Tampa: Holy Grail Guide

Moving to Tampa? Just looking for local secrets? I lived, worked, studied, and everything in between for two years in Tampa from 2017-2019. It is an incredible city to visit. Take it from my years of enjoying what central Florida has to offer- this list is the best of the best.

Restaurants

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Due Amici Pizza
Ybor City- I would fly roundtrip to Tampa and back just for this pizza.  Are they in the mafia? Not sure, but these people make a mean pizza. Best pizza choice here: basil, tomatoes, ricotta, and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.

La Teresita
Tampa Heights- WOW if you are looking for some authentic Cuban food this place is it. It is dirt cheap, probably even a little dirty, but so incredibly delicious. It’s in a bad neighborhood and they speak little English so you know it is legit. Talk about a hole-in-the-wall GEM.

Columbia Restaurant 
Ybor City- You would think this might be at the top of my list, but actually, I’m not a fan. I am only listing here so that when you go to Tampa and everyone talks about it, you will know it is one of the more iconic restaurants in Tampa. In my opinion, it has become over-hyped and chained out.

Jackson’s
Harbour Island- Get the seafood pasta. The end.

Top of the Palms
University of South Florida- This one is tougher to get to if you are not a USF student, however anyone is allowed to dine. It is at the top of the student center and has very limited hours. If you don’t make a reservation, it is very likely that you won’t get in. They do a $10 lunch buffet with high quality items that have a rotating menu on a daily basis. Open M-F only.

Der Dutchman
Sarasota- This one is a little out of the way and might be the strangest on the list to some. In the winter, a large Amish population heads down to Sarasota, making it a surprising hub for home cooking and goods. Der Dutchman is an Amish buffet with cute little shopping- almost like a tropical Cracker Barrel but nicer. It has always been packed when I have gone so be prepared to wait (and inevitably end up buying ornaments and loaves of bread while you do so.) It’s like a big American, nap-inducing Thanksgiving here every day.

Keegan’s
Indian Rocks- DINERS, DRIVE-INS, AND DIVES HIGHLIGHT! This restaurant will take you to the edge of the tourist side of town between Clearwater and Treasure Island but it is fabulous. I always recommend the grouper cheek sandwich and stone crab claws when they are in season.

Activities

Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier
St. Petersburg- There are plenty of places to find phenomenal fishing along shore lines and man-made barriers but the Sunshine Skyway is one of my favorites. Open 24/7, this is one of the laziest, easy spots to fish because you can drive your car out onto the bridge.

Lettuce Lake Park
Temple Terrace- At just $2 per vehicle, this little park is an excellent place to see some Florida wildlife. There are well-maintained boardwalks and wooded pathways to take a beautiful stroll. I have never gone and NOT seen at least one alligator. There are also armadillos, tortoises, and pink spoonbills. If you are a USF student, head to the opposite side of the river from the park and its only $5 to rent a kayak.

Hard Rock Casino
Finding indoor activities in the summer is equal to finding indoor activities in a cold Indiana winter- you just can’t be outside. The Hard Rock Casino has a few great restaurants and offers an air-conditioned reprieve from the heat. Since I was there, they also added on a large pool for a resort-style escape.

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Scientology
Clearwater- Fans of Leah Remini’s Scientology documentary would be spooked and delighted to find out that the hub for Scientology is in one of the most tourist heavy destinations. Spring breakers have no idea that this organization is right over the bridge from their partying. It is pretty cool to watch Remini’s show and then go for a walk around their buildings- just watch out for those cameras.

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American Victory Ship
Port of Tampa Bay- Like many wartime vessels, this behemoth is as mind-boggling from the inside as it is the outside. It is a fairly hands-on experience and one of the cooler historical things to do in Tampa. They even host events here and occasionally take it for a spin.

Shopping

Dillard’s Clearance Center
University Square- If you are not from a state where Dillard’s is wildly popular, I apologize. There are several amazing locations dotted all around Tampa. However, the clearance center is a whole different ball game. We are talking up to 95% off items. It can be a lot of combing racks but I have purchased some crazy deals here.

Tampa Premium Outlets
Wesley Chapel- These outlets are just like any other Premium Outlet chain, but they are stunning and open air. I always enjoyed walking around just to enjoy the palms and fountains. The decor is tropical and there’s great benches for the dads who are less interested in shopping.

International Mall
West Shore- The International Mall is one of the more ritzy malls I have been to in the United States. Not only does it have Nieman Marcus and Nordstrom, it has the ones of higher grade than areas of Indianapolis or even Cincinnati. Upscale stores dot this mall with fabulous restaurants attached.

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Publix
Maybe this isn’t your initial thought when you picture shopping, but there are some things that need said. Publix is expensive, but they get great BOGOs. Check the weekly ad online before you go. $5 sushi Wednesday is also a must. But to really be a local, you have to get a pub sub. People rave about them. It took me a while to crack the code on why the pub sub is the most superior sub in Florida: they use Boar’s Head meat and cheeses upon request.

Total Wine
Total Wine is starting to spread across the country at a seemingly glacial pace but in Florida it is popping. Consider it the superstore of alcohol. I sampled every Saturday for a beer company at Total Wine and LOVED it. They are incredibly nice, clean, and quality customer service. It’s not your average local liquor store. It is an experience.

Transportation

Pirate Water Taxi
Travelling around Tampa Bay is literally a boat load of fun with the Water Taxi. There is cheap beer on board to enjoy while you travel from bar to bar. It’s not the most practical means of travel but talk about enjoying the journey. They also offer annual passes for frequent boaters.

TPA- Tampa International Airport
TPA is, by far, one of my favorite airports in the United States. It is quick, clean, and easy to maneuver. I will intentionally fly through this airport to go international. At the time I was there they were heavily promoting their Iceland direct flight for under $600.

Port of Tampa Bay
Don’t sleep on the opportunity to take a 15-minute car ride and be on vacation. I should have taken a 3-day cruise every month. Tampa has a busy cruise terminal with many options. We did a two week trip through the Panama Canal from Tampa and it was a piece of cake. It is also a fairly easy drive to take a cruise out of Miami. I recommend taking an Uber to the Tampa port as it is cheaper than paying for parking.

Day & Weekend Trips

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Weeki Wachee
As cheesy as it is, this is one of my favorite places in Florida. Crystal River is a fresh-water spring that lives up to its name where swimmers can easily spot manatee, fish, and MERMAIDS? Yep, that’s right. I don’t want to ruin the surprise so you have to go for yourself. They also have a beautiful flock of peacocks running around.

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Don Cesar
Pass-A-Grille Beach- Pronounced Don Say-Zar, this striking hot pink hotel is just an hour from Tampa. My mom and I stayed here for two nights just to have a mini-vacay and we adored it. It can be pricey, but Florida residents can find good deals (I used my USF ID).

TECO Manatee Viewing Center
Just south of Tampa in Apollo beach sits the Tampa Electric Company. This facility uses the water from the bay to cool the equipment and spits it back out at toasty temperatures. When the weather drops below 68 degrees, manatee swarm the area like a huge pot of potato soup. TECO has built a wonderful deck system for people to come view the manatee (and other sea critters like sharks and tarpon), in the winter months free of charge.

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Everglades & the Florida Keys
It only takes about 4 hours to get to Miami from Tampa by car and the drive across Alligator Alley is worth it. Spot gators in the canals and watch out for wild roadkill! There are some great shack-style restaurants along the way and plenty of airboat tours.No photo description available.

From Miami the drive down through the Keys is gorgeous. Islamorada and Key Largo are fairly close to quickly enjoy great fishing and dining, or you can make your way down to Key West. Tip: take a detour through Big Pine Key to spot the tiny deer (but do not touch or feed!).

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Orlando
I would be remiss to not touch on the land of theme parks– but there is so much more! Some of the best outlet shops are here at the Orlando Vineland Outlets as well as a range of international cuisine. It is easy to make it a vacation away from home at just 1.5 hours from Tampa. Pro tip: it is pretty simple to qualify as a Florida resident for the theme parks if you have a couple of bills. When I was a USF student in 2017, I used my student ID and an electric bill to qualify for the $280 Disney Florida resident weekday pass.

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NASA
Space might be in a galaxy far, far away, but the scientists who got us there are just one coast over. Take a little walk in time at the Kennedy Space Center just east of Orlando.

Things I WON’T Miss?

When people ask me “why would you leave Tampa to move back to cold Indiana?”, I generally smile and shrug. Living in Florida sounds like a treat, and in some ways it is, but life can’t always be a Disney World vacation. A few of the reasons I was ready to move on from life in Tampa: lovebugs, humidity, traffic, cost of living, the Walmart on Fletcher, no family.. daily things that made life a little tough. I recently moved to Cincinnati, and so far I have to say I love it more than I ever loved Tampa. Who could have guessed?

Overall, it is one of my favorite cities in Florida. Tampa has so much going for it. With it’s central location, it is easy to hop around many of the surrounding cities or take day trips to some of the top tourist spots in the world. I miss many of my favorite spots I found and loved!

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