Travel Guide to Florida - - WEST CENTRAL FLORIDA -

If beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, West Cen­tral Florida has plenty to share. One show­piece sits on the Tampa River­walk, a pedes­trian walk­way that me­an­ders through the city along the Hills­bor­ough River. The Tampa Mu­seum of Art is housed in an ar­chi­tec­tural work of art de­signed by Stan­ley Saitowitz. In­side, an in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary and clas­si­cal art, as well as en­tic­ing trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, are on dis­play. From the mu­seum, fol­low the River­walk south to the Florida Mu­seum of Pho­to­graphic Arts, show­cas­ing works by lo­cal, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional pho­tog­ra­phers, as well as his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions.

No­body does pi­rates like Tampa Bay. The newly ex­panded Tampa Bay His­tory Cen­ter brings to life pi­rates, ship­wrecks and trea­sure—com­plete with a 60-foot replica pi­rate ship to climb around, a real 1700s ship’s trea­sure chest and an au­then­tic 1703 map of the Caribbean show­ing ex­actly where to at­tack ships full of trea­sure. The ex­pan­sion also in­cludes a car­to­graphic research cen­ter and houses over 6,000 maps dat­ing back as far as as 1493.

Back in down­town Tampa, step into sim­pler times amid the splen­dor of the sto­ried 1920s “movie palace,” the Tampa Theatre. Tour the mes­mer­iz­ing theater be­fore the main fea­ture be­gins, then sit back and re­lax while a vol­un­teer or­gan­ist ser­e­nades you on the Mighty Wurl­itzer Or­gan be­fore the cur­tain rises.

Within walk­ing dis­tance of each other in down­town St. Peters­burg are the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, with thou­sands of ob­jects span­ning 4,500 years, from an­tiq­uity to the present, and the Dalí Mu­seum with the world’s largest col­lec­tion of Sal­vador Dalí’s work out­side of Spain, in­clud­ing 1,300 graph­ics, pho­tos, sculp­tures and ob­jets d’art; 96 oil paint­ings; and more than 100 wa­ter­col­ors and draw­ings. The struc­ture hous­ing the Dalí Mu­seum is in it­self a sur­real piece of art. The Chi­huly Col­lec­tion re­cently moved to its new lo­ca­tion on the Morean Arts Cen­ter cam­pus in St. Pete’s Cen­tral Arts District, and fea­tures amaz­ing works of glass art by the master him­self.

To the north of Tampa, Dunedin is filled with gal­leries and reg­u­larly hosts arts and craft shows through­out the year. If you’re in the area Jan­uary 5–6, 2019, head over to the 22nd An­nual Down­town Dunedin Art Fes­ti­val, which show­cases more than 100 of the na­tion’s most tal­ented artists and a broad spec­trum of me­dia in­clud­ing sculp­tures, glass, paint­ings, jew­elry and ce­ram­ics. Ad­mis­sion is free. Ev­ery spring, world-class Scot­tish ath­letes de­scend upon Dunedin for the an­nual High­land Games & Fes­ti­val that in­clude a tra­di­tional Scot­tish gath­er­ing with mu­sic and dance, a pa­rade and a full day of events and com­pe­ti­tions.

For a peek into the his­tory of the area, check out the an­nual Fort Cooper Days event in In­ver­ness, where re-en­act­ments of the Sec­ond Semi­nole War are held twice a day along with liv­ing his­tory demon­stra­tions.


When it’s time to go wild, be sure to visit Big Cat Res­cue in Tampa. One of the largest ac­cred­ited sanc­tu­ar­ies for ex­otic cats in the world, this is home to about 100 li­ons, tigers, bob­cats and cougars that have been res­cued and are now cared for by lov­ing staff and vol­un­teers.

An­other place to en­joy close en­coun­ters with an­i­mals is Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, win­ner of TripAd­vi­sor’s Cer­tifi­cate of Ex­cel­lence. Spend a day with an­i­mals from Africa, Aus­tralia, Asia and beyond, learn­ing about their habi­tats and how to pro­tect them, and you’ll eas­ily see why it’s rated so highly.

Lo­cated right across the Street from Busch Gar­dens, Ad­ven­ture Is­land is the ul­ti­mate com­bi­na­tion of high-speed thrills and trop­i­cal, tran­quil sur­round­ings for guests of all ages. For the slide of your life, head over to Ad­ven­ture Is­land Tampa Bay’s new epic drop slide, Van­ish Point, which is lo­cated next to an­other fam­ily fa­vorite, Colos­sal Curl.

Down­town, dis­cover all of the won­ders that lie be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face at the Florida Aquar­ium. Meet pen­guins, dive with sharks (SCUBA-cer­ti­fied only), swim with fish (for ages six and older) or sharks (for ages nine and older), or cruise out onto the wa­ters of Tampa Bay to watch for dol­phins.

The largest non-profit wild bird sanc­tu­ary in the US—the Sun­coast Se­abird Sanc­tu­ary in Indian Shores (lo­cated be­tween St. Peters­burg and Clear­wa­ter)—is ded­i­cated to the res­cue, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and hope­ful re­lease of sick, in­jured and or­phaned birds.

North of Indian Shores, Win­ter, the star of Dol­phin Tale, makes her home at the Clear­wa­ter Marine Aquar­ium and is al­ways happy to greet her fans. Plenty of other marine life live along­side Win­ter: stop and say hello to her friends, Hope and Ni­cholas, and the res­i­dent sea tur­tles, ot­ters, stingrays, sharks, pel­i­cans and clown fish. You can get out on the wa­ter here, too, on board the aquar­ium’s 90-minute Sea Life Sa­fari Na­ture Cruise.

Take an­other look be­neath the wa­ter and you’ll find mer­maids in the crys­tal-clear wa­ters at Weeki Wachee Springs.

More amuse­ment is found wind­ing down the Weeki Wachee River on a Bay­port River Sa­fari; cool­ing off in the new in­door ice rink at Florida Hospi­tal Cen­ter Ice in Wes­ley Chapel; cre­at­ing art at the Glazer Chil­dren’s Mu­seum in Tampa; in­door sky­div­ing at the new iFly in Bran­don; and walk­ing among life-size di­nosaurs at Di­nosaur World in Plant City, not to men­tion the thrilling rides at Busch Gar­dens Tampa Bay.


West Cen­tral Florida’s stretches of sug­ar­white, pow­der-soft sandy beaches found along the Gulf of Mex­ico are per­fect play­grounds for all ages.

For a quiet, more nat­u­ral beach day with­out high rises tow­er­ing be­hind you, con­sider Fort De Soto Park, south of St. Pete Beach, or An­clote Key Pre­serve State Park to the north. Caladesi Is­land State Park is a per­fect des­ti­na­tion not only for beaches, but also for its four-mile kayak­ing trail and its three-mile na­ture trail. Nearby Honey­moon Is­land State Park was con­nected to Caladesi Is­land un­til a hur­ri­cane sep­a­rated them in 1921. Once a pop­u­lar honey­moon des­ti­na­tion in the 1940s and 1950s, it is now a fa­vorite among bird­watch­ers and wel­comes more than one mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally.

Not only Florid­i­ans think the beaches here are fan­tas­tic. Two lo­cal beaches made it onto TripAd­vi­sor’s 2018 Trav­el­ers’ Choice list of “Top 25 Beaches–United States”— Clear­wa­ter Beach (No. 1) and St. Pete Beach (No. 7). And at the end of the day, there’s no bet­ter place than a beach in West Cen­tral Florida to watch spec­tac­u­lar sun­sets over the Gulf of Mex­ico.

When wa­ter tem­per­a­tures dip below 72 F in Florida, West Cen­tral Florida’s nat­u­ral springs are terrific spots to see manatees, thought to be mer­maids by sailors too long at sea. Pop­u­lar mana­tee view­ing spots in­clude Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Ho­mosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Three Sis­ters Springs in Crys­tal River and the TECO Mana­tee View­ing Cen­ter in Apollo Beach, just south of Tampa.


When it comes to nightlife, West Cen­tral Florida likes to party. And there are plenty of spots to do just that.

Ybor City’s thriv­ing nightlife ranges from dance clubs and live mu­sic venues to quiet pubs, while Tampa’s South Howard Av­enue, or SoHo, is filled with restau­rants. How­ever, this hip strip re­ally comes alive af­ter din­ner when the drinks be­gin to pour.

Pro­fes­sional sports take hold of West Cen­tral Florida on the ice, on the field and on the pitch. The Tampa Bay Light­ning are on the ice for their 2018–19 and 2019–20 sea­sons through April, un­less the team makes the play­offs and their NHL sea­son is ex­tended in pur­suit of the cov­eted Stan­ley Cup.

Take the fam­ily out to the ball game dur­ing spring train­ing or dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son for that mat­ter. Be­gin­ning in March, the Toronto Blue Jays take their swings at the Florida Auto Ex­change Sta­dium in Dunedin (once ranked one of the top five places to watch a spring train­ing game by Sports Il­lus­trated), while the New York Yan­kees play spring ball in Tampa and the Philadel­phia Phillies step up to the plate in Clear­wa­ter. The Jol­ley Trol­ley trav­els from Clear­wa­ter to Dunedin and on to Tar­pon Springs, mak­ing it easy to catch a few spring train­ing games along the route. Dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Tampa Bay Rays play their op­po­nents at the 72 F Trop­i­cana Field in St. Peters­burg.

On the pitch in down­town St. Peters­burg, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team be­gins its pre-sea­son matches in March, and the reg­u­lar sched­ule takes them through the sum­mer and late into the fall.


Greek cui­sine, art and cul­ture—it’s all found in the small fish­ing vil­lage of Tar­pon Springs. The area was first set­tled in 1876 by Greek im­mi­grants, and to­day has the highest per­cent­age of Greek-Amer­i­cans than any other city in the US. What was once “the sponge cap­i­tal of the world” is a pop­u­lar daytrip des­ti­na­tion from Tampa, Clear­wa­ter, St. Peters­burg, Dunedin and Pasco County. Go for the his­tory, cul­ture and food, and you’ll find your­self want­ing to go back for more!

Park the car and walk, run, cy­cle or rollerblade along the Fred Mar­quis Pinel­las Trail, a 40-mile pro­tected, multi-use greenspace cre­ated along an aban­doned rail­road cor­ri­dor that ex­tends from St. Peters­burg to Tar­pon Springs.

For a truly unique ex­pe­ri­ence you won’t soon for­get, head over to Crys­tal River where var­i­ous tour op­er­a­tors pro­vide the equip­ment and let you swim among West Indian manatees in su­per clear wa­ters. Vis­i­tors who pre­fer to stay at arm’s length from the gen­tle gi­ants can rent a kayak (with or with­out a guide) to ob­serve them as they swim and play below in the warm wa­ters. If this op­tion is still too close for com­fort, you can watch manatees any day of the year from the un­der­wa­ter ob­ser­va­tory at the nearby El­lie Schiller Ho­mosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park also show­cases other na­tive Florida wildlife, in­clud­ing black bears, bob­cats, white­tailed deer, Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tors and croc­o­diles, and river ot­ters, and of­fers Wildlife En­counter pro­grams and a chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter.


What’s a vacation with­out shop­ping?

Pull out your credit cards and get ready to fill your bags at the In­ter­na­tional Plaza and Bay Street in Tampa. It fea­tures the only Neiman Mar­cus and Nord­strom on the Gulf Coast, as well as all-time fa­vorites Dil­lard’s, the first RH Gallery, Gap, J. Crew, Banana Repub­lic and H&M, and over a dozen restau­rants. Fam­i­lies will also love the Busch Gar­dens in­door play area for kids. Just down the road, WestShore Plaza counts Macy’s, LOFT, Old Navy and Dick’s Sport­ing Goods among its store­fronts, so there are plenty of shop­ping op­por­tu­ni­ties here, too.

Tree-lined streets, his­tor­i­cal homes and shop­ping à la Euro­pean vil­lage make Hyde Park Vil­lage one of Tampa’s hot re­tail spots. It’s easy to spend the day here. Shop for a bit in the morn­ing at brand-name stores, such as west elm, Sur la Ta­ble, lu­l­ule­mon ath­let­ica, Brooks Brothers, An­thro­polo­gie and oth­ers. Later, en­joy a bite to eat at the re-imag­ined Goody Goody, nib­ble on a cup­cake at Sprin­kles or sip wine at the Wine Ex­change Bistro & Wine Bar.

For more out­door shop­ping, slip over to The Shops at Wire­grass in Wes­ley Chapel, where bou­tiques and depart­ment stores en­tice shop­pers with their wares, or Tampa Pre­mium Out­lets in Lutz for 25 to 65 per­cent savings on de­signer brands.

St. Peters­burg’s Grand Cen­tral District is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity among shop­pers, and it’s easy to see why. Spend a day leisurely strolling along the av­enue lined with fine art gal­leries, record and vin­tage cloth­ing shops, and an­tique stores. There are also plenty of restau­rants and bars along the way, so take your time and en­joy all this shop­ping district has to of­fer.

Look­ing for a lit­tle some­thing to take back to friends back home? Sou­venir shop­ping is per­fected at John’s Pass Vil­lage & Board­walk in Madeira Beach. Drop by any of the 100plus shops for ev­ery­thing from T-shirts and shells to art­work and more.

If you ad­mire arts and crafts, don’t miss the 27th An­nual Down­town Dunedin Craft Fes­ti­val Fe­bru­ary 9-10, or the Gas­par­illa Fes­ti­val of the Arts in down­town Tampa March 2-3. Just a short drive from Tampa, the small coastal town of Dunedin at­tracts some of the coun­try’s finest artists and crafters to its an­nual event. If you miss it, the town hosts ad­di­tional craft fes­ti­vals through­out the year, so don’t de­spair!

OPPOSITE TOP: Mu­seum of Fine Arts in down­town St. Peters­burg. OPPOSITE CEN­TER: John’s Pass Vil­lage and Board­walk at Madeira Beach. ABOVE: Chi­huly Col­lec­tion at the Morean Arts Cen­ter in down­town St. Peters­burg.

OPPOSITE TOP: Play­time at the beach. OPPOSITE LEFT: Sponge docks in Tar­pon Springs. OPPOSITE BOTTOM: Skate­boarder at the Dalí Mu­seum in St. Peters­burg. TOP LEFT: St. Pete Pride Fes­ti­val in down­town St. Peters­burg. TOP RIGHT: Fire­stone Grand Prix in down­town St. Peters­burg. ABOVE: Night out at the Tryst Gas­tro Lounge in down­town St. Peters­burg.

LEFT: Driv­ing in Philippe Park in Safety Har­bor. ABOVE: Fam­ily at Pier 60 in Clear­wa­ter Beach. BELOW: Mu­si­cian at a Drum Cir­cle cer­e­mony on Trea­sure Is­land. BOTTOM LEFT: Fish­ing near the Sun­shine Bridge in St. Peters­burg.

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