As a long-time Tampa resident, I’m thrilled to share my insider’s guide to the best things to do in this sunny Gulf Coast city. With its beautiful beaches, fascinating history, exciting attractions, and vibrant culinary scene, Tampa has so much to offer visitors.
Tampa is located on the west coast of Florida, situated on Tampa Bay. It enjoys a subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers and mild, dry winters. The city has a rich multicultural history, from its roots as a Spanish colony to the influx of Cuban immigrants in the late 1800s. Today, Tampa is known for its historic neighborhoods like Ybor City, cruise ship port, and world-class attractions like Busch Gardens. Keep reading for my list of the top things to see and do in Tampa!
The Best Things To Do in Tampa
From thrilling theme parks to soothing beach days, Tampa offers diverse experiences. Here are my picks for the best attractions and activities in Tampa that you won’t want to miss.
Marvel at Manatees on the Tampa Riverwalk
The Tampa Riverwalk is one of my favorite places to spend a relaxing day. This pedestrian pathway runs along the Hillsborough River as it flows through downtown. One of the top things to do here is look for manatees! Tampa Bay is home to one of the largest manatee populations in Florida. These gentle “sea cows” often swim right by the Riverwalk.
The Riverwalk also offers beautiful views of the waterfront. Stop for a drink or meal at one of the many restaurants along the way. Walk, run, bike, or blade along the 2.6 mile pathway. At night, colorful light displays illuminate the Riverwalk.
Get Up Close With Big Cat Rescue
For an unforgettable experience, visit Big Cat Rescue. This nonprofit rescue cares for over 100 big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, and more. You’ll get to see these majestic creatures up close on a guided educational tour. Learn all about their rescue efforts and how you can help protect these endangered species.
Make sure to visit the gift shop for unique souvenirs. The money spent here helps fund their big cat care and conservation programs. It’s one of the most unique things to do in the Tampa area.
Relive History at Tampa Theatre
The Tampa Theatre is a beautiful historic venue in downtown Tampa. Built in 1926, this movie palace still hosts films and events today. Catch a classic movie or new release in the main auditorium, which transports you back in time with its atmospheric interior.
This Tampa landmark also offers guided tours during the day. You can explore areas normally off limits, like the Mighty Wurlitzer organ and private balcony. Check their event calendar for special movie screenings, concerts, comedians, and more.
Catch an Event at Amalie Arena
Sports fans will love catching a game at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. This venue is home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. In addition to hockey games, the arena hosts major concerts, WWE events, basketball games, ice shows, and other exciting happenings.
The arena is right near the Riverwalk, so grab dinner at a waterfront restaurant before or after an event. Be sure to arrive early to wander through “Thunder Alley” outside the arena, where you’ll find live music, games, and food vendors.
Spark Creativity at Glazer Children’s Museum
The Glazer Children’s Museum is a must-visit attraction when traveling with kids. This innovative museum aims to inspire creativity and curiosity through interactive exhibits and activities. Children can climb a gigantic indoor treehouse, shop at a pretend grocery store, perform on stage, and much more.
Some of the most popular exhibits include the Fire Station, where kids can slide down a fire pole, and the Water’s Journey area, where they can build dams and race sailboats. This imaginative museum will delight and educate your little ones.
Attend a Service at Sacred Heart Catholic Church
One of Tampa’s most stunning architectural landmarks is Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Ybor City neighborhood. The church was built in 1905 to serve Tampa’s growing Cuban population.
Step inside this historic house of worship to admire the ornate interior and brilliant stained glass windows. Attend a service to experience the church in action and hear the choir’s beautiful hymns. Guided tours are also available if you want to learn more about the church’s history and decor.
Discover Ybor City’s History
Take a guided walking tour to uncover the fascinating history of Ybor City. This neighborhood was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers from Cuba and Spain. Immigrants flocked here to work in the many cigar factories.
On a tour, you’ll learn all about Tampa’s cigar rolling heritage as you walk the cobblestone streets of Ybor. Make sure to stop at spots like the Ybor City Museum, old brick factories, and historic homes. Many tours also allow time to browse the neighborhood’s eclectic shops.
Experience a Thai Market at Wat Mongkolratanaram
Each Sunday, the Wat Mongkolratanaram Buddhist temple hosts a unique open-air market. Vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, Thai CDs, incense, and more. The main draw is the delicious Thai food, including noodle dishes, curries, and refreshing drinks.
Visiting this market is a fun way to experience Tampa’s Thai culture while supporting a local temple. While you’re there, take a peaceful stroll through the gardens surrounding the temple. It’s one of Tampa’s best hidden gems.
Try Thrilling Water Bikes with Kraken CycleBoats
For a one-of-a-kind Tampa experience, book a ride with Kraken CycleBoats. Groups of up to 14 pedal through the waters of downtown Tampa in these unique water bikes. It’s an exciting way to get out on the harbor while getting a workout.
Your enthusiastic captain will point out landmarks and tell stories about Tampa’s history during your 90-minute cruise. Book a sunset ride for unbeatable views. It’s ideal for birthdays, team building activities, and anyone seeking a memorable Tampa adventure.
Soak Up the Sun at Ben T. Davis Beach
Tampa boasts some of Florida’s best beaches, including Ben T. Davis Beach on the southern end of Tampa Bay. This long stretch of sand rivals the famous beaches farther south in the state. The azure waters are calm, making it ideal for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding.
Facilities include picnic shelters, volleyball courts, snack bars, and clean restrooms. After working on your tan, rinse off in the large outdoor shower area. Sunsets here are simply stunning, so stay late for the show.
Marvel at the Sunset from the Skyway Bridge
For awe-inspiring views, book a sunset cruise that goes under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. This iconic bridge spans Tampa Bay with a height of over 400 feet. Your two hour cruise will take you right alongside this engineering marvel at golden hour.
Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and other marine life as you sail underneath the bridge. Toast the sunset with a drink in hand and the wind in your hair. It’s a romantic way to marvel at both the natural and manmade wonders of Tampa Bay.
Get Spooked on a Ghost Tour
At night, downtown Tampa’s historic streets become the setting for a terrifying ghost tour. On this 90-minute walking tour, you’ll follow your guide to haunted hotspots like the Cuban Club and Centro Ybor.
Your eerie journey retells the city’s most chilling and mysterious tales. Expect to hear stories of unsolved murders, ghosts, and other paranormal activity that lurks in Tampa’s past. It’s not for the faint of heart! These tours run weekly and sell out far in advance.
Sip Local Brews at Tampa Bay Brewing Company
Tampa has an impressive craft beer scene. One hotspot for local brews is the Tampa Bay Brewing Company located in Ybor City. They brew over 60 different styles of beer on site and serve food to match.
Pull up a seat in the massive tasting room and order a flight to sample their wide selection. Year-round favorites include the Reef Donkey APA and Old Elephant Foot IPA. Check their calendar for special beer releases and events like trivia and live music.
Sit Back and Relax on a Tiki Boat Tour
For a super laid-back way to see the sights, book a ride on Tiki Boat Tours. Their small wooden boats cruise through the waterways in and around downtown Tampa. Feel the breeze while admiring views of the Convention Center, Amalie Arena, cruise port, and more.
These 90-minute tours even cruise past the celebrity mansions on Davis Islands. Sip on a cocktail from the onboard cash bar and soak in the classic Florida vibe. It’s an easygoing way to enjoy Tampa’s skyline from a new perspective.
Discover the Tampa Museum of Art
Art and culture lovers should spend a morning exploring the Tampa Museum of Art downtown. Their permanent collection spans over 6,000 years, with objects from ancient Greece all the way to present-day.
Don’t miss exhibits like Living Color, displaying James Turrell’s brilliant light installations. The museum also hosts impressive visiting exhibits focused on renowned artists. End your visit with a peaceful stroll through the riverside sculpture garden.
Scream Your Way Through a Day at Adventure Island
Cool off from the Florida heat at Adventure Island, Tampa’s premier water park adjacent to Busch Gardens. This thrilling park features slides, rides, beaches, and more spread across 30 acres. Families will love attractions like Wahoo Run and Solar Vortex.
For an extra adrenaline rush, brave the steep drops and high speeds of rides like Colossal Curl. When you’re waterlogged, grab some beachside grub and relax on a lounge chair. With the spectacular views of Tampa Bay, you’ll feel far from the city.
Look for Dolphins on a Sightseeing Cruise
One of the best ways to spot Tampa’s famous bottlenose dolphins is on a dolphin sightseeing cruise. These tours take you out into the bay so keep your eyes peeled for fins breaking the surface. If you’re lucky, you may spot a whole pod of dolphins swimming and playing around the boat!
In addition to dolphin watching, you’ll learn about the rich maritime history of Tampa Bay from the onboard marine biologist. Enjoy the feel of the wind in your hair as you cruise past the downtown Tampa skyline. Don’t forget your camera, as photo opportunities abound.
Zip Through the Trees at Empower Adventures
Adventurous types will flip for the zip line canopy tours at Empower Adventures. Their course located just north of Tampa features over 2 miles of ziplines soaring over lush forests and wetlands. You’ll zoom over nine different lines, including dual racing zip lines.
Each tour starts with training on safety and technique before you take to the skies. Your knowledgeable guides will point out wildlife and describe the ecosystem as you fly through the trees up to 60 feet high. It provides an exhilarating perspective of the natural beauty surrounding Tampa.
Chow Down on Cuban Fare at Columbia Restaurant
Since 1905, Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City has served up delicious Spanish and Cuban cuisine. It’s Florida’s oldest restaurant and known as the “Gem of Spanish Restaurants.” Savor their famous original “1905 salad” along with authentic dishes like paella and ropa vieja.
Don’t leave without trying their signature Cuban sandwich loaded with ham, pork, salami, cheese and pickles. Save room for flan or tres leches for dessert! Between the amazing food, flamenco dancing, and historic ambiance, it’s an essential Tampa experience.
Paddle Through Nature at Hillsborough River State Park
Just north of the city, Hillsborough River State Park provides easy access to natural beauty and recreation. Walking trails wind through Florida forests and wetlands. You can rent a canoe or kayak to paddle down the crystal clear Hillsborough River.
Camping sites are available if you want to spend more time exploring the park. Rangers lead guided hikes and boat tours daily. The park is home to an abundance of wildlife, especially birds, so keep your eyes peeled! It’s a nice nature escape close to downtown Tampa.
Recommended Tampa Itineraries
With so many exciting things to do, planning your ideal Tampa itinerary can feel overwhelming. Here are suggested itineraries to help maximize your experience.
If You Only Have 1 Day in Tampa
If you just have a quick day in Tampa, focus your time on the downtown area:
- Walk the Tampa Riverwalk and watch for manatees
- Do the Ybor City Historic Walking Tour
- Have lunch and beers at Columbia Restaurant
- See a movie at the historic Tampa Theatre
- Experience sunset views on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Sunset Cruise
For 2-3 Days in Tampa
With a couple days to spare, you can see some highlights at a relaxed pace:
- Day 1: Visit the Florida Aquarium and Tampa Museum of Art. Have lunch/dinner in Ybor City. Do the Ybor City ghost tour at night.
- Day 2: Bike or walk the Tampa Riverwalk in the morning. Visit Big Cat Rescue and see the big cats. Drive over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge around sunset.
- Day 3: Rent kayaks and explore Hillsborough River State Park. Have a beach day at Ben T Davis Beach.
For 5-7 Days in Tampa
Over 5-7 days you can soak in more of what Tampa offers:
- Day 1 + 2: Spend a day at Busch Gardens roller coasters and shows. Spend a second day at Adventure Island water park.
- Day 3: Relax on the Tampa Riverwalk and get lunch/dinner in Curtis Hixon Park. See the Tampa skyline on a Tiki Boat Tour.
- Day 4: Marvel at sea life at The Florida Aquarium. Shop and dine your way through Hyde Park Village.
- Day 5: Beach day! Soak up the sun and swim at Clearwater Beach.
- Day 6: Learn about Tampa’s history with the Ybor City walking tour. Contract your night at Ybor City bars and clubs.
- Day 7: Experience manatees and dolphins on a Dolphin Watch Cruise. Watch the sunset on a Sunset Cruise under the Skyway Bridge.
No matter how much time you have, taking in a mix of Tampa’s nature, culture, history, and cuisine will show you an unforgettable experience. Reach out if you need any other Florida tips or recommendations to make the most of your Tampa getaway!
Where to Stay in Tampa
With so many options, choosing where to stay in Tampa can be overwhelming. Here are some of the top neighborhoods and areas to stay to be close to the best attractions:
Downtown Tampa is best for its central location and water views. Staying at a hotel along the Tampa Riverwalk puts you in walking distance of museums, restaurants, and nightlife. Sports fans can stay close to Amalie Arena.
Ybor City hotels put you in the middle of Tampa’s top historic neighborhood. You’ll be able to easily access tours, bars, and Latin restaurants. Consider the Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn for reliable chains.
Near Busch Gardens, look for hotels right off I-275 in North Tampa. Options like Embassy Suites and La Quinta Inn provide quick theme park access and family-friendly amenities.
For beach access, stay near Clearwater Beach or St. Pete Beach to the southwest. Or try a bayfront stay in the Channelside District, which keeps you downtown.
Wherever you stay, be sure to research location, amenities, and average cost when booking. Reach out anytime if you need personalized recommendations for where to stay in Tampa!
Guide to Tampa’s Best Restaurants
Tampa boasts an impressive dining scene ranging from historic spots to hip new eateries. Here are some of my top picks for Tampa restaurants you shouldn’t miss:
For classic Southern cooking, Ella’s American Folk Art Cafe is a must-try. Their chicken and dumplings, jambalaya, and banana pudding have been attracting crowds for over 20 years.
Foodies flock to Bern’s Steakhouse for their dry-aged steaks and world-class wine list. Make reservations for this nationally renowned Tampa spot.
Ulele offers creative Florida cuisine incorporating native ingredients in dishes like alligator hush puppies and fish cooked over open fire. Their riverside setting and cocktail menu shine too.
For authentic Italian, Tampa’s old school La Teresita Cafe has family-sized portions of chicken parmesan, osso buco, and other classics. The decor is as hearty as the food.
The fresh ceviche and tapas at Ceviche make this a favorite for seafood lovers. Sit at the bar for the best experience at this trendy new SoHo spot.
If you have any food restrictions, reach out and I’m happy to recommend the best Tampa restaurants to suit your diet!
How to Get To and Around Tampa
Flying into Tampa International Airport
The easiest way to reach Tampa is flying into Tampa International Airport (TPA). TPA offers nonstop flights from most major domestic airports. Once there, taxis, shuttles, and rideshares can take you to downtown Tampa in about 15 minutes.
Driving to Tampa
Tampa is easily accessed by car, located right off of I-75 and I-4. The drive from Orlando takes around 90 minutes. Those coming from Miami or southwest Florida should take I-75 North straight to Tampa.
Getting Around Tampa
Downtown Tampa and Ybor City are very walkable neighborhoods. The TECO Streetcar runs between these areas and Channelside. For other destinations, rideshares like Uber are affordable and convenient options.
Renting a car is recommended if you want to explore greater Tampa Bay, from tropical islands like Clearwater Beach to nature parks outside the city.
Public buses through HART cover most of Tampa but may take more time. The Pirate Water Taxi is a fun way to hop between waterfront spots like the Florida Aquarium, Armature Works, and Sparkman Wharf.
Many hotels also offer free shuttles to major attractions like Busch Gardens and downtown. Rideshares provide additional flexibility if you don’t have your own car. Just beware of surge pricing during major events and peak times.
Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Tampa
When is the best time to visit Tampa?
Spring and fall are ideal times with comfortable temperatures and smaller crowds. Late fall through winter brings more moderate temperatures. Summer is popular but very hot and humid.
Is Tampa safe for travelers?
Yes, Tampa is generally very safe, especially in tourist areas like downtown and Ybor City. Exercise normal precautions like avoiding isolated areas at night.
What are the top attractions in Tampa?
Top attractions include Busch Gardens theme park, Tampa Riverwalk, Ybor City historic district, Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium, and many beautiful beaches.
What food is Tampa known for?
Tampa’s multicultural heritage shines through in its cuisine, especially Cuban/Spanish food and fresh Florida seafood. Tampa has an emerging foodie scene with many celebrity chefs.
What is there to do in Tampa at night?
Ybor City and downtown Tampa offer the most nightlife, with bars, dance clubs, comedy clubs, and music venues. There are also theaters, escape rooms, bowling alleys, arcades, ghost tours, and more unique nighttime diversions.
How many days do you need in Tampa?
At least 3 full days allows you to see top highlights like Busch Gardens, visit downtown and beaches, and enjoy some nightlife. With 5-7 days you can take advantage of more cultural experiences and day trips.
Start Planning Your Tampa Getaway
I hope this guide has shown you how Tampa offers the perfect blend of thrilling attractions, laid-back beaches, nature escapes, history, and multicultural experiences. The sun-soaked beauty and welcoming spirit of Tampa make it a fantastic Florida destination.
Use this list of top things to do to start planning your own Tampa itinerary. Whether you want to party in Ybor City, scream through thrill rides, or spot dolphins on a cruise, Tampa has something for every interest. Let me know if you need any other advice for planning the vacation of a lifetime in Tampa!