Your Insider Guide to Tampa Bay

By: Lauren Gay + Save to a List

Outdoorsy Diva, Lauren Gay, explores her favorite adventure spots and local cuisine.

I’m Lauren, also known as the ‘Outdoorsy Diva’, and I’ve lived in Tampa since the age of 12. However, it has only been in the last 10 years, while seeking places to explore while raising my son, that I have really come to know and appreciate how much this area has to offer for nature lovers.  

My son and I have visited every state park within an hour’s drive, all of the regional parks, and countless city parks over the years, truly making the city of Tampa our playground.

Not many can say they live where people vacation, but as a Tampa transplant from Texas, I say this quite often.  The easy proximity to waterways, beaches, and freshwater springs, not to mention the warm weather, make Tampa, Florida a great home base for someone like me with an adventurous spirit and mermaid tendencies.

I am ecstatic to share some of my favorite Tampa Bay adventure spots for outdoor activities and places to connect and experience nature.  

I will also share the inside scoop on the best foodie adventures from the cultural melting pot of Tampa’s eclectic communities.

Favorite Outdoor Activities

A quick nature escape just outside the city: 

Hillsborough River State Park 

I was surprised to learn about this serene oasis just outside the city and now it is one of my favorite local hideaways. While it is on the outskirts of the county, it is worth the drive to see the only location in the state of Florida with class II river rapids. 

It’s a great park for a day hike or camping. There are suspension bridges, places to fish, and kayaks and canoes to rent for paddling. This state park is one of the best places to get away from the city and find some peace in nature.

Seek solitude and wildlife watching at Trout Creek Wilderness Park

If solitude is what you seek, Trout Creek Park is my absolute favorite place to go spend some time in nature. I love this park because it is easily accessible from the main interstate and not too far from the city.   

It has a boardwalk along the river where you will see lots of birds and even the occasional alligator then continues along a short and easy shaded nature trail through palm hammocks.

Soar over the treetops and wildlife preserves at Empower Adventures

If you’re up for a fun vantage point of Tampa Bay, Empower Adventures is an awesome zip line and aerial obstacle course with sweeping views of the bay.

Empower Adventures has 5 zip lines, totaling 3,000 feet over nature and wildlife preserves. There’s also a 200-foot long suspension bridge and aerial obstacle course. The landscape views are incredible from the platforms, and the staff is extremely friendly and helpful.

Paddle into the Downtown Tampa skyline

There is no better way to spend a morning than renting a kayak or SUP and paddling down the river along the Tampa Riverwalk. Coasting down the river towards the Tampa skyline is the perfect juxtaposition of nature and city. I think Tampa is at its most beautiful when seen from the vantage point of the water.  

There are several outfitters like Urban Kai that offer kayak rentals, SUP rentals, and guided tours.

Explore the heart of the city on the Tampa Riverwalk

The Tampa Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the city outdoors. This 2.6 mile waterside walkway is home to fun festivals throughout the year, waterfront dining options, museums, and a plethora of activities on the water like kayaking, floating bars, and water bikes. 

I like to find the swinging benches near the Performing Arts center and relax with a snack while I people watch.

A unique way to see the city from the water that I love is via a water bike. It’s a light workout with a bike mounted on boards to let you pedal almost effortlessly along the Riverwalk. Tampa Water Bike Company is the outfitter that offers rentals.

A nearby island getaway at Fort DeSoto State Park Beach

Though there are many places to get on the water with a watercraft within the city limits, when I’m craving beach time, I make the short drive to Fort DeSoto State Park. 

This is one of the most pristine beaches with clear water you will find in the Tampa Bay Area. Fort DeSoto is just south of the iconic Skyway Bridge outside of St. Petersburg, FL.  

If I’m feeling extra adventurous, I catch the ferry from Fort DeSoto and head over to Egmont Key State Park or Shell Key Preserve. Both of these island paradises are hidden gems and give you secluded beach time with Caribbean turquoise waters most of the year.

Shell Key is a great spot to do overnight beach camping, and there’s also a large popular campground in Fort DeSoto, as well as some great spots for bird watching.

Favorite Foodie Adventures

Enjoying many of the outdoor activities in the area will certainly work up an appetite. While I love a great nature adventure, the Tampa Bay area also has many foodie adventures that are not to be missed.

Soul Food

When I have a taste for soul food and I don’t want to do the cooking myself,  Black Chef Eatery in Ybor City hits the spot. The Yuppi Wings and Yuppi Shrimp are so tasty and unique. You won’t find this flavor anywhere else. The macaroni and cheese is cheesy and savory and the collard greens are delicious. I like to finish the meal off with their rich, smooth, creamy banana pudding. 

Tip: Grab your order to go and head to a nearby riverfront park to enjoy your meal with a quiet view of the city skyline.

Cuban Sandwich

You can’t come to Tampa, Florida, without having our unofficial city sandwich, the Cuban sandwich. A Cuban sandwich is a perfect lunch to pack and enjoy while visiting one of the 178 parks in the city.

There is some debate about the true origins of the Cuban Sandwich, but local historians say that Tampa is the birthplace of this mesh of Spanish, Cuban, and Italian culture.  

The traditional Tampa Cuban is mojo marinated pork, smoked ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickle & “special sauce” on Cuban bread. You can have it cold or pressed. I like to add lettuce, tomato, and onion to mine.  

One of the best in the city can be found at the historic La Segunda Bakery, established in 1915. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various recommendations, but for a truly authentic experience, I think La Segunda is one of the best. Their Cuban bread is freshly baked right there, onsite, which adds such a special flare.

Burgers

There are three burgers that can only be found right here in the city of Tampa, and they are all delectable and worth every calorie. 

The first burger favorite is the fried mac-n-cheese burger from Datz. Datz is one of my favorite local restaurants because of its fun eclectic menu and this nationally acclaimed burger invention is definitely my favorite thing on their menu. By some stroke of genius, and possibly a bit of sorcery, they replaced the buns with fried mac n cheese patties. You just have to try it.

The second burger I love here is the Krispy Kreme burger from Thee Burger Spot, only on the menu on Fridays. It is a well-seasoned burger patty with cheese and bacon between two glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The savory and the sweet is a match made in heaven.

The third original burger that I love is the Ulele Burger. Ulele is a Tampa Riverwalk waterside restaurant with one of the most unique menus around and one of the best waterside outdoor views in the city. While it is a frequently recommended restaurant, most of the focus is on the dinner menu options.

However, this gem of a burger is only found on the lunch menu. To form the patty, they use chargrilled ground short rib, brisket, and cheek. Then, they add Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese, portobello mushrooms,fire-roasted red peppers, and fried leaks, all served on a brioche bun. The flavors at play within that burger are truly unmatched.

Fancy Affair


If you’re in the mood for a fantastic happy hour and ambiance, Mandarin Heights is a cute, hidden, urban garden with an outdoor bar and open air seating options. The mixologists here really like to put on a show and create some very unique and eye catching cocktail drinks.

When a nice dinner is in order, one of my go-to favorite places is CW Gin Joint. It gives you speakeasy vibes minus the password, but reservations are highly recommended. My favorite thing on the menu is the pork chop, followed closely by the lobster mac-n-cheese.  

They also take mixology seriously here, so I love the cocktails and the attention to presentation.

When I want fancy appetizers, small bites, and good cocktails, I recommend Ciro’s speakeasy. If you are visiting Tampa and you find your way here you will have something on many of the locals who still don’t know this place exists. You will need a password at the door for entry, and then you will be transported to prohibition era. 

Sweet Tooth

There is no shortage of places in Tampa serving up tasty desserts. However, there is one dessert that reigns supreme for me and that is cheesecake. When I’m in need of a cheesecake fix, there is only one place for me: Augustine’s Cheesecake.   

Augustine’s offers a variety of unique flavors as mini gourmet cheesecakes via a weekly pop up bakery in South Tampa. They make the flavors announcement via Instagram the week before for pre-order, and cheesecake pick up day is on Thursdays. There’s usually some extra for walk-ups if you’re visiting, but if you want to guarantee you get the flavor you want, pre-order is best.

Just a few of my favorite flavors are Oreo, apple pie, sweet potato pie, white chocolate raspberry, pineapple upside down, banana pudding, and peach cobbler.

They also have flavors for sale regularly in the Thee Burger Spot restaurant.

Tampa is a great destination for foodies and also great for those looking to experience new adventures and get outdoors when you feel safe to explore again. The winter and spring months are the best time to visit Tampa and experience the outdoor activities comfortably, because the temperatures are warm, but not scorching, and there is less humidity.  There is no shortage of parks, open spaces, and waterfront activities, which makes this a great place to visit, whether you’re traveling solo or with family.  

Safety Disclaimer: Confirm what current COVID-19 health and safety protocols and guidelines are in place by all tour vendors, accommodations, and city/county/state guidelines prior to booking. Follow the safety guidelines to keep yourself and others safe. Those choosing to travel during this time, do so at their own risk.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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