If you're wondering how to make the most of your time in Florida without eating into your budget for boogie boards and theme parks tickets, never fear. Artsy, under-the-radar Tampa is full of free and cheap activities, from viewing gentle manatees in their natural habitats to going on colorful scavenger hunts for unique murals to exploring the city's diverse history.
Whether you're looking for staycation inspiration, a special day out with the kids, or a city break on a budget, these are the best inexpensive attractions in Tampa.
Manatee Viewing Center
One of Florida's more surreal wildlife encounters is spotting manatees in the warm-water discharge canals of coal-fired power plants. These placid mammals show up here so reliably from November through April that this is now a protected sanctuary. Tarpon and sharks can be spotted as well, and a new interactive stingray exhibit in a 10,000-gallon tank allows up-close interaction. The latter can be touched (two fingers only!).
A snack bar, bathrooms and picnic tables round out the sight. It's half an hour from downtown Tampa; take I-75 south to exit 246 and follow signs.
Tampa (not to mention the broader metro area, including St. Pete and Clearwater) are full of colorful murals that pop out at you from unexpected corners. You can easily string together a free, self-guided walking tour from the listings on the Tampa Murals website, or simply by going for a walk and seeing where whimsy takes you.
Florida Botanical Gardens
This 100 acre garden is full of native plants, palms, cacti, succulents, tropical fruits and other flora, as well as a butterfly garden, herb garden, children's discovery garden, jazz garden, and rose garden. It's entirely free to visit, and there are lots of places to wander, including some ADA accessible trails. There are some special areas that showcase the natural landscape, too, like the Wetlands Walkway boardwalk that weaves through Florida's famously damp geography.
The Tampa Firefighter's Museum
The Tampa Firefighter's Museum will excite kids of all ages. Housed in a 1911 firehouse, the exhibits include vintage firefighting equipment through the ages, as well as a hands-on interactive area for children that lets them play the role of firefighters (including a pint-size fire truck) and also playfully learn about fire safety and emergency preparedness. Though the museum is by-donation to enter, until the COVID-19 pandemic ends visits are by appointment only. Call (813) 964-6862 or email Tampafiremuseum@gmail.com to schedule your visit.
The Tampa Riverwalk
Downtown, the attractive Tampa Riverwalk connects most sights. Located along the Hillsborough River, this undulating green space, with playgrounds and restrooms, makes a pretty walk from the museums edging Curtis Hixon Park, past the Convention Center, to the aquarium at the far end.
Ride the TECO line streetcars
HART's free old-fashioned electric streetcars connect downtown's Marion Transit Center with a number of attractions downtown, along with Ybor City, running every 20 to 30 minutes. It's a great way to get the lay of the land – especially on a hot Florida afternoon.
On Sundays hundreds of people show up at this striking Buddhist temple for the food and flower markets, lining up for a much-loved beef soup with fish balls. Visitors can also enter the temple barefoot and enjoy traditional music. Orchids and bonsai trees are for sale, as are Thai iced teas, egg rolls and a variety of strange and wonderful desserts (go for the pumpkin cake).
True to the name, this 4.5 mile walking trail hugs the shoreline and is lined with benches where you can take in the views, public workout equipment if you want a free sweat sesh, bike racks for cyclists, and a handful of adjacent restaurants.
The Pinellas County Heritage Village
It's hard to picture 19th century Florida when you're used to the state's contemporary blend of Art Deco and mid-century modern architecture plus age-of-the-auto strip malls. But you can travel back in time at the Pinellas County Heritage Village, a living history museum that has preserved a number of historic structures. One of the thirty three buildings on site is the McMullen-Coachman Log Cabin – built in 1852, it's the oldest structure in the county. But today it's surrounded by a church, a railroad depot, homes from other eras, a general store, and a school – as well as a visitor center where you can learn more about the county's history. Demonstrations take place throughout the year of traditional skills like boiling sugar cane and weaving.
Ybor City Saturday Market
This outdoor market emphasizes arts, crafts and local food products, all in the heart of Tampa's historic district. It's been going for twenty years now, and vendors range from beekeepers to farmers to cigar rollers (natch) to makers of bespoke bowties.
The Sulphur Springs Museum
Sulphur Springs was one of Tampa's original tourist attractions in the 19th century, capitalizing on local mineral springs bubbling up from the bedrock. Known as "Florida's Coney Island," Sulphur Springs included alligators amongst its attractions, along with a shopping arcade. Today, it's a free museum celebrating the long history of this corner of Tampa, with exhibits that delve deep into Sulpher Springs' Black and Indigenous history with pottery, bronze castings, fossils, taxidermy, vintage postcards, and more.
Cheap things to do in Tampa
Henry B Plant Museum
The silver minarets of Henry B Plant's 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel glint majestically, testimony to the vaunting ambitions of its creator who first brought the railroad to the city – and then extended it so guests could disembark straight into the lobby of his 511-room hotel. Never-before-seen-luxuries such as private baths, telephones and electricity became the talk of the town, as did the hotel's European decor of Venetian mirrors, French porcelain and exotic furnishings.
Now part of the University of Tampa, one section re-creates the original hotel's gilded late-Victorian world. Tickets for adults are $10; $5 for children
Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
This small, intimate photography museum is housed on the 2nd and 3rd stories of the Cube, a five-story atrium in downtown Tampa. In addition to a permanent collection from Harold Edgerton and Len Prince, temporary exhibits have included the work of Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol and contemporary photographers such as Jerry Uelsmann. Photography courses are also offered. Admission is $10 for adults, or $8 for students.
Ybor City Museum State Park
This dusty, old-school history museum preserves a bygone era, with cigar-worker houses (open 10am to 3pm) and wonderful photos. The Ybor City Museum has information on a free, self-guided, multimedia tour of Ybor City, accessible with any internet-connected device. The tour includes 21 stops and narration from prominent characters within the community. Admission to the museums is $4 for adults; children are free.
This historic 1926 theater in downtown is a gorgeous venue in which to see an independent film. The mighty Wurlitzer organ plays before most movies. Too bad showtimes are so limited, with only one or two films playing on any given day. Look for special events. Adult admission is $12; $10 for children from 2-12.
You may also like: 5 cities in the US southeast with strong coffee culture
Five best breaks from the beach in Tampa Bay
5 perfect trips on the Florida peninsula