The Tampa Bay Area covers a vast portion of Florida’s beach-smothered Gulf coast, comprising Tampa itself, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and a long string of coastal communities from Pass-a-Grille Beach to Tarpon Springs.
The primary tourist attractions tend to be concentrated in Downtown Tampa and Downtown St. Petersburg, though some of the best accommodation lies along the coast. We’ve covered our favorite neighborhoods below.
While it’s relatively easy to explore the Downtown areas on foot, a car is the most convenient way to zip between the different areas of Tampa Bay (taxis/Uber can be expensive over long distances). In Tampa itself, the handy TECO Streetcar (www.tecolinestreetcar.org) links Downtown with Ybor City – it’s free. There’s also no charge for the similarly useful Looper Trolley (loopertrolley.com) in downtown St. Pete.
The Best Places to Stay in Tampa Bay
Best Luxury Hotels in Tampa
JW Marriott Tampa Water Street • Epicurean Hotel • The Birchwood • Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort • The Don CeSar • Opal Sands Resort
Best Boutique Hotels in Tampa Bay
Hotel Haya • West Wing Hotel • The Current Hotel • Avalon Hotel St. Petersburg/Downtown • Fenway Hotel
Best 3-Star/4-Star Hotels in Tampa Bay
Aloft Tampa Downtown • Hotel Alba Tampa • Bon-Aire Resort • Long Key Beach Resort Motel
Best Cheap Hotels in Tampa Bay
Gram’s Place Hostel • The Inn On Third • Gulf Beach Resort • Sun Island Motel • Palm Court Motel
Best Bed & Breakfast in Tampa Bay
1910 Inn • Beyond The Wall Bed and Breakfast • Laughing Lizard B&B • Meranova Bed & Breakfast
Best Neighborhood for Art & Culture: Downtown St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is a small city, but it packs a huge artistic punch. Downtown boasts the exceptional Chihuly Collection (www.moreanartscenter.org/chihuly) of glasswork, the Dalí (thedali.org), with the largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain, the Imagine Museum’s collection of contemporary glass (www.imaginemuseum.com), and the relatively new James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art (jamesmuseum.org). There’s also the Museum of Fine Arts (mfastpete.org) and the Florida CraftArt gallery (floridacraftart.org).
Most Romantic Neighborhood: Hyde Park/SoHo
Just west of Downtown Tampa, upscale Hyde Park Village (hydeparkvillage.com) and the leafy streets nearby make for a romantic getaway. CMX CinéBistro (www.cmxcinemas.com) is a luxury movie theater that serves cocktails and excellent food, while the adjacent SoHo strip (“south Howard”) features some of the region’s best restaurants and bars; fancy spots like Bern’s Steak House (bernssteakhouse.com) and Ciro’s Tampa cocktail bar. Also in SoHo, one of the most elegant boutique inns in the city, the Epicurean Hotel, with it’s own spread of elegant eateries. It’s not far from here to the Hillsborough Bay waterfront, where a 4.5-mile sidewalk trail runs along Bayshore Boulevard.
Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: Ybor City
Tampa’s historic Latin quarter, Ybor City began life as a cigar-manufacturing hub in the early 20th century, with an especially strong Cuban influence. Though it’s the home of excellent museums and famous Cuban restaurants such as Columbia (www.columbiarestaurant.com), it’s equally known for its nightlife today, especially along 7th Avenue. Columbia itself hosts flamenco dance shows most nights, while GameTime (www.gametimeplayers.com) is a sports bar crammed with arcade games, and Improv Comedy Theater (improvtampa.com) is Tampa’s live comedy hub. Also here are major dance clubs like Prana (clubprana.com) and Czar (www.czarnation.com), hip live venue Orpheum (www.theorpheum.com), college student haunts like Gaspar’s Grotto (gasparsgrotto.com), and a thriving LGBT scene (see the Honey Pot). Ybor City lies just a mile or so northeast of Downtown Tampa and there are only a handful of hotels in the neighborhood – the three best (within stumbling distance of the bars) are Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa/Ybor City/Downtown; Hilton Garden Inn Tampa Ybor Historic District; and Hotel Haya.
Best Neighborhood for Food and Restaurants: Dunedin
There’s good eating all over the Tampa Bay area, but Dunedin is an especially enticing, convenient option for foodies. Some five miles north of Clearwater (and 25 miles west of Downtown Tampa), Dunedin is crammed with highly-rated restaurants. Within walking distance of local hotels (and each other) are fine dining hotspot Black Pearl of Dunedin (www.theblackpearldunedin.com), family-friendly Cafe Alfresco (cafealfresco.com), brewpub Dunedin Brewery (dunedinbrewery.com), seafood specialist Lucky Lobster Co (luckylobsterco.com), and no-frills spots like Eli’s Bar-B-Que (www.facebook.com/ElisBarBQueDunedin) and Hot Dogs on Main (www.facebook.com/hotdogsonmaindunedin/?v=info).
Best Neighborhoods for Shopping: Madeira Beach; Hyde Park; Westshore
This is a tough call, but our favorite neighborhoods include Hyde Park Village and Downtown St. Petersburg for upscale shopping, John’s Pass Village (johnspassvillage.net) at Madeira Beach for a laid-back, family-friendly experience at the seaside, or Westshore for the biggest malls (International Plaza and Bay Street; shopinternationalplaza.com; and WestShore Plaza; westshoreplaza.com). There’s plenty of accommodation in Downtown St. Pete’s, Madeira Beach and Westshore (see below), but not much choice in Hyde Park (see above).
Best (non-beach) Neighborhood for families: North Tampa
The Tampa Bay region’s fine beaches tend to attract the most attention from families for obvious reasons, but using North Tampa as a base for at least some of the time makes sense. Busch Gardens (buschgardens.com/tampa), the state’s premier theme park outside of Orlando, will take up at least a full day, while neighboring waterpark Adventure Island (adventureisland.com) is a big hit in the summer. Kids also love the Museum of Science and Industry (and its IMAX theater; www.mosi.org), Big Cat Rescue (bigcatrescue.org) and ZooTampa at Lowry Park (zootampa.org); and there’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to hotel and motel accommodation (a car is essential here).
Best Neighborhood for mom-and-pop accommodations: Treasure Island
One of Tampa’s most enticing beach communities – with a huge swathe of white sand and low-lying dunes – is also refreshingly free of the major chain hotels that line much of Florida’s coastline. Most of the beach hotels and resorts here are independent, family owned, like the Beachside Resort Motel – one of our favorites and a great deal.
Best Neighborhood for Local Vibe: Gulfport
Gulfport is a little off the main tourist trail, lining the bay midway between St. Pete Beach (4 miles) and Downtown St. Petersburg (5 miles), but it’s an artsy, quirky community full of character. Best known for its annual GeckoFest (http://geckofest.com) in the fall (with street performers, arts and crafts stalls and a parade), it also hosts weekly Art Walks and a farmers’ market, as well as several laid-back bars and restaurants. Our favorites include Salty’s Gulfport Bar (5413 Shore Blvd South), Low Tide Kava Bar (www.lowtidekavabar.com), and Little Tommies Tiki (5519 Shore Blvd South). There’s not much choice when it comes to accommodation, however; the best options are the Historic Peninsula Inn and Sea Breeze Manor Inn. For taster of Old Florida, it’s also worth checking out Pass-a-Grille Beach (see below).
Best Neighborhood for beach holidays: Clearwater Beach
The Tampa Bay area boasts some of the best beaches in Florida, but for overall seaside family fun it’s hard to top Clearwater Beach. It’s a gorgeous strip of bone-white sand home to all sorts of activities, from volleyball and rollerblading to parasailing and stand-up paddleboarding, while Pier 60 (www.sunsetsatpier60.com) host a nightly sunset celebration with craft stalls and performers. To the south, Sand Key Park offers a less commercialized beach, while Clearwater Marine Aquarium (www.cmaquarium.org) is the home of Winter (the star of movie Dolphin Tale).
Unsafe Areas of Tampa
Most areas of Tampa are generally quite safe, though the usual precautions should be taken at night, especially in Ybor City. The most dangerous neighborhoods lie north and east of Downtown Tampa (areas like Live Oaks Square, Highland Pines and Woodland Terrace), plus sections of inland Largo and Clearwater (Wyatt Street) – but these are all easily avoided.
1 Downtown & Channel District
Downtown Tampa and the adjacent Channel District anchor the whole Tampa Bay area, serving as its premier business district, as well as containing the Tampa Convention Center, the Amalie Arena (home to Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team; www.nhl.com/lightning), and several theaters. Major tourist attractions include the Tampa Museum of Art (tampamuseum.org), Glazer Children’s Museum (glazermuseum.org), Florida Aquarium (www.flaquarium.org), Tampa Bay History Center (www.tampabayhistorycenter.org), and the American Victory Ship & Museum (www.americanvictory.org). University of Tampa’s Henry B. Plant Museum (www.plantmuseum.com) lies just across the Hillsborough River. Downtown lies some 25 miles east of Clearwater Beach (around 40 minutes by car).
The Best Hotels in Downtown Tampa/Channel District
Aloft Tampa Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 813 898 8000
Courtyard by Marriott Tampa Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 813 229 1100
Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Convention Center • Hotel phone: +1 813 769 8300
Hampton Inn Tampa Downtown Channel District • Hotel phone: +1 813 525 9900
Hilton Tampa Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 813 204 3000
JW Marriott Tampa Water Street • Hotel phone: +1 813 221 4950
Le Méridien Tampa • Hotel phone: +1 813 221 9555
Westin Tampa Waterside • Hotel phone: +1 813 229 5000
2 North Tampa
Roughly covering the section of Tampa north of the Hillsborough River (for the purposes of this survey), North Tampa is primarily residential, though it also encompasses the vast University of South Florida campus and several major family-friendly attractions: the Busch Gardens theme park, Adventure Island waterpark, the Museum of Science and Industry, and ZooTampa at Lowry Park. Attractions and restaurants are spread out here along the main avenues, so a car is essential. Note that it’s around a one-hour drive from here to the Gulf beaches.
The Best Hotels in North Tampa
Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa USF • Hotel phone: +1 813 977 7066
Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa Busch Gardens Area • Hotel phone: +1 813 605 5233
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Tampa -Usf-Busch Gardens • Hotel phone: +1 813 936 8200
Hyatt Place Tampa/Busch Gardens • Hotel phone: +1 813 979 1922
La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham USF • Hotel phone: +1 813 910 7500
West Wing Hotel • Hotel phone: +1 813 559 8000
A few miles west of Downtown Tampa, Westshore is a generally sleepy residential neighborhood, primarily of interest to travelers because of Tampa International Airport, a couple of major shopping malls, and a cluster of affordable hotels, restaurants and motels. Easy access to I-275 means it’s convenient for drivers heading west to St. Petersburg and the beaches, as well as Downtown Tampa and the airport. The two malls – International Plaza and Bay Street and Westshore Plaza – are just 1.5 miles apart. Also nearby, the George M. Steinbrenner Field (www.gmsfield.com) baseball stadium, the Spring Training base of the New York Yankees. Another highlight for craft beer fans: lauded Cigar City Brewing Co (www.cigarcitybrewing.com) has its main brewery and tasting room here.
The Best Hotels in Westshore/Airport (inc Rocky Point)
The Current Hotel • Hotel phone: +1 813 281 2545
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Tampa Westshore/Airport • Hotel phone: +1 813 872 0044
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay • Hotel phone: +1 813 874 1234
Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa Airport Avion Park Westshore • Hotel phone: +1 813 287 8500
Hilton Garden Inn Tampa Airport Westshore • Hotel phone: +1 813 289 2700
Hotel Alba Tampa • Hotel phone: +1 813 289 1950
Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel • Hotel phone: +1 813 877 9200
The Westin Tampa Bay • Hotel phone: +1 813 281 0000
The Westshore Grand • Hotel phone: +1 813 286 4400
4 Downtown St. Petersburg
Some 23 miles southwest of Downtown Tampa, on the other side of the bay, Downtown St. Petersburg is the region’s artistic and cultural heart, with a line up of world-class museums and galleries. Topping the list are the Dalí, the Museum of Fine Arts and Chihuly Collection, but St. Pete has also hosts the newish James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art and the Imagine Museum of glass. Central Avenue is lined with indie galleries, posh boutiques, restaurants and bars. The heartrending Florida Holocaust Museum (www.flholocaustmuseum.org) is also here, as well as the recently rebuilt St. Pete Pier (stpetepier.org), the hub of a lively waterfront dining, shopping and entertainment district.
The Best Hotels in Downtown St. Petersburg
Avalon Hotel St. Petersburg/Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 727 317 5508
The Birchwood • Hotel phone: +1 727 896 1080
Cordova Inn • Hotel phone: +1 727 822 7500
Hampton Inn & Suites St. Petersburg/Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 727 892 9900
Hollander Hotel St. Petersburg / Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 727 873 7900
Hyatt Place St. Petersburg/Downtown • Hotel phone: +1 727 220 0950
Mansion House Inn • Hotel phone: +1 727 289 2121
The Inn On Third • Hotel phone: +1 727 894 3248
The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 894 1000
5 St. Pete Beach
Some nine miles west of Downtown St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach boasts a fabulous stretch of white sand on the Gulf, plus a blend of mom and pop businesses with more upscale resorts; the all-pink Don CeSar is one of the most iconic hotels in the region. Corey Avenue is at the heart of the neighborhood, lined with indie stores, galleries, and seafood restaurants. There’s not much in the way of sights – the beach and the laid-back small town atmosphere is the main allure here.
The Best Hotels in St. Pete Beach
Bon-Aire Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 5596
The Don CeSar • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 1881
Gulf Beach Resort • Hotel phone: +1 800 628 4090
Long Key Beach Resort Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 1748
Pasa Tiempo Waterfront Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 9907
Sun Island Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 5724
TradeWinds Island Grand Resort • Hotel phone: +1 800 249 1667
6 Treasure Island
Just north of St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island is an old-fashioned seaside community best known for its independent mom-and-pop motels right on the beachfront – offering great value and access to a very wide, fantastic chalk-white beach. The section known as “Sunshine Beach” offers the additional attraction of grassy dunes and beach walkovers.
The Best Hotels in Treasure Island
Beachside Resort Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 3793
Blue Waters Treasure Island • Hotel phone: +1 727 300 9004
The Bungalows • Hotel phone: +1 727 201 4959
The Delacado On Sunset Beach • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 6362
Page Terrace Beachfront Hotel • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 1997
Provident Oceana Beachfront Suites • Hotel phone: +1 727 685 2700
Treasure Island Beach Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 322 7022
7 Clearwater Beach
Clearwater Beach, some 25 miles west of Downtown Tampa, is the region’s most lively seaside community. In addition to a wide range of accommodation, there’s volleyball, parasailing and jet-skiing, as well as the nightly Pier 60 sunset celebration. For all-round entertainment – and a beautiful white-sand beach – it’s hard to beat. Just to the south, Sand Key Park offers a less developed seaside experience, while Clearwater Marine Aquarium is noted especially for its dolphin program (featuring Winter, star of a Dolphin’s Tale).
The Best Hotels in Clearwater Beach
Bamboo Beach Club • Hotel phone: +1 844 682 5756
Barefoot Bay Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 447 3316
Blue Wave Motel Suites • Hotel phone: +1 727 442 5100
Club Wyndham Clearwater Beach • Hotel phone: +1 727 401 3600
East Shore Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 442 3636
Frenchy’s Oasis Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 446 6835
Opal Sands Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 450 0380
The small community of Dunedin lies on the Gulf Coast, some 25 miles west of Downtown Tampa. It’s known for its beaches (especially on nearby Honeymoon Island State Park), but also its culinary scene – quality restaurants, bars, coffee shops and craft breweries are concentrated here like no where else in the Tampa Bay area. It’s also a good base to explore the Pinellas Trail (a multi-use biking/cycling trail running from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs), as well as the mangroves of Caladesi Island State Park (preferably by kayak). Dunedin (which comes from the Scottish Gaelic name for “Edinburgh”) boasts Scottish heritage, best appreciated at the Celtic Shop of Dunedin (celticshopdunedin.com) or at the annual Highland Games and Military Tattoo. Dunedin is also the location of TD Ballpark, home to the Toronto Blue Jays Spring Training baseball games (www.mlb.com/bluejays).
The Best Hotels in Dunedin
Beso Del Sol Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 734 8851
Beyond The Wall Bed and Breakfast • Hotel phone: +1 727 500 2337
Fenway Hotel • Hotel phone: +1 844 569 9879
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Clearwater North/Dunedin • Hotel phone: +1 727 450 1200
Meranova Bed & Breakfast • Hotel phone: +1 727 733 9248
Palm Court Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 736 0441
9 Madeira Beach
“Mad Beach” – five miles north of St. Pete Beach and 14 miles south of Clearwater Beach – is one of our favorite Gulf Coast communities in the Tampa Bay area. Low-key and relaxed, the motels and hotels here are good value, and there’s always a friendly local clientele frequenting the beach bars and restaurants along Gulf Boulevard. The beach, as always, is the main attraction, but there’s also Johns Pass Village and Boardwalk at the southern end, a family-friendly collection of shops and restaurants overlooking the water. From here fishing charters depart from the “Grouper Capital of the World” (www.hubbardsmarina.com; gotonecharters.com).
The Best Hotels in Madeira Beach
6 West Beach Cottages • Hotel phone: +1 941 757 8226
Cambria Hotel St. Petersburg-Madeira Beach Marina • Hotel phone: +1 727 350 7300
Madeira Beach Cottages • Hotel phone: +1 727 639 8000
Shoreline Island Resort • Hotel phone: +1 800 635 8373
10 Pass-a-Grille Beach
The far southern end of St. Pete Beach is known as Pass-a-Grille Beach, a sleepy, colorful Old Florida neighborhood known for its historic Cracker cottages, dune-lined beachfront and laid-back restaurant and bar scene. Other than the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum (gulfbeachesmuseum.com) there’s not much in the way of sights – the undeveloped seafront (and boat trips to Shell Key) provides the allure. The tiny main drag is 8th Avenue, home to a cluster of galleries, bars and restaurants.
The Best Hotels in Pass-a-Grille Beach
Coconut Inn Pass-a-Grille • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 3030
Havana Inn • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 1305
Inn on the Beach • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 8844
Island’s End Resort • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 5023
Keystone Motel • Hotel phone: +1 727 360 1313
Sabal Palms Inn • Hotel phone: +1 727 367 1305