Hugging the dolphin-dappled waters of Tampa Bay on the coast of the Mexican Gulf, this city spread out over the onetime domain of the Seminole Indians is a fantastic fusion of history, Floridian culture and modern attractions.
On its northern fringes, the landscapes are dominated by the alligator-peppered waterways and wild bayous of the Hillsborough River, while the loop-de-loops and vertical drops and exotic animal exhibits of iconic Busch Gardens soon take over.
Closer to the downtown and an all-new Riverwalk bustles with food vendors touting southern barbeques and all-American mac and cheeses. Meanwhile, Ybor City is awash with happening cafes and eateries, all bubbling beneath the red-brick shells of historic cigar factories (the erstwhile boom industry of the city as a whole). Add to that a medley of dolphins in the bay, fine gulf seafood and a line-up of enthralling museums, and Tampa becomes a real must on any travel itinerary through the Sunshine State! Let’s explore the best things to do in Tampa:
1. Ride into the wilds at Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens remains one of the most iconic theme parks in all of America. First opened in 1959, the attraction has since swelled to cover a whopping 136 hectares on the northern fringes of Tampa.
It’s famed for its fusion of adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters and wildlife exhibitions, with the legendary Serengeti Plain enclosure hailing in as one of the first in the world to offer animals free roaming in a mock-up of their original habitat.
Today, the wildlife side of the park showcases everything from reticulated giraffes to rhinos to hippos to Asian elephants to Caribbean flamingos, while the rides include the likes of the Moroccan-themed Gwazi, dipping and dropping at 51 miles per hour, jungle zip lines, loop-de-loops and the all-new Cobra’s Curse – for those who dare!
2. See corals and crabs at the Florida Aquarium
With exhibitions focussed on the wetland habitats of Florida itself, complete with snapping gators, exotic otters and a duo of particularly formidable Burmese pythons, along with sections dedicated to shoreline ecosystems and collections detailing the character of the deep ocean, the Florida Aquarium is the go-to place in Tampa for exploring the sea. Other draws include a 60-foot-long coral garden that’s awash with a kaleidoscope of colourful tropical fish and underwater plant life, organised ‘Swim with the Fishes’ excursions that immerse visitors in the environments of the Dry Tortugas reefs, and regular shark dives to get up close with one of the most awe-inspiring predators in the sea.
3. Have a tipple at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company
The Tampa Bay Brewing Company first began creating its in-house batches of craft ale in 1995, driven by a perceived local demand for bespoke beers. The demand was real, and today TBBC is one of the most successful local microbrews in the city, offering a whopping eight regular labels and countless seasonal tipples to boot.
Under the guiding hand of brewing master David Doble, the menu touts the likes of the uber-hoppy Old Elephant Foot IPA (a real local chart-topper) and the Iron Rat Imperial Stout, with its brooding dark color and intense body.
There are currently two tap houses open under the Bay Brewing name, in Ybor City and Westchase.
4. Unravel Tampa’s past at the Tampa Bay History Center
Situated amidst the shops and arcades of the lively Channelside District, this all-encompassing institution is the go-to place for visitors looking to understand more about the history of Tampa and south-central Florida as a whole.
The permanent exhibits chronicle everything from the early days of European exploration in the Americas to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the Sunshine State, ranging from the region’s deeper pre-historic past to the military conflicts involving Tampa since the early 19th century onwards.
Expect preserved historical documents, relics of the Seminole tribespeople, and a regular offering of temporary exhibitions that showcase the successes of modern archaeology and historical research in the area.
5. Get in touch with you wild side at Big Cat Rescue
Dedicated to conserving and caring for big cats of all shapes and sizes, the Big Cat Rescue facility in Tampa is now home to more than 80 creatures that have been saved from circus acts, big game hunters, neglectful owners and the like.
Visitors can opt to take full day tours of the sanctuary to see leopards and tigers, lions and bobcats, all housed in enclosures that mimic each cat’s natural habitat.
Night safaris and guided photo tours are also on the menu, while an on-site shop and a great volunteer program help keep the not-for-profit institution open.
6. Cool off from the sun at the Adventure Island water park
Joined at the hip to uber-popular Busch Gardens on the northern fringes of Tampa, the Adventure Island water park is a fine place to come to cool off in those sultry summer days.
With an overarching tropical theme, the park comes complete with lagoons built to look like the bayous of the Deep South, slides inspired by the backcountry of the Florida Everglades, manmade beaches following the fashion of the sands of the Mexican Gulf, and Caribbean-flavored attractions like the twists and turns of the Calypso Coaster flume.
There’s also an on-site eatery – the Surfside Café – along with a mock-up beach shack serving iced cocktails and chilled beers.
7. See the critters at the ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Hailed as one of the top family-friendly attractions in the entire city, this acclaimed zoo has been showcasing exotic critters and animals to the folk of Tampa since the 1950s.
In the last decades it’s grown and expanded immensely, and now includes exhibitions like the Asian Gardens (expect white tigers, Komodo dragons, sloth bears and more), the Safari Africa enclosure (look out for the African penguins and the meerkats below the pretty boughs of the acacia trees!), and the Primate World, with the likes of black-and-white colobuses, lion tamarins and lemurs swinging about the place.
Extra activities include the chance to get up-close-and-personal with endangered tortoises, a number of rides and feeding programs to boot.
8. Take a stroll on the Tampa Riverwalk
Curving its way right through the heart of the Tampa downtown as the Hillsborough River gives way to the water channels of the Garrison Channel, this lively stretch of promenade is one of the nerve centers of local and cultural action in Cigar City.
Starting with the play pools and fountains of Water Works Park in the north and running all the way to the manicured lawns of Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park in the south, the sun-splashed strip hosts countless picnic spots and food trucks (homemade American mac and cheese and Tex-Mex are just two of the specials to look out for).
There are also oodles of museums to see, and the shops and eateries of the Channelside Bay Plaza to boot.
9. Go off-road at the Hillsborough River State Park
A great big wedge of quintessentially Sunshine State wilds that buts up to the northern edge of Tampa city, the Hillsborough River State Park is a patchwork of vine-draped bayous and wetlands, gigantic oak hammocks and mangrove, all hooting with the sounds of tropical birds and the splash of the occasional river alligator.
As one of the oldest state parks in the region, the spot is hailed as one of the last vestiges of the real Florida.
Today, people flock to canoe through the waterways, cycle the winding tracks, walk the boardwalks of the Wetlands Restoration Trail, unravel tales of the Seminole Wars at the on-site interpretive center and more!
10. Immerse yourself in the streets of historic Ybor City
Once upon a time the area of Ybor City was the cigar factory for all America. Immigrants flooded here in the late 19th century to roll cheroots and smokes in the famous red-brick factories, all until the Great Depression slowed manufacturing and the area eventually shut down.
Cue the renaissance of recent decades, when Ybor City has emerged to become one of Tampa’s most happening and fascinating districts.
The shells of the old cigar mills have been transformed into nightclubs, independent bars, cocktail joints, microbreweries and bespoke restaurants; art galleries have sprung up in abandoned depots, and the industrial-chic builds on 7th Avenue now tout a coveted place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.
11. See the sheer extent of the University of South Florida Tampa campus
This sprawling university campus is the nerve center for the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Home to more than 30,000 students during term time, its forever expanding grounds encompass in excess of 160 buildings and some of the most respected research institutions in the Sunshine State (especially that acclaimed architecture school – said to be one of the finest in the US!).
Daily tours are offered by student guides when the college is in session, while simply taking a stroll around the fountain-dotted campus, between the racquetball courts and meandering water channels of the Hillsborough River, is a pleasure in itself!
12. Enjoy a meal over Tampa Bay at Oystercatchers
Joined to the swanky Hyatt Hotel right on the edge of Old Tampa Bay, this swish and stylish seafood bistro commands some of the best views for evening dining in the city. Patrons settle down on the panoramic al fresco deck, where sleek modern furnishings meet the flavors of the Mexican Gulf, watching as the orange-red sun dips low on the horizon.
On the dinner menu there’s a medley of hollandaise-doused oysters following the Rockefeller style, shrimp and scallop fritters, key lime mussels done with coconut, mahi mahi cuts, yellowfin tuna, lobster mac and cheese – the list goes on.
In short, it’s American seafood meets fine-dining meets perfect views of the Florida coast.
13. Sample the delights of Peru at Happy Fish Tampa Authentic Peruvian Cuisine
Standing as a fine testimony to the multi-cultural vibes and indelible Latin American influences at work in the city of Tampa, Happy Fish Tampa Authentic Peruvian Cuisine is a regular favorite amongst the locals here.
Dedicated to serving up real Peruvian dishes from the Pacific Coast, the chefs tout a menu of grilled pork chuletas fritas, chicken and potato stews, fresh in-house ensaladas, and juicy Palomilla steaks.
The Peruvian ceviche is one of the top draws though, while a line-up of South American beers is at hand to wash the lot down!
14. Take a dolphin tour into Tampa Bay
At once bustling with commercial shipping and a kaleidoscope of marine wildlife, the waters of Port Tampa Bay offer a unique opportunity for travelers to catch a glimpse of wild dolphins in their natural habitat.
Tours are run by a whole host of different companies, many on charming little catamarans that weave around the parks and coastal contours of the bay, offering prime viewing spots from their two-tiered decks.
Given the abundance of dolphin pods in the waters of the Mexican Gulf here, many operators tout dolphin guarantees, while there’s also a chance to see the medley of sea birds and breathe the fresh salt air of southern Florida along the way!
15. Wonder at the designs and the history at the Henry B. Plant Museum
Housed in one glorious Victorian mansion – a fusion of old English, Baroque and Oriental motifs that was once the south wing of the famous Tampa Bay Hotel – on the grounds of the Tampa University campus, this acclaimed museum is home to a series of fascinating collections that chronicle the rise of the city as one of the Sunshine State’s premier tourist destinations throughout the last two centuries.
What’s more, the institution is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, each dotted with honorific statues and carved fountains, one colossal old canon from the Spanish-American War, and countless walking trails through the plane trees and lawns.