When most people think of tours to take in Tampa, Florida, it probably most often revolves around, well, the routes the roller coasters take around Busch Gardens. You may not learn a whole lot, but you sure do see Florida from an entirely new perspective—heh–upside down. (Dad jokes—I haz ‘em.)
Having lived just across the bay from Tampa in a place called Clearwater, it took even me many years too long to start discovering what Tampa is all about. (I couldn’t help it—the piña coladas lured me to the beach like brains to the undead!)
But just like Ariel sought to leave the sea for drier, more gravitational, pastures, I, too, have made more of an effort to see what’s beyond Florida’s shore. My landlubbing tale begins in a magical place called Tampa.
Where to stay in Tampa
Before we get started, one of the biggest questions I’ve seen while researching Tampa things to do is people wondering where to stay in Tampa.
The great thing I love about Tampa is that I feel it’s the perfect size and the ideal spot for city life and sea life without having to sacrifice. You can have both bay views and easy access to these tours to take in Tampa without having to sell your soul to that villainous sea witch.
Here are some recommendations for where to stay in Tampa for any budget on your next visit:
Budget: Tahitian Inn
When it comes to budget hotels in Florida, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything with a guest rating over 7/10 but the Tahitian Inn has it—and its highest rating is for its location.
It also has free parking, free WiFi, and is located really close to some of the best tours to take in Tampa. (And is just a cool 13 minutes away from Tampa International Airport.) Plus, it’s got a tiki bar, a sun-drenched pool, and that tropical Tahitian vibe you came all the way to Florida for. (Just work with me here.)
Also located just a few minutes’ drive to and from the airport is the Towneplace Suites by Marriott (Tampa Westshore). This option also has free parking and free WiFi as well as a free airport shuttle and free breakfast. You pay for nothing! And you pay for nothing! Everyone pays for nothing! Well, not exactly, but you get my drift.
This highly rated hotel is also located amongst some of these cool tours to take in Tampa as well as two large shopping malls and the spring training facility for the New York Yankees.
Also one of the most highly rated Tampa hotels due to its location, this Four Points by Sheraton Tampa property is a completely non-smoking facility.
It has free WiFi and parking (two things that really stir my grits when I have to pay for them, if you can’t tell) as well as a restaurant/bar on site. Plus, they have an indoor pool if you, in fact, did not come to Florida to enjoy the sun.
Treat yourself: Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay
I’ve driven past this hotel hundreds of times—it’s right at the intersection of Tampa and the Courtney Campbell Causeway that takes you over the bay to Clearwater. I’ve always dreamed of staying here. A ridiculous statement since where I’m actually staying is my friends’ houses for free where I also have pool access, free WiFi, and cats that like to snuggle.
But this property is GORGEOUS. It’s right on the water and the views are amazing. They have a beautiful pool on the bay surrounded by hammocks, incredibly sun-lit rooms, three restaurants and lounges, is completely smoke-free, and, be still my beating heart, free WiFi and parking!
When you want the best of both worlds—salt life + city life—book yourself a stay at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. (Then tell me if it’s as dreamy as it looks!)
Tours to take in Tampa, Florida
In my many years of living near and visiting the Tampa Bay area, I’ve regularly sought out cool tours to take in Tampa.
I look for tours that are beyond the stale learning experiences no one is interested in past optimal field trip age. Tours that are a little offbeat, that teach you things you never, ever could have imagined, and tours that really aim to make a difference. But also, just so I don’t lose you, free beer.
I love getting to see how things are made, how things operate behind the scenes, and how things came to be. But mostly, and I think we can all agree, I want to drink free beer and look at baby animals. Luckily, you can find all that (and more) on this list of fun tours to take in Tampa. (in no particular order)
1. Manatee Viewing Center
One of the first really unique places I visited after moving to Florida was the Manatee Viewing Center at the Tampa Electric Company’s power plant. I know that sentence is all kinds of whhatt??? And, at the time, I, too, thought manatees and power plants went together about as well as bathtubs and toasters. However, today I know this to be a totally normal thing. The manatee thing… not desperately needing a bagel during a bubble bath.
Lemme break it down for ya. The Tampa Electric Company pulls saltwater from Tampa Bay into its power plants to cool down its energy producing parts. This water is then discharged, clean and warm, back into the bay.
When the throngs of winter hit Florida (*stabs own eyes with pencil*) the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico drops below 68°F. In what some (me) are calling the relationship of the century, Florida’s manatees then flock to the warm waters around the power plants. (Warm as in 86°F.)
Because manatees need warm water to survive (you and me both, Bertha), you’re as sure as seaweed to see manatees here between the months of November and April.
As one of the coolest tours to take in Tampa, you can watch the manatees playing in the water from the elevated platforms, visit the educational center, walk the mangrove trails, check out the butterfly garden, and, yes, take guided tours with trained docents. And all for free!
For more information on Tampa’s Manatee Viewing Center, I wrote an entire post about this amazing place, so check it out in that link! There’s also a similar manatee park in Fort Myers if you find yourself that far south.
2. Raymond James Stadium
The guided tour of the NFL’s Raymond James Stadium is the only one on this list of cool tours to take in Tampa I haven’t personally taken myself. Unless we’re counting that time I tailgated way too hard and couldn’t find my seat at the game for like an hour. Which we’re not.
So yes, you can take 75-minute guided, behind-the-scenes tours of Raymond James Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As someone who’s worked at her fair share of professional sports arenas (basketball, football, and baseball), I find this incredibly interesting. And if you’re a sports fan who’s already had to suffer through your fair share of Move It! Shake It! MousekeDance It! Street Party parades during this trip, so will you.
On this tour you’ll see the luxury suites, locker rooms, the field, and even the stadium’s famed pirate ship. Avast ye mateys, there is indeed a life-size pirate ship that’s been beached inside Raymond James Stadium. It even shoots cannons! So if you’ve been wondering where your NFL ticket dollars go, I think we know now.
3. Big Cat Rescue
Some of the most informative and eye-opening tours to take in Tampa are those of Big Cat Rescue. Big Cat Rescue is a big cat sanctuary dedicated to rescuing, caring for, and rehabilitating exotic cats.
They rescue big cats from the exotic animal trade, from being kept as house pets, and from being abused in circuses, roadside zoos, and other entertainment venues such as up-close animal interactions—issues that are very close to my heart.
At Big Cat Rescue you can see tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, and “small” big cats like bobcats, lynx, caracals, cougars, ocelots, and some adorably big-eared servals.
Big Cat Rescue offers a variety of tours you can take and all do a great job of explaining how the particular animals came to be at BCR, the larger issues that brought them there, and what needs to be done going forward. (To illustrate my point, I googled the last four on that list and the top search suggestions each time were “How much do … cost?” and “Can I have … as a pet?”)
The zoo? Or Big Cat Rescue?
Another question asked a lot in terms of tours to take in Tampa is: Should I visit the Tampa Zoo or Big Cat Rescue? While Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park is great, when given the choice I always opt for “sanctuaries” over “zoos.”
This means visiting places like Big Cat Rescue and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (more info on the CMA in my post about spending a weekend in Clearwater)–places where the animals you’ll see have been rescued from dire conditions, are in a rehabilitation program, and/or are otherwise unable to return to the wild. (Instead of bred in captivity for the purposes of display–see what I mean?)
The things I learned while volunteering at Big Cat Rescue (I’ve led so many lives!) were the most eye-opening lessons of my life. But these tours aren’t just super informative—you also get to see a large variety of these beautiful cats and take tons of great pictures. (They even have photography tours!)
Fun fact: I actually used to volunteer at Big Cat Rescue. Because I can share a little reality behind the reality show, I’ve written a post on how the Netflix show Tiger King relates to travel. It covers a lot of important information you need to know that the show doesn’t tell you.
4. Ybor City Walking Tour
Maybe you want to visit Cuba during your trip to Tampa? I totally understand. In that case, make sure one of the tours to take in Tampa you take advantage of is a walking tour of historic Ybor City.
Ybor City (pronounced E-bore) is Tampa’s historic district, named for Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the Spanish entrepreneur who brought the cigar industry to Florida from Cuba in the 1880s. Much of this part of Tampa is as it’s always been, and a small part of this part of Tampa is actually Cuba.
Es verdad, amigos! In Ybor City you’ll find a 0.14-acre park that’s been designated official Cuban land. And the interesting little tidbits about this city just roll on from there. (There’s a cigar joke in there somewhere I know it.)
In Ybor City you’ll find amazing and authentic Cuban eats and drinks, historical buildings, tons of history, and a protected colony of wild chickens that just may take the tour with you.
During my day in Ybor City, I had a tourism professional from Visit Tampa Bay lead me around, but these Ybor City Historic Walking Tours are an Ybor crowd favorite.
5. Tabanero Cigar Factory
Another on the list of Ybor tours to take in Tampa is a tour of the Tabanero Cigar Factory. Tabanero’s is the most popular Tampa cigar factory tour where they make quality, hand-rolled cigars the old way, and look damn cool doing it.
Tabanero offers tours of their factory where you’ll learn all about Tampa’s cigar-centric history, see up-close how their cigars are handmade, get to go inside the humidor and inspect tobacco leaves, and each tour includes a complimentary cup of their Cuban coffee.
What they don’t teach you on a Tabanero Cigar Factory tour is how to look cool while smoking one of these things. Some things just can’t be taught–helping Ashley look cool is one of them. Many have tried; all have failed.
6. Cigar City Brewery
And speaking of Tampa’s cigar history, another great option for tours to take in Tampa is a tour of the Cigar City brewery—Tampa’s leading craft brewery.
Cigar City is by far the most well-known and widespread of all the breweries in the Tampa Bay area. You may have heard of this little IPA thing called Cigar City Jai Alai? Ringing any bells? Even wayyy up here at the North Pole where I live (ahem, Boston) Jai Alai is high and alive! (ok, not all jokes are winners)
The Cigar City brewery tour has been one of my all-time favorite brewery tours. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you get a free beer sample at each stop on the tour (and get to keep the glass). Plus, the beers are great. Po’ up, drank.
On one of Cigar City’s 40-minute brewery tours, you’ll get to visit their production facilities and learn how the beer as made, as well as the culture and history that have made their beers such a success.
For details on what taking one of their tours is like from a girl who takes a lot of brewery tours (*takes a bow*), check out my full post on what it’s like to take a Cigar City Brewery tour.
7. SS American Victory
And for something a little different than other Tampa tours, how about a World War II cargo ship, eh? Yes, right here in Tampa, Florida.
The SS American Victory, docked in Tampa’s Channelside district just behind the Florida Aquarium, is one of only three fully-functioning WWII cargo ships left in the world. This one also participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
At the American Victory Ship & Museum you can tour almost the entire ship, learn about that and other WWII cargo ships in the museum, and really see what life was like aboard a cargo ship back in 1945. (And attempt to look cool reenacting it… again.)
Most of the visitors to the American Victory Ship & Museum take self-guided tours, as did I. It’s great to go where you want and spend as much time reading and taking photos as you like, all at your own pace. However, they do offer guided tours if booked in advanced.
If this is something that interests you, check out my full post dedicated to visiting the SS American Victory over on my World War II travel blog. Yes, I have two blogs. I never stood a chance at being cool, did I?
Which tours to take in Tampa are on your bucket list?
Let me know below!
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