Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

Tampa Bay, Florida Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway


Double Your Fun
Two Distinct Experiences in One Visit
By Fred W. Wright, Jr.


Downtown Tampa skyline
Downtown Tampa skyline

There are few places in the U.S. where visitors can find two distinct experiences and cultures, separated by just a few miles of water. On the west coast of Florida, however, the neighboring communities of Tampa and St. Petersburg provide atmospheres and activities that are uniquely different, yet easily accessible in a single visit. Tampa has always been considered the more cosmopolitan of the two cities — the place where business is conducted and the nightlife is more vital —, while St. Petersburg has been a community of retirees for nearly as long as it has existed, expanding that leisurely air into a mecca for tourists who want to relax.

Increasingly, the two communities have merged into one. If Tampa Bay didn't physically separate the two cities, homes would no doubt be shoulder to shoulder. Now there's cooperation, and even mutual affection, and the numerous satellite communities that also pull tourists to this market have also been embraced. Professional sports teams have helped unite the market — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team, the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. If you visit and there's a game in town — either town — there's no better way to get to meet Tampa Bay.

But if sports isn't on your agenda — instead you're coming for the sand, surf, sun and seafood — then come along! The two cities are different enough to offer a wide variety of entertainment and activities and, at the same time, provide some of the best hotels, shops and restaurants in Florida.

Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa in St. Pete Beach, Florida
Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa

Tampa is the business hub, and most roads lead to this metropolitan city. Tampa International Airport sits on one shoulder, and on the other, the seaport, which an increasing number of cruise ships now call home port. Tampa boasts a skyline that glistens at night and reflects the bright Florida sun in the day, a growing array of museums and art galleries in the downtown area and an ever-increasing menu of dining options. In fact, the Tampa Bay area is one of the largest testing grounds in the country for new restaurant concepts.

And since these two cities — indeed, the whole Tampa Bay area — have become year-round tourist destinations, there is an abundance of hotels to choose from. Tampa offers some very stylish venues such as the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel, the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. However, the best views are to be found in St. Petersburg and along its Gulf of Mexico beaches. The Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa in St. Pete Beach has been much publicized in print and film, and its Gulf-facing pink exterior is hard to miss. Downtown St. Petersburg has also come alive in recent years. The Renaissance Vinoy & Golf Club sits right on the downtown waterfront, and even though its golf course isn't exactly right outside the resort's doors, there are plenty of on-site amenities.

TAMPA BAY ITINERARY: DAY 1

If you're starting your Tampa Bay experience in Tampa, start your day with breakfast at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, whose restaurants aren't limited to the 21-and-over crowd. The Green Harvest is open 24 hours a day and serves a fresh breakfast options all day long.

A ride at Busch Gardens Theme Park in Tampa, Florida
A ride at Busch Gardens Theme Park

Then get ready for Tampa's most prominent and visit-worthy attraction: Busch Gardens Theme Park, home to wild animals, thrill rides and even a brewery. Walking around the tropical grounds, you'll see grassland herbivores, monkeys, elephants and even a huge alligator lounging in its pool. White tigers, in all their fierce, agile beauty, are among the favorites to visit while the African mountain gorillas should not be missed, either. For the adventurous, rides spin and turn visitors upside down and seemingly inside out. The theme park is known for its variety of roller-coaster style rides which are some of the biggest and loopiest in the country.Since this is Busch Gardens, there's even a beer school where adults can learn how beer is made — including a free sample — while youngsters wait in a safety area or teenagers tour the park on their own.

Another attraction worth a visit isThe Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), Tampa's hands-on museum for all sorts of lessons on how things work. The museum includes an IMAX theater and an ever-changing choice of interactive exhibits. If Busch Gardens is a little big for your animal-viewing tastes, check out the Lowry Park Zoo, a small municipal attraction where people can get up close and personal with the wildlife. At the city's Channelside port, the Florida Aquarium offers a wide range of displays of marine life together with lessons on ecology and conservation.

The Garden Room at the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida
The Garden Room at the Henry B. Plant Museum

For museum and history fans, the city offers Tampa Bay History Center, the University of Tampa (with its uncharacteristic Moroccan-like spires piercing the sky), the Henry B. Plant Museum and more.

Looking to shop? The city's International Plaza provides some of the top up market retailers in the country, including Neiman Marcus, Tiffany's, Nordstrom and others — plus more than a dozen restaurants.

And if gambling is your game, Tampa offers a variety of legalized gaming in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which brings a touch of Las Vegas to the West Coast of Florida. There are more than 3,400 slot machines and more table games are being added regularly.

The gateway to Ybor City, Tampa Bay's historic Latin Quarter
The historic gateway to Ybor City

Tampa's history is multi-cultural — Spanish, Cuban, Italian and others, worldly — and its variety of restaurants and menus reflects this. Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Tampa is Bern's Steak House, renowned worldwide for its aged steaks, organically grown vegetables, stylish service and separate dessert room. Its wine cellar is one of the largest in the world.

Of the two municipalities, Tampa was always considered the more party-friendly town. That still holds true, mostly in hotel lounges and in Ybor City, the city's Latin Quarter. Ybor City offers a variety of trendy clubs and lounges, bars and restaurants. The streets and sidewalks get full on weekends.

Continue to Day 2

  
MORE TAMPA BAY INFORMATION

 

P080806
(Updated: 06/07/13 CT)

Whether looking to travel across the Australian Outback, the Canadian Rockies or historic Europe, these opulent trains will let travelers see the countryside in comfort.
Enter to win a trip to the posh Waldorf-Astoria Chicago, including round-trip airfare, daily breakfast and a credit for a luxe spa experience.