Tampa and St. Pete Family Vacation

Neighboring cities Tampa and St. Petersburg provide excellent beaches and family attractions as well as art and culture for those traveling without little ones.

I contend that my parents retired to Tampa to guarantee frequent visits from their grandchildren. Not only are there enough activities to keep my son and daughter entertained during their frequent visits, there’s plenty of distraction for us “grown-ups,” too.

Tampa Bay is the region on the midwestern coast of Florida, and includes not only the city of Tampa, but all of Hillsborough County. Across the bay, St. Petersburg and Clearwater are the largest of several beach communities on a peninsula set in the tranquil Gulf of Mexico.

When to Go

In deference to the school calendar, we visit mainly in the summer, when temperatures stay within the 80s and 90s. Tampa Bay is purported to be the lightning capital of the world, and we have seen some dazzling electric shows on these warm nights.

For many folks, hot and humid weather is ideal. I am not one of those people, so we prefer taking the trip during the coolest months of January, February and March. Swimming is not always an option, however, during that time.

Getting Around

Most driving expeditions will include the north-to-south thoroughfares I-275 and I-75, with I-275 traveling over the Howard Frankland Bridge toward the beach. Both highways connect to I-4, the east-to-west artery connecting to Orlando and the east coast of Florida. Dale Mabry Highway, the city’s backbone, is lined on both sides by miles of retail centers.

Bayshore Boulevard is a pleasurable scenic drive with Hillsborough Bay on one side, and impressive neighborhoods on the other. Although it doesn’t get much notice from tourists, the Bayshore Boulevard Linear Park, at 4.5 miles, is the world's longest continuous sidewalk. The 10-foot-wide sidewalk connects to the Bayshore Greenway Trail.

Just north of downtown St. Petersburg, the wide sidewalk along Coffee Pot Boulevard offers a similar scenic experience. The HART Line is an inexpensive system of public streetcars, trolleys and buses connecting many of Tampa’s key tourist areas.

Know Your Tampa Bay Neighborhoods

Downtown Tampa is the municipal and business district. The Tampa Theatre and the world class Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center are on the east side; the University of Tampa’s Henry B. Plant Museum is on the west.

Channelside encompasses the Port of Tampa, the 20,000-seat stadium St. Pete Times Forum, the Florida Aquarium and Channelside Bay Plaza entertainment complex, a lively, family-friendly district during the day and a popular nightspot. People watching is best done from a table near the window at Joffrey’s Coffee & Tea Company.

Tampa has its own “SoHo,” or south Howard Avenue, known for its restaurant row. One of the area’s oldest establishments, Bella’s, is also one of the best, serving no-fail Italian dishes. I’m partial to the plate-sized, brick-oven pizza. [Read more about where to eat in our Tampa Bay Restaurants and Hotels article.]

Ybor City is Tampa’s “Latin Quarter,” where Cuban immigrants built a home away from home in the early 1900s. If you enjoy cultural and historical immersion, this National Historic Landmark District merits a visit. [Read more about Ybor City in our Cuban Culture article.]

Downtown St. Petersburg enjoys a bohemian, artsy reputation, due to the wealth of galleries and museums. The most notable of these is the Salvador Dalí Museum, containing the world’s most comprehensive private collection of the abstract artist’s work. The Florida Holocaust Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts showcase works with different perspectives.

Family Fun Activities

Parks and Playgrounds

Busch Gardens Africa is a major family attraction, and necessitates a full day to cover. [Read our Busch Gardens article to learn more.] To beat the heat, try the 30-acre Adventure Island water park, located next door. This attraction is sure to please kids with its water slides, wave pool and water play areas. Multi-park discount tickets are available for these two.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has earned the distinction as the country’s top kid-friendly zoo by Child Magazine. As soon as we encountered the Manatee Fountain past the ticket window, my son practically levitated from his shoes and ran barefoot through the fountains that bubbled up from the ground.

The zoo offers ample locations to get close to animals including the Lorikeet Landing and Stingray Bay. There are just enough rides spaced between the animal habitats. We relaxed on the shady Safari Ride tram, which includes a behind-the-scenes tour. The entire complex is lush with trees, while being compact and easily walkable.

Wallaroo Station, a recreation of the Australian outback, is the main attraction for the pre-school set. Good luck moving them along past the Billabong water play area. Bring a change of clothes and swim shoes, and prepare to stay a while.

Aquatic Adventures and Museums

Set aside several hours for the Florida Aquarium. You’ll need time for the indoor activities and exhibits, as well as the two-acre outdoor water park, Explore A Shore. We enjoyed the Coral Reefs Gallery, a tunnel through the aquarium, with views on all sides, even overhead.

Save the water park for the end so your children can get thoroughly soaked. The main draw here is a two-story pirate ship with water canons, surrounded by fountains and misters.

The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) offers scores of completely hands-on, interactive exhibits. An IMAX theater is located in the main building, as are the planetarium and exhibits covering weather, space and health. Children 12 and under will enjoy Kids in Charge!, an expansive interactive center in a separate building. There are four exhibit areas; Activate!, Investigate!, Kids Create! and Fields to Meals. During our most recent visit, we spent more than two hours here. Our son took our food orders behind the pretend restaurant counter, while our toddler clambered over soft building blocks in the Crawlers’ Club area.

When we went to The Pier, an all-around entertainment complex that juts out into Tampa Bay from downtown St. Pete, we brought the kids to the Pier Aquarium. This facility is on a much smaller scale than the Florida Aquarium, but very manageable and entertaining for about an hour. At the Touch Tank, our son reached for a starfish, shunning anything remotely slimy. I would have liked more time at The Pier for a dolphin sightseeing boat tour, or to do more than just peek inside some of the specialty shops, like the Candle Gallery.

When it’s time for a calmer activity, the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center in St. Petersburg offers guided nature walks suitable for all ages. A section of the trail includes boardwalks built over tidal flats and saltwater ponds, home to mullet and wading birds. On a clear day, the 45-foot observation tower offers views across the bay to Tampa. Fishing and canoeing are popular activities for those with access to their own equipment.

Where’s the Beach?

Since Tampa doesn’t have beaches in the sense of waves and sandy expanses, we head 30 minutes west across the Howard Frankland Bridge to St. Petersburg. Fort De Soto Park Beach in the Tierra Verde community was aptly rated No. 1 on “Dr. Beach’s” 2005 list of Top 10 U.S. beaches. We’ve found an ideal stretch with parking across from the Arrowhead Picnic Area. A sandbar separates the beach from deep water, leaving a shallow pool perfect for little ones.

Another nearby beach on Caladesi Island won the No. 1 top beach slot in 2008, outranking the rest of Florida and Hawaii.

Tampa Bay’s Child-Friendly Shopping

Tampa’s shopping centers rate right up there with the country’s best and surprised me with their above-and-beyond child-friendly amenities. There’s a double-decker carousel, a family lounge and two soft play areas at Westfield Citrus Park, as well as more than 160 shops. Westshore Plaza also welcomes kids with a fun play area, alongside Saks Fifth Avenue and more than 100 specialty stores.

Ultra upscale is the mood at the International Plaza and Bay Street Mall, which combines a two-level, enclosed shopping center with outdoor restaurants and bars. Spend your time at such high-end stores as Cole Haan, Gucci, Janie and Jack, Kate Spade, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co. and Z-Gallerie. The extravagant surroundings continue into the children’s play area, a newly constructed baseball diamond featuring Looney Tunes soft-sculpture characters.

Hyde Park Village is a hip, boutique shopping quarter in a historic area. It’s close to downtown, and a great place to eat, stroll with the family or catch a free concert.

BayWalk is a shopping, dining and entertainment complex in downtown St. Pete. After shopping in the boutique stores and choosing from a variety of casual restaurants for dinner, a movie is a fun way to cap off an evening here.

Tampa Bay’s Nightlife

A night of dining and dancing can be found in SoHo, Ybor City, Channelside or downtown St. Petersburg. Taking in a concert or show is another option if you purchase tickets before your trip. Big name acts usually include the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the St. Pete Times Forum in their national touring schedules. The Tampa Theatre, a 1926 movie palace, sports a restored marquee lighting up the night and an original Wurlitzer organ. The atmosphere within this 1,446-seat gem makes it my favorite place to see a play.

There are legal gaming options, too, such as the Tampa Bay Downs horse race track. My husband enjoys the rock n’ roll persona of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, open 24/7. Fun memorabilia is everywhere, including the drum set used in Elvis’ Hawaii concerts. The gaming machines begin with 5-cent slots. There’s a non-smoking room for live action poker, but no other table games. Upscale accommodations are available, as well as a fitness center spa and outdoor pool with a sand-bottom beach entry.

Nighttime sporting events lure thousands of fans. Major professional sports teams include the (football), Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning (hockey), and the Tampa Bay Rays (baseball), who play in St. Pete’s Tropicana Field.

Destinations: Florida, Tampa, St. Petersburg

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing

User Comments

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Helpful and Insightful This is a great article! I really enjoy the flow of information and the personal insight.

Helpful and Insightful This is a great article! I really enjoy the flow of information and the personal insight.