Visitors to the central Gulf Coast of Florida will quickly learn that the Tampa Bay area is more than just the wonderful city of Tampa. While guests could stay busy for several days without ever leaving the city limits, the towns and cities outside Tampa are equally as enticing and provide a wealth of activities and attractions for all ages.
The two cities most often considered together with Tampa are Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Located across Tampa Bay and accessible from Tampa via your choice of three bridges and causeways, these cities each boast a character of their own. St. Petersburg, the fourth largest city in the state and a popular retirement destination, has earned its "Sunshine City" nickname, thanks to its average 360 days of sunshine per year. Clearwater, the smallest of the three cities, boasts an ideal location on the intracoastal waterway, with close proximity to dozens of pristine beaches.
North of the Tampa Bay region, coastal towns like Dunedin, Palm Harbor, and Tarpon Springs all provide visitors with a plethora of beaches, quaint downtown areas boasting great shopping opportunities, and unique ethnic areas that are fun to explore.
Travel south and you'll reach the city of Sarasota – with its variety of unique attractions and cultural offerings - and the stunning beaches that sit on the barrier islands, including Anna Maria Beach, Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach, Longboat Key, and Siesta Key. Some are known for their family atmosphere while others are renowned for their opulence, but each offers the opportunity to bask in the Florida sun and enjoy the warm waters of the Gulf.
Head east and you'll find the pretty city of Lakeland, touted by Money Magazine as one of the "Best Places to Live in America." Further east, Winter Haven, about halfway between Tampa and Orlando, is home to Florida's very first amusement park, Cypress Gardens, still a joy to visit.
If you continue the journey east, you'll eventually arrive in Orlando, Florida's theme park capital, located about 85 miles from the Tampa Bay area. Home to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, millions of visitors flock to the city and its surrounding areas each year.
Size and population: Located on the peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, St. Petersburg boasts about 250,000 residents, with the population swelling during the winter months when "snowbirds" head south. The city measures about 133 square miles, with water occupying more than half of its total area. Smaller Clearwater is home to about 110,000 residents and measures about 37 square miles.
Climate: Average temperatures in these sunny cities are between winter and summer are 65 and 90 degrees F, with lows rarely reaching below 55. As with most Florida cities, rainstorms are a common afternoon occurrence in the summer months.
Transportation: St. Petersburg and Clearwater are reached by air via either the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport or the Tampa International Airport.
Things to Do: St. Pete, as locals call it, is home to a number of museums including The Florida International Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate), Florida Holocaust Museum, Salvador Dali Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts.
A designated "City of the Arts", gallery browsing in St. Petersburg is excellent. Shopping opportunities abound as well, especially at the new BayWalk retail establishment. Clearwater, which is the "spiritual headquarters" for the Church of Scientology, is an artsy town where festivals are frequent, including those involving music, film, and various ethnic holidays.
Beaches: The beaches in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area are nothing short of dazzling. Fort de Soto Park at the tip of the peninsula, consisting of 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands, attracts nearly 3 million visitors a year. Similarly, Caladesi Island State Park is consistently lauded as one of America's best natural beaches.
Other beaches include Sand Key, Indian Rocks, Indian Shores, Madeira, Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach, Clearwater Beach, Dunedin, and Pass-a-Grille.
Size and population: The boundaries of Sarasota include the city itself as well as its popular barrier islands, including Longboat Key, Lido Key, and Siesta Key. The city, about 26 square miles in size, is home to approximately 53,000 residents.
Climate: Like other area cities, Sarasota enjoys moderate winter days with temperatures rarely below 50-55 degrees and toasty summers with frequent afternoon storms.
Transportation: The closest airport to Sarasota and its barrier islands is the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Things to Do: Sarasota has established itself as one of the most cultural cities on the Gulf Coast, largely due to the long-time presence of the Ringling family of circus fame. Must-sees include the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Ca d'Zan Mansion; the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the G-Wiz Museum, and the Sarasota Jungle Gardens.
Baseball aficionados can watch the Cincinnati Reds warm up for the season at Ed Smith Stadium. Golfers also flock here to take advantage of the many top-notch courses in the vicinity.
Beaches: Sarasota area beaches have won high acclaim for their pristine beauty and powdery white sands. From Lido Key at the north of the barrier islands to popular Venice Beach in the south, all offer something a bit different. Lido Key's beaches are quiet and natural, attracting an upscale clientele. Siesta Key is very family oriented and perfect for kids. Turtle and Casperson Beaches are the perfect place to search for petrified shark's teeth while Nokomis Beach attracts surfers. Choose your favorite!
Size and Population: Lakeland, a city of about 100,000, and Winter Haven, with a population of some 28,000 individuals, are located due east of Tampa. The latter is about 25 square-miles in size; Lakeland is twice as large.
Climate: These two cities, by nature of their location, are not subject to the breezes that blow from the Gulf of Mexico. That makes their average temperatures a bit higher in the summer and a bit lower in the winter than the cities on the coast.
Transportation: Guests visiting Lakeland or Winter Haven can travel to either Orlando or Tampa International Airports. From either direction, the cities are about 45 miles away.
Things to Do: Winter Haven is home to Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, recently renovated to keep up with today's techno-parks. Lakeland offers the Polk Museum of Art, the Lakeland Center sports and recreation complex, and is the spring home of the Detroit Tigers.
Size and Population: The Orlando area, once merely a citrus-growing region, is one of the world's top vacation destinations. The city itself has a total area of 100 square miles and a population of 221,000. The Orlando metro area, which includes the surrounding counties of Lake, Osceola, and Seminole, is home to nearly 2,000,000 people.
Climate: Orlando boasts a warm and often very humid subtropical climate. From May to October, days are hot and thunderstorms are frequent. Moderate temperatures and less rainfall occur from November through April.
Transportation: Since the building of Walt Disney World in the 1970s, Orlando International Airport has become one of the busiest in the country. The airport is just a short drive from most major attractions.
Things to Do: Walt Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios are, of course, the major attractions in the Orlando area. However, guests shouldn't discount some of the smaller attractions such as the Central Florida Zoological Park, International Trolley and Train Museum, the Kerouac House, WonderWorks, the Morse Museum of American Art, Orlando Museum of Art, and the Orlando Science Center. For more family fun, enjoy a meal and show at Medieval Times or take in an Orlando Magic basketball game. Adults and kids alike will love Discovery Cove, where they can swim with the dolphins.