Tampa Bay is one of those cities that seems to get no love in the travel world and it’s really not Tampa’s fault. Located on Florida’s west coast, the city of Tampa is dwarfed in size by Miami to the south and sits just outside of the large shadow cast over the Orlando area by team Disney and it’s many rivals. With that being said, Tampa Bay (encompassing the Coastal area from Weeki Wachee to Sarasota) has been a favorite for vacationing snow birds and other visitors to Florida looking for something a little different. Take a look at our Tampa Travel Guide, for lots of fun attraction information in addition to practical travel and pet travel info to help you plan your Tampa, Florida travel adventure.
When you first think of Tampa there doesn’t seem like it has that much to offer. It’s a medium sized city without a whole lot of history. Then you take a second, but closer look and you realize that it has some of the best beaches in the world, several major theme parks, a zoo, aquarium, and some of the best night life on the west coast and it quickly turns into a must-visit city! Don’t be fooled by it’s urban sprawl or low key demeanor, Tampa has a lot going on.
What to Do When You’re Visiting Tampa
Tampa Bay Beaches
When most people come to Florida they plan on visiting at least one beach. The Tampa Bay area has hundreds of little beaches all along the coast that offer everything from fishing, boating, and of course relaxing with a drink in your hand. It’s almost like there are different beaches for each activity. If you are looking to have some drinks and some great food, check out Clearwater Beach. It’s home to many of the major resorts and always has something going on. If you are looking for a more intimate beach going experience take a look at Honeymoon Island State Park which features a pet friendly beach, canoeing/kayaking, and some short hiking trails. Lauren and I have visited this beach several times and loved it. Another great choice is Caladesi Island State Park which won best beach in America according to Dr. Beach.
Tampa Bay Attractions
By far the largest theme park in the Tampa Bay area, our Tampa travel guide would be remiss to leave it out. Busch Gardens does a great job of combining two things in one place, a zoo and roller coasters. You can easily spend the day here as a couple or as a whole family and have a good time. Make sure you check out the schedule for the cheetah exhibit when you get there, they actually do a live demo to show how fast they run!
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park –
This little park located about an hour north of Tampa proper harkens back to the theme parks of the old days. With a fun river rafting ride, a water park, and an animal show, it’s great fun for the family. The real star of this park though is the live mermaid show that runs throughout the day, it’s a can’t miss attraction that brings out the inner child in everyone. for more information take a look at our Weeki Wachee Springs Review
The Florida Aquarium –
Located right on the bay in the downtown Tampa neighborhood of Channelside, is one of the best aquariums in Florida. Featuring over 20,000 aquatic plants and animals the aquarium is home to cool creatures like sea dragons and sharks while also featuring interactive exhibits like a sting ray touch tank and outdoor water park for the kiddies. If you have the time, book the Wild Dolphin Eco Tour while you are there. You’ll experience a tour of the Tampa Bay as you go out searching for wild dolphins on a comfortable ship. We had a great time doing it, and seeing dolphins is practically guaranteed. For more information take a look at our full review of The Florida Aquarium.
Lowry Park Zoo –
Voted a #1 Zoo in the US by Parent’s Magazine the Lowry Park Zoo is a great little place located north of Downtown in an older part of Tampa. With over 1,500 animals in the zoo, there are varied exhibits from the animals of Australia to an Asian Aviary. On top of that, the zoo features an in depth Florida Wildlife exhibit, along with lots of other play activities for kids and families.
Big Cat Rescue –
When Lauren and I lived in the Tampa area, we made one very big mistake: we never visited the Big Cat Rescue. We finally changed that on a return visit to the area and I can honestly say that it was a life changing moment. Many animal sanctuaries are designed with their visitors in mind, this one exists for a different purpose, for the sanctuary and protection of over 100 big cats. Taking a guided tour though the park allows you to get up close and personal with theses beauties while seeing them relax in the next best thing as their natural habitat. It’s a must visit for any animal lover. For more info and history, take a look at our review of Big Cat Rescue
The Dali Museum –
Salvador Dali is arguably one of the most influential painters of our time. His works consistently challenged the mainstream and he also practically single handedly defined the field of surrealism. Founded by personal friends of Dali, the museum recently opened in a new building right on the water in St. Petersburg. It’s definitely one of the “must see” attractions in the Tampa Bay area and is even kid friendly. See our full review of the Dali Museum here
Cigar City Brewing –
While Tampa Bay isn’t exactly famous for it’s beer scene, there is one relative new comer that has taken the city by storm. Since 2009 Cigar City Brewing has been creating a line of innovative and high quality craft beers that’ll knock your socks off. If you are planning on traveling to the Tampa area it’s well worth it to stop by their website and book a tour. If you don’t have the time for a tour, their tasting room has a crazy deep selection of many brews that are not available in cans, but are available by the growler. Take a tour of Cigar City Brewing in our full review.
Ybor City –
If you are looking for some exciting nightlife or just a bit of old Tampa history, Ybor city is the place to be. By day it’s a quaint small city filled with brick paved streets and historical buildings from the areas roots as the premier cigar rolling city in America. Steeped with history, Cigar Shops, and the only piece of land owned by Cuba in the US, Jose Mari Park. At night though, Ybor city does it’s best to become Tampa’s version of Bourbon Street. With frequent night parades and other event’s it’s not uncommon to find yourself in the middle of a street party in Ybor. On top of that, Ybor is home to the majority of the area’s best night clubs.
Where to Eat in Tampa
I could sit here and list a bunch of fine dining restaurants that you could find in places like Zagat and Gayot, but instead I’m going to tell you all about a few different local joints that Lauren and I return to time and time again.
Bern’s Steak House
So while I did promise not to make a list of all the uber expensive 5-star restaurants in the area. I couldn’t live with myself if I failed to tell you about this one steakhouse. Bern’s steakhouse is a Tampa staple that if frequently featured on national lists of best steakhouses. Why? It’s the combination of their premium dry aged steaks, produce that is mostly grown fresh in their own organic garden, and a warm and romantic atmosphere. Not enough for you? Well, what if I told you that when it’s time for dessert you actually head upstairs to a separate and private desert room. You heard me, I said Private. Dessert. Room. In this room you can select from an enormous list of desserts while sitting in a booth made of giant wine casks while listing to your choice of radio stations. It’s romantic with a capital R. trust us, it’s a place you don’t want to miss! Local’s tip, ask the host for a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar, it’s impressive. – For info and reservations check out Bern’s Steakhouse official website.
If there’s one thing you have to eat while you’re in Tampa it’s a Cuban Sandwich and a Deviled Crab. OK, that’s two things, but conveniently they are located in the same place so I’m going to call it one thing :-) First off, if you’ve never had a Cuban Sandwich in Tampa, you’ve never had one quite like the one you are going to have at Brocato’s. Why? Because in addition to the succulent roasted pork, ham, cheese, and pickles you’ll find on a regular Cuban, Tampa Cuban’s spice their sandwiches up with the addition of some delicious salami. I know what your thinking, OUTRAGE! I thought that the first time I heard it too. There’s even a dispute between Miami and Tampa Cubans about it. Then I tried it. I was filled with warm and delicious outrage that quickly turned into satisfaction. On to Brocato’s other specialty, Deviled Crabs. Imagine a giant balled up crab cake that’s deep fried and served with hot sauce. Sound good? Great. Then get over to Brocato’s and try one. Trust me. Quick tip, don’t go to Brocato’s at lunch time. Why? You’ll wait in a huge line that runs out the door. I usually go around 11 or 2. more info on Brocato’s Here
Whenever Lauren and I visit a city we try to look for a Chinese restaurant. Something no frills and basic that serves more than the usual Americanized dishes. We found exactly what we were looking for when our friends told us about Yummy House. Featuring authentic Cantonese style cuisine there is nothing on the menu that isn’t good. While the atmosphere of their original location isn’t great, the food more than makes up for it. Everything is served family style on large dishes and is intended for sharing. Looking for a tasty delight? The salt and pepper Calamari ( or salt and pepper anything) is to die for. If you plan on visiting note that they do not serve beer or wine, but you can bring your own :-) More info on the Yummy House Website
Sa Ri One
Sa Ri One is where Lauren and I first fell in love with Korean cuisine. Tucked away on a side street in the West Shore area, you’d never know the place existed unless someone told you about it. They feature all the classic Korean dishes you’d expect to find at a typical Korean Restaurant along with some of the harder to find specialties. If you are looking for something that isn’t on the menu, you can normally request it to be made. If you’ve never had Korean food but want to give it a try, a good place to start is the Bulgogi (Koren BBQ Beef) or the Dolsot Bi Bim Bop (a mix of rice and veggies served in a hot stone bowl). If you are an adventurous eater, try the Jop Chae (sweet potato noodles and veg), Ja Jang Myun (noodles in a black bean and pork sauce, or set your mouth on fire with the Uh Jing Uh Bok ( spicy squid and vegetables in a chili sauce). Want to know how good Sa Ri One is? They don’t even have a website :-) See more on Urban Spoon.
If you are looking for authentic mexican food with very generous portions Vallarta’s is the place to go. With 3 locations in the Tampa Bay area, it’s an easy choice for a quick and satisfying meal. Their lunch specials are pretty affordable and the food quality is solid. If you are looking to try something a little more exotic than the usual burritos and enchiladas, go for the Molcajete. It’s a combination of chicken, steak, and shrimp layered in between veggies, cheese, and ranchero sauce. It’s a HUGE portion so if you order it plan on sharing. more info at the Vallarta’s Website.
Where to Stay in Tampa Bay- Pet Friendly Hotels
Tampa is a relatively large city in regards to it’s overall size and the amount of urban sprawl. Because of this, you want to pick a hotel that’s close to the area you are going to be spending most of your time in. If you are planning on hitting the beaches look for a hotel in St. Petersburg or Clearwater. If you want to stay in the Busch Gardens area, there are a lot of affordable choices, but be warned, it’s not exactly the best part of town. If you are planning on spending time in Downtown Tampa you can find some great rates in the suburb of Brandon. When Lauren and I visit we normally stay in Brandon because there are quite a few hotels right off of the intersection of I-75 and I-4. This gives us easy in and out access to most of the city, while having a clean and nice place to stay. Here are three pet friendly chains that we’ve used in the past.
There are many pet friendly chains in the Tampa area but La Quinta is usually near the top of our list when we are looking for a dog friendly place to stay. Their combination of no pet fee, clean and comfortable rooms, free breakfast, good wi-fi, and reasonable price point normally make them the winner in our book. Plus their rewards program is pretty generous and they always guarantee the best rate if you book directly from their website. Click Here to see all the Tampa La Quinta Locations
If you are looking for a second national value pet friendly chain, Best Western is a good second choice. The only thing that bugs me is that their pet policies vary by property. That means that some only allow small or medium dogs while others charge pet fees ranging from 10 – 25 per night. Here are some Best Western Tampa Locations to check out.
Extended Stay America
If you are planning to travel to Tampa for more than a week, or like your hotel room to have some of the comforts of home (like a full kitchen and an actual desk with work space) then you might want to consider an extended stay suite. While they do charge a pet fee of $25 a night (with no more than $150 total) the rooms are usually pretty affordable otherwise. Check out these Extended Stay Properties in Tampa.
Dog Boarding in Tampa Bay
While we try not to board our doggies at all sometimes there are situations where you have your pet with you, but you need somewhere for them to stay for the day. There is a great pet boarding facility in Tampa that has doggie day care that is top notch. Whenever Lauren and I had a need for a few hours of daycare or an overnight stay, Fuzzie Buddies was our first choice. With a huge facility that includes an outdoor patio, swimming pool, and personalized play time, you can’t go wrong. See more at the official Fuzzie Buddies Website.
I hope you enjoyed our Ramblin’ Tampa Travel Guide. For more posts like this you can subscribe to our newsletter Have your own tips or advice about Tampa Bay Travel? Leave a comment below.