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Best Things To Do in Tampa/St. Petersburg

AOL PICK from our Editors

In the modern era, Tampa Bay gained destination status as a popular beach for Brits visiting Disney World. That’s just the appetizer; the Brits—and others—still come for the sand, but they come back for much more. Even a long holiday here could leave you exhausted without running out of activities. The emphasis is on the area’s stellar natural assets—the protected bay with its myriad beaches and islands—but there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the drinking, dancing, dining and arts as well.

Tampa Improv

Neighborhood: Ybor City

For those of us who consider comedy a form of culture, the Tampa Improv is a fun experience. Located in Ybor City, it’s nice to finish off a dinner at a restaurant like Bernini on 7th Avenue and then stroll down to the Improv. The seating is typical club arrangement with tables and food/bar waitress service. Its stage has been the setting for Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Drew Carey, Robert Schimmel (one of our favorites), Jackie Mason and Adam Sandler along with platoons of less well-known but no less outrageous comedians. Reserve early for a table nearer the stage.

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Busch Gardens Adventure Park

Neighborhood: DowntownTampa

The marquee star of Tampa Bay attractions, Busch Gardens deservedly wears the crown. It covers more than 300 acres in central Tampa and is worth finding. Busch Gardens opened as an adjunct to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in 1959 and has evolved to compete with Walt Disney World and its sister park, SeaWorld, in nearby Orlando. This park specializes—quite successfully—in roller coaster rides and they have some twists, turns, bumps and grinds that put the coasters in Orlando to shame. The Montu and Kumba rides are for pure adrenaline junkies, with head-under-heels loops and vertigo-inducing turns. At 150 feet, Montu is one of the tallest coasters in the world, and its seven inversions, and speeds of 60 mph on its almost 4,000-foot track make it one of the best. The inversions include a 104-foot vertical loop and a roll that produces 3.85 Gs. Kumba is a slightly shorter but no less thrilling ride while Gwazi is one of the biggest and fastest wooden coasters on the planet. Topping 200 feet, SheiKra is now the tallest Busch Gardens coaster; it’s floorless and features a true 90 degree vertical drop, which it executes after suspending riders staring face down at the ground for a full four seconds before dropping straight down at 70 mph. Yeah. You might consider tackling Montu and SheiKra before lunch. Other don’t-miss attractions include the Congo River Rapids, Tanganyika Tidal Wave and Stanley Falls. There’s no longer a brewery on premises and, since last year, not even owned by Anheuser-Busch (it’s owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment), but the park continues to pack ’em in.

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Museum of Science and Industry

Neighborhood: Terrace Park

MOSI, for short, encompasses more than 450 exhibits highlighting science and technology in a way that’s really enjoyable. No stupefying lectures, no exhibits that only a physics professor would appreciate, no dogma and plenty of karma. It’s huge, with more than 400,000 square feet that includes a hurricane simulator, an IMAX Dome theater and a planetarium. It’s best to go on a school day when the place isn’t a shrieking playground. You learn perhaps more than you need to about floods, lightning, tornados and such, but you can pick and choose the subjects. If you’ve never experienced a theater with 10,500 square feet of imagery, the IMAX dome alone is worth the trip.

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Honeymoon Island State Park

Neighborhood: Dunedin

This natural barrier island is worth a full day. You cross over the bay on a causeway and into a little bit of what coastal Florida used to look like. The mangrove swamps and tidal flats attract ospreys (aka “fish eagles”), shorebirds and the smaller critters they eat, such as crabs. Shelling is great along the shoreline and picnics seem so delicious with the salt air in your face that it’s hard to leave. There are showers to cool down and slough off the salt as well as a snack bar. If Honeymoon Island isn’t isolated enough, you can take the ferry from here to Caladesi Island for fishing and kayaking.                                                               

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Tampa Bay History Center

Neighborhood: Harbour Island

Sometimes it’s cool to learn about the area you’re visiting; sometimes it’s a yawning waste of time. This museum presents a nice barrage of info about Tampa Bay’s first native inhabitants (Indians), the conquistadors who occupied the area and state (Spaniards) and a few colorful people who shaped the area's history (rich white people). The best exhibit of this downtown museum is a replica of a 1920s cigar store. The Center has huge collections of cigar memorabilia and of colorful Miccosukee and Seminole clothing and artifacts, along with a chickee—the thatched, raised dwellings used by Florida natives. There’s also an exhibit detailing the Second Seminole War, which has been called the country’s first racial war. If you have any souvenir money left, they’ll be glad to extricate it at the museum store.

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Ruth Eckerd Hall Center for Performing Arts

Neighborhood: Clearwater

Back in 1977 drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his wife Ruth jumped at the chance to help lead the building of a performing arts center in Clearwater back on land donated by the founder of the famous Kapok Tree restaurant The results were spectacular—Ruth Eckerd Hall is considered one of the top 10 performing arts centers of its size in the world, attracting the notable and the notorious from a wide spectrum of genres. Some recent appearances include Al Pacino, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Kathy Griffin, Vince Gill, Harry Connick Jr., Ted Nugent and the U.K. National Theatre. Best bet is to check the schedule while you’re booking your trip and see who’s playing.  

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Big Cat Rescue

Neighborhood: Citrus Park

Talk about hard to find! Flip on the GPS or secure a cab driver who knows how to locate the nondescript side road leading to what’s claimed as the world’s largest assemblage of exotic cats. In Tampa, Florida? Yes, a strange place considering the only wild cats in the Sunshine State are panthers and bobcats, and they’re rarely seen around these parts. A lot of these animals here have been abused or donated by people bought them hoping Elsa would remain a cub. A guided tour is a must to get the lowdown on the various species, which includes the popular feeding-time venues. Keep in mind that this is a working sanctuary and rehab center as much as a public exhibit. It sprawls over 45 acres that are home to about 150 cats including lions, tigers and leopards. Even though cages are relatively close to viewing areas, snapping decent pictures is often thwarted by the heavy cross-wire fencing. All in all, Big Cat Rescue is worth the difficulty finding it.

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Florida Aquarium, The

Neighborhood: Channel District

Your first impression of the Florida Aquarium is that it’s no Sea World. Relatively small and jammed onto two levels, it’s mostly a series of small exhibits. That’s okay as some are fascinating, but a visit here is more justifiable for those on longer holidays. You’ll see flora and fauna that are not native to the area, which doesn’t make sense to us because the Gulf Coast is rich in fascinating aquatic life. Management swears it has broadened the aquarium’s appeal. You will find a Florida Wetlands Gallery that’s intriguing and another on Coral Reefs that’s closer to home. Having said that, the best exhibit seems to be "Dragons Down Under," a tank of amazing little creatures that look exactly like floating seaweed. Non-gill animals include alligators, snakes and even bats. Yep, there are bats in Florida.

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Lowry Park Zoo

Neighborhood: Lowry Park

This zoo epitomizes the proposition that size doesn’t always matter. As much of an oak-shaded park as a zoo, more than 2,000 animals are somehow artfully packed into the 56 acres. Lowry Park presents eight exhibit areas, and we’d say the best are the Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center and the Florida  Boardwalk. There’s a place for kids to feed the animals, but we always see more adults present than youngsters—and at places like this, who isn’t a kid at heart? The zoo has taken a page from the playbook at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with Reilly’s Reserve, a restaurant with big windows looking into the giraffe, elephant and zebra habitats so the animals can gawk at you for a change.

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Adventure Island

Neighborhood: Channel District

Not far from Busch Gardens—and also owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment—this complex offers water play and beach volleyball. The theme is the Florida Keys, although you won’t find many corkscrew water slides or giant wave pools on those islands. The wave pool is nearly half an acre, with five-foot surf surges. The half-mile tube trip is relaxing lazy river style although at times you feel like you’re inside of a pinball machine when bouncing off other tubers and the sides of the channel. The Everglides ride involves a floating toboggan down a 72-foot drop with a hydroplaning ending—a dripping affair, to be sure.

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Salvador Dali Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown St. Petersburg

Was this guy on acid when he took to the canvas? Probably not—the psychedelic substance had yet to be synthesized when Dali began his surrealistic paintings. Once owned by Ohio philanthropists Reynolds and Eleanor Morse who were friends of the artist, some of Dalí’s most important (and largest) works are here: The Hallucinogenic Toreador, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and Portrait of My Dead Brother are among them. There’s a nice biographical section that traces Dali’s early life as an art student in Spain through his development as a major artist and long life in New York, along with detailed, photorealistic drawings that prove you have to be pretty good at making things look just like they are to draw them as they aren’t. A massive new museum building under construction is scheduled to open in early 2011.

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Forst Desoto Park

Neighborhood: Mullet Key Bayou

Dr. Beach called Fort De Soto the nation’s best beach, and you’ll see why when you visit. Named for the infamous conquistador, it’s as tranquil as its namesake was violent. The park consists of five interconnected islands that total over a thousand acres that host nearly three million visitors annually. Does that mean crowded at times? Oh yeah. Forget coming here on a holiday weekend unless you like bumping into the oiled bodies of people you’d rather not bump into. Because it straddles the southern entrance to Tampa Bay, the location was militarily important. The islands were occupied by Union naval spotters watching for Confederate blockade runners but permanent fortifications—far less grand than those at Saint Augustine—weren’t begun until the Spanish-American War of 1898. Behind the sand dunes is a battery mounted with gargantuan coastal defense mortars that could lob a thousand-pound shell almost seven miles. Firing these guns was a huge effort that required a team of 12 men. The powder magazines and associated buildings have brief interpretive signs to tell you what you’re looking at. The beach itself is magnificent: Seven miles of waterfront, an area for boat launching and dockage, a great camping area and camp store, two fishing piers, picnic shelters, a nature trail, canoe trail, parking and a snack bar. Small boats pull into the shallows to anchor and you can catch a ferry here for the trip over to Egmont Key, which has less crowded beaches and a lighthouse. 

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David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts

Neighborhood: DowntownTampa

If you’re staying on the Tampa side of the bay, you don’t have to cross the bridge to Clearwater for high culture: Check out what’s happening at “the Straz” downtown. This giant complex houses not one but five theaters along with banquet and rehearsal halls. There’s even a conservatory with dance studios, a technical theater workshop, costume shop and media arts/TV studio. With so many venues there’s a good chance a play, opera or concert will be on during your stay.

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Florida Holocaust Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown St. Petersburg

This museum is a tasteful memorial to the millions who suffered or died during the Holocaust. It’s a solemn place as one would expect, but it fulfills its mission—to emphasize the value of life and to bring visitors the realization that to do nothing in the face of evil is choosing sides—very well. The exhibits include one of the actual boxcars, on its original track, that was used to transport Jews to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka.

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Sunken Gardens

Neighborhood: Downtown St. Petersburg

Take a drained lake, start a garden and 100 years later it’s still a tourist attraction. Sunken Gardens is in St. Petersburg with a one-mile path through over 50,000 tropical plants. Throw in waterfalls, butterflies and flamingos, water the plants regularly, stand back and admire. People into things botanical will wallow in all the greenery but if you’re not a plant person, this will bore you to tears.

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Yacht Starship Dining Cruises

Neighborhood: Clearwater

We’ve been on several trips aboard the 131-foot Yacht StarShip and the food is very good. Service was sometimes right on the money, other occasions draggy and indifferent. The top promenade deck usually features entertainment and a small bar that at times struggled to handle the nearly 100 people trying to get drinks. Yacht StarShip frequently offers a 2 for 1 promotion. Occasionally the ship is booked for private parties so make reservations well in advance. It’s a nice cruise, but don’t expect VIP level service.

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Tarpon Sponge Docks

Neighborhood: Tarpon Springs

When you think “small town America” you probably aren’t thinking about dark-haired Greeks in diving helmets. We certainly weren’t. But that’s what you find at Tarpon Springs. The town was founded in 1876 and became popular as a winter resort; Mary Boyer, daughter of the first resident named it “Tarpon Springs” after the fish she saw jumping in the estuaries. For the record, the fish she saw were mullet. A fortunate mistake, because “Mullet Springs” sounds like a place for people with outdated hairstyles. The discovery of natural sponge beds nearby attracted Greek sponge divers in the late 1880s, and more than 11 percent of Tarpon Springs residents are Greek-American, compared to less than 1 percent across the rest of the U. S.The sponges were wiped out by a microrganism in the 1940s, and the warehouses and docks were transformed into attractions, though regrowth in the sponge beds by the 1980s has led to a modest revival of the industry. Today the main street along the harbor is showcases a collage of little shops with each offering different gift and souvenir themes. The food alone is worth the trip with bakeries—the fudge stand made a mockery of our diets—Greek fast food and sit-down restaurants, There’s also an aquarium, a dock loaded with old fishing vessels begging to be photographed, and yes, sponges. We were exposed to Greek culture without it being jammed down our throats. Every retailer smiled and treated us with overflowing enthusiasm. There’s even a boat tour that includes a sponge diving exhibition. It gets pretty packed on the weekends, but it seems like it makes for a merrier spirit.

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