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Spotlight: Tampa

Savor Florida’s favorite Gulf Coast stomping ground

As the hub of western Florida’s busy and buzzing Gulf Coast region, Tampa serves as the nucleus of a massive metropolitan area, home to the likes of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota. It also sits just an hour away from family-friendly major attractions like Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, making this the perfect place to set up camp and sample the best of Florida piece by piece.

The first thing to catch your eye in Tampa will largely depend on what kind of visitor you are. If you’re an outdoors enthusiast or a water lover, then the city’s buffet of world-class beaches will quickly draw you in and forever hold your attention. An annual average of 361 days of sunshine certainly doesn’t hurt.

Many of the world’s top-rated beaches are found in the immediate area, with all manner of water sports available in spades. Surf, SUP or kayak in the morning, get your tan on in the afternoon and take a sunset cruise or harbor sail in the evening. Most beaches are public, dusted with soft, white sand and serviced by a mouthwatering supply of beachside food trucks, restaurants, pubs and cafes.

Visit Tampa Bay

Visit Tampa Bay

The Latin Quarter and More

If you’re more content to stroll the streets, relax with a light afternoon drink on an urban cafe patio or dabble in a bit of window-shopping, then you’re in luck. Downtown Tampa, the Channel District and Ybor City (Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter) are tailor-made for casual on-foot exploration. The city’s historic streetcar still operates here—easily connecting downtown with the Channel District and Ybor City—so prepare to explore the city’s most eclectic neighborhoods the very same way visitors would have traveled the city in 1892, when the streetcar first appeared on the scene in Tampa.

Ybor City is particularly worth a thorough exploration. Once the center of a thriving cigar manufacturing industry, this historic Latin Quarter buzzes both by day and by night. Before sunset the district is among the most popular spots in the city to grab a bite of gourmet lunch or coffee. Once the sun goes down the quarter morphs into a lively hot spot for those on the prowl for great live music and hopping nightclubs. If you’re a sports fan, don’t miss a stop at the often-overlooked Tampa Baseball Museum, located at the Al Lopez House.

If you’re an art or history buff, be sure to make your way to Ybor City Museum State Park at some point. The complex consists of a museum (housed in the historic Ferlita Bakery building), Mediterranean-style botanical garden and a re-created version of a cigar worker’s house. The museum offers insight into the history of the Ybor City neighborhood, including its role as a major cigar-manufacturing center. Guided tours are available and each is led by a prominent member of the Ybor City community.

The Tampa Museum of Art and the Tampa Bay History Center are two other must-visits for art and history buffs, while those traveling with small children might want to pay a visit to the Glazer Children’s Museum. At the Tampa Museum of Art, a constantly changing set of collections are on display across a range of themed galleries. The museum’s permanent exhibits include six galleries of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts.

Art buffs can drive across Tampa Bay to nearby St. Petersburg for a truly surreal experience. The Dali Museum showcases the work of the 20th century’s most eccentric artist, along with multimedia exhibits that pay homage to his masterpieces.

The Tampa Bay History Center is an affiliate of the world-famous Smithsonian Institution, which may be all anyone needs to know before walking through the front doors. The museum’s exhibits cover more than 12,000 years of history, specifically focusing on the Florida peninsula. The museum is located in downtown Tampa on the Riverwalk that overlooks the Garrison Channel.

Visit Tampa Bay

Visit Tampa Bay

Fishy Family Fun

You won’t have to go far when it’s time to find some big-time family fun. Start at the Florida Aquarium, which is conveniently located right in downtown Tampa. It features interactive exhibits and activities that allow visitors to walk through re-created swamps, swim with sharks and embark on informative ecotours by catamaran. The aquarium is home to more than 20,000 different animals and also features an outdoor water park for kids.

For an added boost of adrenaline, head a few miles north of downtown Tampa to Busch Gardens, where thrill rides and live shows mix with one of the largest zoos in the country. Busch Gardens sprawls across more than 300 acres, and features five different roller coasters that snake their way around the park, including Falcon’s Fury, which drops 300 feet at 60 miles per hour.

Finally there’s the Lowry Park Zoo, also located just a few miles north of downtown Tampa. Here, visitors can explore 64 acres of lush, natural habitats, home to more than 1,000 different animals, including elephants, chimpanzees, giraffes, cheetahs and white rhinos. Guests can tour several “free-flight” aviaries full of exotic birds, saddle up for a camel ride, help feed the giraffes and partake in a guided rhino encounter.

Thonotosassa: More Than a Name

After touring Tampa, take a side trip 15 miles northeast to Thonotosassa, a town with recreation menu as interesting as its name.

Opportunities for outdoor play abound on the northern fringes of Thonotosassa in places like the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve and Hillsborough River State Park. Paddling on the unhurried waters of the Hillsborough River is a favorite pastime here, along with explorations along more than 60 miles of forest and cypress swamp trails. Fort Foster State Historic Site, located along the river, is one of two reconstructed Seminole War forts in Florida and is open for visitors. The rough-hewn wooden walls and buildings of this military outpost recreate the conditions that U.S. soldiers faced in 1836, when Seminoles laid seige to the fort and attempted to burn down the bridge crossing the Hillsborough River. The attackers were repelled by musket and cannon fire from the combatants defending the fort.

In the days when there was nothing but wilderness on the shores of Lake Thonotosassa, the Church at Antioch was established in 1854. That pioneer spirit is celebrated each November at Antioch Days with a parade, traditional craft demonstrations and entertainment.

While Thonotosassa embodies all things small town, the relaxed way of life belies the fact that the community is close to one of Florida’s biggest family-friendly tourist attractions. Dinosaur World in nearby Plant City boasts more than 200 life-size replicas of the “terrible lizards.” Visitors can learn about dinosaurs as they walk a path through a lush garden setting.

One place where the old and new of Thonotosassa mingle is Reese’s Beach & Fish Camp. Families have gathered here since 1961, and it has recently been given a facelift for fishermen, boaters and swimmers.

For More Information

Visit Tampa Bay
Florida Department of Tourism