Top Ten List for Tourists
Our list of the top ten favorites places for Visitor's to the Tampa Bay area. These are all places that we go to as locals and always have a good time. In addition to the Planet Visitor's Guide list, we also have a list of places for locals to "escape" at the following page: Planet-Escapes
Probably the best kept secret in Tampa Bay. There are a handful of places to rent a canoe but the one we use is Canoe Escape. Take the two hour leisurely paddling trip and you'll see an amazing array of alligators, birds, turtles, and amazing plant life and landscapes. The river runs very slowly so this isn't strenuous. Plan on the whole adventure taking 3 1/2 hours from the time you park at Canoe Escape to the time you get dropped back off at your car. There is a lot of tree canopy so sunscreen is recommended but not critical. If you go when sun is out, gators will be on the shoreline. They won't bother you if you don't bother them.
canoe escape website here
Bern's is a dining event that serves locals as well as tourists. The steakhouse has so many quirks and fun features that it is a guarantee that you'll walk away pleased to have gone. Bern's can be surprisingly inexpensive if you follow the normal course of a Bern's evening. Prepare to take your time.
There are five things you simply must do while at Bern's. The first is to find a bottle of wine that is inexpensive but was born at the time that you were. The second is to get to know your waiter or waitress and get the full skinny on what makes the place tick - all have been on Bern's farm as part of the job requirement. The third is to enjoy the vegetables and little side items that are put on your plate - all are made from scratch and have a story that comes along with them. The fourth is to take the kitchen tour when offered at the end of your dinner. Finally, the dessert room is absolutely over the top and is unlike anything you've ever seen. Steaks are nothing to get a wow over though - great aged beef but no seasoning as this will detract from the wine. Plenty of choices on the menu. You'll not walk away hungry or disappointed. Prepare to spend two or three hours at dinner including the dessert room.
The best way to tackle Bern's extensive menu is to take the advice of their waiters and sommelier. Our favorite way to enjoy Bern's is to stick with a price range of $30 per bottle of wine (or choose an older vintages by the glass), order a tableside Caesar Salad with the Steak Tartar. Don't miss the onion rings.
The Dali Museum is the world's finest collection of Dali paintings outside of Europe and has a diverse collection that spans all periods of Dali's works. Dali is a pretty complex and sophisticated artist and making sure you are there for one of the docent led trips is a must.
The campus of Florida Southern in Lakeland, Florida is home to the largest single site collection Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world. There are some really amazing spaces within the buildings and the stories of Wright with his students is well worth the trip. This was one of Frank Lloyd Wright's last projects before he died with the final building getting completed in late 1950s.
Wikipedia Page Featuring Photos of the Campus
Wikipedia Page here
The Ringling Mueseum is a must see for both the art and the beautiful property in Sarasota. This was originally the home of John Ringling, one of the founders of the circus that bears his name. The art collection includes works by Peter Paul Rubens, Velàzquez, Poussin, van Dyck and other Baroque masters. It also includes rare antiquities from Cyprus.
They have a fabulous website with all kinds of useful information on it:
Florida and the Tampa Bay area were really bustling at the turn of the century in the 1900s. The US invasion of Cuba in 1898 (wikipedia page here) had Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in Tampa and the cigar business was bustling. The center of Cuban and immigrant culture was in Ybor City and luxury building started when the railroad got to town. Henry Plant built the railroad that connected Tampa and Pinellas County to allow the trains from New York and the East Coast of Florida to have another destination other than South Florida and the Keys.
As a result, we have two extraordinary hotels that are worth visiting. One is still a hotel - the Belleview Biltmore and the other now houses the University of Tampa. The Biltmore offers tours and is a fun couple of hours that will take you back in time. wikipedia page on Belleview Biltmore
If you head over to Ybor City, there are two great examples of the social clubs that the immigrants from Spain, Cuba, Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe. These clubs provided health care, access to theater, and big social events on the weekend. The two finest examples of these clubs are the Centro Asturiano and Italian Club. Both are used to tourists making visits or walking the halls. If the doors are open in these places, just walk in and lead a self-guided tour. You'll get the flavor.
The Florida Aquarium is a pretty cool venue. It gets old after going there about a dozen times but the aquarium does an outstanding job of showing a wide array of animal and sea life. Great Otter exhibit and wonderful large tank with all kinds of coral, tropical fish. The museum stays true to its Florida roots so you get a great sense of how the Florida aquifer works and how Florida water and Gulf of Mexico fit together in one ecosystem.
Florida Aquarium website
Wikipedia Page here
Busch Gardens has gotten extremely over-priced for its day rate in the past few years but offers a great value card to Florida visitors and to those in a position to come back 3-4 times. Nevertheless, it is still a great time and will fill up a big day at the park. The neat thing about Busch Gardens is that is offers some of the world's finest roller coasters of all stripes and sizes, but also an incredible zoo with opportunities to get very up close views of giraffes, elephants, apes, etc. (if you love zoos, also look at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa which has been winning awards as one of the best small zoos in the US). There are also a wide variety of shows that are well done that can give you an opportunity to rest your feet.
Busch Gardens website
Wikipedia Page here
Tampa has a rich history of Cuban culture going back into the 1800s. While most people think of Miami as the US bridge to Cuba, Tampa is the real gateway to Cuba and has been importing Cuban tobacco leaf for cigars up until the embargo of the late 1950s and early 1960s changed the relationship.
As a result of this we have a lot of great Cuban restaurants. The most famous of these is the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City which serves a good high end cuisine. We think the better Cuban is along over in West Tampa (near the Buccaneers Stadium) on Columbus Drive that is known to locals as "Boliche Boulevard" after the Cuban dish Boliche.
The best Cuban restaurant to get you started is a bit of a dive is La Teresita. Service is spotty at best but food is great. There are two sides to the restaurant - one with fixed stools and countertops and the "fine dining" side. The countertop side is favored by the older West Tampa residents who gather to discuss today's political news and the other side is for gringos who want to sit and be waited on. Either is good but stools get a little hard after a while.
Cuban cuisines doesn't really encompass vegetables so you pick a meat and two sides. Salads aren't a specialty either so don't waste your time. The three house specialties are, in this order: (1) Roast Pork (to die for); (2) Boliche and if it is on the list that day (3) Flank Steak. Pick one of the soups as your side: black beans, garbanzo bean soup or for a special treat pick the Caldo Gallego (collard green soup) and you can't go wrong. You're third "vegetable" should either be yellow rice if your hungry or friend plantains (cuban bananas). Order Cuban Coffee 1/2 expresso and 1/2 milk and you'll have a treat.
If you are adventurous and want to try more Cuban restaurants along Boliche Blvd, we'd also recommend Arco Iris, Lincoln Restaurant, and West Tampa Sandwich Shop for a good Cuban sandwich.