Planning a holiday in the Sunshine State? Tampa is the perfect base for exploring Central Florida’s top travel destinations. From theme parks to state parks, it’s all within reach by tackling the best day trips from Tampa, Florida.
Although Tampa offers plenty of attractions of its own (including Busch Gardens), the city is also surrounded by interesting towns, beautiful beaches, and nature reserves. Within just two hours, you can scoot from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast—and everything in between. You’ll see world-class amusement parks, bask in the wilderness, and soak up the sun on some of the finest beaches in the United States.
Ready to launch the ultimate Tampa Bay vacation? Maximize your trip with this guide to the top-rated Tampa side trips.
Top-rated Tampa side trips
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
If you’re a nature lover visiting Tampa, don’t miss out on the beautiful Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created to protect the natural habitat of manatees, a threatened mammal species.
Each winter, when the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico drops, hundreds of Florida manatees migrate to King’s Bay. This unspoiled spring forms the headwaters of the Crystal River and the wildlife refuge’s most famed attraction.
The spectacular natural springs pour 600 million gallons of freshwater into the Crystal River every day. The water at the Three Sister’s Run, favored by the manatees, is warmed by the spring and the seagrasses offer welcome sustenance.
The 80-acre park comprises twenty islands. In winter, Crystal River is truly the manatee capital of the world. During manatee season, more than 600 of the gentle beasts draw visitors to watch their antics. From the boardwalk, visitors can easily watch these animals grazing in the clear water.
More than 100 bird species inhabit the park’s wetlands and restored natural habitats. Take a hike or kayak ride to experience the park’s immense beauty. You can even join in on a manatee swimming tour for an experience like no other.
Traveling to Crystal River Wildlife Refuge by car from Tampa will take about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Walt Disney World Resort
No introduction needed: Walt Disney World Resort is a magical vacation destination for the whole family. Even if you can’t carve out a day in Orlando, spending a day at one of the Disney parks is a must.
Let’s not kid ourselves: You won’t see all of Walt Disney World in a day. Instead, choose one Disney park to focus your time on.
Disney World has four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. There are also two water parks at the resort.
If you’re a first-time visitor, Magic Kingdom is a good place to start your Disney adventure. The theme park is home to several thrill rides along with shows featuring your favorite Disney characters.
Or set your sights on Epcot. Whisk off to exquisite destinations all over the world with awe-inspiring 4D adventures or try delicious food from around the world at World Showcase. Or discover the stars in a NASA simulator at Mission: SPACE.
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you can experience a 3D immersive experience with your favorite characters from movies like Star Wars and Toy Story. You can watch stunt shows, sing along to Frozen tunes, and even learn Jedi training techniques at the movie-themed theme park.
With its distance from Tampa, you’ll need your own wheels if you want to visit Disney as a day trip. Walt Disney World Resort is about an hour and 25 minutes from Tampa by car.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Take a step back in time at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Opened in 1947, this historic park still has a 1950s feel. It’s the only spring-fed water park in Florida and is famous for its mermaid shows. Watch from a submerged theatre as mermaids perform underwater dance routines.
Make sure to book a boat cruise or hire a kayak or stand-up paddle to explore the beautiful clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River. You can also hire tubes to float down the river or take a dip in the clear warm water.
The kids will love the Buccaneer Bay water park. With its massive water slides and lazy river, it’s one of the area’s top family-friendly attractions. (And a great place to cool down in summer!)
Plenty of picnic tables pepper the park. Bring a basket of goodies and enjoy lunch in the open air. Pack the buckets and spades; building castles on the sandy beach is great fun, too.
Make sure that you arrive at the park early. The park stops selling tickets as soon as the area reaches capacity.
You’ll need to set aside about an hour and ten minutes to drive to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park from Tampa.
Looking for an easy-going side trip from Tampa? Award-winning Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast will slot in high on the list. Fun for the whole family, Clearwater Beach is blessed with soft white sands lapped by warm waters. It’s often touted as one of the best beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast—and even in the United States!
You’ll find plenty to do among the top tourist attractions in Clearwater. The beach town teems with small shops, restaurants, and pubs. Much of the action is centered around its lovely beachfront promenade.
With its calm, warm waters, Clearwater Beach is the perfect place to go parasailing, swimming, or jet skiing. Fishing is also a popular water activity here. Several chartered fishing boats ply the docks.
If you’ve got time, stop in at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to walk among its many marine animals. The small facility prides itself on rehabilitating injured sea creatures. The star attraction is Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail and now uses a prosthesis. (You may recognize Winter’s story from the heart-warming movie Dolphin’s Tale.)
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At the end of the day, head off to Pier 60. The popular fishing pier hosts a nightly sunset celebration with beautiful views and entertainment. Enjoy the sunset to the strains of live music, cocktail in hand.
Clearwater Beach is one of the quickest Tampa Bay day trips. It’s only about 30 minutes west of Tampa by car.
Looking for an urban escape from Tampa? Cross over Old Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg. One of the Gulf Coast’s most interesting cities, St. Petersburg is a popular Central Florida destination for its art & culture and blissful weather.
Among the top attractions in St. Petersburg, FL, is the Dali Museum. Located near the waterfront, the art museum is home to the biggest Salvador Dali art collection outside of Spain. You’ll spot some of the famed surrealist painter’s finest works right here in St. Pete.
Nicknamed the Sunshine City, St. Petersburg almost guarantees visitors bright sunny skies. Come prepared to take a dip in the warm clear waters at some of the finest beaches around St. Petersburg & Clearwater.
Saint Peterburg also hosts one of the world’s longest piers, Skyway Fishing Pier. Built upon a demolished highway bridge, the pier is the perfect place to cast in a line or catch a sunset. At night, the pier’s lights attract the fish. You’re almost guaranteed a catch!
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On a day trip to St. Petersburg, try to squeeze in a visit to the Sunken Gardens. This 100-year-old botanical garden contains more than 50,000 tropical plants. You’ll even see waterfalls as well as several species of unusual birds, including the drawcard Chilean flamingos.
The drive from Tampa to St. Petersburg is just 23 minutes.
Hillsborough River State Park
Just nine miles from Downtown Tampa, Hillsborough River State Park is one of Florida’s oldest state parks. Established in 1938, the lovely state park centers around a river offering visitors plenty of opportunities for water sports like kayaking and fishing.
If you’re looking for adventure, paddle down the swiftly flowing waters of the Hillsborough River in a kayak or canoe. You’re bound to find some tricky rapids along the way.
Hillsborough River State Park has four nature trails and a cycling trail. There’s also an outdoor swimming pool and plenty of camping facilities for families.
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In the park over the weekend? Join in on a tour of the Fort Foster State Historic Site. History buffs will love the fort, a replica of its 1836 original, and its interesting collection of artifacts from the Second Seminole War.
From Tampa, it’s about a 30-minute drive to Hillsborough River State Park.
Rainbow Springs State Park
If you’re a nature lover and enjoy outdoor activities, a day trip to Rainbow Springs State Park is a must. At this beautiful state park, splendid wetland forests surround crystal-clear natural spring waters.
Spend the day at Rainbow Springs paddling in a transparent boat to bask in nature above and below the water. If you prefer the thrill of zooming through the air, zipline through the forest while enjoying incredible views from above. There’s also a small petting zoo for the kids to make some new furry friends.
Built up an appetite? Grab lunch at one of three restaurants in the park. If you’re too tired to drive or tight on time, book a campsite for the night.
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One of the top-rated Florida state parks, Rainbow Springs State Park is about 100 miles from Tampa. The drive should take just under two hours.
Bok Tower Gardens
Craving a little natural beauty? Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales is well worth a visit. Equal distance from Tampa and Orlando, the historic gardens spread out over 8 acres.
Relax as you walk in the beautiful gardens alongside the glistening, serene lake. Presiding over all of this is the Singing Tower with its 60-bell carillon. In the garden, you’ll spot 26 bird species. It’s also home to the endangered eastern indigo snake and the gopher tortoise.
The gardens host daily events, including concerts featuring jazz ensembles, orchestras, and the carillon bells.
While visiting Bok Tower Gardens, try to squeeze in a tour of the Pinewood Estate. Built in the 1930s, the sprawling summer house mansion is magnificent in its detail and scale.
Bok Tower Gardens is about an hour and a half by car from Tampa.
Need more seaside pleasures? Jet over to Sanibel Island. Located in Southwest Florida near Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is all about beautiful beaches, warm sea breezes, golden sands, and sunshine. It’s home to some of the finest beaches around Fort Myers—and, indeed, on the whole Gulf Coast!
Much of the fun revolves around the island’s renowned golden beaches. Water sports, beach fishing, paddle boarding, and boating excursions top the agenda in Sanibel Island. Along with nearby Captiva Island, Sanibel is also one of the top shelling destinations in Florida.
If you’re not in a rush to return to Tampa, try to catch one of Sanibel Island’s beautiful Gulf Coast sunsets. Enjoy the view at a beachfront bar over a chilly mojito and fresh seafood platter.
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The drive to Sanibel Island from Tampa will take just over two and a half hours. Turn your day trip into an extended beach outing by staying in one of its lovely beachfront resorts.
Experience the sparkling blue Gulf Coast waters with a side trip to Punta Gorda. Located between Fort Myers and Venice, FL, the beach town is famed for its historical district, restaurants, and waterfront shops beckoning barefoot shoppers.
There are many fun things to see & do in Punta Gorda. Take some time to explore the wonderful historical district with its beautiful wood-framed Queen Anne homes. Spend the day strolling its quaint streets lined with art galleries, boutiques, antique stores, and eateries.
If water sports are your thing, you can go snorkeling off the coast and swim among colorful coral reefs teeming with marine life. Or hit the waves and go kayaking along the shoreline.
Never leave home without your golf clubs in tow? You’ll love Punta Gorda. The city boasts 10 golf courses, with another 39 within a 20-mile radius.
After a day of sightseeing, take a stroll along the Harborwalk. Running along beautiful Charlotte Harbor to Fisherman’s Village, the Harborwalk is the perfect place to catch a blazing Gulf of Mexico sunset.
Punta Gorda is just over 100 miles from Tampa. Bank on about 1.5 hours driving time.
Like much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota is famed for its golden sands touched by warm blue water. It’s also one of the Sunshine State’s most interesting cultural destinations. Led by the famed John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota is jam-packed with art galleries, museums, and theaters.
Beach lovers should carve out time for Siesta Key Beach. Located on Siesta Key, just south of the city, Siesta Key Beach is one of Sarasota’s most beautiful beaches. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors alike for its fine quartz-like sand and spectacular sunset.
In addition to beaches, the top things to do in Sarasota include parks and nature reserves offering endless outdoor adventures. Even if you’re tight on time, you can charter a boat, join a bike tour, or play a round of golf at one of its pristine golf & country clubs.
Nature lovers shouldn’t miss the chance to take a stroll in Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Located along the Gulf waterfront, the 45-acre botanical gardens are quite remarkable and among the top places to see in Sarasota.
If you decide to stay in Sarasota, the city has a vibrant nightlife. And it all starts at sunset with a cocktail. Live music, film festivals, and comedy fill the streets of Downtown Sarasota with laughter and song. Diners enjoy the warm sea breezes at its outdoor waterfront restaurants and bars.
Sarasota is just 60 miles from Tampa. In good driving conditions, the ride should be not much longer than an hour.
Fort De Soto Park
Just 40 minutes from Tampa, Fort de Soto Park boasts seven miles of waterfront and two fishing piers. The park sprawls over five islands, all of them connected by roads and bridges.
Rent a kayak or canoe on the beachfront and take a trip along the paddling trail. Pay a visit to historic Fort de Soto or simply enjoy the surrounding landscapes as you walk the park’s trails.
Children enjoy splashing in the tidal pool and looking for shells. Fort de Soto is an adventure of its own, complete with cannons pointing at Tampa Bay. There’s also a museum in the park.
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One of the top Tampa Bay road trips, Fort De Soto Park is a 45-minute drive from the city.
Honeymoon Island State Park
Looking for a pristine beach with some seclusion? Indulge in the romance of Honeymoon Island State Park. Located two islands north of Clearwater Beach, Honeymoon Island is famed for its slash pine strand. Other than a small shop and two bathhouses, little else dwells on the unspoiled island.
Honeymoon Island State Park is the perfect place to get away from the bustle of Central Florida. Spend time exploring nature in your kayak or canoe. Or find a secluded spot on the four-mile beach to enjoy some peaceful alone time.
You’ll need about 45 minutes to drive to Honeymoon Island State Park.
Caladesi Island State Park
Need more natural bliss? Carve out a day to explore Caladesi Island State Park. Wedged between Honeymoon Island and Clearwater Beach, the island is a popular spot for water sports and relaxation. Although steps from Clearwater, the untouched island is only accessible by boat or by foot.
At Caladesi Island State Park, wander along nature trails that’ll take you along the beach or to the ruins of a historic homestead. Another popular option is to paddle a kayak through winding waterways that meander through the mangrove forest. Bring your binoculars: Caladesi Island is also home to several bird and reptile species.
A café alongside the marina sells fast food and other refreshments. Buy yourself a light lunch and chill on the soft white sands, daydreaming your way to Paradise.
Caladesi Island State Park is about 30 miles from Tampa. Drive 45 minutes to Clearwater, where you can catch the 15-minute ferry to the pristine island.
Anna Maria Island
Looking to explore more of Florida’s beautiful Gulf Coast? Carve out a day to check out Anna Maria Island. Located just an hour south of Tampa, the popular barrier island teems with beautiful beaches and classic small-town Florida vibes.
After soaking up some rays on the water, venture into town for some shopping along Pine Avenue. End off the perfect day with a relaxing dinner at one of its many excellent seafront restaurants, including The Sandbar.