Tampa is a great city. It’s got an urban center, unique neighborhoods, great parks and multiple waterfronts. That being said, sometimes you just need to get away and discover someplace new!
Unfortunately, considering that Tampa is located halfway down the Florida peninsula, it is impossible to leave the state without jumping on a plane or spending hours and hours in the car. But the good news is that there are plenty of exciting places to explore right within the Sunshine State! If you find yourself looking for something to do on a lazy weekend, jump in the car and spend some time exploring an exciting new place that is closer to your front door than you think!
#3 Revisit your Childhood at Disney World
Florida is a hotbed for amusement parks. From Busch Gardens, to Harry Potter World at Universal, to Sea World and all of its knock-offs, Central Florida has become a destination for the amusement park junkie. But Disney World was the first and remains the best. Less than an hour from Tampa, Disney World is 100% worth the visit. It will be an expensive day away, with tickets starting at over $100 even for a discounted pass, but it will be well worth the step back into childhood. Whether you choose to embrace your natural side at Animal Kingdom, explore different world cultures at Epcot, check out vintage Disney at the Magic Kingdom, or rediscover cinema magic at Hollywood Studios, you are in for a good day.
Remember to bring plenty of sunscreens, and to wear shoes you can walk in, and you are all set for the happiest place on earth.
Top 3 Things to Do:
- Visit the Japanese pavilion at Epcot.
The entire world tour at Epcot is fantastic, but there is something special about the Japanese pavilion. The employees are thrilled to be there, the shopping is fantastic, and the dining options are even better! Maybe pick up a beautiful set of permanent chopsticks so that you can enjoy Japanese cuisine at home.
- Check out the Animal Kingdom Lodge.
You don’t even need a ticket to check out this gorgeous hotel. The lobby is fantastically designed, and the safari in the backyard is free to view! May you will spot some giraffes exploring the wilds of central Florida during your visit.
- Go on the kiddie rides at Magic Kingdom.
The old-school rides at Disney are a testament to historical engineering. The combination of animatronics and forced perspective will blow you away. Do not skip these rides that are basically a step back in time.
#2 Explore a Greek Fishing Village on the Gulf
Tarpon Springs is barely an hour’s drive from the center of Tampa, but when you climb out of the car you will feel like you’ve just gotten off of an international flight. Tarpon Springs was founded in the 1870s as the first incorporated city in Pinellas County. By the 1890s a sponging industry had begun and Greek immigrants began moving in in droves. Local stories go that the Mediterranean had been over-sponged by the 1880s, and Greek divers were struggling. One diver took a trip to Florida, upon discovering that the conditions of the Tarpon Bayou strongly resembled the conditions in Greece, he immediately wrote home encouraging his family and friends to join him in the states. More than 100 years later, the iconic Sponge Docks still stand in Tarpon Springs.
Dodecanese Boulevard is full of kitschy sponge shops, boat tour docks, and authentic Greek restaurants. A simple stroll down the block will treat you to the scent of baklava, the sight of natural sponges drying, and the sounds of a busy waterfront. A far cry from the traffic of Tampa, Tarpon Springs is full of pedestrians and families, all exploring this unique little slice of Greek fishing culture.
Top 3 Things to Do:
- Shop at Loris Soaps & Sponges Exchange.
This charming little shop isn’t fancy but has some of the best artisan soaps out there. You can even pick up some goats milk soap that has an embedded natural sponge! Once you use up your scented bar, you have a reusable natural sponge that you can keep in your shower forever.
- Take a boat tour with St. Nicholas Boat Line.
Climbing on this boat requires you to embrace your inner tourist, but once you have made peace with that you will learn a ton about Tarpon History and botany of sponging. You will even get an authentic diving demonstration, which features a sea-weathered diver donning on an antique dive suit and pulling a natural sponge up from the gulf floor!
Don’t miss the Saganaki at Dimitri’s. It is an appetizer of sheep’s milk cheese that they sit on fire table-side. The result is a warm, crisp-skinned soft cheese that is absolutely fantastic. Next, walk down the block to the Hella’s dessert counter. Feel free to browse the delicious looking Greek pastries, but if you don’t opt for the baklava you are making a mistake.
#1 Explore new depths in Weeki Wachee
Weeki Wachee Springs are an incredible natural phenomenon that even more incredibly, are located only an hour from Tampa! The spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found. According to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Website, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh, 74-degree water bubbles out of a subterranean cavern every day. (source). And when they say clear, they mean crystal clear. The water is perfectly transparent, allowing anyone swimming or passing by in a boat to see clear to the bottom. Manatees commonly float up and down the Weeki Wachee river, and the portion of the Springs protected by the State Park is completely natural and rustic.
But Weeki Wachee has a kitschy side too. A live mermaid show has been performed at Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947! A theater was built under the Spring’s surface, and a glass panel was built in so that viewers can gaze right into the depth of the springs. For over 50 years, beautiful women in elegant fish tales have been doing live, underwater mermaid shows for visiting tourists and vacationing families. This show combines an amazing backdrop of natural beauty with the incredible stamina of underwater athletes and artists to create a show that is insanely unique.
Top 3 Things to Do:
- Attend the mermaid show!
Just get there early, tickets to the show sell out fast, as do tickets to the attached water park.
- Go on the River Boat cruise
This scenic boat tour will give you an idea of what the springs looked like before people moved into the area and trained as mermaids. You are nearly guaranteed to see cooter turtles, blue herons, and the occasional manatee.
- Rent a Kayak at the Kayak Shack and take to the river yourself
This is by far the best way to experience Weeki Wachee. The Kayak Shack is downstream from the state park, but the cost of rental includes a ride to the top of the spring. That way, you can leisurely row yourself down the river, taking in the natural sights and sounds along the way. You can even take a break to swing into the cool water from the rope swings set up along the way!