5 Ways to See Tampa Off the Beaten Path
Updated: October 25, 2023
When you’re hunting for activities off the beaten path in Tampa Bay, don’t miss these fun things to do. From powdery white beaches to the cultural corridor of Ybor City, these sights and sounds are quintessentially Tampa but receive less fanfare than the theme parks and museums.
Cuba by Way of Ybor City
There’s an easy way to get to Cuba—within Tampa’s Ybor City. In the 19th century, this district with its cigar factories drew a number of Cuban immigrants and led to a one-of-a-kind park. Jose Marti Park (aka Parque Amigos de José Martí, at 1303 E. 8th Ave.), was given to the Cuban government to celebrate the “Apostle of Cuban Independence” with a statue in the center and soil from each province. (Martí once had sought refuge at a boarding house at the site after an assassination attempt. It's compact—0.14 acres in total—but a unique thing to see.)
After paying your respects at the park, which is still claimed as Cuban property, walk toward Seventh Avenue, the place to go for entertainment and nightlife in Tampa. Enjoy a Cuban sandwich, which was reputedly created in the district (though Miami challenges Tampa’s claim), and peek into lounges like Long Ash Cigars, 1728 E. 7th Ave., where cigars are still rolled by hand.
Fairyland at u-le-le
1810 N. Highland Ave.
Admittedly, u-le-le (YOU-lay-lee), a restaurant inspired by Native American cuisine and culture, is one of the best places to eat in Tampa Bay, and it’s in the happening Tampa Heights area — next to Armature Works, Water Works Park and the 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk. But did you know that some whimsical characters lurk in the fastidiously maintained landscaping? Ranging from Humpty Dumpty on the roof to the Three Little Pigs in the corner, these fairytale characters were part of a former ZooTampa at Lowry Park exhibit, which closed in the 1990s. Richard Gonzmart, owner of Columbia Restaurant Group, bought them in hopes that the stories would inspire and continue to be shared with the next generation.
José Gaspar may or may not have terrorized the Gulf of Mexico, but a thousand or so pirates make themselves known every January during the Gasparilla Pirate Fest (N. Florida Avenue & E. Kennedy Boulevard) as they sail into Hillsborough Bay to “invade” Tampa. You can expect a rambunctious street party with plenty of beads and live music. Missed out? There's a fleet of pirate-themed water taxis that provide a fun and quick way to explore downtown Tampa, with multiple hop-on and hop-off points located throughout the Channelside District, Tampa's Riverwalk, and Davis and Harbour Islands. If you work up a thirst, one of the best watering holes for buccaneers is Gaspar’s Grotto (1805 E. 7th Ave.) in Ybor City. Located on the main thoroughfare, the local restaurant and its outdoor bars are especially popular on nights and weekends, but go for Sunday brunch if you’re a fan of buffets.
When you dream of the white sand of Clearwater Beach but want somewhere just a little more remote, navigate toward Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park. These two destinations—once a single barrier island until a hurricane in 1921—are divided by Hurricane Pass. While you can easily walk from Clearwater to Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island requires more legwork. Most take the ferry from Honeymoon Island to Caladesi Island, where you can spend up to four hours appreciating natural beaches, virgin pine flatwoods and mangroves. Another option is a 3-mile hike from Pier 60. If you’re an adventure travel enthusiast and want to avoid the ferry fare or trek, consider kayaking to see wildlife like dolphins, horseshoe crabs and roseate spoonbills among the tide pools and mangroves.
Zoo Alternative: Big Cat Rescue
12802 Easy St.
This isn’t a zoo, which you should know before you go. This is a sanctuary for exotic cats, many of whom were abandoned, confiscated or retired performers from circuses or other acts. You’ll learn each of their stories as fervent guides lead you between the various pens, which are heavily secured. Since these cats are there to live out their lives peacefully, there are restrictions on what to do, so choose from feeding tours, keeper tours, private tours or kids’ tours—the only way for children ages 0-9 may visit. Note: Requirements include wearing closed-toe shoes and signing a release to go on the tour. Visitors are advised to buy tickets in advance. While on the tour, you are not guaranteed to see every cat, particularly when the animals are not naturally active at that time of the day. Note: Big Cat Rescue is closed to the public indefinitely.
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Sherry is an experienced #AAAEditor and former journalist who enjoys writing informative travel articles and reviews. Her commitment to making meaningful connections with people and places fuels her work for AAA. Sherry's favorite activities range from skiing to backpacking abroad and taking ghost tours.