Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation
Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Hit the Beach for Relaxation and Watersports
With miles of beautiful beaches, Tampa is a paradise for those looking to relax or get active in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Whether you want to sunbathe, go for a swim, try watersports, or simply take in the picturesque views, Tampa’s beaches have something for everyone.
Clearwater Beach is regularly ranked one of the best beaches in America, with its wide stretch of soft white sand and calm turquoise waters. You can spend hours lounging under a beach umbrella, taking a dip to cool off, building sandcastles, or going for relaxing walks along the shoreline. With beachside restaurants and bars, you’ll never go hungry or thirsty. Or rent a jet ski, paddleboard, or kayak to get out on the water. At the beach’s iconic Pier 60, you can shop, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy free nightly sunset celebrations with street performers and artists.
Just north is Honeymoon Island State Park, another picturesque beach that offers more seclusion amid unspoiled nature. Kayak through the mangroves or go shelling along the shore. Spot dolphins swimming just offshore or seabirds gliding above. The park also has nature trails through wooded areas, where you may see osprey, eagles, and other wildlife. Caladesi Island State Park, accessible only by boat, is another pristine natural escape with beautiful white sand beaches.
On the St. Pete side of the bay, Fort De Soto Park has some of the area’s best beaches for watersports. Rent a standup paddleboard or kayak and paddle through the calm mangrove trails and along the shoreline, where you’re almost guaranteed to spot pelicans diving for fish. Swimming and snorkeling conditions are excellent as well. And anglers can cast a line from the long fishing piers jutting into the Gulf. Two rocky jetties help form a calm bay area that’s perfect for younger swimmers.
What else is in this post?
- Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Hit the Beach for Relaxation and Watersports
- Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Explore the Outdoors at Hillsborough River State Park
- Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Marvel at Manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
- Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Experience the Arts and Culture in Downtown Tampa
- Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Check Out the Theme Parks for Family Fun
Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Explore the Outdoors at Hillsborough River State Park
For those seeking outdoor adventure amidst natural beauty, Hillsborough River State Park is a must-visit when in Tampa. Situated on the banks of the winding Hillsborough River, the park encompasses over 1,600 acres of wetlands, hammocks, and pine flatwoods. With opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, and wildlife viewing, it's a nature lover's paradise.
Start your outdoor explorations by hiking or biking along the park's seven miles of trails. Wander through shady oak hammocks draped in Spanish moss, traverse wooden boardwalks over lush wetland areas bursting with palmettos and other native plants, and take in gorgeous riverfront views from overlook spots. Birding is excellent, so keep your eyes peeled for over 200 species like limpkins, red-shouldered hawks, and pileated woodpeckers.
For close encounters with local wildlife, join a ranger-led kayak tour. Paddling down the coffee-colored river, you're almost guaranteed to spot alligators, turtles, and exotic birds. Your guide will point out fascinating sights like blue herons wading stealthily through the shallows and anhinga drying their wings after a deep dive for fish. As your kayak glides downstream, take in the cypress knees poking up and Spanish moss swaying gently from the riverbank trees.
The Hillsborough River is also renowned for outstanding fishing, especially for largemouth bass. Drop a line from one of the park's fishing piers or paddle out in a rental boat to cast into the shadier areas under overhanging trees. Need gear or bait? Stop by the park's full-service marina store.
Later, set up camp along the river's edge or bed down in one of the park's cozy, rustic cabins. As the sun sets, join fellow nature enthusiasts swapping stories around a glowing campfire. Wake to the sight of mist rising off the glassy river and the raucous calls of pileated woodpeckers echoing through the forests.
Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Marvel at Manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
A highlight of any Tampa trip is heading north to come face-to-snout with Florida's famous sea cows at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Established to protect the endangered West Indian manatee, this refuge provides one of the best opportunities to encounter these gentle aquatic mammals in their natural habitat. From November to March, hundreds of manatees flock to the spring-fed refuge seeking warmer waters, making it the only place on the planet you can legally swim and interact with wild manatees. Just be sure to follow guidelines and give them ample space.
Your manatee meet-and-greet starts by donning a thick wetsuit and snorkel gear, even in the warmth of the Florida sun. The steady 72-degree spring waters will still chill you without a "manatee suit”. Next, slip below the surface and behold these behemoths in their domain. Many average 10 feet long and weigh a staggering 1,000 pounds! Despite their size, manatees move with surprising grace, somersaulting and twirling as they feast on vegetation. You’ll be enthralled watching them lumber along the river bottom, surfacing occasionally for air. Listen for their snorts as they take breaths.
Resist the urge to reach out and touch. Passive observation is key, so give manatees at least 6 feet of space. If one chooses to approach you, consider yourself blessed. They’re extremely curious and may nuzzle your mask for a closer look. Just let them lead the interaction. These gentle giants face many threats, so it’s vital not to disrupt their habitat or routines.
Your tour guide will fill you in on more amazing manatee facts during your swim. For instance, they can hold their breath underwater for up to 20 minutes and consume a tenth of their body weight in plants daily. And those odd hairs on their face act as sensory whiskers since their eyesight is quite poor. They’ll also explain how to identify individuals by their unique scar patterns gained from run-ins with boats.
Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Experience the Arts and Culture in Downtown Tampa
Beyond beaches and theme parks, Tampa offers a thriving arts and cultural scene in its revitalized downtown area. From world-class museums to historic theaters, this riverside district delivers plenty for culture vultures to sink their teeth into.
At the Smithsonian-affiliated Tampa Museum of Art, linger over an exceptional collection of ancient antiquities, stunning Modernist pieces, and work by top contemporary artists. Don't miss the museum's Stephen Knapp collection, touted as the world's largest assemblage of art in neon and argon. These vibrant, light-based creations literally glow with color.
For a primer on the city’s history and heritage, devote an hour or two to the Tampa Bay History Center. Exhibits chart the region’s development from prehistoric times through the 20th century using artifacts, photographs, maps, and multimedia displays. There's also a full-scale replica of a cattle car like those that transported pioneering cowmen and their herds to the area in the 1800s.
The Tampa Theatre stands as an architectural and cultural landmark in downtown's National Register Historic District. This lavish 1926 movie palace still hosts film screenings in its gilded auditorium. But the venue also presents concerts, comedy shows, and classic movie marathons that let you experience the theater’s ornate glory. Splurge on a seat in the "loge” loge section for optimum views.
For performing arts, the Straz Center shines as the second largest arts complex in the Southeast. Touring Broadway shows command the glittering Morsani Hall stage alongside concerts by top symphonies and pop stars. More intimate venues onsite host dance recitals, operas, and experimental theater. And when major acts aren't performing, skilled students from the Patel Conservatory take center stage.
Art galleries add to downtown's creative mix, with spots like Tempus Projects and bam gallery representing local talent. And don't miss the epic outdoor murals transforming alleyways and empty walls into vibrant canvases. The SoHo-like Encore! district makes an ideal home base with its stylish boutiques, restaurants, and cocktail lounges housed in restored historic buildings.
Sunshine and Sophistication: 10 Best Activities for a Well-Rounded Tampa Vacation - Check Out the Theme Parks for Family Fun
When it comes to family fun, Tampa becomes a theme park paradise with enough heart-racing rides, enchanting shows, and imaginative adventures to keep kids of all ages enthralled. Just a short drive from the city, visitors can explore major amusement park giants, a LEGOLAND resort, a top-rated zoo, and a massive waterpark.
At Busch Gardens, step into an African adventure right in the heart of Florida. From world-class thrill rides like SheiKra and Montu to wildlife encounters with rhinos and giraffes, days here turn into whirlwind expeditions. Feel your stomach drop as SheiKra trains scale 200 feet, then plunge near-vertical at 70 mph. The creativity behind this park’s coasters is next-level, with Montu’s tracks forming a mind-bending series of loops and spirals at 60 mph. But Busch Gardens also understands little ones need their own adventures, hence kid-focused areas like Sesame Street Safari of Fun and Jungala, home to a magnetic spinning coaster perfect for early roller coaster riders. Yet animals may be the real stars here. Hand-feed giraffes or pet flamingos in the 65-acre Serengeti Plain, then catch the vibrant, Cirque du Soleil-style KareKare Crane acrobatics show. Busch’s grounds are simply stunning to explore, especially when strolling past soaring aviaries and through detailed African villages with close-up views of real elephants, rhinos, and more.
Over at LEGOLAND Florida, everything is awesome when you’re traveling through parks and attractions made from 60 million LEGO bricks. Take your pick from over 50 rides, shows, and building activities suited for kids 2 to 12. Test your building skills alongside a LEGO Master Model Builder, then put creations to the test on Kid Power Towers, where they get hoisted to the sky and spun around. LEGOLAND also boasts waterpark fun, a botanical garden, and onsite resort hotels immersed in the LEGO universe.