Surrounding the gorgeous deep-water Tampa Bay are two major cities and a seemingly endless expanse of urban-suburban sprawl – forming the state's second-largest metropolitan area – which along the Gulf Coast is edged by some 35 miles of barrier-island beaches. Not many places in the country offer as much big-city sophistication mere minutes from so much dazzling sand. Yet since Miami is one of those that does, the bay area is rarely given its due. Both Tampa and St Petersburg burble with cultural and culinary excitement as they spruce up their historic districts and polish their arts institutions. The range of adventures on offer – from fine arts to world-class aquariums to hot nightclubs and dolphin cruises – make this a compelling region to explore.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tampa Bay.
The theatrical exterior of the Salvador Dalí Museum speaks of great things: out of a wound in the towering white shoe box oozes a 75ft geodesic glass atrium. Even better, what unfolds inside is like a blueprint of what a modern art museum, or at least one devoted to the life, art and impact of Salvador Dalí, should be. Even those who dismiss his dripping clocks and curlicue mustache will be awed by the museum and its grand works, especially the Hallucinogenic Toreador.
With 1136 acres of unspoiled wilderness, Fort DeSoto is one of Florida’s premier beach parks. It includes 7 miles of beaches (including a dog beach), two fishing piers and an extensive nature trail hopping over five interconnected islands. Of its two swimming areas, the long, silky stretch of North Beach is the best, with grassy picnic areas, a cafe and a gift store (open 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday, to 5pm Saturday and Sunday). The cafe organizes hourly bike ($10) and kayak ($23) rentals.
Directly to the south of Honeymoon, this park is accessible only by boat and is virtually as nature made it: unspoiled and pristine. Consequently, it often tops national beach polls, and its 3 palm-lined miles of sugar-sand beaches should make the top of your list, too. Secluded and uncrowded it nevertheless boasts a 110-slip marina, kayak rentals, a tiny cafe, restrooms and showers.
This theme park has 10 loosely named African zones, which flow together without much fuss. The entire park is walkable. Admission includes three types of fun: epic roller coasters and rides, animal encounters, and various shows, performances and entertainment. All are spread throughout the park, so successful days require some planning: check show schedules before arriving and plan what rides and animals to visit around the shows. Coaster lines only get longer as the day goes on. Parking costs $25.
Tampa's excellent aquarium is among the state's best. Cleverly designed, the re-created swamp lets you walk among herons and ibis as they prowl the mangroves. Programs let you swim with the fishes (and the sharks) or take a catamaran ecotour in Tampa Bay. For better control of the crowds, tickets are priced by entry time.
When Tampa residents need a woodsy escape, they head to this fantastic 3400-acre state park, just 20 miles (30 minutes) northeast of Tampa. For visiting families, it provides easy, kid-friendly encounters with Florida's wilderness, and you'll find the region's best (nonbeach) camping. The best thing to do is get out on the water (canoes two hours/full day $25/50; kayaks $15 per hour), gliding beneath Spanish moss on the look out for raptors, deer, foxes and alligators. Morning is best for spotting wildlife.
Like a patchwork quilt of variegated greens tossed out over Tampa Bay, this 3700-acre preserve protects a diverse aquatic and wetland ecosystem. At the heart of the preserve is the excellent Cultural and Natural History Center (open from 11am to 4pm Thursday to Saturday) where you can browse exhibits about the natural environment and the early Weedon Island people. Sign-up also for interpretive hikes over miles of boardwalk or go it alone with the online map.
The epic sliver of sand that is Pass-a-Grille Beach is the most idyllic barrier-island beach, backed only by beach houses and a long stretch of metered public parking. Here you can watch boats coming through Pass-a-Grille Channel, hop aboard the Shell Key Shuttle to unspoiled Shell Key, and retire for eats and ice cream in the laid-back village center.
Union troops were stationed on uninhabited Egmont Key during the Civil War, and you can visit Egmont’s ruined Fort Dade by ferry from Fort DeSoto Park. Once here you can explore the ruined fort and abandoned houses, say hello to the protected gopher tortoises and go shelling and snorkeling (equipment hire $5) off the beach.