Tampa, FL, in the heart of Hillsborough County, is truly a treasure on Florida's west central coastline. With a background that includes Spanish explorers, cigar manufacturing, and mafia families, Tampa has as rich a history as one could hope to uncover. It even has a fun false history in the form of fictional pirate Jose Gaspar, who with his krewe, invades Tampa every year and sparks off the annual Gasparilla festival.
Tampa, home to both the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa, features a wealth of culture and diversity. It's also a playground of commercialism, with opportunities for consumers to spend money as great as any other major U.S. city.
In 2008, Tampa was ranked the 8th Cleanest City in the country by Yahoo! Real Estate and 5th Best Outdoor City by Forbes.In 2004, the NYU newspaper ranked Tampa as a top city for people in their 20's.
When I moved to Tampa, FL from Upstate NY as a wide-eyed 21-year-old, I thought I had found my wonderland. I lived there for five years and, though as a resident the novelty wore off, I still have family and friends there, and Tampa remains one of my favorite places to visit.
Here are my top ten things to do in Tampa, in no particular order.
Busch Gardens Africa
In my opinion, Busch Gardens Africa beats the Disney parks in nearby Orlando, hands down. While Disney has always seemed to have been focused on families with smaller children, Busch Gardens is fun for kids of ALL ages. From roller coasters, to the Serengeti Plain, to the Brewmasters Club, there is definitely something from everyone at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
Busch Gardens is open year round, though hours vary (check the website for details). The park also features fun seasonal events like their annual Howl-O-Scream event held every year around Halloween.
Address: 1001 N. McKinley Drive, Tampa, FL 33612
Lowry Park Zoo
Voted the #1 family-friendly zoo in America by Child Magazine, Lowry Park Zoo is one of my absolute must-visit spots every time I go to Tampa. The zoo attractions are wonderful and varied. A few of my favorites:
- Lorikeet Landing is fantastic, allowing you to go into a sort of small tropical sanctuary and hand feed the gorgeous little birds.
- The Florida Manatee and Aquatic center is a very soothing exhibit. I could spend hours just watching the manatees swim and nibble on lettuce.
- The chimps and orangutans are my absolute favorites. The zoo has done a wonderful job of keeping their primates happy, and they're very active and enjoy interacting with the zoo visitors (from within their enclosure, of course).
Lowry Park Zoo is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, and is closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Address: 1101 West Sligh Avenue, Tampa, FL 33604
Phone: (813) 935-8552
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Football in Tampa
Founded in 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are at the heart of nearly everything in Tampa. In my early days in Tampa, I was always amazed at how gametime was the best time to go to the mall or the grocery store because they were empty of other customers - then I became a football fan and understood why. The Bucs are very active in the local community, and the games are a guaranteed good time. For Bucs tickets, call (813) 879-BUCS.
The University of South Florida created their football program in the late 1990s and it has been a popular one since. The USF Bulls always show their fans a good time (even if the the game is a loss), and tailgating at a USF game is a real treat. For USF game tickets, call 1-800-GO-BULLS.
Both the Bucs and the Bulls play their home games at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The box office generally opens three hours before kickoff on gameday.
The stadium was also home to Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009, as the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Address: 4201 North Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL
Box office phone (on gameday only): (813) 350-6502
The Channelside entertainment district near downtown Tampa is a great place to spend an evening. Filled with restaurants featuring many different cuisines, an upscale bowling alley, a 10-screen movie theater with an IMAX screen, nightclubs, and specialty retail shops, there is always something to entertain at Channelside. The area caters to families during the day, but after dark is popular with a 30+ bar crowd.
Address: 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa, FL 33602
Located just northeast of downtown Tampa, Ybor City is a very historic area. The hub of Tampa's pre-Depression cigar trade, portions of the old neighborhood have been designated as a National Historic Landmark District, and several buildings in the area are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, Ybor City is primarily known as an entertainment district. Site of Tampa's annual Sant' Yago Knight Parade, the culmination of the two-week long Gasparilla Pirate Festival, as well as the annual Guavaween celebration (held in late October), Ybor city is frequently filled with party goers young and old.
With restaurants, nightclubs, and specialty retail shops, Ybor City is a must-see for any visitor to Tampa.
It would be a shame to visit Tampa and not track down some authentic Cuban and/or Spanish cuisine. For a true taste of Tampa, check out La Teresita Restaurant, a local hangout that offers amazing food and unbelievable prices in a very casual atmosphere. La Teresita offers a sit-down service, but the most popular is the diner-style setup in the back. They also have a convenient take-out window for hungry folks on the run. Portions are enormous, so be prepared to either split a meal with a friend or eat yourself sick. I highly recommend the roast pork with black beans and yellow rice, and a side of fried plantains. YUM!
Address: 3246 West Columbus Drive, Tampa, FL 33607
Phone: (813) 879-4909
Everybody loves a visit to an aquarium, and a visit to the Florida Aquarium will be no different. With interactive exhibits such as swimming with the fish (for children ages 6 years and up who are comfortable in the water) or the Penguin Encounter, the Florida Aquarium is sure to delight.
The aquarium is open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and is closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Address: 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa, FL 33602
Phone: (813) 273-4000
Tampa Bay Lightning
Since first taking the ice in 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been a popular, if not always winning, franchise in Tampa. Winners of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a Bolts game is always a whole lot of fun. The Tampa Bay Lightning play their home games at St. Pete Times Forum (formerly The Ice Palace).
Address: 401 Channelside Drive,Tampa, FL 33602
Phone: (813) 301-6500
George M. Steinbrenner Field
The George M. Steinbrenner Field (formerly Legends Field) is home to spring training for the 26-time World Champion New York Yankees, as well as to the Florida State League Tampa Yankees. The Tampa team games are a great and inexpensive way to spend an afternoon or evening enjoying America's favorite pasttime. Steinbrenner Field is also a popular venue for parties and corporate events.
Address: 1 Steinbrenner Drive, Tampa, FL 33614
Phone: (813) 875-7753
Big Cat Rescue
Nestled back in the trees in the Citrus Park neighborhood of subdivisions and shopping malls, Big Cat Rescue is a true surprise. This 45-acre wildlife sanctuary is home to 140 cats representing 16 species of wild cats. Lions, tigers, and ocelots, oh my! On our visit, we went on a guided tour of the facility, and watched the big kitties acting completely at home. We also got to observe feeding time for the tigers and laughed over the tiger who dropped his cow leg into his pond and had to dive in after it to get it out. All of the cats are contained within their cat-a-tats and there is no touching, but you are so close to the animals that it is still an utterly amazing experience. Big Cat Rescue's animals come from many sources including zoos, circuses, and private homes that bought exotic cats that they didn't know how to care for. The organization relies heavily on the generosity of visitors, so if you visit, please make a donation (can also be done on the website via PayPal - scroll to the bottom of the screen.
Address: 12802 Easy Street, Tampa, FL 33625
Phone: (813) 920-4130
Where's the Beach?
Now, some of you may be asking, "Where's the beach???" There are no decent beaches in Tampa, and I wanted this hub to focus specifically on Tampa proper. Head over to neighboring Pinellas County, however, and there are beaches galore! My recommendations:
- For those who like a more commercial, boardwalk-y beach environment, hit Clearwater Beach in beautiful Clearwater, FL.
- For those who like peace and quiet, clear water, and nature as it was intended, grab the ferry to gorgeous Caladesi Island State Park.