Exploring Tampa in Your Rental Car
With 361 days per year of beautiful sunshine, the Tampa and surrounding gulf coast region is most often thought of for it's amazing beaches. However, whether you are vacationing on the beaches or in town for business, the metropolis of Tampa is well worth taking the time to explore. These museums, parks, and attractions are all within 10 miles of downtown Tampa and you can easily reach all of them in your rental car with a minimum of hassle.
Panfilo de Narvaez anchored in Tampa Bay in 1528 and ever since the beginning of Spanish colonization, the Tampa Bay area has been the focus of growth and activity. Tampa Bay was a sleepy little port town until Cuban immigrants created a cigar industry in the 1880's in a Tampa suburb called Ybor City. Henry B Plant helped fuel industrial and trade expansion by laying a rail line which ran from Virginia to Tampa. Teddy Roosevelt trained the famous Rough Riders here during the Spanish-American War. A land boom in the 1920s gave the city its charming, Victorian-style Hyde Park suburb. Tampa grew up around it's port while the downtown skyline was created during economic upturns in the 1980's and 1990's. Banks built high-rise towers, the local government put in an expansive convention center, a performing arts center, and the Ice Palace (now the St. Pete Times Forum) to house the local professional hockey team.
A Day Out in Tampa: Exploring Animals & Theme Parks
Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, (813)273-4000
The Florida Aquarium is located on the waterfront in Tampa. It is easily identified by its distinctive blue shell shaped roof. This is a huge aquarium in which more than 5,000 aquatic animals and plants reside.
This aquarium takes a local angle. As you enter, you are supposed to follow a drop of water from its first appearance in an underground spring and follow its passage all the way out to sea. You start in the springs of the Florida Wetlands Gallery, through a mangrove forest in the Bays and Beaches gallery, and then out onto the Coral Reefs. Along the way, you will not only find the normal fish tanks but will also encounter baby alligators, birds, otters, moray eels, and others all living in their natural habitats.
The Coral Reefs gallery is impressive. You are presented with a 43 foot wide by 14 foot tall panoramic window which allows you to view Florida's coral reef eco-system. Here you will see colorful tropical fish, sharks, and stingrays.
For you thrill seekers, this aquarium also offers a Dive With the Sharks program. This program allows certified divers (for a fee) the chance to dive with blacktip, sand tiger, and nurse sharks for 30 minutes. You can call (813)367-4005 for info on this program.
Lowry Park Zoo, 1101 West Sligh Ave., (813)932-0245
The Lowry Park Zoo is located 6 miles to the north of downtown Tampa and is said to be an excellent park.
The Lowry Park Zoo has all of the wonderful exhibits you would expect from any zoo with its Primate World and Asian Domain (featuring Sumatran Tigers) exhibits.
This zoo also has a distinctive local Florida flavor. One of its more popular exhibits is the Manatee Center which has up to 20 manatees available for viewing. The number fluctuates as many of them are simply here for recovery from a natural incident. It also offers the Florida Wildlife center where you can find native animals like the Florida panther and of course, alligators.
Busch Gardens, 3000 E. Busch Boulevard, (813)987-5283
The world famous Busch Gardens offers both a major theme park and one of the top zoos in the US. The park has eight areas, each with its own them, animals, live entertainment, thrill rides, kiddie attractions and of course, food. If you want to get the lay of the land upon arrival, you can take the Skyride cable car to get an aerial overview.
The Busch Gardens theme park actually predates Disney World in Orlando. If you plan on coming here, it takes a full day just to explore the theme park. Rides include Kumba which is Florida's largest and fastest roller coaster, the Land of Dragons is an excellent place for kids to enjoy scaled-down rides, the Congo River Rapids sends you shooting through rapids, geyers and under waterfalls on a raft, Gwazi is an old fashioned wooden roller coaster that offers the twist that you start off and ride next to another roller coaster. The parks sixth roller coaster SheiKra is a dive roller coaster that takes riders up 200 feet at 45 degrees and then send you back down at 45 degrees reaching up to 70 mph.
The zoo at Busch Gardens offers over 2,000 animals and tries to re-create life in colonial-era Africa. Here you will find zebras and giraffes roaming freely over the "Serengeti Plain", while the "Edge of Africa" area offers the chance for close up views of lions, hippos, hyenas and a host of other African animals. The Myombe Reserve is a simulated rain-forest with gorillas and chimpanzees available for viewing. The parks original core is now the Bird Gardens which has a free flight aviary with hundreds of exotic birds, as well as Florida flamingoes, Australian Koalas and birds or prey.
To reach the Busch Gardens, take I-275 north of downtown to the Busch Blvd exit #50, and go east for 2 miles. From I-75, take Fowler Avenue exit 54 and follow the signs west.
A Day Out in Tampa: Exploring the Museums
Henry B. Plant Museum, 401 W Kennedy Blvd. (813) 254-1891
As mentioned above, Henry Plant laid the railroad leading to Tampa. In order to tend to his well-heeled passengers, in 1891 he also built the luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel. Today, the Tampa Bay Hotel houses the Henry B. Plant Museum and is easily Tampa's most famous landmark. It is very hard to miss with its spiraling, Moorish minarets extending from all corners.
When the Tampa Bay Hotel was built, Henry Plant spared no expense. In 1891, the construction cost three million dollars with another five hundred thousand being spent on furnishings. Unfortunately, the hotel was not a success. It was bought by the city in 1905 and became the home for the University of Tampa. The south wing of the hotel was set aside and now houses the museum.
The museum offers a solarium, elegant Wedgwood china, Venetian mirrors, 18th-century French furniture. Ninety percent of the exhibits are original to the hotel and effortlessly bring back the feeling of the lost elegance of that period.
MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), 4801 E. Fowler Avenue, (813)987-6100
This is actually a pretty cool place to take the kids. With over 450 interactive exhibits, MOSI is the largest science center in the Southeast. The interactive exhibits aren't run of the mill types. You can check out the Gulf Hurricane exhibit to see what 74 mph winds feel like, or ride a bicycle across a 98 foot long steel cable, 30 feet above the lobby (for safety, you are harnessed in). The MOSI also houses an IMAX dome theater. Outside the MOSI you will find a variety of experiences from a butterfly garden to articulated remains of a Sauropod dinosaur.
Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N. Ashley Drive, (813)274-8130
This museum has a huge range of exhibits featuring everything from Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities to 20th-century fine art. The exhibits are too large to be shown at once and hence are rotated which makes it possible to visit more than once and still have a fresh adventure.
The museum is also known for its outdoor sculpture garden. You can wander the well manicured grounds to admire the various works of art or just relax on a bench and take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Tampa Theater, 711 N. Franklin Street, (813)274-8981
This theater was built in 1926. In keeping with the period, this was built to be the most lavish movie theater n Florida. It is well known for its 1,000 pipe theater organ and its ceiling lights which are designed to twinkle giving one the illusion of being outside.
Today, the theater still shows movies, hosts plays, and movie festivals. You can take in an event here or see it by guided tour. The tour is only given twice a month
A Day Out in Tampa: Exploring Ybor City
Ybor City, 1600 E 8th Ave, (813)241-8838
With its user-friendly port and close proximity to Cuba (and it's renown tobacco), Ybor City became the ideal place to establish a foothold for cigar making in the U.S. In the 1800's, with help from Cuban immigrants large cigar factories were built in Ybor City and the boom was on. By 1900, Ybor City was producing over 111 million cigars annually - all hand rolled.
Ybor City (pronounced eee-bore) is located 3 miles northeast of downtown. They do not roll many cigars in Ybor City anymore but it's very fun and interesting place to visit full of history, nightlife, and amazing food!
To check out the history of this town, you can tour historic clubs like the Tampa Cuban Club, visit the cigar museum and visitor center (1818 9th Ave, (813)247-6323) and even get a feel for what factory life was like by touring the home of a cigar worker next to the museum.
El Sol Cigars, which opened its doors in 1929, is the oldest cigar store in Ybor City. They aren't rolling their own stogeys anymore but you can still stop by and purchase a find supply of cigars here.
On weekends, Ybor City is hoppin' with people moving through the friendly streets late into the evening, early in the morning. Masquerade at the Ritz was built in 1917 as an ornate movie theater and has now been converted into one of the area's top nightclubs.
Hungry? Check out Centro Ybor which is a dining-shopping-entertainment complex that occupies space between 7th and 8th avenues. You can check out the shops, get a drink at an open-air bar, take in a comedy club and visit several restaurants. Worth mentioning is the Columbia Restaurant which is Florida's oldest restaurant and takes up an entire block on 7th Avenue. This restaurant specializes in Latino food and offers flamenco dancing to keep you entertained. The Columbia Restaurant is located at 2117 E 7th Ave, (813)248-4961.