Our trip to Tampa was provided in part by Visit Tampa Bay. All opinions are my own.
If you haven’t been to Tampa, or you haven’t been to Tampa in many years, you’re in for a real surprise. Tampa has been undergoing a remarkable renaissance, adding new attractions, hotels, and restaurants throughout the area.
The last time I visited Tampa was almost twenty years ago, when we drove over to visit Busch Gardens. When we returned to the Tampa Bay area in early 2020, I was incredibly impressed by the wide range of things to do and see.
Let’s take a look at some practical suggestions for visiting, then jump right in to my favorite Tampa attractions for families.
Downtown Tampa is where it’s all happening. The 2.4 mile Tampa Riverwalk runs roughly north-south along the sparkling Hillsborough River and the Garrison Channel. The Riverwalk provides one continuous path between some of the very best attractions Tampa has to offer. It’s a marvel of city planning and a wonderful way to see the city alongside residents and other visitors.
I recommend that you study the Tampa Riverwalk area before arriving in the city so you can pick out your must-see attractions, decide where to stay, and plan how to get around. After you arrive, you can visit the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors’ Center to get advice, pick up maps and brochures, and shop for souvenirs unique to the Tampa Bay area.
Several desirable attractions, including the Florida Aquarium and ZooTampa at Lowry Park mentioned below, are included in the Tampa Bay CityPASS, which provides substantial savings on some of the best Tampa Bay has to offer. Order online or purchase at any attraction in the Tampa Bay CityPASS program.
Where to Stay
Close to the southern end of the Riverwalk and just a short distance from the Port Tampa Bay cruise terminal is the Channel District, home to an assortment of sparkling new (or newly renovated) hotels with views of the channel and Tampa’s downtown towers. Our hotel, the Home2 Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Channel District, was perfectly positioned to access all of the fun and excitement of the downtown neighborhood.
With a rooftop pool, a free breakfast, newly renovated rooms, and a highly convenient hotel shuttle (see How to Get Around, below), this hotel made the Home2 Suites by Hilton one of my new favorite hotel brands. Our studio held a comfortable queen bed, a pull-out couch, and a well-appointed kitchenette with a full-size refrigerator, a powerful microwave, a coffeemaker, a sink, and dishes. With the help of a friendly front desk staff, our stay was as smooth as silk.
How to Get Around
Our hotel had a complimentary shuttle that would drop us off or pick us up anywhere within a two-mile radius. This encompassed almost all the attractions on our list, with the only exception being ZooTampa at Lowry Park, which was within easy driving distance using our own vehicle.
We also made use of the free TECO Historic Streetcar Line, which connects Ybor City, the Channel District, and the downtown area. The streetcars run throughout the day and into the night, allowing you to catch a game or concert and return to your hotel easily. Check the website for schedules and routes.
The Pirate Water Taxi is an enjoyable touring option for those who like to travel by water and take in the sights in a leisurely fashion. These bright yellow water taxis run along the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel, making several stops along the Tampa Riverwalk. You’ll get an amazing view along the way plus informative and entertaining commentary.
The Best Tampa Bay Attractions for Families
With eight different themed areas to explore, the Florida Aquarium is a must-see for families. Explore the Florida Wetlands Trail, get up close and personal with stingrays at Stingray Beach, and dive deep into the beautiful undersea world at the Coral Reefs. You can easily spend several hours here exploring all of the exhibits. Don’t miss the interactive stations, where you can interact with real, live sea creatures like anemones and sea stars. Prepaid admission to the Florida Aquarium is included in the Tampa Bay CityPASS.
Tampa Bay History Center
Truly the hidden gem of the Tampa downtown area, and quite possibly my personal favorite among the Tampa attractions for families, the Tampa Bay History Center contains three floors of enthralling history exhibits with something for all ages. Our kids journeyed through Seminole culture and the Spanish conquest, swung into saddles alongside the the Florida cattlemen, and became full-fledged pirates on a hunt for treasure. The “Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates, and Shipwrecks” interactive gallery is not-to-be-missed.
While you’re at the Tampa Bay History Center, have lunch or dinner at the history center’s outpost of the famous Columbia Cafe, where you’ll find most of the signature items featured at the flagship Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. If the weather’s fine, dine al fresco on the large, covered porch with its view of the Tampa Riverwalk.
Sparkman Wharf is a walkable dining district with food “trucks” housed in colorful shipping containers. This hotspot continues to expand regularly with new and exciting dining destinations from Tampa’s top chefs.
You’ll find ample seating on and around the large astroturf lawn, where you can watch Tampa Lightning away games on the big screen while snacking, dining, and sipping to your heart’s content. At night, the open air biergarten glitters with strings of lights—and, of course, there’s a beautiful view of the water. Everyone in the family will easily be able to find something to enjoy at Sparkman Wharf.
Glazer Children’s Museum
Situated near the heart of the Tampa Riverwalk, the Glazer Children’s Museum is an interactive educational playground. Kids can “shop” in a fully stocked grocery store complete with miniature shopping carts, “cook” in a real restaurant kitchen and “serve” to customers at perfect little dining tables, and dress up in kimonos to serve tea at a Japanese tea ceremony—and that’s just a few of the myriad activities available. Children can even climb around in a netted enclosure that floats above the first and second levels.
Many people skip the first floor and go straight to the second floor to experience the majority of the exhibits. The first floor, however, contains an elaborate water table play area that will keep kids occupied for a long time while you keep an eye on the fun from one of the sunlit Adirondack chairs near the windows. Don’t miss this chance to rest your feet.
The Glazer Children’s Museum is directly adjacent to the Tampa Museum of Art. Its exhibits can be viewed in about 30 minutes, so if you like art, I’d recommend the adults in your party swap off and visit the Tampa Museum of Art while the kids continue to use their energy at the Glazer Children’s Museum.
If they’re still not tuckered out by the time you’ve finished the Glazer Children’s Museum, the beautiful Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park & Playground can also be found adjacent to the museums. For lunch, consider Oxford Exchange, a restaurant in a restored historic building less than one mile away. (Ask to sit in the elegant conservatory if seats are available.)
Heights Public Market at Armature Works
At the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk, you’ll find Armature Works, a beautifully restored former trolley barn housing Heights Public Market, a bustling food hall with something for everyone. Here, you can enjoy Neapolitan pizza, ramen bowls, colorful smoothies, Southern specialties, and so much more. Enjoy your meal inside, under the soaring ceilings, or take it out to the deck for a glorious river view.
This dining destination can get busy, especially at night, so if you plan your visit during a less-busy time, you’ll have more of the hall to yourself. We enjoyed visiting on a quiet Sunday morning. Be sure to check the calendar for live music, yoga classes, and special events like the Indie Flea and the Heights Night Market.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Considered one of the best zoos in the southeast, and for good reason, ZooTampa at Lowry Park presents an extensive collection of animals from around the world in a beautifully well-kept setting with loads of charm. Families will enjoy the Florida, Africa, Wallaroo, Asia, Primates, and Manatee Circle areas of the zoo, each with informative displays about the animals.
There’s so much to see here that you could easily spend a half-day or more at the zoo. Luckily, there are several restaurants and multiple snack carts to keep you going. Since the Florida heat can be intense in this type of outdoor setting, I recommend going during cooler weather, or starting your visit first thing in the morning when the zoo opens. If you can’t avoid the hot part of the day, you can cool off—if you’re brave—on the Roaring Springs flume ride. Prepaid admission to ZooTampa at Lowry Park is also included in the Tampa Bay CityPASS.