When most people think about visiting Florida, their minds immediately jump to the beach. While there are certainly plenty of wonderful beaches, they are not all that the Sunshine state has to offer. Consider incorporating these 12 fun-filled unique Tampa attractions, besides the beach, into your next Florida vacation.
Completed in 1891, the Tampa Bay Hotel was a grandiose passion project built by entrepreneur Henry Bradley Plant as part of his railroad empire. Plant introduced the railroad to Tampa in 1881, connecting it to his steamship enterprise. Passengers could ride Plant’s railroad from downtown to Port Tampa City and take the Plant Line steamship to Bermuda, Cuba, Jamaica, and Alabama. Thanks to the railroad, Tampa’s economy bloomed.
The Tampa Bay Hotel sat at the center, furnished with electricity, salons, telephones, gardens, and even a music room with its own orchestra. The hotel had all the most advanced luxuries of the day, including a golf course, telegraph office, barbershop, and more. A lavish example of classical European architecture on the outside, the inside boasted an array of sculptures, mirrors, and antique décor.
Today, the Tampa Bay Hotel has become the University of Tampa. Its south wing is now known as the Henry B. Plant Museum, a window to the hotel’s grand past complete with original accessories and decorations. One of downtown Tampa’s most unique places to visit, the Henry B. Plant Museum is more than worth your time.
Each year in December, the museum holds its annual Victorian Christmas Stroll. This holiday event offers a glimpse into Christmas past with a multitude of trees, lights, antique toys and ornaments, and displays from the 1890s. Some dates have live music and there is often hot apple cider and treats.
Usual museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 10am to 5pm. On Sunday, it is open from noon to 5pm. It is closed on Mondays, Christmas (December 25th), Thanksgiving (November 25th), and Independence Day (July 4th). In an ever changing climate, always re-verify operational hours directly with the establishment.
2. Ybor City
One of Tampa’s most famous neighborhoods, Ybor City is a bustling hub of downtown life known for its Cuban and Latin American culture. In 1885, Spanish cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor, transported his cigar enterprise from Cuba to Tampa, establishing Ybor City as his company town.
Ybor’s cigar factories and employee incentives (such as modest housing) attracted many Cuban and Spanish immigrants, as well as Italians. They rolled and produced cigars for Ybor’s factories, while also creating their own businesses (restaurants, boardinghouses, etc.). By the 1900s, Ybor City became a mixture of thriving immigrant communities, and their influence remains today.
The Great Depression, followed by World War II, hit Ybor City’s economy significantly. The decline in the global popularity of cigars caused many cigar workers to lose their jobs. It also caused factories to employ machines instead of people. Thanks to a surge of artists arriving in the city in the 1980s, Ybor City saw a boom in tourism and nightlife. Since then, the government has worked with developers to restore Ybor City to its former glory.
Today Ybor City is one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa besides the beach. It is an example of Tampa’s rich past and a colorful community of culture and entertainment. When you tour historic Ybor City, be sure to check out the following places.
Founded in 1905, the acclaimed Columbia Restaurant is not only Florida’s oldest restaurant, but the oldest Spanish restaurant in the United States. Cuban immigrant Casmiro Hernandez, Sr. established the Columbia in 1905 as a humble café for the city’s cigar workers. In 1935, his son, Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. expanded the restaurant into a lavish dining establishment with an area of 52,000 square feet. Eventually, the Columbia opened additional locations throughout Florida. The restaurant chain is owned by the same family today.
As one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa, the flagship Columbia boasts 1,700 seats and 15 dining rooms, each with its own unique décor and theme. In addition to its mouthwatering selection of Cuban and Spanish cuisine, the restaurant also offers more than 1,000 types of wine and lively Flamenco performances.
The restaurant hosts a Community Harvest campaign in September, wherein the Columbia donates 5% of patron checks to charities of the guests’ choice. Also in September, the Columbia chooses a Sunday to be “1905 Day”; on 1905 Day, a special menu appears with original prices from 1905.
The Columbia does not require reservations, but encourages them (it is often packed!). The Ybor location generally serves from 11am to 9pm all year, but always reconfirm hours.
To see the Columbia Restaurant Dance Troupe’s Flamenco shows, you must schedule accordingly. Their 7pm performances on Tuesday through Thursday require 5:30pm, 6pm, or 6:30pm dinner reservations. The 7pm performance on Saturday and Sunday also require 5:30pm, 6pm, or 6:30pm dinner reservations. The 9:30pm performance on Friday and Saturday requires 8:30pm or 9pm reservations. The Flamenco show currently costs $8 for patrons over 12 years of age.
Ybor City Museum State Park
While in Ybor City, do not forget to visit the Museum State Park. Located in the heart of Ybor City, the park is a monument to the community’s unique history. While touring the park, you can see restored casitas (“little houses” in Spanish, the family homes of cigar workers from Ybor City’s past), a Mediterranean-style garden, and a museum dedicated to preserving the district’s cultural past.
The park museum sits in the Felita Bakery building, once known as the La Joven Francesca Bakery. The Felita family worked within in 1896, until 1923 when a fire destroyed the building. The Felitas rebuilt the bakery into what it looks like today. The museum offers exhibits into Ybor City’s past as a cigar capital, as well as its own history as an antique bakery.
The park is open to the public and the courtyard allows picnicking. Although guided casita tours existed in the past, call for current availability.
The museum opens 9am to 4pm from Wednesday to Sunday, with the exception of Thanksgiving (November 25th), Christmas (December 25th), and New Year’s Day (January 1st). Currently, admission costs $4 per person, but is free for children 5 years of age and under; visitors must pay with exact change or credit card.
Busch Gardens is another one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa. The Africa-themed park originally opened as a brewery and botanical garden in 1959 by Anheiser-Busch. It offered free beer tastings and a bird garden for guests to tour. Throughout the 1960s, Busch Brewery expanded to include an aviary, a clock tower, and a restaurant. Eventually, it constructed the Serengeti Plain, a 70-acre natural habitat home to a plethora of African wildlife; it is still one of the park’s star attractions.
Today, Busch Gardens doubles as a theme park and Tampa’s biggest zoo. It offers visitors a variety of roller coasters, water rides, theaters, safaris, mini-bazaars, and animal habitats, including a children’s section (now Sesame Street themed).
The park annually hosts a Food and Wine Festival during March and April. In March, it also hosts the Viva La Musica! event, a celebration of Latin American music and food.
In September and October, Busch Gardens becomes home to Howl-O-Scream, a park-wide event celebrating Halloween. At night, the park transforms sections into horror-themed attractions, including haunted houses, interactive scares, and shows.
After Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens becomes Christmas Town in November and December. In addition to festive décor, park theaters perform Christmas-themed shows, the Snow World attraction opens real snow and ice slides to visitors, and Santa Claus appears.
During the Summer Nights event, Busch Gardens extends its hours and often hosts celebrity concerts. It also designates party zones for guests to dance and compete with one another. It offers live entertainment, alcohol, and firework shows.
Busch Gardens is Tampa’s most unique theme park and certainly worth a visit. With a pass, you can score a great deal, including admission to Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium, and other exciting Tampa Bay attractions for one discounted low price. Admission is free for children 3 years of age and under. There is a $25 general parking fee.
4. ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Formerly known as the Lowry Park Zoo, ZooTampa at Lowry Park is another of the city’s most famous zoos and one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa. Florida’s official center for wildlife conservation and biodiversity, the zoo spans 56 acres and hosts more than 1,100 animals from all over the planet, including endangered and threatened species.
ZooTampa offers several live educational shows, restaurants, and child-friendly rides. This includes a safari tram, small roller coaster, and a boat ride that leads to a splash landing. You can also book (for an additional fee) “signature encounters,” up-close-and-personal looks at animals in their habitats with the supervision of zookeepers.
ZooTampa also hosts special events throughout the year, like the Chinese Lantern Festival (Zoominations), featuring giant animal-shaped lantern displays and crafts from the local Chinese community.
ZooTampa opens from 9:30am to 5pm every day, with the exception of Thanksgiving (November 25th) and Christmas (December 25th). On December 24th, it opens from 9:30am to 4pm.
5. Hillsborough River State Park
This is another park that deserves a spot on our list of the 12 most unique attractions to visit near downtown Tampa besides the beach. The Hillsborough River State Park features nature trails spanning 7 miles, beautiful landscapes, and class II river rapids. In addition to spotting wildlife, you can kayak, canoe or fish in the Hillsborough River, bike or hike along the trails, picnic in pavilions, or camp inside the park.
For those who enjoy paddling, you can travel down the historic Hillsborough River and take in the unique Florida scenery along this natural waterway. There are even class II rapids which is a rare find in Florida! Although there are 3 kayak and canoe launches along the river, the park does not always offer rentals; Often visitors must bring their own equipment. Call 813-986-6772 for more information.
Bicycles are usually available for rent at the park and cost $15 for geared bikes, $10 for cruisers, and $10 for children’s bikes. See more detailed pricing information here. Bicyclists are invited to ride on the 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Nature Trail as well as the 2.2-mile park loop.
There are four hiking trails totaling 7.3 miles. Trail features encompass dense, hydric hammock forest and provide interpretive displays. See Jenny In Wanderland article, Top 15 Hiking Essentials to Pack
**The park opens from 8am until sunset every day of the year. Admission costs $6 per vehicle with 2 or more people, $4 for vehicles with one occupant, and $2 for pedestrians and cyclists. Camping for tents and RVs up to 50′ in length is available and costs $24 per night plus a small reservation service fee. Sites includes electricity and water.
You can also see the Fort Foster State Historic Site, a reconstruction of an 1836 fort built by Colonel William S. Foster during the Second Seminole War. Offering a view into the past, the fort’s interior displays historic artifacts discovered at the site, from both the Seminole Nation and U.S military. Site staff also re-enacts historical events at Fort Foster twice a year (in January and December respectively).
Fort Foster tours are free for children 5 years of age and under, $1 for children ages 6 to 12, and $2 for adults. The tours start 10am on Thursdays in November and April, and 10:30am every third Saturday during the summer.
6. Tampa Riverwalk
An open trail spanning 2.6 miles, the Tampa Riverwalk also sits along the Hillsborough River. One of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa, the Riverwalk offers an array of restaurants, bars, hotels, museums, and entertainment. Starting from the Tampa convention center, visitors can walk or bike along the Riverwalk while admiring Tampa’s attractions and views. At night, they can enjoy the colorful lights that emit from the area’s arches and bridges.
Riverwalk Public Art
On the Riverwalk’s south plaza, you will see the Riverwall, an exhibit of more than 500 photos of the area taken by artist Bruce Marsh. The Riverwalk also offers a historical monument trail, featuring busts of prominent figures throughout Tampa’s history. Riverwalk’s Heroes Plaza is a monument to first responders who passed away in the line of duty.
Further down, you can find museums such as the Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children’s Museum, and Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
Tampa Bay History Center
The Tampa Bay History Center is a museum dedicated to the entirety of Tampa’s history, including exhibits on Tampa’s first indigenous peoples, Spanish conquistadors, Cuban immigrants, and the various personalities that molded Tampa into what it is today. It is also home to a 1920s cigar store replica and the Columbia Café, an offshoot of Ybor City’s Columbia Restaurant.
With the exception of Thanksgiving (November 25th) and Christmas (December 25th), the museum opens daily from 10am to 5pm (3pm on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, December 24th and 31st).
Admission is free for children 6 years of age and under, $14.95 for adults. It is $12.95 for senior citizens over 60 years of age, and for military, first responders, and students with ID. It is $10.95 for youths 7 to 17 years old.
Tampa Museum of Art
Over 100 years old, the Tampa Museum of Art houses an incredible display of modern and contemporary art, as well as ancient Roman, Greek, and Etruscan collections.
The museum opens Monday through Sunday 10am to 5pm, and 10am to 8pm on Thursdays. It closes on Christmas (December 25th), Thanksgiving (November 25th), and Gasparilla (January 29th).
Admission costs $10 for adults and $5 for seniors over 65 years of age, military, professional artists, Florida educators, and students. It is free for children 6 years of age and under, and for university students with ID.
Glazer Children’s Museum
Part of the Waterfront Arts District, the Glazer Children’s Museum is an educational institution focused on connecting with and inspiring children through interactive exhibits. It primarily focuses on children ages 0 to 10.
The museum opens Tuesday through Friday from 10am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 6pm, and Sunday 1pm to 6pm. With the exception of Memorial and Labor Day (May 31st and September 6th), it closes on Mondays. It also closes on Christmas Eve and Day (December 24th and 25th), Thanksgiving (November 25th), and Gasparilla (January 29th).
Admission is free for infants less than a year old. It costs $13 for children ages 1 through 12, and $15 for adults.
Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
Located on the second and third floors of the Cube, a 6-storey building in Rivergate Plaza, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts was once known as the Tampa Gallery of Photographic Arts. It showcases a rotating display of diverse photography and permanent photographic exhibitions.
The museum opens Monday through Sunday from 12pm to 5pm, and Friday 12pm to 7pm. It closes on Tuesdays. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for students, military, and senior citizens.
The Riverwalk also takes you through several parks, including Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, USF Park, MacDill Park, the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, and the Waterworks Park/Ulele Springs.
Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park
The perfect place to relax along the Tampa Riverwalk, the Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park is a sunny area with a children’s playground and splash zone, in addition to many benches. It is home to Heroes Plaza (mentioned above), a canoe launch, and boat slips. It also features the Cenatoph and Ceremonial Space, a sculpture dedicated to the deceased and built by Chiricahua Apache artist, Bob Haozous.
The park is free and open to the public from 7am to 10pm.
Another park to rest your feet, the USF Riverfront Park is dedicated to the University of South Florida (my alma mater!) and its influence on the Tampa community. Here, you can rest on the shaded benches or continue your relaxed stroll down the Riverwalk. It is free and open 24 hours.
Dedicated to the MacDill Airforce Base, MacDill Park features monuments to the base’s history and achievements. It also provides shaded benches and a stop to rent bicycles. It is free and open 24 hours.
Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park
Near the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum, the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is a large waterfront area that frequently hosts festivals and special events. It features a sloping lawn, playground, splash pads, enclosed dog park, boat dock, and water taxi stop. Free to the public, it opens from 7am to 10pm.
Water Works Park
Located at the Riverwalk’s northern plaza, the Water Works Park is another waterfront park that often hosts festivals and concerts. The park features a large open lawn, playground, splash pads, picnic spots, dog park, boat dock, water taxi stop, and shaded benches. Free to the public, it opens from 7am to 10pm.
The park connects to the Ulele Spring Bridge, which takes you to the Ulele, a unique restaurant focusing on Floridian fusion cuisine, with influence from Native American dishes.
While strolling along the Riverwalk, you will notice all sorts of boats parked at the docks. You can even hop aboard a water taxi that has dolphin, history, harbor and famous people home tours, eboat, or water bike, and explore the city from the water itself.
**Water bikes are bicycles mounted on kayaks, turning them into manpowered boats. If you want to pedal on the river, a water bike are the perfect chance to do so.
The Sail is an open-air bar and restaurant that spans 360 degrees along the waterfront. It is perfect for lunches and drinks in the daytime, and in the nighttime, it provides live music, happy hour specials, and events such as trivia games. It is also home to the Brew & Bites food truck rally, a gathering of local food trucks that the Sail hosts on the second Friday of each month.
Definitely one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa besides the beach, the Sail is more than worth your visit.
David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts
Also located along the Riverwalk, the Straz is Tampa’s finest performing arts theatre. Modern and spacious, it has hosted touring Broadway musicals, orchestras, symphonies, operas, dances, and plays. If you are in the mood for the performing arts during your visit to downtown Tampa, then the Straz is the place to go.
There are many interesting hotels for visitors to stay in along the Riverwalk, such as Le Méridien Tampa.
Le Méridien Tampa is a branch of the Marriott, converted from a federal courthouse more than a century old. Le Méridien Tampa features historic architecture, contemporary décor within as part of its partnership with the Tampa Museum of Art, and delicate French cuisine.
7. Florida Aquarium
Riverwalk’s most famous stop and another destination on our 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa besides the beach, and you can even skip the line at the Florida Aquarium. It is home to over one thousand species of aquatic life. Located within a modern glass building shaped like splashing waves, the aquarium spans 200,000 square feet and is a delight for locals and tourists alike. (I, for one, remember many, many fond field and family trips to the aquarium as a child!)
In addition to its aquatic exhibits, the Florida Aquarium hosts an aviary, wetlands trail, and mangrove forest. Visitors can touch stingrays, jellyfish, and boneless animals in designated pools. The aquarium also features a coral reef habitat, 4D theater, and penguin exhibit.
The Florida Aquarium offers a Wild Dolphin Cruise, a daily 75-minute guided cruise that takes visitors through Tampa Bay for a spectacular viewing of Tampa’s wildlife. The cruise ship leaves port from the aquarium’s splash pad, where you can watch ships come and go on their wildlife journey.
It also offers the Penguins: Backstage Pass tour, which takes visitors through a guided interaction with the aquarium’s African penguins. On this tour, you can observe the penguins up close and even touch them under a biologist’s supervision.
There is a mermaid show at various times throughout the day where mermaids swim amongst the sea life.
Since 2018, the aquarium has used a pricing system that lists ticket prices depending on specific factors such as weather, attendance pattern, local events, holidays, or date. As such, admission prices change each day.
General admission usually costs between $25 and $33, with slight discounts for children over 2 years old (free for under) and senior citizens. To experience the Wild Dolphin Cruise or The Penguins Backstage Pass, there is an additional fee for each.
Parking is $10 per vehicle. The aquarium opens 9:30am to 5pm every day, excepting Thanksgiving (November 25th) and Christmas (December 25th).
8. Sparkman Wharf
Bordering Ybor and Garrison Channels, Tampa’s Channel District is another community that sits along the Riverwalk. Near the Florida Aquarium and Tampa Bay History Center, there are plenty of casual things to do at Sparkman Wharf (the old renovated “Channelside Bay Plaza”). The plaza consists of several upscale restaurant, cafés, bars, and shops, including live music and the Sony Giant Screen Digital theater.
Sparkman Wharf overlooks the city’s largest port, Port Tampa Bay, which functions as the launch pad for cruise ships. Here, you can leisurely stroll, dine, and shop, all while enjoying views of downtown Tampa and the various ships coming and going from the port. This alone makes Sparkman Wharf one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa besides the beach.
9. American Victory Museum
Channel District is also home to the American Victory Museum & Ship, a preserved museum ship converted from the SS American Victory, a Victory Ship used during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Exhibits include an original German submarine propeller, ship models, a replica of the American Victory’s wheelhouse, and more. For the nautically inclined or those interested in wartime history, the American Victory Museum is a must-see destination and one of the 12 most unique places to visit in downtown Tampa.
The museum opens Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am to 5pm, and Mondays 12pm to 5pm. Admission costs $10 for adults, $8 for seniors over the age of 65, and $5 for veterans and children ages 4 through 12. It is free for children 3 years of age and under.
10. Amalie Arena
Home to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, the Amalie Arena is a sports arena that has hosted ice hockey games, football games, basketball games, standup comedians, and concerts throughout the years. Located in Channeside, the arena opened in 1996 and has gone through several name changes since (including Ice Palace, St. Pete Times Forum, and Tampa Bay Times Forum) before becoming the Amalie in 2014. In 2021, it also became home to the Toronto Raptors basketball team due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Hockey fans must add Amalie Arena to their Tampa trip. You can visit the Tampa Bay Sports Store located within the arena, where a plethora of Tampa Bay Lightning merchandise is available for purchase, including shirts, hats, and autographed items.
Although it encourages you to book tickets online (as prices vary depending on the event), the ticket office opens Monday through Saturday starting 9am until the main act and Sunday from 10am until the main act. For Tampa Bay Lightning Games, the office opens Monday through Sunday 3 hours before the puck drops until the 2nd period intermission ends. Visitors must book parking in advance.
11. Hyde Park
A haven for hip and trendy shoppers, Hyde Park Village covers six blocks of restaurants, bars, international chain stores, and boutiques. Especially popular among young night owls, the Hyde Park area offers a vibrant nightlife with its upscale dining and cocktail bars. It is also home to a cinema, salon, and Sprinkles Tampa, a renowned cupcake bakery with its own pastry ATM. One of the 12 most unique places to visit in Tampa, Hyde Park is the perfect spot for a relaxed dinner after a day of fun.
On the first Sunday of every month from 10am to 3pm, Hyde Park also hosts the Essentials Market event, a farmer’s market where you can buy fresh produce, baked goods, and more from local vendors.
Hyde Park is also home to the famous Bern’s Steakhouse, arguably containing the largest restaurant wine cellar in the United States. Bern’s cellar contains more than 6,800 different selections with more than half a million bottles. There are eight dining rooms and a really retro throwback lounge that makes a great old fashioned. The menu is extensive and contains a huge selection of steak cuts that range from $45 to almost $200. They also have a large cheese and caviar selection, seafood, and vegetarian and vegan options. The portions are large. Most entrees include Bern’s signature salad and french onion soup, along with a vegetable and loaded baked potato.
While you are waiting for dinner, ask your server for a complimentary tour. You will learn the history and inner workings of the establishment while touring the kitchen and wine cellar. Don’t miss the tour; it is definitely a highlight.
After dinner, you can go upstairs to be seated in the dessert room. Their world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room was built in 1985. It uses redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms where guests enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. There is almost always a live pianist and music is piped into your private cask through old fashioned juke boxes. There is a phone attached so you can call the pianist to make requests.
12. International Plaza and Bay Street
For those searching for a more traditional mall, the International Plaza is just the place. Located next to the Tampa International Airport, International Plaza is the largest mall in western Florida, and one of Tampa’s most popular hotspots. It offers over 200 stores, including Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s, and Nordstrom. There is also an outdoor walking strip of upscale restaurants on Bay Street. Enjoy a fulfilling shopping experience, followed by a delicious dinner or drink at one of the many restaurants and bars. You can even stay for dancing.
The mall usually opens weekdays 11am to 8pm, Friday through Saturday 11am to 9pm, and Sunday 11am to 6pm.
Still have time to spend in Tampa? Take a VIP Private Tour Historic Boutique City Tour, Zipline over Tampa Bay, or Snorkel in the Crystal Clear Gulf Waters off Egmont Key, one of the unique islands only reached by boat, on this private charter.