We’ve enjoyed two fabulous winters in the Tampa Bay area and can’t wait to go back! From the amazing weather to the wide range of activities and its prime location for day trips, Tampa Bay is at the top of our list of winter destinations.
Tampa is the sunshine capital of the sunshine state! Winter days in Tampa usually average around 70 °F. In fact, the last time temperatures in Tampa did not reach 60 °F for 10 consecutive days was in 2010. Be aware that June through November is hurricane season, with the most tropical activity occurring between mid-August to mid-October. Also high temperatures begin to reach the high 80’s by May. Based on this, we personally think October – April is the best time of year to visit the area.
Activities / Places to Visit
There is so much to do in the Tampa Bay area that just a few weeks’ stay is not nearly long enough to really enjoy it all. Here are just a few highlights from our two winters there. Most also have a blog specifically written about the topic, so just click the link or search for a specific topic to learn more.
- Beaches – There are so many amazing white sand beaches to choose from in the area, you’ll have no problem finding the one right for you. Here I’ll highlight two of these beaches that were on TripAdvisor’s 2017 Traveler’s Choice Awards of the Top Beaches. Beautiful Clearwater Beach checked in at No. 1 in 2017 for U.S. beaches, and No. 7 in the world! It not only has brilliant white sands but also Pier 60, a hub of activity and a great place to catch the sunset. It also has a playground, and is walking distance to several restaurants making it a great place to spend the day. My personal favorite is the more laid-back St. Pete Beach, which came in at No. 7 on 2017’s list. Not to miss at St. Pete Beach is the classic hotel, the Don Cesar, aka the world-famous “Pink Palace,” which has an amazing Sunday brunch.
- Nature – There are many quiet spots and hiking paths to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings. Some of our favorites include Lettuce Lake Park, Wheedon Island Nature Preserve, and the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. Lettuce Lake Park covers 240-acres in northeast Tampa and boasts a hardwood swamp forest with a boardwalk throughout. Weedon Island Preserve Cultural which includes a four-mile kayak trail through mangroves and into the secluded inlets, as well as a three-mile hiking trail along with a fishing pier and waterfront picnic sites. The Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg is a tropical garden oasis in the midst of the city featuring more than 50,000 tropical plants, flamingos, and other exotic bird. They also offer wide range of free tours and talks from learning inventive ways to collect rain water to tips for improving your nature photography.
- Manatees – The West Indian manatees can be seen just about every day during the winter months when the colder waters of the Gulf of Mexico drive them to the shallow warmer waters inland. There are many places in the area where you’re certain to see them. One of our favorite spots for Manatee watching is a cute little neighborhood in St. Petersburg called Coffee Pot Bayou. The broad sidewalk along Coffee Pot Bayou is part of a 2-mile walking/ biking path that extends from downtown St. Petersburg and follows the edge of Tampa Bay. It has fantastic views, comfortable benches for resting, and access to a small beach off of North Shores Park. Another family friendly spot is the Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach where they’ve built a 50-foot high observation tower. If you want to kayak or swim with the manatees check out the day trip to Homosassa Springs below.
- Museums – There are several great museums on both sides of Tampa Bay. One of my personal favorites is the Tampa Bay History Center. It’s in a great spot right on the Riverwalk and has 60,000 square feet of fascinating interactive displays that trace over 15,000 years of regional history. There is also a satellite café of the famous Columbia restaurant, Florida’s oldest Spanish restaurant. If you want to experience the original restaurant, head over to Ybor City. While you’re there check out the Ybor City Museum State Park. Ybor City is Tampa’s historic district founded by Don Vincente de Ybor to house his cigar workers in the mid 1800s. The area quickly became the cigar capital of the world and this museum explores the neighborhood’s rich history. Also conveniently located close to downtown in Channelside, is the American Victory Ship. It is one of only four WWII ships that are fully-functioning, and is a memorial to the dedicated men and women of the American Merchant Fleet. Across the Bay, St. Petersburg, also hosts some terrific museums. The Florida Holocaust Museum is home to the permanent exhibition: History, Heritage and Hope, which uses original artifacts, historical photographs and documents to tell the story of the Holocaust with a special emphasis on the personal stories of local survivors. It also houses the permanent exhibition, Kaddish in Wood: Woodcarvings by Dr. Herbert Savel. These carvings are of French children who were victims of the Holocaust. They also have two temporary exhibition galleries. The Dali Museum celebrates the life and work of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and features works from the artist’s entire career. The collection includes over 2,100 works from every moment and in every medium of his artistic activity, and is the largest collection of his work outside of Spain.
- Festivals – Some of our favorite festivals in the early spring are Oldsmar Days, the Highland Games in Dunedin, and of course, Gasparilla. Oldsmar is named for automobile pioneer Ransom E. Olds who purchased land by the northern part of Tampa Bay to establish “R. E. Olds-on-the-Bay” in 1912. Highlights of the three-day event include a carnival and midway; car shows featuring Oldsmobiles on Saturday, and then Classics and Hot Rods on Sunda; a parade; an Arts & Crafts show; and plenty of food from local restaurants. Complete with authentic music, dress, food and competition, this grand tradition is a must-see at Highlander Park starting early in the morning with piper competitions. For over 50 years, the town of Dunedin has hosted the Highland Games, a daylong Scottish festival bringing traditional athletic events, as well as pipe and drum performances from bands across the region. Some of the highlights include throwing a Dunedin Stone, which weighs 100 pounds, and the sheepdog herding competitions. 2017 is the 113th year of the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion and Parade. It is the Oldest Pirate Festival in the World and the 3rd Largest Parade in the North America.
- Sports – There are several great teams for all types of sports fans, including the Lightning, a professional NHL team; the Buccaneers NFL franchise; the Rays MLB team just across the bay; and even pro soccer and arena football franchises. We especially enjoy minor league baseball games, and the Tampa Yankees, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the New York Yankees, play at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Steinbrenner Field is also home to Monument Park, where the greatest Yankee players are honored. You can attend New York Yankees Spring Training Games at Steinbrenner Field, as well as the Philadelphia Phillies in nearby Clearwater and the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin. The area has been hosting Spring Training since 1914. For more on about Spring Training read the blog post, Take Me Out to the Ball Game!
Tampa is located right off of I-75 and close to I-4 making it a good starting point for numerous day trips. Just a few of our favorites are Tarpon Springs, Bok Tower Gardens, Sarasota, Homossassa Springs, and Orlando.
- Tarpon Springs – I just love the historic riverfront town of Tarpon Springs! It’s only 20 minutes north of Clearwater and provides a local look into Greek culture. After the discovery of natural sponge beds in the early 1900s, Greek sponge divers arrived in Tarpon Springs to grow the now-famous sponge industry. Don’t miss a boat trip to Anclote Key Preserve State Park. Located three miles off the coast of Tarpon Springs, the 403-acre park is accessible only by private boat or ferry service. It is home to at least 43 species of birds and a pristine beach for some truly great shelling. The island is anchored by a picturesque 1887 lighthouse that stands as a sentinel on its southern end.
- Bok Tower Gardens features abundant gardens, nature trails, a Carillion tower, and a 1930s Mediterranean-style home. The Gardens have paved primary pathways and many mulched secondary paths, allowing you to wander through ferns, palms, oaks and pines that create a year-round backdrop of greenery. It is also a designated site on the Great Florida Birding Trail, and is home to 126 different species of birds.
- Sarasota – One of our favorite places to Day Trip from Tampa is Sarasota. It is only an hour away and offers many different activities and amazing restaurants. Three of my favorite Sarasota attractions are The Ringling, Marie Selby Gardens, and Siesta Key Beach. I would also never leave the city without stopping by Yoder’s Amish Restaurant for a piece of pie! The Ringling hosts an art museum, circus museum, and mansion on 66-acres along the beautiful Sarasota Bay. Just four miles south is the Marie Selby Gardens, is an urban oasis showcasing a living collection of rare and beautiful tropical plants. They have several themed gardens and often host weddings. Sarasota is also the gateway to miles of beaches with fine sand and shallow waters, but my personal favorite is Siesta Key. Apparently I’m not the only one because it was also the Trip Advisor’s “People’s Choice” #1 beach in the United States in 2016.
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park – This 150-acre park showcases native Florida wildlife, including manatees, black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles, and river otters. It is also one of the best places on the nature coast to see the West Indian manatees. The park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. Today it is part of the Florida State Park system.
- Disney – Orlando is a two-hour drive away, so Disney is definitely a possibility. I’m a big kid at heart so of course I adore Disney! Ever since my boys were little, I’ve been taking them to Walt Disney World as often as possible. Now that they are grown and have homes of their own, I still plan for the family to meet in Orlando at least once every couple of years. In the meantime, I drag my loving husband to my Disney for my two favorite events: Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World.
Where to Stay
Lazy Days RV Resort is our favorite place to stay in Tampa! It has a wonderful pool area, a fitness room, two dog parks (one for big dogs and one for small), and a restaurant onsite. There is even a window to order food/drinks from the bar at the pool area so you don’t have to go inside. They also have very clean laundry rooms with the ability to pay via credit card. One of the things we really like about it is the Lazy Days RV Dealership just across the road. We love to wander around over there looking at all the latest and greatest RVs. There is also a large camping store with all the goodies you could want for your RV. If you don’t want to walk over, they also have a trolley that runs between the two.
MacDill Air Force Base – If you have base privileges, MacDill has one of the largest FamCamps we’ve ever seen with 366 Full Hook Up sites. It has two locations: one by the golf course, and the other near the beach and marina. You can rent boats, kayaks, and bicycles at the marina. There’s a restaurant overlooking the bay, as well as at the golf course. The base has a really nice fitness center and swimming pool. There are also great running/walking paths along the bay. Since it is such a great place to stay, the campground is in high demand during the winter so you have to plan far in advance and enter a lottery if you want to get full hookups. However, during the Spring, Summer, and Fall there is no problem getting in.
Blue Bayou RV Resort – We haven’t personally stayed at Blue Bayou, but are including it on the list because we have visited friends who were there and really enjoyed it. It is especially popular for the retired, snow bird crowd and has many activities during the winter months.