AAA Travel Tips / Visit Tampa on a Budget

Visit Tampa on a Budget

AAA/Sherry Mims
By AAA Travel Editor Sherry Mims
October 03, 2019
Diverse Tampa, Fla., offers a wealth of cultural offerings but without the price of Orlando resorts and theme parks. If you’re looking for what to do on a budget, start from the Tampa Riverwalk, a waterfront promenade accessible to local restaurants and attractions.
Tampa's Sparkman Wharf offers transportation options, such as bike rentals and streetcars.
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Alternative Transportation

With streetcars, water taxis and other means, it’s easier than ever to explore without worrying about where to park in Tampa. The best way to get around for free is the eye-catching TECO Line Streetcar system, which runs through downtown, Ybor City and the Channel District. Another thing to do downtown is take a water taxi—usually around $20 for a day pass—a particularly good option if you’re staying close to the water or needing a hop-on, hop-off method of transportation. Consider getting a two-day pass or riding after 6 p.m. for cheaper fare. Once back on land, there’s no need to rack up parking fees when you can stop at a rack and rent a bike—generally $10-$15 an hour—at one of the 200-plus sites, such as Sparkman Wharf (aka Channelside).
Dining room pictures
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Cheap Restaurants in Tampa

Don’t forget to budget time to try some cheap places to eat in Tampa. Taco Bus offers good food, including vegetarian options, at affordable prices and has a particularly memorable motif—a converted school bus. With a downtown address, the restaurant is only blocks away from Tampa Theatre and the attractions by the Tampa Riverwalk. (If you’re in another part of town, check out the Taco Bus in South Tampa near MacDill AirForce Base, the Taco Bus near Brandon or the Taco Bus by University of South Florida.) Another nearby restaurant in North Tampa is Mel's Hot Dogs, which is the place to go for hot dogs prepared 17 ways. (If you’re looking for a place to eat on the cheap by Busch Gardens Tampa—a fun thing to do but a definite splurge—this local favorite may be your best bet.)
The Henry B. Plant Museum, within the University of Tampa's Plant Hall, is one of the most recognized architectural landmarks in downtown Tampa.
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Free or Cheap Museum Days

Family travel can be done on the cheap if you take a methodical approach to picking things to see. First on your list should be the Tampa Firefighters Museum, one of the city’s oldest fire stations, where you’ll get an overview of its history and learn fire safety tips—for free! Other museums provide complimentary or reduced admission on occasion. Also consider the Free Tuesdays event on the first Tuesday of the month at Glazer Children’s Museum, the “pay-as-you-will admission” at Art on the House at Tampa Museum of Art from 4-8 on Thursday, or the Henry B. Plant Museum’s complimentary hours of 5-7 on the first Friday of the month, January through November. After your visit to the Henry B. Plant Museum, be sure to take your own free souvenir picture of one of the most recognizable Tampa landmarks. Operated by the University of Tampa, the former Tampa Bay Hotel in Plant Hall is an architectural thing to see in its own right and features a Moorish Revival style complete with minarets, cupolas and domes.
This is the Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park option provided by Canoe Escape, which provides canoe rentals on the Hillsborough River and transportation in Thonotosassa, FL, near Tampa. (This was a personal, not research trip picture.)
AAA/Sherry Mims

Frugal Outdoor Adventures

With numerous waterfront locales, including the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa offers a way to stay in the city without missing any of the fun of the great outdoors. Families will want to start with the 132-acre Al Lopez Park, a little more than a mile from Raymond James Stadium and free to enjoy. Highlights include trails, playgrounds, a pond for fishing and dog parks. Budget-minded beachgoers also have their pick of four beaches managed by the City of Tampa, including Ben T. Davis Beach, Cypress Point Park, Davis Islands Seaplane Basin and Picnic Island Park. Some, such as the Ben T. Davis Beach, a narrow strip of land off the Courtney Campbell Causeway toward Clearwater, can get crowded, so it’s best to arrive early.
If you want to explore the wilder side of Tampa, you’ll want to head north on I-75 (or I-275 from downtown) toward Lettuce Lake Park on Fletcher Avenue. You’ll pay a small entry fee and be able to picnic, go to the playground and enjoy the boardwalks overlooking the swampland and “lake,” which is a portion of the Hillsborough River. (Keep going until you reach the observation tower.) Naturally, canoeing and kayaking are very popular recreational activities in Tampa; moderately priced rentals are available from the park or nearby Canoe Escape in Thonotosassa. (Do not approach or feed alligators if you see them. It’s illegal and dangerous.)
Heights Market - Armature Works and the Hillsborough River can be seen from the 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk.
AAA/Sherry Mims

Tampa Riverwalk

Like a ribbon tying various neighborhoods of Tampa together in one accessible package, the Tampa Riverwalk adjoins the Hillsborough River and connects to the best things to do in Tampa, including cultural institutions like the David A. Straz Performing Arts Center, mixed-use developments complete with trendy local restaurants and food halls, and family-friendly green spaces. Though the list is long, budget-friendly options you’ll want to scope out—particularly if you’re traveling with kids—include the splash pads at Water Works Park and Curtis Hixon Park; the sunset views of the Sail Pavilion; and amenities at Sparkman Wharf, where there’s a plethora of food stalls, entertainment and events throughout the year.
Carmine's mural features a rooster, an homage to the rooster in Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark district in Tampa, FL.
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Ybor City

No list is complete without Ybor City. Stop first at the Ybor Chamber Visitor Information Center (1600 E. 8th Ave.), where you’ll be briefed on this diverse district—home to immigrants from Cuba, Spain, Germany and Italy—and grow to appreciate its extensive cigar-rolling history. You can still get a feel of the culture and history along storied Seventh and Eighth avenues. (Note: Metered parking may apply, depending on when you go.) Free things to do include Jose Marti Park (aka Parque Amigos de José Martí) at 1303 E. 8th Ave., cigar shops (free to enter but tipping encouraged) and…viewing roosters. Give the birds space—per the official ordinance—but do snap a picture of Ybor City’s mascots before you leave the National Historic Landmark district.
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