As I’ve mentioned before, the one and only time I flew out of my home state of North Carolina in 2020 was to go to the St. Petersburg, Florida area. I tried to cram in as much as possible but wasn’t able to go just north of St. Pete to Clearwater or Tampa. This year for my daughter’s spring break, I planned a vacation back to that area because I loved St. Petersburg so much, but this time I wanted to spend more time in the Clearwater and Tampa areas. You can read about my time in Clearwater here: Peacocks, Dolphins, Manatees, and So Much More In and Around Clearwater, Florida.
Tampa is a city on Tampa Bay, along Florida’s Gulf Coast. For reference, Clearwater is due west of Tampa and St. Petersburg is south of Clearwater, with both cities on the Pinellas peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and connected to mainland Florida to the north. Tampa is more than just a vacation destination; it’s also a major business center, has a thriving international airport, world-famous Busch Gardens amusement park, plus it’s known for its museums and other cultural offerings.
Restaurants in Tampa
You just need to see a list of restaurants in Tampa to understand what a diverse ethnic population lives here. Not only can you find everything from Korean to Cuban to Italian to Jamaican just for starters, the food here is exceptionally good. Of course we were only there a short period, but I’ll list some of our favorites that are also consistently ranked high by others.
Armature Works Heights Public Market https://www.armatureworks.com/heights-market/ is a food hall with a wide range of restaurants with an open floor plan, making it easy to browse around each place. This would be especially great if you’re with a group or have picky eaters in your family or group. You can choose from pizza, sushi, burgers, empanadas, tacos, fine dining, plus there are places for coffee, sweet treats, cocktails/beer/wine. Once you pick up your food, you can take it outside where there are picnic tables as well as chairs to eat and/or drink on the lawn that overlooks the water. There’s also a cute general store, A.W. Mercantile to do a little shopping. After we ate our white pizza from Ava, we sipped on beer for me/soda for my daughter and dog-watched from the lawn overlooking the Hillsborough River.
For authentic Cuban food, we went to La Teresita one evening and got massive amounts of food here especially for the price. The pork I had was so tender and full of flavor, it was still good when I had it as leftovers for lunch the next day. We also went to La Segunda, a cuban bakery and got the guava pastry, which was excellent. They had some good-looking Cuban sandwiches but we had already had lunch that day. I later heard La Segunda has great breakfasts as well.
I wanted a local breakfast place that wasn’t a chain and found Brunchery Restaurant. My daughter got to try Cuban coffee for the first time here and really loved it. Most of the food here is fairly standard but good and the service is good; also, the prices aren’t inflated like at some of the chain sit-down restaurants.
Speaking of chain restaurants, you will find some of those at Hyde Park Village, but it’s still worth going to in my opinion even if you’re a chain snob. Hyde Park Village is a wonderful place to stroll around and you can check out stores like Paper Source, Francesca’s, Lululemon, and Sunni Spencer. You can pick up a coffee from Buddy Brew, a smoothie from Clean Juice, a cupcake from Sprinkles, or have dinner at the Wine Exchange or Timpanos. This isn’t where you want to go if you’re on a strict budget, unless you just window-shop, however. https://hydeparkvillage.com/
Finally, a hidden gem that I was lucky enough to discover is the Korean restaurant Sa Ri One. I had a soup with ramen noodles, kimchi, an egg, and vegetables and my daughter had pork bulgogi and we both inhaled our dishes. We also got a plethora of side dishes that came with our meals, like kimchi and other fermented vegetables, which were amazing. Both dishes were enough for about three adults each and we were sad we couldn’t take our leftovers with us, but since we were flying home the next morning, there would be no time for that.
Museums in Tampa
Tampa has at least 10 museums, which is probably more than you would want to see in a few days or even a week, if you’re like most people, so I suggest choosing what would personally interest you. I’ll group the museums together here, for easier reference. I should note we did not go to all of the museums, but I’ll still mention them all.
Tampa Museum of Art, https://tampamuseum.org/ has contemporary and modern art with some ancient art and artifacts, mostly European and other paintings. There are permanent and traveling exhibitions, like at most art museums around the world. When we were there, we saw a temporary exhibit of high school art that I found extremely creative and even thought-provoking.
Florida Museum of Photographic Art, https://www.fmopa.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwj6SEBhAOEiwAvFRuKPwF04iKAqZZ4NCPOMFnMiXIWce7znGkCbxtf7uKV3JP3ktmAtVaxBoCTHIQAvD_BwE is small but worth checking out if you enjoy photography. I found a Groupon online before we went and used that, but I’m not sure the full-price of $10 per person would be worth it to me to be honest.
USF Contemporary Art Museum is located next to the USF College of Arts. We did not go here because at the time it was only open to faculty, students, and staff, and I’m just not that big of a fan of contemporary art either. I read that you can find the 106 original Polaroid photographs and 50 gelatin silver prints by Andy Warhol here, if you’re interested in that. http://cam.usf.edu/CAM/cam_about.html
I say if you only choose one museum to go to and you enjoy history at all, go to the Tampa Bay History Center, https://www.tampabayhistorycenter.org/. This is one of my favorite history museums I’ve been to anywhere. Not surprisingly, the museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute (based in Washington, D.C., which I love going to). I loved seeing early maps on display and all of the errors and assumptions the mapmakers of the time made, like putting mountains on maps of Florida just because they assumed there must be mountains there. It was also interesting to see the displays on the native people of Florida and the timeline of Florida and how it has changed over the years.
Another museum on a university campus is the Henry B. Plant Museum, http://www.plantmuseum.com/ at the University of Tampa. This was a former hotel and is a national historic landmark. If you like World War II, Korean, or Vietnam War history or like exploring former war ships, you can check out the American Victory Ship and Museum, https://www.americanvictory.org/. For parents with children who love fire trucks or if you enjoy fire fighter history, you’d love the Tampa Firefighters Museum, https://www.tampafirefightersmuseum.org/.
There is one museum I didn’t visit that I wish I would have and that’s the Museum of Science and Industry, https://www.mosi.org/. The reason I didn’t go here is simply because of COVID. I’ve been to other museums of science and industry in other cities (even in other countries) and loved them, but to truly experience a place like this, you have to be willing to literally put your hands on the exhibits and participate. I had no interest in that during the pandemic, so this museum will have to wait until my next visit to Tampa. According to their website, “guests can lie on a bed of nails, build a robot, explore optical illusions, challenge themselves with hands-on brain puzzles, explore another world in our NASA-funded Mission: Moonbase lunar colony, touch the future in Connectus and learn about planets and our solar system in the Saunders Planetarium.” As a scientist, I love doing those kinds of activities, just not currently given the state of things.
When I was a kid, I went to Busch Gardens Amusement Park in Virginia and only when I was older did I realize there is also a Busch Gardens in Tampa. Although both are similar with thrill rides and they both have a water park (Adventure Island in Tampa) that you can buy a two park ticket for, it seems Busch Gardens Tampa wins out with their animal offerings. Not only is there a zoo, there are experiences like Serengeti Safari in an open-air touring vehicle. https://buschgardens.com/tampa/
ZooTampa at Lowry Park (not a typo, by the way) https://zootampa.org/. The zoo has endangered, threatened and vulnerable species from climates similar to that of the Tampa Bay region and emphasizes conservation and education. There are also some rides but only a handful and mostly geared toward small children. Seasonal activities are offered year-round in addition to events like Toddler Tuesdays once a month.
In a similar vein to the zoo, the Florida Aquarium, https://www.flaquarium.org/ places emphasis on conservation, education, and research. If you want to add on more experiences, you can take a Wild Dolphin Cruise or purchase a 20-minute VIP experience behind the scenes interaction with African penguins.
There aren’t really beaches in Tampa even though there is the small Ben T. Davis Beach with views of Tampa Bay, but the best beaches by far are in the Clearwater and St. Petersburg areas. Thanks to a system of highways that stretch across Old Tampa Bay, you can get from downtown Tampa to these beaches in about 40-45 minutes as long as there isn’t too much traffic.
If you really want to explore not only Tampa but also Clearwater and St. Petersburg, I recommend renting a car. Parking especially in Tampa can be expensive and even more so if there’s a hockey, football, or baseball game going on but luckily there are plenty of garages and other parking options. Of course there’s always Uber and Lyft. Also, the TECO Line Streetcar System runs between downtown and channelside to the historic Ybor district.
Have you ever been to Tampa? Didn’t really know much about it until now? Are you surprised by anything I mentioned?