Once a small fishing village that later became the “Cigar Capital of the World,” Tampa Bay has become one of the Sunshine State’s most vibrant vacation destinations.
With cool bay breezes and warm sunshine virtually year-round, visitors can choose from the waterfront city’s wide array of diversions, from roaring down roller coasters at Busch Gardens or rowing down the nature rich Hillsborough River to catching a ball game from the bleachers or catching some rays on the beaches.
The Hillsborough River flows through Tampa and is a popular recreation site for hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Canoe Escape offers two-hour to full-day paddling trips that allow abundant opportunities to spot native wildlife such as alligators, turtles, snakes, deer, river otters, and birds of prey.
The city of Tampa is becoming ever more popular with tourists – and it’s not hard to see why! From the excitement of major theme parks to tranquil canoe trails, eclectic nightlife, and world-class golf and shopping facilities, all the wonders that Florida has to offer can be found in the Tampa Bay area.
Our family visited the Florida Aquarium in Tampa back in August and my three-year-old is still talking about it! For such a little one to hold on to that experience lets me know that this is something other people need to know about.
Walking in, the kids were immediately excited. All our little guy wanted to see was some sharks! Sharks, sharks, sharks… we had to find them. Of course, everyone always wants to see the sharks and they are never the first exhibit you can get to.
We raced through almost every exhibit in the place before we finally made it to the sharks. (Gotta save the best for last, right?… not when you have an anxious three-year-old!) Thankfully, once we made it to the sharks we were able to slow down a little bit. We caught a shark show at the main shark tank. I loved that they allowed the wee ones to get right up on the glass during the show. They spoke, answered questions, interacted with everyone, and never made us feel rushed. (I have an extreme dislike for shows at these places sometimes. I feel like they rush the guest out too quickly – like cattle.)
Since the shark exhibit was the last exhibit in the place, we opted to make one more round before we left. I am SO glad we opted to do this because there was a lot of great sea life we would have missed out on. Two of my favorites were the Seahorses and Jellyfish! Yes, the smallest little creatures – we were fascinated with them. They have the strangest-looking seahorses! For a few moments, I didn’t even realize I was looking at a seahorse. Do you see them?
Please don’t overlook this Aquarium on your visit to Central Florida. Especially if you have little ones. The Aquarium is the perfect size for families to enjoy the day without feeling rushed and stressed by the volume of other guests. We visited from the early morning hours until mid-afternoon. There were a few features that we didn’t get to that you may want to consider during your trip:
They have a two-acre, outdoor water playground. Our children have not dressed appropriately for it, but they offer that during the warm months. It is also not a service permitted to those visiting under a group, school, or homeschool discount rate.
Children, ages six and up, can swim with the fish in the aquarium! This is something we are considering for one of our girl’s birthday gifts as there is a $75 fee associated with this experience. (Fee includes your Aquarium admission!)
Lowry Park Zoo
Tampa’s top attractions include the child-friendly Lowry Park Zoo, the fascinating Florida Aquarium, and the thrills and spills of the famous Adventure Island water park. Top billing, however, goes to Busch Gardens – the Africa-themed adventure park where the rugged beauty of the Serengeti meets out-of-this-world rides, exotic animals, and highly acclaimed shows. Here you can hand-feed a giraffe on an African safari, enjoy close encounters with tigers and gorillas, and even brave a vertical plunge on SheiKra, America’s only ‘dive’ roller-coaster – if you dare.
Where the river meets the bay in downtown Tampa is where tycoon Henry Plant built the opulent Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891. The hotel’s Moorish minarets topped-off an interior of luxurious furnishings. Now a National Historic Landmark, the hotel is the Henry Plant Museum with all original hotel furnishings depicting the turn-of-the-century Victorian lifestyle.
Ybor City is Tampa’s Latin Quarter and one of only three National Historic Landmark Districts in the state. Ybor City was founded when Cuban cigar factory owner Don Vincente Martinez Ybor moved his operation to Tampa in 1886. Other cigar manufacturers followed and soon “Mr. Ybor’s City” became the “Cigar Capital of the World” with 12,000 “tabaqueros” rolling 700 million cigars a year in 200 factories. The cigar industry created a vivacious Latin community where Spaniards, Italians, Jews, Germans, and Cubans worked and socialized together.
Ybor City’s culture and heritage live on through its brick streets, wrought-iron balconies, and globe street lamps. Historic buildings have turned into trendy boutiques, coffeehouses, and nightclubs. Often referred to as the “Nightlife Capital of Florida’s West Coast”, Ybor City’s nighttime festive atmosphere is created by thousands of revelers strolling in and out of chic restaurants and bars along 7th Avenue.
Busch Gardens, a 335-acre African-themed family entertainment park in Tampa, offers a wild time of a different kind. The park captures the true spirit of Africa bringing visitors up close to lions, hyenas, hippos, white rhinos, crocodiles, giraffes, and zebras. Busch Gardens features two of the top steel roller coasters in the world and the largest and fastest dueling wooden coaster in the Southeast. New in 2005 is Sheikra, the first dive roller coaster in North America.
Tampa Bay visitors slow down by heading to the beach to sink their toes in the sand and soak up the sunshine. With a semi-tropical climate marked by an average temperature of 71 degrees, there’s definitely plenty of sunshine here. And there are 35 miles of white, sugary sand lining the Tampa Bay region’s coast along the Gulf of Mexico.
Tampa Bay offers a diverse selection of attractions, and enough diversion to keep visitors entertained for a weekend or a whole week. And with rich history, pristine nature, theme parks, beaches, and a sizzling nightlife scene all in one waterfront destination, Tampa Bay is home to the best of everything that Florida has to offer.
Another favorite attraction is Ybor City, Tampa’s historic and vibrant Latin Quarter. This characterful, one-of-a-kind entertainment district is known for its cafés, restaurants, and nightlife. In fact, it’s so popular at weekends that it’s come to be known as the ‘nightlife capital of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Just a short streetcar (tram) ride away is Channelside, an entertainment complex adjacent to the cruise terminal that’s also fast becoming a lively nightspot.
Shopping, of course, is an essential part of any Florida holiday and Tampa is the perfect place to find bargains galore. You’ll find quirky boutique shopping in Ybor City and more mainstream stores at Old Hyde Park Village and Westshore Plaza. Whatever you do, be sure to save space in your case for a visit to International Plaza, an upmarket shopping mall that’s home to big-name stores like Tiffany, Diesel, and Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s also very close to Tampa Airport – so you won’t have far to carry all those extra bags!