Tampa's Hidden Treasure Beyond the Beach
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
You may have traveled through Tampa for several reasons growing up: perhaps your family was flying into Tampa International Airport for a beach vacation at the world-famous white sand beaches such as St. Pete and Clearwater, or even visiting the amazing Busch Gardens Theme Park. If you’re like me, you grew up visiting your grandparents who chose to retire in the quiet Tampa Bay Area, known for its stunning, challenging golf courses.
In 2018, Tampa is a completely different destination to explore through urban and nature adventures. The bustling city provides more than a sunny beach vacation and entertaining attractions (although those are still there!). In the past decade, Cigar City has blossomed into a delectable melting pot of history, culture, diverse food and craft beverage businesses that has attracted young families and professionals as residents and visitors. In fact, 40 percent of the current population is between 20-44 years of age.
Yet, despite its cultural renaissance and bourgeoning foodie scene, Tampa doesn’t feel overcrowded like many up-and-coming destinations. Read on to discover some of the true gems I’ve experienced on several trips to the city to visit the in-laws.
What to Do
There is an abundance of indoor and outdoor activities to do in Tampa, and many of them are family-friendly. We love being on the water and learning the history about the different areas we visit, while our daughter is obsessed with aquariums (she showed an early interest in Moana at four months old!). Our favorite activities below reflect these interests.
I suggest visiting the Tampa Bay History Center as a first stop to learn all about Cigar City’s culture, heritage and economic evolution. Conveniently located on the Tampa Bay Riverwalk, TBHC has three stories of permanent and temporary exhibits that date back 12,000 years to Tampa’s early peoples through its role today as a major port and tourism destination. Learn all about the Tocobaga and Seminole tribes, Spanish settlements in the 1500’s, the establishment of Ybor City’s first cigar factory that brought in Spanish, Cuban and other European immigrants.
Canoeing down the Hillsborough in a 16,000-acre wilderness park provides a unique experience in the fresh water wetlands of the Tampa Bay Area. Just 15 minutes from downtown, guests can rent a canoe for two hours up to a full day to take in nature, get in a solid workout paddling and view wildlife of Florida’s swamps such as alligators, gorgeous American white ibis birds, turtles, deer and wild hogs. We brought the whole clan several years ago (before we had kids), and our nephews thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Check with your rental company to see which animals are likely to be spotted during your visitation season.
If there’s an experienced boat captain in your party, embark on a full-day trip to the crystal waters of Egmont Key, a national wildlife refuge and state park just outside of Tampa Bay. After a quick boat ride, you’ll reach the pristine white sand beaches of the island, which is relatively uncrowded (except for holidays) since it’s only reachable by boat. We’ve typically used Tierra Verde rentals in the past, which I highly recommend. For inexperienced boaters, a ferry from Fort Desoto Park is another option to access Egmont. Visitors can explore what feels like ancient jungle ruins, but is actually an old military fort, all the way to historic Egmont Key Lighthouse that has stood since 1858. Arrive early to discover some of the best seashells you’ve ever collected!
Visit the Florida Aquarium in the Channelside district of Tampa to learn about the bay and the surrounding area’s marine ecosystems including exhibits such as the Wetlands Trail, which emulates Florida’s beautiful mangroves, rare seadragons, a living coral reef with corals grown by the aquarium exhibit curators, bays and beaches.
Our toddler screeched with delight over the sting and spotted eagle rays; we loved the mangroves exhibit and the genius kid-friendly amenities such as a children’s zone halfway through the facility with ocean life stuffed animals and the splash pad at the end – a much-needed break for her after an hour + in the stroller.
If the $30 adult general admission price for the Florida Aquarium makes you cringe, families on a budget will enjoy the FREE Tampa Electric Co. Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Visitors can view manatees in the wild, walk through different habitats on the half-mile tidal walk and even pet sting rays. Manatees can best be seen in cooler months because they’re drawn to the heated waters of the nearby energy plant.
Lastly, for my runner friends: start one morning out with a waterfront run along Bayshore Boulevard, the world’s longest continuous sidewalk. Imagine a nine-mile out-and-back course without intersections! Architecture geeks will also enjoy the million-dollar Spanish-style homes along this corridor leading to MacDill Air Force Base.
Where to Eat
For beachfront dining and a true Floridian atmosphere overlooking Tampa Bay and the St. Petersburg skyline, be sure to try Sunset Grill at Little Harbor. It’s right near Apollo Beach and pairs nicely with an afternoon spent at the Manatee Viewing Center. The seafood is delicious, the tropical cocktails are on-point and the menu is overall affordable. The beach is technically private property belonging to the Inn at Little Harbor next door, but we found it quite easy to snap a few photos by the water and the pier.
The Columbia Restaurant is a family-owned Tampa Bay tradition. Look no further than this historic Ybor City establishment to find authentic Cuban dishes and live flamenco dancing entertainment. What began as a small corner café in 1905 that catered to Cuban immigrant cigar workers has evolved into the largest Spanish restaurant in the world with seven locations – but we recommend the flagship venue in Ybor to see the live flamenco show. For a more casual location, the Tampa Bay History Center has a Riverwalk café.
Head to the Heights to visit two of Tampa’s hottest epicurean venues that couldn’t be more different: Armature Works and Ulele. Geared toward young professionals and families, Armature Works is a sophisticated waterfront food hall and co-working space aimed to connect Tampa’s Riverwalk district to the growing neighborhoods north of downtown. Set in an artfully restored factory building that was once home to Tampa Electric’s streetcar maintenance in the early 1900’s, the public market with communal seating features street-style dishes from classic pizza slices to Cuban sandwiches (Tampa is where this sandwich got its start) to vegan empanadas. Once you have a Tampa Cuban, it will be difficult to enjoy them anywhere else. The outdoor dining space is terrific for kids and adults, with oversized checkerboards on the lawn and Adirondack chairs overlooking the Hillsborough river.
Directly adjacent to Armature Works is Ulele, with native Floridan-inspired cuisine, its own brewery and an upscale dining ambiance perfect for date night. Ulele’s indoor and outdoor décor pay tribute to Princess Ulele of the Tocobaga tribe, while the fusion of flavors by Chef Keith Williamson will please the palate.
Stay tuned for a Tampa “Bebida” review this winter after our next trip that will cover Cigar City’s best breweries and coffee scene. With such a heavy Cuban influence, I doubt the coffee will be anything short of spectacular! We already know Tampa is the craft beer capital of the Sunshine State, but we're allowing ourselves a little more research ;)