The Best Things to Do in Tampa When Someone Visits

Whether you refer to it as Tampa (correct), Tampa Bay (incorrect unless you throw in “Area” at the end) or God’s Waiting Room (never totally inaccurate) -- the city of Tampa has had its share of skeptics when it comes to believing this Gulf Coast metropolis is one worth visiting.

Hey, I get it. I’m from here and it was still a difficult decision for me to move back. But nothing is more satisfying than when you prove these same skeptics wrong, which has happened 100% of the time when out of towners -- even those pessimistic New Yorkers! -- have visited my hometown (Even on non-Gasparilla weekends!). And that’s because despite the incessant rumors, there is far more to do here than strip clubs and theme parks. In fact, these days, Tampa’s growing food and live music scene, killer lineup of breweries and almost eternally beach and boat-friendly weather have made for a quality of life so appealing that Tampa is now considered one of the hottest cities (no pun intended) for millennials.

To prove it, here’s a curated list chock full of local-sourced options for actually cool things to do when visiting Tampa, Florida. And not a single solitary one involves a theme park. (Although, that said, Busch Gardens did just get its brewery back!)

Courtesy of Hemingway's

Down the “Best Cuban in Tampa” at Hemingway’s

Tampa Heights
In case you haven’t seen the evidence, Tampa (not Miami!) is the original home to the Cuban sandwich. Therefore, a visit to this town without sampling one is unacceptable. Hemingway’s, located inside trendy new Armature Works, recently took home the crown for “Best Tampa Historic Cuban Sandwich” -- and it will only take one bite of its Florida orange juice-soaked hot shredded pork, salami (a Tampa Cuban sandwich staple), Swiss, and homemade mustard sauce on pressed La Segunda Cuban bread to realize why.

Embrace the Golden Oldies at Shuffle

Tampa Heights
Giving new meaning to what’s old -- and we mean Florida retiree old -- is new again, Shuffle has put a hipster spin on the sport that made the Sunshine State famous. And it’s is a far cry from a nursing home. Located in budding Tampa Heights, the recently opened 4,700-square warehouse is outfitted with a trio of indoor courts, has a full bar stocked with local taps and Tang mimosas, and even slings some pretty decent gourmet hot dogs and homemade pickles. There’s also an expansive “yard” complete with cornhole boards and worn lawn furniture that bares a striking resemblance to the kind that outfitted your grandparents’ condo… and is therefore obviously cool again.  

Paddle board, canoe or kayak from The Getaway

Gandy Blvd., St. Pete
Sandwiched between Tampa and St. Pete, The Getaway, a no-fuss Florida tiki bar with plenty of Gulf oysters, rum runners, and sunset views, is a cool stop in and of itself. But Urban Kai ups its appeal even more with its onsite rentals for excursions via kayaks, canoes or paddle board, including a jaunt to nearby Weedon Island Preserve, where you can roam the protected, 3,000-acre labyrinth of mangroves, sandbars and natural wildlife (And I don’t just mean the locals who anchor their boats for “sandbar parties”).

Hop Down the “Gulp Coast” Craft Beer Trail

Multiple locations
Many people don’t know this, but Tampa has its own little “Napa Valley,” except instead of valleys and vineyards, it’s Gulf waters and breweries. The trail spans from Tarpon Springs through Dunedin (a brewery mecca!) all the way down to St. Pete, and is approximately an hour drive from beginning to end. And given there are, say, more than 30  breweries, including gems like Clearwater-based Big Storm to St. Pete’s go-to 3 Daughters Brewing in between --- you may want to start pursuing those Uber star ratings now.

Watch the Sunset at Jimmy's on the Edge

It’s true, Clearwater is a Scientology mecca; Tom Cruise even bought a giant residential compound to prove it. But try not to let that creepy fact scare you away from partaking in one of the best sunsets (not to mention, white sand beaches!) on the Gulf Coast. Jimmy’s on the Edge, Clearwater Beach’s largest rooftop bar, sits atop Edge Hotel, with stellar panoramic views of the entire island along with a 24ft fire bar and plenty of beachy cocktails to sip as you pretend to see the “green light.”

Explore the Tampa Riverwalk

Downtown Tampa / Multiple Locations
With more than two miles of winding waterside walkways, the AIA-nominated Tampa Riverwalk is the ideal stroll, bike ride, or even Pirate Water Taxi to soak up the many sights and attractions of Downtown Tampa. A good route is to start at Sail Pavilion (grab a beer for the road!) and either rent a bike or stroll past Curtis Hixon Park (the majestic University of Tampa is right across the river), Tampa Museum of Art, the Straz Center (in the evening there is often live music), and cap it off at Ulele and Armature Works where food and cocktails flow like, well, the Hillsborough River.

Eat + Drink Your Way Through Tampa’s Newest Food Halls

Tampa Heights
Tampa may be late to the food hall party, but it came in with a vengeance. Case in point: there’s Heights Public Market located in the fully restored 1900s streetcar warehouse Armature Works: -- a 22,000 sq-ft foodie haven filled with 15 food vendors, communal seating, and signature Southern chophouse Steelbach -- all with unobstructed Downtown and Hillsborough River views. Just down the block there’s Hall on Franklin, which while the smaller of the two, packs its own punch with a more “European feel”, giant front and center bar, waiter-served eats and a vibrant nightlife scene complete with silent discos and a live DJ on the weekends.

Spend an Afternoon Tarpon Fishing

Multiple locations
California has surfers; Florida has fishers. If you don't have a friend with a boat or knowledge of the best hooking spots (the latter, pretty much all locals have), it’s worth the rental fee to charter a vessel and captain for the afternoon. Plus, let’s face it, your worst fishing day on a boat coasting under the famous Skyway Bridge and through the crystal clear waters of Anna Maria Island is still probably your best actual day ever.

Take a Hip Hop Yoga Class at Camp

South Tampa / Palma Ceia
Downward dog is way better when it’s done with Tribe Called Quest in the background. Just saying.  

Visit Downtown St. Pete

St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach
Once upon a time, St. Pete was affectionately known as “God’s Waiting Room.These days it’s considered one of the coolest cities in America. Downtown has been transformed into a sea of restaurants, artsy shops, live music and rooftop bars -- all of which are easily walkable. After spending the day on foot strolling Beach Drive and Vinoy Park, head over to Pass-A-Grille: a picturesque one-block-wide beach town for sun, surf, and an umbrella drink.

Tube Down the Manatee River

Manatee County
Mother Nature lovers will be delighted to know that Tampa is actually surrounded with natural springs, flowing fresh rivers and trails galore; so much so, most locals don’t even hit them all. What’s the hands down best way to take advantage? Tubing.

Aside from being one of the closest locations for tubing from the city, Manatee River is also home to -- you guessed it -- tons of manatees! In the Summer months, when the rainfall fills up the estuaries even more, the river reaches high enough levels for a two-hour tube run, during which you’re almost guaranteed to spot several of these sea cows while drifting downstream. And if not, there’s always the rope swing.

Bike the World’s Longest Sidewalk

South Tampa
Fun fact: Bayshore Boulevard, which runs along Tampa Bay, is the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. The best way to take in the entire 4.5 mile span is to nab a two-wheeler at one end (by the famous Gasparilla Invasion Boat) and pedal all the way to the other. Now, you won't be able to go entirely to the end since Bayshore quite literally dead ends into MacDill Air Force Base -- and, well, there are thankfully pretty strict rules about civilians getting in there. But the path will loop you through Ballast Point, which, with massive Spanish moss-lined streets and stilt-style houses, is old Florida at its best. While you’re down there, do yourself a favor and grab the best grouper sandwich in the state from Big Ray’s Fish Camp.

Go to a Lightning Game

Downtown Tampa
Putting on a jacket and going to an ice rink is probably not what you had in mind for a visit to Florida, but in a beautifully ironic twist of fate, NHL hockey is probably Tampa’s most popular sport. And whether you follow them or not, Tampa Bay Lightning games are undoubtedly a blast. Amalie Arena is also located in the thick of Downtown and Channelside, making it accessible to plenty of bars and restaurants to pre- and post-game. And the city seriously rallies around this team -- as in the crowds, live music, and subsequent  carrying on in the streets will continue all day (and night!) long.

Take a Walking Tour of Historic Ybor City

Ybor City
Ybor City is one of those neighborhoods almost too incredible to explain, you just have to experience it. The original “Cigar City” of Tampa, this is about as rich as history gets. From cigar bars to roosters roaming its brick roads, including the world-famous 7th Avenue, the best way to soak it all in is on foot. Whatever you do, don’t miss a stop over at La Segunda Central Bakery, a century-old bread factory that provides Cuban bread all over the country, not to mention its iconic Ybor neighbor Columbia Restaurant. Another must-see: the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory (home of Cuesta Rey Cigars), the last family-run cigar factory still operating in the country.

Dance Your Face Off During Old Dirty Sundays at Crowbar

Ybor City
Sure, going out on a Sunday night can seem aggressive, but your Monday morning eye circles will be well worth it. One of the more legendary venues for live music in the city, Crowbar has been housing -- and launching the careers of -- the best acts in the games for years. And every Sunday the indoor / outdoor underground spot hosts one of the best live DJ rotating hip hop nights ever. Think “Steps” from Save the Last Dance, only with far less Malakai drama.

Make a Sweet Withdrawal from Hyde Park’s Cupcake ATM

South Tampa / Hyde Park
This may seem like an odd way to cap off the list, but it’s cupcakes INSIDE AN ATM. And Sprinkles just so happens to be located smack dab in one of Tampa’s most historic neighborhoods, filled with homes so beautifully antique there are entire tours dedicated to it. So yeah, don’t ask questions.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Liz is the former Miami editor and contributing writer for Thrillist, covering everything from travel, relationships to why she leaves cities. Especially the last one. She also writes for Bustle and Fatherly, and enjoys telling people she's the captain of the Pismo Beach Disaster Relief.