Next to Clearwater, on the peaceful shores of Tampa Bay, Safety Harbor is a small town with a lot of personality.
With a quaint Main Street, community gardens, peculiar outsider art, and yoga at the weekly market, I love the nurturing, progressive feel to this place.
Tourism goes back a long way at Safety Harbor. The area’s natural springs were named by the Spanish in the 16th century, and the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa has been here since the roaring 20s.
You can spot dolphins and manatees on the water, kayak in mangroves, watch MLB’s Phillies in preseason, and immerse yourself in local Native American history going back thousands of years.
1. Philippe Park
North of downtown Safety Harbor, this lovely public park encompasses the picturesque Philippe Point. This is the final resting place of the area’s first non-native settler, Odet Philippe (1787-1869), although the exact burial site is unknown.
Philippe is remembered for introducing grapefruit to Florida. As well as having a marvelous stand of moss-draped live oaks and majestic bayfront vistas, Philippe Park has enthralling Native American history.
This is the setting for the Safety Harbor Site, a complex developed by the Tocobaga people between 900 CE and 1700 CE. The key feature is the temple mound, 20 feet high and 150 feet in diameter, the largest surviving Native American mound in the Tampa Bay area.
I’m captivated by this vestige of pre-Colonial history. There are stone steps to the top, and interpretive signs with facts about the site and Tocobaga people.
2. Main Street Safety Harbor
The city’s Main Street has all of the things people want from a small-town commercial district in the 21st century. This strip is compact, walkable, interspersed with green space, and brimming with local businesses.
When I was here last I could tell that downtown was thriving, but without losing any of its quaintness. Among the palms and dignified live oaks are galleries, specialty stores, and a truly international choice of restaurants.
Among the cuisines on offer are Southern cooking, Greek, seafood, sandwiches, BBQ, Tex Mex, New American, Modern French, and pub fare. There’s a market every Sunday, which I’ll talk about below, and Main Street is also filled with vendors every third Friday.
3. BayCare Ballpark
The spring training home for MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies is just a couple of minutes away in Clearwater. The Phillies have been coming to this city since 1947, which is the second-longest affiliation between a major league club and its spring training home.
The current ballpark was built in the early 2000s and can hold 8,500 people. A few of the features are a 360° main concourse, a cutting-edge scoreboard, a children’s play area and a tiki hut pavilion in leftfield.
If you want to see major league stars gearing up for the big season, be here from late February to late March.
Later in the year you’ve got the Clearwater Threshers, playing in the minor Florida State League. My tip is to come on a Saturday as there’s always an awesome fireworks display after the game.
4. Safety Harbor Waterfront Park
Something I adore about Safety Harbor is how much of the bayfront is open to the public. At the east end of Main Street, behind the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa there’s a beautiful parcel of open space on the water.
Naturally Safety Harbor Waterfront Park is a fine place to find yourself at sunrise when the views over Tampa Bay are jaw-dropping.
So close to downtown, the park is also a natural venue for the city’s big events. The main one here is Art and Seafood on the Waterfront, in February.
On the south side is a long fishing pier, pushing out into the bay. To the north meanwhile is a section of boardwalk, with interpretive signs to help you identify wildlife.
5. Safety Harbor Museum
A few steps from the waterfront there’s an engaging local history museum. Founded in 1965, this is run as a partnership between the local historical society and the city’s recreation department.
What makes the Safety Harbor Museum such a worthwhile stop in my view are the detailed displays about the Tocobaga Native Americans and later pioneer life in the area.
The permanent collection is a compelling tour through millions of years of history, with fossils, Native American arrowheads, and fascinating displays charting the tourism industry.
Interestingly, the museum is on sacred Tocobaga land. In 2003 a box with human remains arrived on its doorstep.
When these were discovered to be hundreds of years old and Native American in origin, they were reinterred on the grounds in a full ceremony in 2007.
6. Horsepower for Kids and Animal Sanctuary
This petting farm is slightly out of town, but well worth the ten-minute drive. Horsepower for Kids is an excellent place for kids to enjoy some time getting up close and personal with horses.
As well as horse riding, there are other animals here, such as guinea pigs, foxes, wolves, a variety of reptiles, and birds.
In fact, the petting zoo boasts over 200 different types of animals. All of them have been rescued and now live in a safe environment, and are loved by the staff and guests alike.
Among the activities available when I brought my little ones were pony rides, animal petting, and a super playground, makebelieve Western town and a treehouse. You can book in advance for horseback riding, camps, parties and field trips.
7. Ream Wilson Clearwater Trail
Even as I write, a whole web of multi-use trails is growing throughout Pinellas County. Safety Harbor is served by an unbroken stretch of the Ream Wilson Clearwater Trail.
With a trailhead on Tampa Bay, the trail makes its way south along the waterfront before cutting west through a beautiful string of parks along Alligator Creek.
Using mostly public parks, easements and rights-of-way, the trail will eventually connect the Clearwater Beach shore with Tampa Bay, and will link with other routes, like the popular Pinellas Trail.
For now it’s a convenient and safe way to get around Safety Harbor without a car. For instance, you can use the trail to get from downtown to Ruth Eckerd Hall or BayCare Ballpark.
8. Safety Harbor’s Market on Main
The city’s sense of community is unmistakable on Sundays when this weekly market is in full swing The Market on Main takes place between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, and has close to 50 vendors.
In the ample shade of the live oaks you can shop here for seasonal produce, pickled products, salsas, flowers, fresh bread, marmalade, pet treats, prepared foods, and all kinds of handmade items, from sunglasses to paintings.
When I came through this was much more than a typical farmers’ market. There was yoga, live music, pony rides, and what looked like a kids’ drawing class at the gazebo in John Wilson Park.
9. Folly Farms Nature Preserve
In the west of Safety Harbor, a ten-acre former horse farm has been turned into a preserve. The property was purchased by a local couple in the 2000s, who then donated it to the city in 2014.
Folly Farms Nature Preserve has a host of amenities, including a butterfly garden, a playground, a community orchard, as well as nature trail walks and sway bench swings.
The park sets the scene for a number of community events all year. The most prominent of these is Harbor Holiday Lights in December, with a market, live music and seasonal treats like hot cocoa.
10. Upper Tampa Bay Park
Just around the bay, this 596-acre park on the Double Branch Peninsula is a nature lover’s paradise. Protected since 1982 for study, Upper Tampa Bay Park contains a variety of environments, including mangroves, marshes, and pine flatwoods.
There are various nature trails to get stuck into, all with well-maintained boardwalks. What makes the park exceptional is the abundance of wildlife. A few animals regularly spotted here are dolphins, otters, manatees, gopher tortoises, and a wide diversity of butterflies.
My biggest recommendation is to rent a kayak from the entry station and take your time to explore the mangroves.
11. Ruth Eckerd Hall
The Tampa Bay area’s premier performing arts venue is just over in Clearwater, less than five minutes from downtown Safety Harbor.
Completed in 1983, this concert hall is a regular venue for the Florida Orchestra, and hosts more than 200 concerts a year. When it comes to veteran recording artists, it’s easier to say who hasn’t played here.
To illustrate, when I wrote this article, legends like Ringo Starr, Sammy Hagar, Paul Anka, and Kenny Loggins were all on the schedule.
Go back a bit further, and some recent performers include Bob Dylan, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Alice Cooper, Ed Sheeran, and Van Morrison.
I have a thing for outside art, and was bewitched by this eccentric installation. Whimzeyland is essentially a converted house, turned into an art piece by Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda.
The couple moved to this residence on Third Street in 1985, and gradually transformed a normal house into something unique.
Work began with a job lot of free bowling balls from a local flea market. These were painted and put on display, and the property soon became known as the Bowling Ball House.
Before long folk artists from all over would visit and bring painted bowling balls as gifts. There are now 80+ balls at this fanciful place. The bright and contrasting colors and textures everywhere you look makes it feel like Mardi Gras 365 days a year.
13. Crooked Thumb Brewery
If you love craft beer, then you’re in for a treat at this brewery, founded in 2015. Housed in a converted mid-century warehouse, Crooked Thumb Brewery has a 15-barrel brew system with up to 20 beers on tap any time.
Just a couple of blocks off Main Street, the bar and seating area here have a clear view of the production area, while there’s a comfy shaded beer garden. As a fan of maltier beers, the Harbor Lager (Amber) was right up my alley.
There are a variety of events to get involved in here, from quiz nights to live music. There’s no kitchen, but you’ll find local food trucks outside on weekends.
14. Cliff Stephens Park
Southeast of Safety Harbor, the Ream Wilson Clearwater Trail leads you through this passive park by Alligator Creek.
Just shy of 50 acres, Cliff Stephens Park is dominated by water, on a beautiful, serpentine lake. I’ll always be surprised by the profusion of nature at suburban places like this. Strolling by the water you may see ibises, turtles, peacocks, and a few alligators.
The park is probably best known for its disc golf course, rated as one of the best in Pinellas County. Laid out in 1986, this has 24 holes and concrete tees.
My one word of advice is to take caution retrieving discs from the water, given the number of gators here.
15. Tampa Bay Downs
If you love horse racing there’s action at nearby Tampa Bay Downs from late November to the start of May.
The only thoroughbred racing facility on Florida’s gulf coast, this track goes back to 1926 and added a poker room and simulcast racing in the early 2000s.
There are several graded stakes races during the season. The big one is the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes in March, with a purse of more than $200,000.
Meanwhile you can hit the 25-table poker room year round. This has a range of services and amenities like flatscreen TVs and table-side massages.
To go with all that is a state-of-the-art golf practice facility. This has 40 hitting stations, a full-size putting green and two chipping greens.