is rich in history dating back more than 450 years and Ybor City is at its center. Once known as the "Cigar Capital of the World," the area once boasted 200 factories with 12,000 cigar-makers. Today, you can explore Tampa Bay's history in a number of museums throughout the area, step back in time on the streets of Ybor City and even take a reminiscent ride aboard an electric streetcar down Tampa's streets.
Tour Tampa's Riverwalk
Experience Tampa’s downtown with a trip across the city’s gorgeous Riverwalk. The 2.4-mile path is your walkable, bikable or Segway-able connection to all the excitement of downtown Tampa. Start at the south end of the Riverwalk, making sure to take in the Riverwall Exhibit, a 550-photograph collage by artist Bruce Marsh. As you head down the Riverwalk you’ll hit other great stops, like the Florida Aquarium, Port Tampa Bay, and the Tampa Bay History Center.
The Riverwalk is the best and easiest way to experience the city and all of its main attractions. By the time you get to the north side, you can take a break at one of the top-rated restaurants in the area, Ulele, named for the legendary Florida Indian princess and home to the most unique cuisine around. The food is inspired by Native American culture.
Experience Tampa’s Craft Beer Renaissance
Back in 1896, the Florida Brewing Company opened its doors in downtown Ybor City, making Tampa a mecca for craft beers at the time. Prohibition and other regulations made craft beer a difficult industry to keep in the area so the brewery shut its doors and the craft beer scene in Tampa effectively died. That is, until a century later when the Tampa Bay Brewing Company was born and ushered in a craft beer renaissance. Today, you can visit over seven craft and micro-breweries around the area and sip on anything from Angry Chair Brewing’s German Chocolate Cupcake Stout and Raspberry Berliner to Coppertail Brewing Company’s seasonal Stone Crab Stout.
Immerse Yourself in Tampa’s Museum of Art
Since 1979, Tampa’s Museum of Art has been the epicenter for the city’s creatives. The museum has a wide variety of modern, classical, and contemporary pieces in their permanent collection in addition to a consistent line-up of visiting exhibits by world-renowned artists. Works by Picasso, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas, and Lichtenstein are all on display in addition to hundreds of others, but even more incredible is the building. Designed by award-winning architect Stanley Saitowitz, the 66,000-square-foot building is a marvel by itself. At night it is illuminated by a 14,000 LED light installation called "Sky: Tampa" by artist Leo Villareal. The lights transition from electric blue, hot pink, violet, and red every evening.
Explore the Hillsborough River
Running in and around Tampa, the Hillsborough River is a great way to experience the area’s outdoor activities and eco-tourism. Canoe Escape offers full-day or half-day tours down the river where you’ll come face-to-face with some of Florida’s most beautiful creatures, such as the white ibis, turtles and perhaps even a gator or two.
Another fun way to experience the river closer to the city is via Pirate Water Taxi. The taxi boats ride up and down the Hillsborough River making 15 stops throughout downtown Tampa and along the Riverwalk. It’s a fun mode of transportation to get around downtown and it’s a great value.
Run Wild at the Glazer Children’s Museum
If you're traveling with young ones, then this kid-friendly museum should be an obligatory stop during your Tampa vacation. The Glazer Children’s Museum is home to over 20 hands-on exhibits for children of all ages. Kids learn about everything from banking and commerce at the museum’s Central Bank exhibit to engineering at the Engineers’ Workshop. For those developing a flair for the arts, the Art Smart area is the perfect place to hone their craft. This family-friendly museum is located about halfway down the Riverwalk in the heart of Tampa.