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We haven’t been to Tampa many times but the times we have visited, we always enjoyed a meal at Bern’s Steakhouse.
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This is my practical love letter to the Tampa Bay area, inclusive of Clearwater Beach, and St. Petersburg. I consider it my second home and spend almost as much time there as I do my real home. With year-round sunshine and a litany of activities from Tarpon Springs to Ft. De Soto, this is my best kept secret I’m reluctantly sharing.
Fly Tampa Bay – TPA!
Living in the tri-state area makes me eligible to fly out of 3 of the worst airports in the country, like I’ve won some sort of anti-lottery. So, I know what terrible looks like. But I also know what amazing looks like, and it’s in Tampa. TPA is my favorite airport in the country: clean, so clean, compact, easy to navigate, and plain ol’ friendly. I routinely make it in and out in minutes, single digit minutes, coming or going. TSA is (hold on to your seats) the friendliest and most efficient I have come across. Every time. The new car rental center has the most fun monorail and the view of the sunset or fireworks from the parking deck are second to none. As far as airports go, this gets every trip off to a great start and makes me sad to depart.
If you can’t fly into TPA, you can still fly into the smaller, local airport of St. Pete – Clearwater International Airport (Editor’s Note: Best airport code – PIE) just across the bay. No matter who you’re flying, there is a way to get there.
Tampa is an area that does require a car as it spans so many miles and great cities and towns to visit. The car rental center at Tampa airport is new and huge. Rent a car and hit the road.
The Open Road
Driving in this area is just a pleasure – no potholes, minimal traffic even when there’s traffic, wide lanes, smooth surfaces, and quite often, panoramic views. Most rental cars will come with the local Sunpass to automatically charge you for accessing any toll roads. But be on the lookout for additional surcharges to the tune of $20 or more for the benefit of using the system on a $1.25 toll (I’m looking at you, Hertz) while others charge you only the toll after the conclusion of your trip (and that is why I use National).
Navigating is easy, and with the help of the GPS, you really can’t go wrong. Signage is clear and all the landmarks are clearly marked well in advance of arrival so you know you’re heading in the right direction.
Do make sure you have change on you – real coins! Some places, like downtown St. Petersburg and Dunedin, have parking meters that take actual coins. Absent cash, many meters in the area use an app called ParkMobile. It allows you to pay for your parking by credit card and monitor your park time and payments. Just enter your credit card information and plate number into the app, along with some identifying information from meter itself, and you’re set. Be sure to take care of this before walking away so you don’t get a ticket. (St. Petersburg does have a great ticket amnesty program. If you can provide to the citation office $25 or more worth of receipts on the day you received the ticket, they will waive it all together. A pretty great deal for a visitor-friendly city.)
If you are staying local to a beach or city, you can choose to use ride share for a night out.
Life IS a Beach
I would argue that 75% of the reason to visit this area is for the coast: clear water, white sands, hidden inlets, stunning sunsets, sea life…There really is that much to do. I am a beach person, and I am nowhere near done exploring the beachfront of the area.
Clearwater beach is routinely voted one of the best in the country, and rightfully so. It has a wide beach, truly crystal water, and a ton of fun things to do aside from the beach. Head further south to Ft. De Soto for more of the same on the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
Also, the beach is free. Florida doesn’t charge you to walk on the land or swim in the sea. No passes, no badges, no proof of purchase necessary. The beach is free.
I love to take boat tours out into the Gulf so that I can see the coastline and the dolphins that frolic in the surf. Charter a boat or book a smaller tour and go fishing. Dolphin tours are in the $20-25 range depending on which cruise you choose, but if I were a savvy shopper, I might check out Groupon for a side deal on one of these excursions. Charters are more expensive and vary depending on size, number of people, time of year and what you want to do. Fishing charters are different from a leisurely booze cruse. Generally, the more people you have, the lower per person cost. Figure anywhere from $150-$500; costs will be higher, think closer to $1000 for the day, if you want a truly private tour and buy out the boat. A little internet sleuthing may get you a lower cost. Be careful of high season and make sure you book early.
If you’re not so much into the beach thing, that’s not an issue either. Visit the Dali Museum ($24 for adults, $17 for students and children), one of my favorites, but get there early to beat the lines or get your ticket on line. Or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter, the famous dolphin from the movies ($23 for adults, $18 for kids). Contribute to the conservation of big cats at Big Cat Rescue (there are a few tour options but the average ticket is $37 for adults, $27 kids). There are sporting events year-round, and don’t forget Tampa IS a hockey town; it’s a baseball town, too, and hosts regular season and spring training games in the area. You can do outdoor yoga once a week in St. Petersburg, or just run, bike, walk, along the Pinellas trail that extends a wondrous 38! miles from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.
The point is, don’t relegate the area to ‘just the beach’ because the beaches are some of the best in the country. Do and see some of the other great attractions. But really, though, go to the beach.
There are some spots that just make the area particularly memorable, like the Greek town Tarpon Springs, famous for the Sponge Docks. The what? SPONGES. Rich in history and tradition, Tarpon Springs will educate you on how people dive for sponges from the depths of the ocean, where they surface in your shower and make killer loofahs. Also, the food. The Greek food is to die for, and out of all the restaurants in the immediate area, zero will let you down.
Ybor City has roaming roosters. I could end the description there and I’d be completely satisfied. But Ybor is a slightly gritty urban city, easily walkable, with historic buildings that make me want to buy all the property. It’s most famous for the Latin influences, specifically Cuban. The Cuban sandwich was invented there and remains a classic indulgence. (Sorry, Miami). You can do cigars, too, if that’s your thing.
For a killer beach experience with coastal views that make you feel like you’re on a Caribbean island, visit Caladesi Island. You’ll pay to park on Honeymoon Island; $8 per car with 2-8 people. The Accessible by a gorgeous, 20 minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island ($14 round trip for adults, $7 round trip for kids), it is secluded and pristine. When I was there, dolphins were playing in the gentle waves breaking just offshore. It also has protected area to keep the wildlife safe. We like this.
It’s not hard to see why I make more trips to the area in a year than I do the grocery store (true story). Put Tampa area on your short list of things to do, sooner than later.
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