WEST CENTRAL FLORIDA:
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF BEACHES

When it comes to the Sunshine State and all it has to offer, Central West Florida presents a bit of everything: powder-soft, white-sand beaches; thrilling theme parks; a vibrant nightlife scene; captivating world-class museums, and much more.

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

A DAY IN...


CRYSTAL RIVER/CITRUS COUNTY

Begin your day feeling wonder again. Swim with manatees in the amazing springs of Crystal River’s Kings Bay. Take the trolley to the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk. It’s like a national park in a single acre. At the Kings Bay waterfront, dine on seafood fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Afterward, explore the shops of Heritage Village in downtown Crystal River. Later, take a sunset cruise or enjoy the show from Fort Island Gulf Beach. For dinner, reserve a table at Vintage on 5th, an eclectic restaurant in a renovated church built in 1940.

DUNEDIN

Cycle to Honeymoon Island, Florida’s most visited state park, to swim, fish and snorkel in the warm Gulf waters. Or pack a picnic and ferry over to Caladesi to hike, paddle or bask on award-winning beaches. After lunch return to historic downtown Dunedin to shop and stroll through waterfront parks. Sample craft beers at the Dunedin Brewery. Admire the sunset and dine on fresh seafood at the Olde Bay Café and Dunedin Fish Market. During spring training, cheer for the Toronto Blue Jays at the TD Ballpark stadium.

ST. PETE/CLEARWATER

Watch sunrise at North Shore Park in St. Pete. Grab breakfast at a St. Pete indie coffee house. Walk to the Dalí Museum to view the artist’s largest collection of works outside of Spain. Have lunch at Parkshore Grill before heading to Clearwater Beach to soak up the sun and splash in the warm Gulf waters. Stroll along Pier 60. Fish or enjoy nightly entertainment from 6 to 9 pm. Sip a tropical cocktail at Tommy’s Tiki Bar at the Hilton Clearwater Beach. For dinner with a view, the outdoor patio at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill ends a perfect day.

TAMPA BAY

Savor fresh guava turnovers and Cuban coffee at La Segunda Bakery & Café in Ybor City before exploring Tampa’s eclectic Latin Quarter, one of Florida’s two historical districts. Visit José Martí Park, the only piece of American soil owned by the people of Cuba. Enjoy paella and sangria at Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest dining establishment. Ride the TECO Historic Streetcar Line to the Tampa Riverwalk and nearby museums and attractions. Soak in the sunset with a pleasant dinner at Ulele and a nightcap at Ciro’s.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, West Central Florida has plenty to share. One showpiece sits on the Tampa Riverwalk, a pedestrian walkway that meanders through the city along the Hillsborough River. The Tampa Museum of Art is housed in an architectural work of art designed by Stanley Saitowitz. Inside, an incredible collection of contemporary and classical art, as well as enticing traveling exhibitions, are on display. From the museum, follow the Riverwalk south to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, showcasing works by local, national and international photographers, as well as historical collections.

Nobody does pirates like Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay History Center brings to life pirates, shipwrecks and treasure—complete with a 60-foot replica pirate ship, a real 1700s ship’s treasure chest and an authentic 1703 map of the Caribbean showing exactly where to attack ships full of treasure.

In downtown Tampa, step back into simpler times amid the splendor of the storied 1920s movie palace at the Tampa Theatre. Tour the mesmerizing theater before the main feature begins, then sit back and relax while a volunteer organist serenades you on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ before the curtain rises.

Within walking distance of each other in downtown St. Petersburg are the Museum of Fine Arts, with thousands of objects spanning 4,500 years, from antiquity to the present, and the Dalí Museum with the world’s largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain. The structure housing the Dalí Museum is in itself a surreal piece of art. The Chihuly Collection, on the Morean Arts Center campus in St. Pete’s Central Arts District, features amazing works of glass art by the master himself.

To the north of Tampa, Dunedin is filled with galleries and regularly hosts arts and craft shows throughout the year. If you’re in the area in early January, head over to the Annual Downtown Dunedin Art Festival, which showcases more than 80 of the nation’s most talented artists and a broad spectrum of media including sculptures, glass, paintings, jewelry and ceramics. Admission is free. Every spring, world-class Scottish athletes descend upon Dunedin for the annual Highland Games & Festival that include a traditional Scottish gathering with music and dance, a parade and a full day of events and competitions.

ATTRACTIONS

When it’s time to go wild, be sure to visit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. One of the largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats in the world, this is home to numerous lions, tigers, bobcats and cougars that have been rescued and are now cared for by loving staff and volunteers.

Another place to enjoy close encounters with animals is ZooTampa at Lowry Park. Spend a day with the animals, learning about their habitats and how to protect them, and you’ll easily see why it is highly-rated.

Busch Gardens is a 335-acre African-themed animal theme park located in Tampa. For the ride of your life, try this park’s latest addition, Iron Gwazi, opening in March. North America’s tallest hybrid coaster and the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world, it takes thrills to new heights.

Located right across the Street from Busch Gardens, Adventure Island is the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. Two new attractions will open this year. Rapid Racer features the world’s first dueling saucers, with high-speed tunnels and turns. Wahoo Remix is a high-energy family raft ride with synchronized light and sound elements. Adventure Island’s all-new Hang Ten Tiki Bar is the first full-service bar to open here.

Downtown, discover all of the wonders that lie beneath the water’s surface at The Florida Aquarium. Meet penguins, cruise out onto the waters of Tampa Bay to watch for dolphins or youngsters can enjoy the splash pad.

The Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores (located between St. Petersburg and Clearwater) is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and hopeful release of sick, injured and orphaned birds.

North of Indian Shores, Winter and Hope, stars of the Dolphin Tale movies, make their home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Plenty of other marine life live alongside the dolphins, including resident sea turtles, otters, stingrays, sharks, pelicans and clownfish. You can get out on the water here, too, on board the aquarium’s 90-minute Sea Life Safari Boat Tour.

Take another look beneath the water and you’ll find mermaids in the crystal-clear waters at Weeki Wachee Springs. More amusement is found winding down the Weeki Wachee River on a Bayport River Safari, cooling off in the indoor ice rink at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, creating art at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, indoor skydiving at iFLY Tampa, and walking among life-size dinosaurs at Dinosaur World in Plant City.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

West Central Florida’s stretches of sugar-white, powder-soft sandy beaches, found along the Gulf of Mexico, are perfect playgrounds for all ages.

For a quiet, more natural beach day without high-rises towering behind you, consider Fort De Soto Park, south of St. Pete Beach, or Anclote Key Preserve State Park to the north. Caladesi Island State Park is a perfect destination not only for beaches, but also for its four-mile kayaking trail and its three-mile nature trail. Honeymoon Island State Park, once a popular honeymoon destination in the 1940s and 1950s, is now a favorite among birdwatchers.

Not only Floridians think the beaches here are fantastic. Two local beaches made it onto TripAdvisor’s 2021 Travelers’ Choice list of “Top 25 Beaches in the U.S.”—Clearwater Beach (No. 18) and St. Pete Beach (No. 1). And at the end of the day, there’s no better place than a beach in West Central Florida to watch spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.

When water temperatures dip below 72ºF in Florida, West Central Florida’s natural springs are terrific spots to see manatees, thought to be mermaids by sailors too long at sea. Popular manatee viewing spots include Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River and the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, just south of Tampa.

ENTERTAINMENT

When it comes to nightlife, West Central Florida likes to party. And there are plenty of spots to do just that.

Ybor City’s thriving nightlife ranges from dance clubs and live music venues to quiet pubs, while Tampa’s South Howard Avenue, or SoHo, is filled with restaurants. However, this hip strip really comes alive after dinner when the drinks begin to pour.

Professional sports take hold of West Central Florida on the ice, on the field and on the pitch. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup championship in both 2020 and 2021.

Take the family out to the ball game during spring training, or during the regular season for that matter. Beginning in March, the Toronto Blue Jays take their swings at the TD Ballpark in Dunedin, while the New York Yankees play spring ball in Tampa and the Philadelphia Phillies step up to the plate in Clearwater. The Jolley Trolley travels from Clearwater to Dunedin and on to Tarpon Springs, making it easy to catch a few spring training games along the route. During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays play their opponents at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

On the pitch in downtown St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team begins its pre-season matches in February, and the regular schedule takes them through the summer and late into the fall.

ROAD TRIPS

Greek cuisine, art and culture—it’s all found in the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs. The area was first settled in 1876 by Greek immigrants, and today it is the city with the highest percentage of Greek-Americans in the U.S. What was once “the sponge capital of the world” is a popular day-trip destination from Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Pasco County.

Park the car and walk, run, cycle or rollerblade along the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, a 50-mile protected, multi-use green space created along an abandoned railroad corridor that extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

For a truly unique experience you won’t soon forget, head over to Crystal River where various tour operators provide the equipment and let you swim among West Indian manatees in super clear waters. Visitors who prefer to stay at arm’s length from the gentle giants can rent a kayak (with or without a guide) to observe them as they swim and play below in the warm waters. If this option is still too close for comfort, you can watch manatees any day of the year from the underwater observatory at the nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park also showcases other native Florida wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators and crocodiles, and river otters. It also offers Wildlife Encounter programs and a children’s education center.

SHOPPING

Pull out your credit cards and get ready to fill your bags at the International Plaza and Bay Street in Tampa. It features Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as all-time favorites, Dillard’s, RH Gallery, J. Crew, H&M, and over a dozen sit down restaurants. Just down the road, WestShore Plaza counts Macy’s, Old Navy and Dick’s Sporting Goods among its storefronts, so there are plenty of shopping opportunities here, too.

Tree-lined streets, historical homes and shopping à la European village make Hyde Park Village one of Tampa’s hot retail spots. It’s easy to spend the day here. Shop for a bit in the morning at brand-name stores, such as west elm, Sur la Table, lululemon and others. Later, enjoy a bite to eat at Goody Goody, nibble on a cupcake at Sprinkles or sip wine at the Wine Exchange. For more outdoor shopping, slip over to The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, where boutiques and department stores entice shoppers with their wares, or Tampa Premium Outlets in Lutz for savings on designer brands.

St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District is popular among shoppers. Spend a day strolling along the avenue lined with fine art galleries, vintage clothing shops and antique stores. There are plenty of restaurants and bars along the way, too.

Souvenir shopping is perfected at John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach. Drop by any of the 50-plus shops for everything from T-shirts and shells to artwork and more.

If you admire arts and crafts, don’t miss the Annual Downtown Dunedin Craft Festival in February, or the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in downtown Tampa in March.

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