People have been finding things to do in Tampa for more than 2,000 years. Florida’s third biggest city was once the home of the Seminole people, before being colonised by the Spanish, and more recently the retirees. While its more recent, not entirely fair, reputation as ‘God’s waiting room’ has held strong, it’s easy to understand why people never want to leave this balmy corner of the Gulf Coast – there are plenty of unique things to do in Tampa.
With a laidback charm, close proximity to nature, and diverse, vibrant culture, the city is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for a younger crowd looking for city life without the stress. Let’s dive in to what you can get up to in Tampa!
1. Indulge your inner child at Busch Gardens
For the coaster heads and animal lovers among us, a trip to the iconic Busch Gardens is a must! This theme park meets zoo meets safari park allows you to take a thrill ride on some seriously scary rollercoasters in the AM and chill with gorillas in the afternoon.
For some of Tampa’s most adrenaline-pumping thrills, check out the Cheetah Hunt ride for a high speed kick, or enjoy the panoramic view from the top of Falcon Fury, before free falling down the 335-foot peak.
The park’s pièce de résistance is the 65-acre Serengeti Plain, where giraffes, ostriches, antelope, zebra and even rhinos roam free. You can take a tour in an open-top vehicle for a taste of the wild Savannah. The park also has a monorail that circles the plain.
And if you need to cool off from the Floridian humidity, just across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island Water Park – 30 acres of watery fun that includes a ton of slides, a wave pool and a lazy river.
2. Go tubing with manatees
If you’re looking for unforgettable outdoor activities in Tampa, then you can’t do much better than this – it’s undoubtedly one of the most unique things to do in Tampa. The natural springs surrounding the city give an opportunity to combine two of the most fabulous of activities: tubing and hanging out with sea cows!
For the uninitiated, tubing is one of the greatest outdoor activities known to humankind. It simply involves floating in a rubber ring down a river. Manatee River is one of the closest tubing spots to Tampa, and in summer you can expect a two-hour journey downstream. You’re almost guaranteed to encounter the gentle, seagrass-munching manatees (once mistaken for mermaids) who call this area home.
If you’d rather skip the rubber ring, you could also check out Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, where you can watch baby manatees soak up the warm water hitting the bay from a discharge channel. It’s closed right now due to Covid-19, but you can still catch the show on webcam.
3. Have breakfast with the animals at Lowry Zoo
If you want to meet even more animals, non-profit Zoo Tampa (AKA The Lowry Zoo) has been voted the #1 family-friendly zoo in the US. Here you can meet everyone from friendly koalas, penguins and elephants to the extremely rare Indian rhino.
They also offer a range of activities including fitness classes, comedy shows, talks and toddler Tuesdays. They also host a regular event called ‘breakfast with the animals’, which combines an art class, mimosas, pancakes and close encounters with some of the planet’s most iconic creatures.
4. Drive over the majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge
If you’re visiting Tampa as part of a road trip, or plan on exploring some of the nearby Gulf Coast beaches, we highly recommend a detour over the incredible Sunshine Skyway Bridge. This 6.7 km-long masterpiece of structural engineering connects the nearby towns of St. Petersburg and Bradenton, and offers some incredible views of Tampa Bay.
This suspension bridge is not only long, but dizzyingly high, with a vertical clearance of 150 feet. Thankfully, there’s a place on the bridge to park and take in the panorama. There is also a nearby rest area with kayaking and fishing opportunities, if you want to make a day of it (which you probably will).
5. Connect with nature at Hillsborough River State Park
One of the best things about Tampa is the access to the great outdoors. For a truly wild outdoor activity in Tampa, you could do much worse than hiking, camping and kayaking at Hillsborough River State Park.
This lush green park boasts rapids and a glorious suspension bridge. There are trails for days and plenty of opportunities for wild swimming. The campground amenities are very family-friendly, complete with play parks and a pool. This is a must see for those who really want to switch off and reconnect with nature.
6. Devour a Cubano
Miami might be famous for this roast pork, swiss cheese, mustard and pickle sandwich, but Tampa is where the treat originated. Here you’ll also get a few slices of salami in the mix – a welcome addition added by Tampa’s Italian community. Then everything is lovingly nestled in some fresh Cuban bread.
A trip to Tampa isn’t complete without sampling one of these, and kū´bå, a hotspot in the trendy Armature Works, is highly recommended. If you’re vegan, you can still get involved – Golden Dinosaurs Deli offers a mouthwatering plant-based version
7. Learn the art of shuffleboard
Shuffleboard might just be Florida’s state sport. It’s a simple game that involves pushing weighted disks across a narrow court, with the goal of having them land in a marked scoring area.
At Shuffle, the Tampa Heights Shuffleboard society, you can learn the ropes of the game with the help of the friendly staff, while indulging in gourmet hot dogs and craft beer from their grown-up concession stand. The venue also hosts live music, and boasts an impressive terrace. It’s a community hotspot and a great way to while away a lazy Tampa afternoon.
8. Eat, party, and ghost hunt in historic Ybor City
The historic Ybor City neighborhood once housed the Cuban and Spanish cigar-factory workers at the turn of the 20th century. Nowadays, the cultural heart of Tampa is known for its vibrant nightlife.
Music lovers should check out the Ritz for big name acts, the Orpheum for indie shows, and the Crowbar for local acts and nights out (where the cover charge rarely exceeds $10). The Honey Pot is the spot for drag shows. This area is a destination for craft beer lovers, who should make time for a visit to Tampa Brewing Company.
Unsurprisingly, for such a rich, historical area, it’s also a hot spot for close encounters of the spiritual kind. Ghost Tours Ybor City offers a spooky guided walk that is both creepy and highly informative.
9. Meet the tiger kings and queens at Big Cat Rescue
Yes, that Big Cat Rescue, run by the one and only Carole Baskin. Animal lovers and Tiger King fans alike will enjoy a day meeting the park’s 50+ rescued and rehabilitated lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars (amongst others). Say what you want about Carole, there’s no denying she’s provided a lush sanctuary for these felines to live their lives in fitting splendor.
Right now, Big Cat Rescue is closed to the public until there is a vaccine to protect the cats, but Carole hopes to open her doors as soon as it’s safe to do so.
10. Eat your heart out in Tampa
You might want to bring your stretchy pants, because Tampa is quickly becoming a gastronomical hotspot. While you could never get through all the city’s culinary delights in one short trip (or even a lifetime), here are some of the top recommendations.
World-class steakhouse Bern’s is a must for meat and wine lovers thanks to its 100,000-strong wine list. If you prefer your meat served a little more casually, check out Wicked Oak BarbeQue on North Florida Avenue. The owner, Felix “Bubba” Flores, keeps things simple so the focus is on his slow cooked brisket and ribs, and the results are unforgettable.
For Southern soul food and a charming ambience, pay a visit to Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe. Located in Seminole Heights (not far from Downtown) this venue, gallery and eatery will nourish your stomach and your soul, with southern classics like grits, chicken and waffles, and biscuits and gravy. There are good vegan options too for the herbivores among us.
The beating heart of Tampa’s food scene is inside a 1900s streetcar warehouse known as the Armature Works. This public market showcases food created by some of Tampa’s top chefs.
You can’t go wrong here, but you might want to try a Quesabirria taco at Muchachas. It’s a taco-quesadilla hybrid stuffed with gooey cheese and braised beef, served with a consommé dipping sauce. It’s every bit as dreamy as it sounds.
11. Party like a pirate
Though glorious year round, if there was a best time to visit Tampa, it might be the last Sunday of January, when the Gasparilla Pirate Festival takes over Downtown. This Mardi Gras-style parade celebrating the invasion of mythical Floridian folk hero pirate Jose Gaspar has been held nearly every year since 1904.
On the day, members of the Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla sail into downtown Tampa aboard their pirate ship float (along with hundreds of private boats), and demand that the mayor hand over the key to the city. After the invasion, the victory parade takes over the Riverside Walk and the party goes on till the small hours.
Pirates are a big thing in Tampa, so if you can’t make it for Gasparilla, you can always pay Gaspar’s Grotto a visit. This Ybor City bar and restaurant celebrates the famous pirate invasion all year long.
12. Cool off at a hockey game
You might not have Tampa pegged as a hockey town, but NHL hockey is the city’s most popular sport. The city has barely stopped celebrating since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cups.
Even if you’re not a hockey buff, the games are a riot and the crowd is friendly. What’s more: the temperature is cool, making this a perfect Tampa activity if you need a break from the Florida heat. Afterwards, hang out on the Party Deck or follow fans out to one of the many downtown bars that surround the Amalie Arena.
13. Bike, blade, segway or take a stroll on the Tampa Riverwalk
This 2.4 mile stretch is allegedly the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. In the morning, it’s full of fitness nuts jogging, cycling, or practicing yoga by the glittering waters. Afternoons are for hand-holding couples, sundowners and live music. Rent yourself some wheels or just take a leisurely stroll.
This is an activity easily paired with one of the many attractions on the walk – including Tampa Art Museum, Florida Aquarium and the Glazer Children’s Museum. Go with an empty stomach because this area is also frequented by some of Tampa’s best food trucks.
14. Get creative at the Glazer Children’s Museum
Tampa is an under-the-radar cultural hotspot with a handful of world-class museums. The Riverside Walk leads you to some of the most inspiring, including the delightful Glazer Children’s Museum.
The museum creates a fun and safe learning environment, with interactive exhibits that give children a chance to try on many identities in a safe and imaginative play environment. They can take care of cuddly critters at the vet clinic, build creative masterpieces at the engineer’s workshop and cook up something delicious at the pizza place. The museum also offers seasonal camps and field trips.
15. Unwind at the beach
A trip to Tampa isn’t complete without catching some rays by the seaside, and beach bums won’t have to go far to sink their toes in perfect white sand.
One of the best beaches in the Tampa area is Pass-a-Grille Beach. The wide, powdery beach is situated beside a cute, historical town, boasting a ton of good seafood restaurants, art galleries and an old fashioned main street. If you’d rather avoid the flashy resorts of Clearwater, then this is your spot. From here, take a snorkeling trip out to uninhabited Shell Key, or watch dolphins play from the deck of a sunset cruise.
A more local spot is the Getaway. Snuggled between Tampa and neighboring St. Pete, this chilled out tiki bar offers kayak, canoe and paddle board rentals onsite. It’s easy to paddle out to Weedon Island Preserve and explore the mangroves and sandbars. Or you can just stay put, chill out on the sand, and soak up the Keys vibe over some fish tacos and sundowner cocktails.
16. Get a glimpse into another world at the Florida Aquarium
Located on the Riverside Walk, the Florida Aquarium is a must see, featuring sharks, penguins, sting rays, otters, and plenty of local Floridian sea life. It’s a dedicated learning zone encouraging good ocean stewardship. Above all, it’s extremely child friendly.
Bring swimwear for the little ones, as it features a very popular splash pad. You can even book dolphin viewing excursions through the aquarium. If you fall deeply in love with the place, you’ll be pleased to know that you can get hitched here too!
17. Experience Tampa’s gilded History at the Henry B. Plant Museum
For history buffs, the Henry B. Plant Museum is a Tampa must-see. Housed in the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel, this is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks with it’s Moorish minarets visible from many a city vista.
Henry Plant commissioned the hotel as a destination for wealthy passengers of the new railroad that put Tampa on the map. Today, most of the grand building is used by the sprawling University of Tampa, while the south wing celebrates Tampa’s sumptuous 18th-century heyday.
18. Indulge in a little retail therapy
While you’re in the area around the Henry B. Plant Museum, you should definitely go for a wander in historic Hyde Park, one of Tampa’s coolest neighborhoods. Bordering the University, this community is full of glorious old houses, cool hangouts and some of the best shopping in Tampa.
Open-air mall Hyde Park Village is a good place to start with its mix of high-end chain stores and independent boutiques, as well as beauty parlors and eateries. If your feet (and credit card) need a break, take a stroll up SoHo (AKA South Howard Avenue) to decompress in one of its many bars and cafes.
19. Hike the Lettuce Lake Loop
Lettuce Lake Regional Park is a stone’s throw (and a short 24 minute drive) from downtown Tampa. Despite its proximity to the city, this park is teaming with native wildlife and fauna.
One of the best ways to experience Lettuce Lake is by walking the easily accessible 2 km loop trail. You can also rent kayaks and canoes to explore the lake and swamps, or simply chill at the picnic and play areas.
20. Get out on the water
You can’t go wrong with a day’s fishing around Tampa, and if you don’t have a friend with a boat, you can easily make one by chartering a captain and their vessel. Even if the fish don’t bite, a day floating on the crystal clear waters of Anna Maria Island will be unforgettable.
There are also plenty of whale and dolphin tours on offer. And If you’re just in it for the boat, you can book a day trip with Tiqets.
Where to stay in Tampa
Although the Tampa area is pretty sprawling, most of the attractions are in a few compact neighborhoods. Downtown has museums, and easy access to the River Walk area, plus a good selection of hotels.
If you’re looking for charm and an amazing night out, try staying somewhere in either Ybor City or Hyde Park North. Both are full of hip restaurants, boutique shopping and great nightlife with plenty of local flavor.
North of downtown lies the iconic Busch Gardens and Lowry Zoo while Northwest Tampa boasts a wide selection of hotels for all budgets and close proximity to the airport.
If you’re looking to chill, consider staying in one of the many delightful beach towns in the greater Tampa area and traveling into town for the attractions. You could also do worse than a booking room in one of nearby Clearwater’s many luxury beach resorts.
How to get around Tampa
It’s helpful to have a car, especially if visiting some of the more off-the-beaten-track beaches and beauty spots. However, Tampa is more accessible than many US cities. If you’re staying in town, rent a bike or a scooter (or, if you’re feeling brave, a Segway).
Water taxis take you from downtown to Tampa Heights, Harbour Island and Davis Islands. The city has a decent bus service, and we’d 100% recommend the charming (and free) Teco streetcar if traveling between Ybor City and downtown.