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 water sports 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, or bar hopper, this area has got something for everyone. Here are the top 17 things to do while visiting Tampa Bay.
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—one of the top 10 aquariums in the country. See sharks, alligators, otters, and penguins. Or touch a stingray, bamboo shark or starfish. For an even more hands-on experience, the aquarium offers Swim & Dive tours where visitors can actually 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.
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. Selected by VisitFlorida.com in 2005 as one of the "Top 10 Destination in Florida to Visit"—this park is a must.
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. 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 #1 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—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.
Attend a Sporting Event
Whether you’re a fan of football, hockey, baseball, or even motorsports, Tampa Bay has the sport for you. Catch a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game at the 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium. The stadium has hosted the Super Bowl on four separate occasions — 1984, 1991, 2001 and 2009. NHL team, The Tampa Bay Lightning, play at Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum and won the Stanley Cup in 2004. The Tampa Bay Storm, an Arena Football team, holds the record for the most Arena Bowl victories.
If the season’s right you can also catch a Tampa Bay Rays game at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field or watch the IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix race in St. Petersburg, which is hosted there every spring.
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 rivals 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 brand new Riverwalk. The 2.4-mile path is your walkable, bikable or Segway-able connection 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.
Run Wild at the Glazer Children’s Museum
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. This family-friendly museum is located about halfway down the Riverwalk in the heart of Tampa.
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. That is until a century later when the Tampa Bay Brewing Company opened its doors 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. 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 — 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 along downtown Tampa and the Riverwalk. It’s a fun mode of transportation to get around downtown and it’s a great value.
Meditate at the Bok Tower Gardens
The introspective Bok Tower Gardens and bird sanctuary are located just north of Tampa in Lake Wales. The 250-acre garden is centered around the 205-foot tall Singing Tower designed by famed architect Milton B. Medary. It is the ideal backdrop for a destination wedding, party or a relaxing picnic. The gardens are open all year.
Experience Tampa's Nightlife
There is no shortage of activities when the sun sets in Tampa Bay. For a fully immersive experience, head to Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club in the heart of downtown. Inspired by New York City’s Greenwich Village area, Ciro’s is a beverage-centric bar that takes their cocktails seriously. Using historic mixing techniques and Prohibition-era recipes, this bar is sure to please.