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White sand beaches and warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico welcome visitors to the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater area on the west coast of Florida. But there’s so much more to the region. Freelance travel writer Marcea Cazel enjoys sharing unique things to do in Florida, especially in her adopted hometown. The creator of the travel blog My Cornacopia, Marcea lives with her family outside of Clearwater and is always on the lookout for places to explore. Be sure to follow her on Instagram and Facebook.
Here are some things Marcea loves best about the Tampa Bay area.
Why did you move to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area? How long have you lived there?
I first moved to the area in 1996 after college. Clearwater is where I met my husband, and we got married. We moved away for 13 years but came back to the area eight years ago because we always knew we’d like to return to raise a family here. It made that big an impression on me all those years ago.
Three words to describe the Tampa/St. Petersburg area
Relaxing, sunny, artistic.
What’s something that might surprise people about the Tampa Bay area?
The first is that Tampa Bay isn’t a city. Tampa Bay is a large body of water here, but it also refers to the area that surrounds the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater.
The other thing that surprises people is that it’s no longer a sleepy area full of retirees. The demographics here are diverse, and people live very active lifestyles.
What are your favorite restaurants in the Tampa Bay area?
I love restaurants that show off the gorgeous water views we have. On Clearwater Beach, my go-to is Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. It’s right on the beach, and if you sit on the patio, you can watch people play volleyball and enjoy the waves. In downtown St. Petersburg, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille offers great drinks and is right on the new pier. And if you’re in Tarpon Springs to visit the Sponge Docks, head to Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill afterward. They have their own seafood boats, so you know the grouper, shrimp, and stone crab they have on the menu are always fresh.
Where would you go for a special occasion meal?
I’d head to Ulele. Overlooking the Hillsborough River, they serve unique Florida-inspired dishes like alligator hush puppies and a native chili that includes boar and duck. Their use of local ingredients makes for unique menu choices.
What’s your favorite place to get fresh air?
If I’m looking to get some fresh air, I always go to one of the nine Florida State Parks in the area. The state park system is so diverse that there’s a little something different at each one. My favorites to go for a hike and clear my mind are Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa and Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin.
Hillsborough River State Park is located on over 3,000 acres and has buildings constructed during the Depression, including a suspension bridge that will give you heart palpitations. The hiking trails take you right past the river that has some of the only river rapids in the state.
Honeymoon Island State Park is home to beaches that are often ranked as some of the best in the United States. It also has wooded hiking areas where you can spot all kinds of animal and plant life. It’s such a relaxing feeling once you’re inside the park that it’s easy to forget you’re in the most densely populated county in the state.
We often don’t get to stay in hotels in our hometown, but let’s pretend. Where would you stay in the Tampa Bay area?
The Fenway Hotel. Built in the mid-1920s, it hosted artists, musicians, and literary types and many local dances took place there. After being closed for many years, it was recently completely renovated. It’s a quick walk there from the restaurants and breweries of downtown Dunedin and has a rooftop bar that gives unobstructed views of the sunset.
What’s the art scene like? Anything you think is a must-see/do?
St. Petersburg has become an arts mecca and is a must-visit for any type of arts lover. The art museums in the city are excellent and include The Salvador Dali Museum, which has the largest collection of Dali works outside of Spain. There are also museums in the city that focus on fine arts, crafts, and western American art. One recent addition is Fairgrounds St. Pete, an immersive museum; the artists work in a variety of mediums, including neon, giving it a true Florida vibe.
I recommend that everyone who visits St. Pete explore the street murals throughout the city. There is no complete map of all of them since some are privately commissioned, but there are over 500 of them. And every October, the city puts on the SHINE Mural Festival, where you can watch artists work on their masterpieces from start to finish.
There are so many reasons to stay up past your bedtime in the Tampa Bay area. If you had to just pick 2-3, what are they?
I don’t hang out late much anymore, but one thing I’ve wanted to experience is heading to the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. It’s the oldest shuffleboard club in the world and hosts several nighttime events to get people interested in the sport. If you think shuffleboard is only for people past retirement age, think again. In addition to Friday nights where you can bring food and drinks and learn how to play, the club also hosts a shuffleboard history event that includes free local beer.
Another thing on my list is to do a glow tour with Get Up and Go Tampa Bay. They use clear kayaks that are lit up, and their guides take you out through the mangroves and to Shell Key Island at night. It sounds peaceful and scary all at the same time!
What’s the most chill/relaxing experience in town?
Heading to one of the local breweries in the area. The craft beer trend has really exploded in the Tampa Bay area in the past few years. It’s said that we have close to 100 breweries and that it’s the biggest brewing area in the state. While there are some larger, nationally owned breweries, most of them are locally owned and operated. Going to a brewery is a great way to get to know local residents and learn fun things to do.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but the two I love are Keel Farms, 7venth Sun, and Brighter Days. Keel Farms is a winery/brewery/restaurant in Plant City and often puts on family-friendly events. Their wines and ciders are my favorites because they use natural Florida flavors like key lime and strawberries. The Dunedin location of 7venth Sun (they also have a Tampa location) is small but fun. They create some unique beers and have one of the few female head brewers in the area.
What do you think most tourists do wrong in the Tampa Bay area?
Missing out on exploring the history of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Our beaches are amazing, but it’s not all there is to do here. The history here is very interesting – even Theodore Roosevelt was in Tampa before shipping out with the Rough Riders.
The Tampa Bay History Center is a great place to start. It offers an overview of the original indigenous residents through current times. The center also has walking tours of Tampa. Two of them focus on African American history and give a perspective of pioneering Black residents that are often ignored.
Also in Tampa is Ybor City, which has a very interesting history. The roosters that you’ll see wandering around are related to the roosters in Key West, who originally came from Cuba. And speaking of Cuba, José Martí Park in Ybor is owned by the Cuban government. There’s a wealth of Cuban history in Ybor. A great place to learn more about this one-mile city within a city is at the Ybor City Museum.
Best place for a selfie?
The Tampa Riverwalk overlooking the minarets of the University of Tampa. And any beach on the Gulf of Mexico at sunset.
Best day trip?
Take the interstate south and head to The Ringling in Sarasota. The former home of one of the Ringling Brothers of circus fame, the site now has an art museum, a circus museum, tours of the main home, and acres of gardens to explore. You can easily spend all day there exploring and enjoying lunch at one of the restaurants on-site.
Most underrated experience in town?
The Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo. It’s over 150 acres that highlight a lot of local flora. There are ponds, fountains, sculptures, and benches, making for a relaxing experience that helps take your mind away for a few hours. And the best thing is that it’s part of the county parks system and is free to enter.