Visit Tampa on a Budget
Updated: October 25, 2023
Tampa offers a wealth of cultural offerings that won't break the bank. One of the best places to start is the Tampa Riverwalk. This scenic waterfront promenade connects to local restaurants and points of interest, providing a perfect starting point for exploring the city. Additionally, there are nearby free or cheap attractions that offer a glimpse into the city's art and history. Whether you're interested in eating or staying active, Tampa has something for all ages and budgets. So why not rent a bike or take a stroll down the Riverwalk to discover what this vibrant city has to offer?
With streetcars, water taxis and other means, it’s easier than ever to explore Tampa without stressing about where to park. The best way to get around for free is the eye-catching TECO Line Streetcar system, which runs through downtown Tampa, Ybor City and the Channelside District. Another thing to do downtown is take a water taxi — usually around $20 for an adult day pass — a particularly good option if you’re staying close to the water or needing a hop-on, hop-off method of transportation. If enclosed spaces are a concern for you, the water taxi offers plenty of fresh air and scenic views. Consider getting a two-day pass or riding after 6 p.m. for cheaper fare.
Bicycles also work well in this environment. In downtown, there are slightly more than 200 designated racks, according to Bike/Walk Tampa Bay. The regional coalition recommends a U-Lock for locking your bike to a rack. If you didn't bring your own bike, rentals are generally $15-20 an hour, with a small convenience fee if locked outside a bike share station or affiliated rack.
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 closer to another area of town, check out the Taco Bus near Brandon or the Taco Bus on Fletcher Avenue by the University of South Florida.) Another nearby restaurant in North Tampa is Mel's Hot Dogs, which has been the place to go for hot dogs since 1973. (If you’re looking for a place to eat on the cheap near Busch Gardens Tampa Bay — a fun thing to do but a definite splurge — Mel's may be your best bet.)
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, housed in one of the city’s oldest fire stations, where you’ll get an overview of its history and learn fire safety tips — for free! (Note: The museum is open by appointment only; phone (813) 964-6862 for reservations.)
Other museums provide complimentary or reduced admission on occasion. Phone ahead to confirm schedules, as several reduced and free events have been suspended at press time. Favorites have included the Children's Board Free Tuesdays event at the Glazer Children’s Museum (first Tuesday of the month), the “pay-as-you-will admission” during Art on the House at the Tampa Museum of Art (every Thursday 4-8 p.m.) or the complimentary hours at the Henry B. Plant Museum on the first Friday of the month (5-7 p.m., 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, the former Tampa Bay Hotel in Plant Hall. The building, operated by the University of Tampa, is an architectural thing to see in its own right and features a Moorish Revival style complete with minarets, cupolas and domes.
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. Budget-minded beachgoers 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.
Families head toward 132-acre Al Lopez Park, a little more than a mile from Raymond James Stadium and free to enjoy. Highlights include trails, playgrounds, a dog park and a pond for fishing. 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, and do not approach or feed alligators if you see them. It's illegal and dangerous.) Naturally, canoeing and kayaking are very popular recreational activities in Tampa; moderately priced rentals are available from the park or nearby Canoe Escape in nearby Thonotosassa. Phone (813) 986-2067 to confirm schedule.
Like a ribbon tying various neighborhoods of Tampa together in one accessible package, the Tampa Riverwalk adjoins the Hillsborough River and connects many of 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, near Port of Tampa Bay, where there’s a plethora of food stalls, entertainment and events throughout the year.
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; phone (813) 241-8838. Metered parking may apply in the district, depending on when you go, but free things to do include visiting Jose Marti Park (aka Parque Amigos de José Martí) at 1303 E. 8th Ave., browsing 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 this National Historic Landmark district.
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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.