Attractions In and Around Tampa
Not everyone comes to Tampa just for the beaches or for the exciting sports scene. Many visitors, especially those traveling with children, are thrilled with the diversity of the attractions in and around the city. Theme parks, museums, science centers, and animal attractions are all part of what makes the Tampa Bay Metro Area so exciting, and thanks to the pleasant Florida Gulf Coast weather, most of these attractions can be enjoyed year round. Also, most are suitable for visitors of all ages.
Some of the best attractions in the area are located in Tampa proper or just on the outskirts of the city. Some can be found in surrounding areas but are still within easy driving distance of downtown Tampa. A few will take an entire day or more to enjoy while others require a visit of just an hour or two, allowing you to combine several attractions into one day's itinerary.
So while you may be tempted to spend your days soaking up Tampa's ever-present sunshine with a good book and a Pina Colada, or enjoying an exhibition baseball game, grab a map and head to some of the most enjoyable attractions in and around Tampa.
Best Bets in the City of Tampa
Without ever leaving Tampa, guests can enjoy myriad diverse attractions while on vacation in the metro area. Here are some of the best.
- Busch Gardens Tampa – Also known as Busch Gardens Africa, this incredible theme park has been thrilling visitors since it first opened in 1959 with its popular Bird Gardens and, of course, an onsite brewery. The park really took off in 1965 when it added the Serengeti Plain, a large area where visitors could enjoy African animals as they roamed freely around the park. Still one of the most popular areas of the park, it was soon joined by numerous coasters and other thrill rides as well as entertainment and family attractions. Today, Busch Gardens Africa is home to some of the nation's most incredible coasters, including the new Gwazi, a gigantic double wooden coaster. Visitors of all ages will love the shows and little ones can play in a land all their own. Conveniently located just off I-75 at Fowler Avenue.
- Adventure Island – Owned by the Busch family of theme parks, adventure island provides a cool respite from Tampa's sometimes toasty weather, especially during the summer months. About a dozen water-based rides thrill visitors of all ages and attractions range from very calm for the little ones and the faint-of-heart, to downright nail-biting. There's also a 17,000-square-foot wave pool, a lazy river ride, beach volleyball courts, and plenty of places to grab a burger or ice cream.
- The Florida Aquarium – Opened in 1995, this aquarium is continuously ranked among the best in the world. With an emphasis on marine animals of the Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico, but also home to fascinating creatures from the world over, the Florida Aquarium boasts some 10,000 aquatic plants and animals. Guests can also book an Eco-Tour aboard the aquarium's 64-foot catamaran. Great interactive exhibits thrill the younger set and there's also a well-stocked gift shop and tasty café.
- Museum of Science and Industry – Affectionately known as MOSI, Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry is a favorite with kids but adults who enjoy science and the opportunity to push lots of buttons and pull some levers will love this hands-on museum, too. Enjoy an amazing flight simulator, experience the "Gulf Coast Hurricane", hobnob with dinosaurs, ride the hire wire bicycle, or check out the state-of-the-art planetarium and Imax Dome Theater. There's even a butterfly garden!
- Lowry Park Zoo – Tampa's premiere animal attraction, this medium-sized zoo has recently been named the #1 family zoo by Child Magazine. More than 2,000 animals live in areas of the zoo that resemble their natural habitats. And while the animals are fun to view, add to that a few rides and a water play area, and it's easy to see why every member of the family loves this zoological park. As an added attraction, guests can also sign up for a River Odyssey tour of the Hillsborough River.
- Tampa Museum of Art – Established in 1979, this intriguing art museum boasts a great collection of 20th century and contemporary art as well as a collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Excellent traveling exhibits also land here several times per year.
- Henry B. Plant Museum – A favorite with architecture and antiques aficionados, the Plant Museum, located in the old Tampa Bay Hotel, features authentically restored rooms and opulent furniture of the 19th century. The museum hosts a number of fun and educational special events during the year, including antiques evaluations and, throughout the month of December, the Victorian Christmas Stroll, when the museum dons magnificent Victorian decorations and welcomes thousands of visitors.
- Children's Museum of Tampa – Designed for the pre-school and early elementary set, this whimsical museum features 16 colorful museum "buildings" known as "Kid City", where little ones can learn how a telephone works, what a doctor does, how to stay safe, and much more. A new, improved museum, scheduled to open in 2009, will include several more exhibits.
- Ybor City Museum – Learn about the early days of Tampa and the role of the Cuban immigrant in Tampa area history at this small but interesting museum. Find out how the cigar industry put this Gulf Coast town on the map.
Best Bets in St. Petersburg
Neighboring St. Petersburg is also home to a number of interesting attractions that are close to the beach and just a short ride from downtown Tampa.
- Florida Holocaust Museum – With a mission to "teach members of all races and cultures to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides", the Florida Holocaust Museum includes both permanent exhibits and fascinating traveling shows as well. The museum also hosts special events, lectures, and classes for adults and children.
- Salvador Dali Museum – Home to the world's most comprehensive collection of Dali's artwork, this delightful museum started with 96 oil paintings from a private collection and now includes over 100 watercolors and drawings, 1,300 graphics, photographs, sculptures and objects d'art, and an extensive archival library. Rated 3 stars by the Michelin Guide.
- Florida International Museum – An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution since 2000, this museum hosts traveling exhibits on a rotating basis as well as special community events. Check for specific hours as the museum may be closed when exhibits are cancelled.
Best Bets in Sarasota
Travel about an hour south of Tampa and you'll reach the cultural town of Sarasota, where you can enjoy a few choice attractions.
- John and Mable Ringling Museum – Official known as the Florida State University Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts, the amazing 66-acre Ringling property, situated on Sarasota Bay, is three museums in one. The first must-see on this expansive property is Ca d'Zan (House of John), the Ringling home. This waterfront mansion, restored in 2002, resembles a Venetian Gothic Palace and was once the center of social life in Sarasota. The period furniture and artwork are stunning. To view more magnificent artwork, take the tram to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. This is the state's official art museum and it's filled with 500 years of European and American works, including a world-renowned collection of grand 17th-century baroque paintings. The last stop on the tour of the property is the small Circus Museum, which includes a fun and impressive collection of circus memorabilia. One admission price includes visits to all the museums.
- Marie Selby Botanical Gardens – This beautiful garden is a must see for plant lovers, featuring 20,000 exotic plants. Nearly a third of those are magnificent orchids of various varieties. There's also a hummingbird and a butterfly garden.
- Mote Aquarium – Home to sea life from around the world, this is an excellent small aquarium. Visitors love the manatees in the Marine Mammal Center! For an extra special visit, book a Sarasota Bay Explorers Cruise, sponsored by the Mote Aquarium, and visit a desert island just off the coast of Sarasota.
- Solomon's Castle – Difficult to fit into any category, this 60-foot-tall, 12,000-square-foot castle situated in a Manatee County swamp is the handiwork of one man, Howard Solomon, who began this project in 1974. Solomon and other guides lead tours through his castle, which is mostly made of other people's trash. Solomon continues to add to his creation, prompting guests to visit again and again.
Best Bets in Orlando
Busy Orlando is just a scant 77 miles from downtown Tampa, so many people combine a visit to the Tampa Bay metro area with a trip to the theme park capital of the world. Here are a few must-sees.
- Walt Disney World Resort – The world's most visited theme park is actually more like an all-inclusive vacation. If you're visiting from the Tampa area for just a day or two, you probably won't have time to fit it all in. Regardless, guests of all ages love all four parks – The Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney-MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom. In addition, there are hotels available for all budgets, from basic but comfortable to ultra luxury. Other activities inside the Disney complex include water sports and water parks, golf, and a chance to see the famous Cirque du Soleil.
- Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – Universal's answer to Disney's overwhelming success in the Orlando area, both of these parks offer something a little different. The Studios lets you "ride the movies" and get a look at the backstage happenings on a movie set. Islands of Adventure "brings your favorite myths, legends, comic books, cartoon heroes and children's stories to life" via some awesome rides and other fun attractions and live shows. Two days are needed to enjoy both parks completely.
- SeaWorld Orlando – Owned and operated by Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld Orlando Adventure Park is best known for its fabulous animal attractions and shows, which include playful dolphins and seals and, of course, Shamu the Whale. To keep up with neighboring parks, SeaWorld has also added a few great rides, like the log flume/roller coaster combination, Journey to Atlantis, and Kraken, the tallest and only floorless coaster in the area.
- Cypress Gardens Adventure Park – Once just a small park where guests could enjoy pretty gardens and a fun water ski show, this newly renovated park in nearby Winter Haven now has its own water park in addition to coasters and other thrill rides, daily live shows including animal attractions, arcades, and a midway. Folks familiar with the old park will be delighted to know that they can still enjoy the "Cypress Belles" as they traverse the park with their big hoop skirts and parasols.
Other Surrounding Areas
- Sponge Docks – Located in Tarpon Springs, the "Sponge Capital of the World", the Sponge Docks attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to see professional divers head into the waters in search of - what else? – the sponge. Guests can also visit a small museum and view a film about the sponge industry and how it helped build Tarpon Springs. Because the town is largely Greek, the Sponge Docks area of Tarpon Springs also boasts great Greek restaurants, bakeries, and shops.
- Dinosaur World – Just west of Tampa in the town of Plant City, Dinosaur World is home to 150 life-size dinosaurs situated in an outdoor museum of sorts. Budding paleontologists love this place! There are also educational videos and exhibits to view and a cave in which families can enjoy a "subterranean" picnic.