During my visit to Tampa, a city nestled along the dolphin-filled waters of Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico coast, I was captivated by its enchanting blend of history, vibrant Floridian culture, and modern attractions. The city’s sprawling expanse once belonged to the Seminole Indians, adding to its rich heritage.
As I ventured towards the northern outskirts, I found myself immersed in the untamed beauty of the Hillsborough River, where alligators lurked in the peppered waterways and wild bayous. It was a remarkable sight, showcasing the natural wonders that Florida has to offer.
Tampa’s allure extended beyond its culinary and cultural offerings. The bay itself was a haven for dolphins, and spotting these magnificent creatures frolicking in the water was a mesmerizing experience. Additionally, indulging in the Gulf’s finest seafood was an absolute treat, as the city boasts a culinary scene renowned for its fresh and flavorful marine delights.
To complete my Tampa adventure, I explored a range of enthralling museums that showcased the city’s rich history and diverse heritage. From art and history to science and innovation, each museum offered a unique perspective, allowing me to delve deeper into Tampa’s captivating story.
Tampa had truly won me over with its captivating fusion of natural beauty, vibrant culture, and modern attractions. It had become a must-visit destination for anyone exploring the Sunshine State!
The city’s enchanting mix of history, delectable cuisine, and captivating experiences left an indelible mark on my travel itinerary, and I couldn’t wait to return and uncover more of Tampa’s hidden treasures.
Let me bring you in an adventure to Tampa as I present you with 15 of the best things you can do while visiting Tampa.
1. Ride into the wilds at Busch Gardens
I was mesmerized by its status as one of America’s most iconic theme parks. Having opened its gates in 1959, the park had expanded over the years to encompass an impressive 136 hectares on the outskirts of Tampa.
What set Busch Gardens apart was its unique combination of exhilarating roller coasters and captivating wildlife exhibits. One of its standout attractions was the legendary Serengeti Plain enclosure, which was among the world’s first to offer animals the freedom to roam in a meticulously recreated version of their natural habitat.
As I explored the wildlife side of the park, I encountered a diverse array of magnificent creatures. From the graceful reticulated giraffes and majestic rhinos to the playful hippos, awe-inspiring Asian elephants, and vibrant Caribbean flamingos, each encounter was a testament to the park’s commitment to conservation and education.
The park’s thrilling rides were equally impressive. From the Moroccan-themed Gwazi, which provided heart-pounding dips and drops at an exhilarating speed of 51 miles per hour, to the exhilarating jungle zip lines and the all-new Cobra’s Curse, there was no shortage of adrenaline-pumping experiences for those seeking an adventure.
I marveled at the immersive theming and attention to detail throughout the park, which transported me to different corners of the globe and allowed me to experience the excitement of exotic locales.
Busch Gardens offered a perfect blend of heart-racing thrills and fascinating wildlife encounters. It was a place where adrenaline junkies and nature enthusiasts alike could find something to ignite their passion.
2. See corals and crabs at the Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa’s dedication to highlighting various ecosystems was evident as I explored the sections dedicated to shoreline habitats and the mysterious depths of the ocean. Each exhibit was meticulously designed to provide an authentic and educational experience, allowing visitors to appreciate the intricate beauty and fragile balance of marine environments.
One of the highlights was the breathtaking 60-foot-long coral garden, teeming with a vibrant array of tropical fish and underwater plant life. It felt like I had stepped into a living masterpiece of color and movement, where every corner revealed a new species and intricate interaction.
For those seeking a more immersive adventure, the aquarium offered the opportunity to participate in “Swim with the Fishes” excursions. These experiences allowed visitors to dive into the environments of the Dry Tortugas reefs, getting up close and personal with the stunning marine life that calls these waters home.
Another thrilling experience was the regular shark dives, where brave individuals could come face to face with one of the most awe-inspiring predators of the sea. It was an exhilarating opportunity to witness the grace and power of these magnificent creatures from a safe and controlled environment.
The Florida Aquarium truly embodied the wonders of the sea, offering a comprehensive and educational experience for visitors of all ages. It was a place where one could appreciate the rich biodiversity of Florida’s wetlands, marvel at the intricate beauty of coral gardens, and develop a deep respect for the fragile ecosystems that sustain life beneath the waves.
3. Have a tipple at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company
Tampa Bay Brewing Company, a local microbrewery that has been crafting its own unique ales since 1995. It all started with a recognition of the growing demand for specialty beers in the area, and the brewery quickly gained popularity among beer enthusiasts.
Led by the skilled brewing master David Doble, the Tampa Bay Brewing Company boasted an impressive selection of craft beers. With eight regular labels and a rotating lineup of seasonal brews, there was always something new and exciting to try.
One of their standout offerings was the renowned Old Elephant Foot IPA, a delightfully hoppy beer that had become a local favorite. Its bold flavors and aromatic profile were a testament to the craftsmanship of the brewing team. Additionally, the Iron Rat Imperial Stout stood out with its rich, dark color and full-bodied character, leaving a lasting impression on my taste buds.
To cater to the growing appreciation for their beers, the Tampa Bay Brewing Company had established two tap houses in the city. The first was located in the vibrant Ybor City, where visitors could immerse themselves in the energetic atmosphere while enjoying their expertly crafted brews. The second tap house was situated in Westchase, providing another fantastic location for beer enthusiasts to savor the creations of the Tampa Bay Brewing Company.
As I explored the tap house, I was captivated by the passion and dedication that went into each brew. The cozy ambiance and friendly staff made my experience even more enjoyable, allowing me to fully appreciate the flavors and craftsmanship behind their offerings.
4. Unravel Tampa’s past at the Tampa Bay History Center
As part of my visit to Tampa, I had the opportunity to explore the captivating Tampa Bay History Center, which was located in the vibrant Channelside District. Nestled amidst the bustling shops and arcades, this institution offered a comprehensive and immersive experience, delving into the rich history of Tampa and the broader region of south-central Florida.
As I ventured through the museum’s permanent exhibits, I embarked on a fascinating journey through time. From the early days of European exploration in the Americas to the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the Sunshine State, the exhibits meticulously chronicled the significant events that shaped the history of the region. It was a captivating exploration of Tampa’s past, offering insights into its deeper prehistoric roots and the military conflicts that have influenced the area since the 19th century.
The Tampa Bay History Center displayed a remarkable collection of preserved historical documents and artifacts. I was particularly intrigued by the relics of the Seminole tribespeople, providing a glimpse into their vibrant culture and rich heritage. Additionally, the center regularly featured temporary exhibitions that showcased the achievements of modern archaeology and historical research in the area, further enhancing the visitor’s understanding and appreciation of Tampa’s history.
As I wandered through the exhibits, I was impressed by the attention to detail and the immersive storytelling techniques employed by the museum. Each display offered a captivating narrative, seamlessly weaving together the stories of Tampa’s past, its diverse communities, and the pivotal events that have shaped its identity.
5. Get in touch with you wild side at Big Cat Rescue
The Big Cat Rescue facility, a remarkable sanctuary, was dedicated to the conservation and well-being of big cats, providing a safe haven for more than 80 majestic creatures who had been rescued from various unfortunate circumstances, such as circus acts, big game hunters, and neglectful owners.
As I embarked on a full day tour of the sanctuary, I was filled with anticipation to witness these magnificent animals up close. The enclosures were meticulously designed to mimic the natural habitats of each cat, ensuring their comfort and well-being. Throughout the tour, I had the privilege of observing leopards, tigers, lions, bobcats, and many other awe-inspiring big cats. The knowledgeable guides shared insightful information about the different species, their behaviors, and the conservation efforts dedicated to their protection.
For those seeking a more unique experience, the sanctuary also offered night safaris and guided photo tours. These special activities allowed visitors to witness the cats’ nighttime behaviors and capture unforgettable moments through their lenses. It was truly a rare and captivating experience to see these magnificent creatures in their element.
During my visit, I also learned about the important role of the on-site shop and the dedicated volunteer program in supporting the not-for-profit institution. The shop provided visitors with the opportunity to contribute to the cause through purchases, with proceeds going directly to the welfare and care of the rescued big cats. The volunteer program, on the other hand, allowed passionate individuals to actively participate in the day-to-day operations of the sanctuary, assisting in various tasks and making a meaningful difference in the lives of these majestic animals.
6. Cool off from the sun at the Adventure Island water park
With the scorching summer heat in full swing, Adventure Island provided the perfect oasis to cool off and have some fun. This waterpark is conveniently located adjacent to the popular Busch Gardens.
As I entered the park, I was immediately captivated by its vibrant tropical theme. Every corner was meticulously designed to transport visitors to a tropical paradise. Lagoons resembling the enchanting bayous of the Deep South, thrilling slides inspired by the untamed wilderness of the Florida Everglades, and man-made beaches reminiscent of the stunning sands of the Mexican Gulf awaited exploration.
One of the highlights of Adventure Island was the Calypso Coaster flume, a Caribbean-themed attraction that offered exhilarating twists and turns. It was an adrenaline-pumping experience that left me wanting more.
As the day wore on, I took a break from the excitement to grab a bite to eat. The Surfside Café, located within the park, offered a variety of delicious meals and refreshments to satisfy any craving. Additionally, there was a charming beach shack that served refreshing iced cocktails and chilled beers, providing the perfect respite from the summer heat.
The atmosphere at Adventure Island was infectious, with families and friends enjoying the park’s thrilling rides, splashing in the inviting waters, and creating lasting memories. The park’s attention to detail and commitment to providing a tropical escape truly enhanced the overall experience.
7. See the critters at the ZooTampa at Lowry Park
ZooTampa at Lowry Park, a renowned family-friendly attraction that has been captivating visitors with its collection of exotic animals since the 1950s.
As I ventured through the zoo, it was evident that it had undergone significant growth and expansion over the years. The diverse range of exhibits offered an immersive experience for visitors of all ages. One of the highlights was the Asian Gardens, where I encountered majestic white tigers, fascinating Komodo dragons, and adorable sloth bears. The attention to detail in recreating their natural habitats was truly remarkable.
Continuing my journey, I found myself in the Safari Africa enclosure. Amidst the beauty of acacia trees, I observed African penguins gracefully waddling around and meerkats playfully scurrying about. The atmosphere was alive with the sights and sounds of the African savannah.
Next, I made my way to Primate World, a captivating area that showcased an array of primate species. I was enthralled by the energetic black-and-white colobuses, the endearing lion tamarins, and the agile lemurs as they swung through the branches, creating a sense of wonder and excitement.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park offered more than just animal exhibits. It provided extra activities that allowed visitors to have unique experiences with the animals. One such activity was the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with endangered tortoises, which was both educational and heartwarming.
For those seeking an extra dose of adventure, the zoo also featured a selection of thrilling rides that added an element of excitement to the experience. Additionally, feeding programs provided an interactive way to learn about the animals and their dietary habits.
8. Take a stroll on the Tampa Riverwalk
This bustling area, where the Hillsborough River meets the Garrison Channel, is a hub of local culture and activity, truly embodying the spirit of Cigar City.
My journey along the promenade began at Water Works Park, where playful pools and fountains provided a refreshing oasis. As I continued southward, I discovered an array of picnic spots and food trucks that offered a delectable selection of culinary delights. From homemade American mac and cheese to mouthwatering Tex-Mex, there was something to satisfy every craving.
As I strolled along the sunlit strip, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of museums and cultural attractions that lined the way. Each one offered a unique glimpse into the rich heritage and artistry of the city. It was a treasure trove of knowledge and inspiration waiting to be discovered.
To add to the excitement, the Channelside Bay Plaza beckoned with its enticing shops and eateries. The vibrant atmosphere and diverse offerings made it an ideal place to indulge in some retail therapy or savor a delicious meal.
My journey concluded at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, where meticulously manicured lawns invited visitors to relax and take in the scenic surroundings. It was the perfect spot to reflect on the vibrant energy and cultural richness I had experienced throughout the Tampa Riverwalk.
The Tampa Riverwalk truly captures the essence of the city. It is a dynamic pathway that seamlessly blends natural beauty, cultural attractions, and culinary delights. The vibrant atmosphere and diverse offerings make it a must-visit destination for both locals and visitors alike.
9. Go off-road at the Hillsborough River State Park
Hillsborough River State Park. Situated on the northern edge of the city, this expansive wilderness captures the essence of the Sunshine State, with its picturesque bayous, wetlands, and majestic oak hammocks draped in lush vines.
As one of the oldest state parks in the region, Hillsborough River State Park stands as a testament to the authentic beauty of Florida. It offers a glimpse into the untamed landscapes that once dominated the area.
I eagerly embraced the opportunity to explore the park’s waterways by canoe, navigating the winding paths that meandered through the verdant surroundings. The tranquil ripples of the river mirrored the serene atmosphere, providing a soothing soundtrack to my outdoor adventure.
For those seeking an active excursion, the park offered a network of winding tracks, perfect for cycling enthusiasts. I relished the chance to pedal through the dense foliage, immersing myself in the natural splendor that surrounded me.
One of the highlights of my visit was traversing the boardwalks of the Wetlands Restoration Trail. As I walked along the elevated pathways, I marveled at the diverse array of flora and fauna that thrived in this unique ecosystem. The melodic calls of tropical birds echoed through the air, and I even caught a glimpse of an occasional river alligator, adding a touch of excitement to my exploration.
To deepen my understanding of the park’s rich history, I visited the on-site interpretive center. There, I immersed myself in the stories and legends of the Seminole Wars, gaining a greater appreciation for the cultural significance of this land.
10. Immerse yourself in the streets of historic Ybor City
In the late 19th century, Ybor City thrived as the cigar factory for all of America. Immigrants from far and wide flocked to this bustling neighborhood to meticulously roll cheroots and cigars in its renowned red-brick factories. However, the area experienced a decline with the onset of the Great Depression, which resulted in a significant slowdown in manufacturing and eventual closure of the factories.
But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Ybor City experienced a remarkable renaissance in recent decades, transforming into one of Tampa’s most vibrant and captivating districts.
The once-abandoned cigar mills found new life as they were repurposed into a lively array of nightclubs, independent bars, trendy cocktail joints, microbreweries, and fine dining establishments. Walking through the streets, one could witness the seamless blend of old and new, as art galleries sprouted in abandoned depots and the industrial-chic buildings on 7th Avenue now boasted a coveted place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.
Exploring Ybor City was a captivating journey through time. Each step revealed glimpses of its rich past and the vibrant energy of its present. I was enthralled by the remnants of the cigar industry that had once defined this neighborhood, now repurposed into establishments that exuded creativity and passion.
Immersing myself in the vibrant nightlife, I discovered a myriad of entertainment options, from pulsating music emanating from the lively nightclubs to the inviting ambiance of the independently owned bars. The air was infused with the aroma of handcrafted cocktails and the laughter of fellow revelers, creating an atmosphere that was both electric and welcoming.
As I ventured further, I was captivated by the diverse culinary scene that Ybor City had to offer. The bespoke restaurants showcased a fusion of flavors and cultures, drawing inspiration from the heritage of the immigrants who had once toiled in the cigar factories. Each bite was a culinary delight, a testament to the creativity and dedication of the chefs who crafted these unforgettable dining experiences.
Ybor City’s rejuvenation extended beyond its vibrant nightlife and culinary delights. The emergence of art galleries within the repurposed depots showcased the artistic spirit that now permeated the neighborhood. The juxtaposition of contemporary art against the industrial backdrop created a visually stimulating experience, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the creative expressions of talented artists.
11. See the sheer extent of the University of South Florida Tampa campus
As I stepped foot onto the sprawling campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa, I could feel the vibrant energy that permeated the air. This was the nerve center of education, a place where more than 30,000 students gathered during term time to pursue their dreams and expand their horizons.
The campus was a sight to behold, with its vast expanse of land encompassing over 160 buildings. It was home to some of the most esteemed research institutions in the entire Sunshine State, with the acclaimed architecture school standing out as one of the finest in the United States. The reputation of the university’s academic programs preceded it, and I was eager to explore its hallowed halls.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to join a guided tour led by enthusiastic student guides. Their passion for their alma mater was contagious as they shared insightful anecdotes and pointed out the notable landmarks that dotted the campus. The tour offered a glimpse into the bustling life of the university, giving me a deeper appreciation for the academic community that thrived within its walls.
Even outside the structured tour, the campus beckoned me to explore its picturesque surroundings. I found myself strolling along the pathways, captivated by the serene atmosphere created by the fountains that dotted the landscape. The campus was alive with activity, from students engaging in spirited conversations to athletes practicing on the racquetball courts. The gentle flow of the Hillsborough River, meandering through the grounds, added a touch of tranquility to the vibrant scene.
12. Enjoy a meal over Tampa Bay at Oystercatchers
As I made my way to Oystercatchers, I was immediately captivated by its stunning location on the edge of Old Tampa Bay, seamlessly connected to the elegant Hyatt Hotel. This swish and stylish seafood bistro offered an unparalleled dining experience with its prime position and breathtaking views.
As I stepped onto the panoramic al fresco deck, I couldn’t help but appreciate the sleek modern furnishings that perfectly complemented the coastal ambiance. The setting was simply magical, especially during the evening when the vibrant hues of the setting sun painted the sky in shades of orange and red, creating a picturesque backdrop for my dining experience.
The menu at Oystercatchers showcased a tantalizing array of seafood delights that showcased the flavors of the Mexican Gulf. From the moment I perused the dinner menu, I knew I was in for a treat. The culinary offerings were a perfect blend of American seafood classics and fine-dining creations.
I started my culinary journey with the indulgent hollandaise-doused oysters, prepared in the Rockefeller style. The rich and creamy sauce enhanced the delicate flavors of the oysters, setting the tone for the exceptional meal that awaited me. The shrimp and scallop fritters were a delightful combination of succulent seafood and crispy batter, providing a burst of flavor with every bite.
One dish that particularly caught my attention was the key lime mussels, expertly prepared with a touch of coconut. The tanginess of the key lime infused the plump mussels with a refreshing zest, creating a unique and memorable taste. The mahi mahi cuts and yellowfin tuna were cooked to perfection, their tender flesh melting in my mouth and offering a true celebration of fresh and high-quality seafood.
13. Sample the delights of Peru at Happy Fish Tampa Authentic Peruvian Cuisine
Happy Fish Tampa Authentic Peruvian Cuisine, a true testament to the vibrant multicultural atmosphere and lasting Latin American influences that shape the city’s culinary scene. It quickly became a favorite among the locals, and it’s easy to see why.
Upon entering the restaurant, I was greeted by the warm and inviting ambiance, which perfectly reflected the lively spirit of Peru. The chefs at Happy Fish were dedicated to serving authentic Peruvian dishes, specifically focusing on flavors from the Pacific Coast. As I perused the menu, I couldn’t help but feel my taste buds tingle with anticipation.
The menu boasted a delectable array of options, from the mouthwatering grilled pork chuletas fritas to the hearty chicken and potato stews. Each dish was prepared with great care and attention to detail, ensuring an authentic Peruvian culinary experience. The in-house ensaladas were a fresh and delightful accompaniment to the main courses, adding a burst of vibrant flavors to every bite.
One dish that truly stood out was the juicy Palomilla steaks. Cooked to perfection, the tender and succulent steaks melted in my mouth, leaving me craving more. However, it was the Peruvian ceviche that stole the show. Bursting with the freshness of the ocean, the ceviche showcased the perfect balance of tangy citrus, delicate seafood, and vibrant spices. It was a true delight for seafood lovers and a testament to the restaurant’s commitment to serving traditional Peruvian flavors.
To complement the culinary journey, Happy Fish offered a selection of South American beers. These refreshing beverages provided the perfect accompaniment to the bold and vibrant flavors of the Peruvian cuisine, creating a harmonious blend of tastes that delighted the palate.
14. Take a dolphin tour into Tampa Bay
During my visit to Tampa, I had the incredible opportunity to embark on a dolphin-watching adventure in the vibrant waters of Port Tampa Bay. The bustling hub of commercial shipping combined with the rich marine ecosystem provided the perfect setting to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
Numerous tour companies offered excursions, each providing a unique experience to witness the beauty of wild dolphins up close. I opted for a tour on a charming catamaran, which gracefully maneuvered through the picturesque parks and coastal contours of the bay. Its two-tiered decks offered optimal vantage points for spotting these graceful marine mammals.
The waters of Port Tampa Bay were known for their abundant dolphin pods, ensuring an unforgettable encounter. Many tour operators even guaranteed sightings of these enchanting creatures, adding an extra level of excitement to the adventure. As we set sail, anticipation filled the air, and the fresh salt breeze of southern Florida invigorated our senses.
The tour unfolded as a mesmerizing journey, with the captain guiding us through the bay, sharing interesting insights about the local marine wildlife and ecosystem. Along the way, we were treated to not only dolphin sightings but also the captivating presence of a diverse array of sea birds soaring overhead. The waters came alive with their graceful movements, creating a vibrant tapestry of nature’s wonders.
Witnessing the dolphins in their natural habitat was a truly awe-inspiring experience. These intelligent creatures gracefully leapt through the water, their playful nature captivating everyone on board. Their sleek bodies glided effortlessly, leaving us in awe of their beauty and grace.
15. Wonder at the designs and the history at the Henry B. Plant Museum
I had the pleasure of exploring the esteemed Henry B. Plant Museum located within a magnificent Victorian mansion. This architectural gem, characterized by a captivating blend of old English, Baroque, and Oriental influences, was once the south wing of the renowned Tampa Bay Hotel. Situated within the grounds of the Tampa University campus, the museum offered a captivating journey through the city’s history as it evolved into one of Florida’s most prominent tourist destinations over the past two centuries.
Stepping inside the museum, I was immediately immersed in a world of captivating collections and exhibits that vividly depicted the city’s transformation over time. Each display eloquently captured the essence of Tampa’s journey, showcasing its rise as a sought-after tourist hotspot. From the early days to the present, the museum meticulously chronicled the growth and development of the city, providing a comprehensive understanding of its cultural and historical significance.
Surrounding the museum were meticulously maintained gardens, exuding an air of elegance and tranquility. The lush greenery provided a serene backdrop for the ornate honorific statues and intricately carved fountains scattered throughout the grounds. I marveled at a colossal old cannon from the Spanish-American War, standing as a testament to the city’s rich military heritage. As I explored the area, I discovered numerous walking trails that meandered through the shade of plane trees and across vast lawns, inviting visitors to embark on leisurely strolls and immerse themselves in the beauty of the surroundings.
The museum and its idyllic setting truly offered a captivating experience, seamlessly blending history, culture, and natural beauty. It was a testament to Tampa’s vibrant past and promising future. I left the museum feeling enriched and grateful for the opportunity to delve into the city’s rich heritage and witness its evolution firsthand.