- Tampa is renowned for its subtropical climate, with mild winters and hot summers, making it great for year-round vacations.
- The city has a vibrant culture and lots of museums, parks and opportunities to catch a glimpse of wildlife.
- Families love Tampa because of the fun attractions and central location between Clearwater Beach and Orlando.
- If you’ve followed along with the Netflix series, Tiger King, make sure you stop in at Carol Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue to see the incredible rescue cats.
Tampa is a wonderful mix of old and new. It has historic quarters; tons of places to eat, drink and shop; zoos and wildlife parks; and fascinating museums for curious minds. While it’s ideal for family vacations, there’s plenty for people without kids to do and see, especially if you’re animal lovers. Tampa Theater and Ybor City are ideal for nights out, while Hillsborough State Park and the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary let you feast on nature at its finest.
If you’re planning a trip to Tampa or deciding whether to go, check out this list of the top 12 things to do. From historic museums to adventure parks, you won’t be stuck for ideas in this exciting city perched on the Gulf of Mexico.
1. Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens is one of the top attractions in Tampa and one of the best places in Florida to escape for a weekend. It’s 335 acres of pure fun, with an African theme and so much to do. Not only is it an amazing adventure park with thrilling rides, ziplines and bumper cars, but it’s also a zoo and safari park. You’ll discover an array of exotic animals, reimagined African camps and first-hand encounters with wildlife.
Feed kangaroos and giraffes and admire beautiful flamingos and languishing sloths by day. Check out the Serengeti night safari, a performance or live music offered in the evening.
2. Tampa Riverwalk
You’ll find what seems like an endless pedestrian stretch known as the Tampa Riverwalk in the downtown area. To be precise, it’s 2.4 miles long and winds along the waterfront with spectacular views of the city and the pretty Hillsborough River. Art lovers can set up here and create a masterpiece, or admire the many public works of art, from sculptures to murals.
You’ll find a few of the other top attractions along the river walk, including the Tampa Museum of Art and Florida Aquarium. There are even four playgrounds for kids and two have splash pads perfect for cooling off in the hottest months. If adults need some rest to recharge, there are some great restaurants with outdoor seating to grab a cold drink at and watch the world go by.
3. Tampa Zoo at Lowry Park
With more than 2,000 animals spread over 60 acres, the Tampa Zoo at Lowry Park isn’t something you can miss if you love watching animals in their natural habitats. Some are native to Florida, while others hail from Australia, Asia and Africa. There’s also an area dedicated to primates and an aviary for bird watchers.
There are opportunities to interact with some wildlife, including photos with koala bears and rhino feeding sessions. What’s more, it’s one of the only places in Florida where you’re guaranteed to spot manatees due to the location’s nonprofit acute care manatee hospital, where Florida’s beloved sea cows are rescued and rehabilitated.
4. Ybor City
Ybor City is a cultural hub in Tampa and a National Historic Landmark District. It’s an ode to Florida’s Latin American past, dating back to the 1600s when Spanish settlers first claimed the area.
The neighborhood is named after Vicente Martinez Ybor, a cigar baron who founded the city in the 1880s. For a long time, the area was home to one of the biggest cigar factories in the world, with legend saying 4,000 workers made more than 9,000 cigars each month.
These days, it’s less about commerce and more about partying. Cigar mills have been transformed into trendy boutique shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. There are food trucks and microbreweries aplenty, with an intoxicating Latin American vibe that makes a visit feel like a vacation within a vacation.
5. Museum of Science and Industry
There are few places more engaging for sharp minds than a museum, and Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry is particularly enthralling. Tons of interactive exhibits, activities and stations keep adults as entertained as kids.
Previous events include the Imagination Playground, a building station with tools to build items such as miniature villages and robots. Slipper Science was a hockey exhibit that demonstrated how aerodynamics and friction work. Mission: Moonbase was a simulation of a lunar base that taught curious visitors about the environment of the moon and its atmosphere.
6. Sunshine Skyway Bridge
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a feat to behold for engineering or architecture enthusiasts or pretty much anyone who enjoys looking at beautiful structures. When you drive up the four-mile bridge, it feels like you’re driving straight up to the sky, but it looks just as beautiful when viewed from afar.
When you’re at the peak of the bridge, you’ll see the expanse of Florida and Tampa itself to the left, with the glistening waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the right. At the base of the bridge, there’s a fishing hotspot at one of the longest fishing piers in the world. Catch snapper, bass and grouper as you chat with locals and learn more about the area’s history.
7. The Florida Aquarium
One of the most memorable activities in Tampa is the wild dolphin cruise at the Florida Aquarium. You’ll jump on a catamaran and admire the glorious sea creatures in their natural habitat.
What’s more, you’ll find beautiful coral, schools of beautiful fish, imposing sharks and adorable penguins throughout the aquarium. There’s also a 4D theater showing educational films about all your favorite sea life. When you’re ready to cool off, you and the kids can check out the outdoor water playground.
8. Tampa Bay History Center
The Americas have a rich and fascinating cultural heritage, and Tampa Bay History Center pays homage to over 12,000 years of local history. There are preserved documents, artifacts and relics dating back to when Europeans first voyaged to the Americas.
You can hear retellings of stories from when Spanish explorers first came to the New World. Tales from the Seminoles, the shipping and railroad era and exploration of Florida’s multicultural history are sure to enthral.
9. Tampa Theater
Tampa Theater was constructed as a movie palace in 1926, at the beginning of the first Golden Age of cinema. It’s one of Tampa’s most opulent and impressive historical attractions and a must-see for visitors. You can buy a ticket at the old-fashioned glass booth at the front and then catch a show, where you’ll sit on one of the classic plush red seats.
Admire the huge curtain that covers screens when they’re not in use and the Wurlitzer organ, which stands as a relic of the theater’s past. Don’t expect to catch the latest blockbusters here, though. Instead, you can view world cinema, independent films and documentaries.
10. Hillsborough River State Park
While much of Tampa is man-made, with animal sanctuaries and zoos mimicking animals’ natural habitats, Hillsborough River State Park is a truly wild wonderland. With bayous, mangroves, swamps and trees, you’ll see alligators creeping through the marshes and beautiful birds flying through the skies.
If you’re active and love the outdoors, you can go canoeing or kayaking here and bike through the lush forests. When you’re ready for a sit-down, head to the interpretive center and learn about the Native American tribes from the area.
11. Tampa Museum of Art
The Tampa Museum of Art building is a piece of art to behold in and of itself, and that’s before you’ve even walked through the doors! It has numerous display rooms, exhibitions and galleries, so art lovers will be right at home here. There are vast collections of Roman sculptures, contemporary installations and even a messy station where kids can create their own watercolors.
12. Big Cat Rescue
The Big Cat Rescue Center is an attraction that’s sure to delight people no matter what age they are. It’s more of a sanctuary than a zoo, housing over 60 beautiful felines, including lions, tigers, bobcats, servals, leopards, lynx, jaguars and more.
Most of the animals are rescues being rehabilitated after neglect and abuse experienced in the big cat trade. The aim of the sanctuary is to educate people about the plight of these often endangered and always graceful animals. And yes, this is the same BCR heavily featured in the Joe Exotic Netflix series, owned and operated by Carol Baskin.