Why Your Summer Would Be Better by the Bay
As summer hits its stride in the Sunshine State, savvy travelers find their Florida fun in Tampa Bay.
This one-time hangout for pirates (hence the Buccaneer football team) is now one of Florida's premier vacation destinations, with a little bit of everything—including more roller coasters than anywhere else in the state, indoor attractions when you need to beat the heat, plenty of fun on, around and above the water and serious culinary street cred. It's also easier than ever to visit, with an ever-expanding list of nonstop flights into Tampa International Airport and thousands of hotel rooms added in recent years.
Let's unlock some of Tampa's not-so-hidden treasures, and show you why your summer vacation would be better by the Bay.
Never a Dull Moment
If you're looking for many of Tampa Bay's best attractions, first find the Hillsborough River, which winds its way through the city before joining with the Bay in downtown. The last stretch of the river is flanked on one side by the Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile pedestrian path that links parks, hotels, cafes and many must-see spots.
Families flock to the riverfront, whether it's to enjoy grassy open spaces like the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, hail a Pirate Water Taxi ride down the river for a one-of-a-kind view of the city, or to play their way through the innovative exhibits at the Glazer Children's Museum.
Make sure to go all the way to the south end of the Riverwalk to visit The Florida Aquarium, which is a regular on best-of lists from the likes of USA TODAY, TripAdvisor and Parents Magazine (as well as the only Florida entry on those same lists).
Kids may gravitate toward the outdoor water play area called the Splash Pad, but don't miss the 500,000-gallon coral reef habitat, a wetlands trail that includes a mangrove forest and aviary with free flying birds or the 100,000-gallon exhibit that features species in the aquarium's three conservation programs—sea turtles, sharks and coral.
The Aquarium is included in the Tampa Bay CityPASS, which saves 54% on admission to five of the area's top attractions. Pro tip: It also serves as a great itinerary builder for your vacation. One pass lets you shriek at the thrill rides at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay—with more roller coasters than anywhere else in Florida; peek at Florida wildlife at the world-class ZooTampa at Lowry Park (don't miss the manatee rehab center); and geek out at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), with exhibits that include a NASA-funded lunar colony simulation.
If you're looking for fun on the water, take advantage of the placid waters of the river and bay to give your core a workout while you stand-up paddleboard your way past skyscrapers or try your hand (and feet) at riding a water bike, which is basically a bike that floats on two hulls as you pedal (not paddle) your way across the water. For another (less active) way to see the bay, The Tropics Boat Tour Dolphins or Sunset Cruise are included on the CityPASS, or you can book passage on the Florida Aquarium's Dolphin Cruise.
Culinary Street Cred
Take a short walk from The Florida Aquarium, and you'll hear the buzz and catch the scent of what's cooking at Sparkman Wharf, a popular outdoor space that features outposts by some of Tampa's best chefs along with live music on the weekends, set along the Garrison Channel.
One of those outposts is JoToro, which calls itself "a friendly neighborhood taco joint that happens to have a Michelin Star chef." That chef is Joe Isidori, and while the menu talks up "Fine Mexican Provisions" of wood-fired tacos, knife-and-fork burritos and premium tequila, there's a global twist to those Tex-Mex staples. Tacos come in spicy Vietnamese steak, Korean style BBQ beef and crispy tempura fish (in addition to adobo chicken). Wash it down with a margarita flight—perhaps the "Fast and Furious"—Mi Casa (Dobel Diamante, Cointreau, sour, fresh lime); Prickly Pear (Dobel Diamante, prickly pear syrup, fresh lime); and Blue Wave (Cazadores Reposada, Blue Curacao, peach schnapps, lime).
Ride Tampa Bay's free TECO Historic Streetcar Line north from downtown and you'll arrive in Tampa's Latin Quarter. Better known as Ybor City, this neighborhood melds Cuban, Caribbean, Mediterranean and Old Florida influences into a distinctive mix, much like the Cuban sandwich that can trace its beginnings to this area. (No, the sandwich is not from Miami or Havana.)
Ybor City attracted immigrants from around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Cuban businessmen moved their cigar factories from Key West to Tampa. Bustling Cuban and Sicilian communities (among others) took root in "Cigar City", as Tampa's profile rose alongside the reputation of its hand-rolled stogies.
Walking down Ybor's Seventh Avenue, you'll see the wrought-iron balconies and colorful tile work, you'll hear the sounds of Caribbean music and Spanish conversations through open storefronts, you'll smell the rich aroma of tobacco leaves being rolled into cigars, and, if you're lucky, you'll taste that crunchy, melty, savory, tangy goodness of a Cuban sandwich fresh off the press.
Along that same avenue is the newly opened Hotel Haya, built with a nod to the location's historic past as the home of Las Novedades (one of Tampa's original Spanish restaurants). The boutique 178-room hotel features an expansive lobby and design touches such as hand-blown glass lamps made to evoke the neighborhood's unique streetlights, exposed brick walls from the original building and 100-year-old tile paintings by Francisco Goya discovered hidden behind plaster walls during demolition.
The hotel's Flor Fina restaurant features the coastal cuisines of Latin America, the Mediterranean and Florida's Gulf Coast, under the direction of James Beard award-winning chef Douglas Rodriguez, the acclaimed "Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine." You'll want to make a reservation to try the rotating ceviche and cocktail menus (choose from "Shaken" or "Stirred"), or pull together a few friends with 48-hour advance notice, and order up the three-course Porchetta Suckling Pig Feast.
Another new Ybor City restaurant in a restored space, Casa Santo Stefano opened late in 2020 in a one-time macaroni factory. For owner Richard Gonzmart (whose family also runs longtime Tampa institution Columbia Restaurant), this new place pays homage to the city's Sicilian immigrants, and his memories of indulgent home-cooked Sunday suppers with family and friends.
Menu items include childhood favorites like Spaghetti Nana Maria (meatball, pork shoulder, Italian sausage and a hard-boiled egg) and Aunt Lily's Caponata (eggplant tossed with roasted garlic, celery, tomatoes, olives, capers, raisins, red onions and Muffulettu bread). Many ingredients (wines, cheeses, salt, olive oil) are imported from family businesses in Sicily, along with the hand-painted plates and volcanic rock tabletops.
Take it to the Next Level
Just a few miles from the skyscrapers of downtown Tampa, you'll find the wetlands of the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve. It may not look like much at first, until you look up.
Empower Adventures has set up an aerial course with 3,000+ feet of zip lines, a 200-foot suspension bridge and other adventures set as high as 60 feet off the ground. You'll fly through the canopy at 30 miles per hour as you complete the guided two-hour course. If you're visiting on the weekend, consider booking a sunset adventure to see the day end from a whole new angle.