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When you hear a restaurant is the oldest in the state, you kinda want to check it out, right?
They must be doing something right.
That’s how I was when I came across Columbia Restaurant in my obsessive thorough research on good places to eat in the Tampa area.
Disclosure: I was provided a media rate to dine at Columbia Restaurant and write a review about it. We were also provided complimentary tickets to the Flamenco Show.
It kept coming up on lists, and even mentioned by Chowhound users who never bow down to touristy spots.
Named an All-American Icon by Nation’s Restaurant News, one of only 50 restaurants chosen for this honor.
Named to Florida Trend Magazine‘s Golden Spoon Hall of Fame the industry’s highest regional award as “One of the Top 25 Restaurants in Florida.” Named “One of Florida’s Top Restaurants” since 1967.
“If you cherish your palate, visit the Columbia. Try the Paella “A la Valenciana,” the Snapper “Alicante,” and the Pompano en Papillot. Relish the black bean soup and fried ripe plantains. And with every iota of conviction you possess, order the flan. Made in the Cuban style with sweetened condensed milk, this evanescent egg custard tastes like a dream from which you hope to never awaken.” Southern Living
“Folks seek out this landmark for its live music and flamenco dancers and its rich history – co-owner Richard Gonzmart’s great-grandfather founded it to feed local cigar-rollers in 1905. The Cuban sandwiches are melty masterpieces; the 1905 salad, a citywide obsession. According to illustrator Lynn Pauley, who has a house in southern France near Spain, the paella is the real deal.”Every Day with Rachael Ray, – November/December 2005
So I had to go.
But you wonder, Kim, that sounds kinda fancy. How do kids do at a restaurant like Columbia? I’ll get to that.
A little primer about this wonderful restaurant first
– It’s been a staple in Ybor City, a happening area of Tampa, since 1905.
– The place is huge. There are 15 dining rooms in Columbia!
– The food is Spanish and Cuban cuisine. I got some recommendations on what to order (not just from the above quotes but people I know), particularly the Paella “A la Valenciana,” the world famous 1905 Cuban salad and the white chocolate bread pudding. We ordered all of those, and it Aye Dios Mio, it was so good, particularly that salad. And while I was stuffed from dinner, I couldn’t stop eating the bread pudding.
– There are two Flamenco dance performances a night six nights a week, as well as live jazz Tuesdays through Saturdays from 8 p.m. to midnight.
About our visit
My large group of four adults and four kids under 5 booked a table for the Flamenco show on a Saturday night. When we arrived, there was a bridal party taking photos out front, and approximately 405 families walking in to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and reunions (and a prom party thrown into the mix).
Did we feel out of place, dressed like tourists in our sandals and shorts?
Nope. That’s the beauty of this huge, popular place. Everyone wants to be there, so you’ll have couples on first dates, you’ll have couples on anniversary dates, and you’ll have us, with our kids coloring at the table next to you. And it’s fine. Columbia welcomes us all. Well, don’t go sleeveless and you’re fine.
About the food
I’ll get it out of the way, so you’re not sitting here wondering: Yes, there is a kids menu, and a pretty reasonably priced one. The kids weren’t adventurous and they stuck to mac and cheese, mostly, but all four did devour the warm loaf of bread delivered to each of us at the beginning of our meal.
I ordered Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad® with the intention of splitting it halfway through the meal with Mr. Wonderful, who ordered the Paella “A la Valenciana.” I’d come across the salad in a list by USA Today, who named it on a list of “10 Great Places to Make a Meal Out of a Salad.”
Our friends did the same thing, but ordered an appetizer as well.
Did I share my Top 10 salad? Reluctantly. I didn’t want to hand it over, nor was Mr. Wonderful giving up the paella without a fight.
It was a hopping Saturday night and dinner took some time. Luckily, between the bread and the diversion of the dancing, it wasn’t an unbearable wait with the kids. They did get a little antsy after they finished their food and we were still working on ours, but they could be forgiven after about two or so hours of behaving.
This is a Spanish restaurant, so I was thinking, “Hey, let’s order the sangria!”
But wait. It’s also a Cuban restaurant.
So we ordered a pitcher of mojitos. Our waiter made the pitcher at the table. It’s a nice little touch, though I dare say the mojitos were not packing much of a rum punch.
The Flamenco Show
Go the extra mile and get tickets to the Flamenco Show. It’s worth the cost, even with kids. It’s $6 extra per person, and for that price, you get a 45-minute fiery performance of dance (with a stunning male vocalist performing at the end).
Plan on having dinner and this show be your entertainment for the evening, though, if you’re bringing kids. It’s not a short affair.
The two older kids, both boys and 5 years old, sat still for most of it, and even did a little imitation foot stomping once the show ended. I’d say they enjoyed it.
The younger two kids, both girls and 3 years old, were tougher critics. The music was too loud to them, and they started to lose interest midway through.
Bringing kids to Columbia Restaurant
I say, by all means, do it. Few of us have the luxury of traveling with a sitter, so rather than miss out on this gem of a restaurant, bring them along. They have a kids menu, so it’s not like they aren’t ready for your little ones.
The Flamenco Show is something unique enough to surprise them and foot-stompy enough to delight them. And the pretty dresses are fun to look at.
Is it more of a date night place than a family restaurant? Totally. If it’s just you and your significant other on a weekend getaway to Tampa Bay, you’ll have a nice evening gulping your sangria and fighting over the last scallop in the paella.
If you go
Columbia Restaurant – Ybor City is the original ((there are several other locations).
I also wrote about the Allegiant Air direct flight from Omaha to the Tampa Bay area, so check that out, plus if you need a hotel suggestion and you L-O-V-E food and pampering, read my post about Epicurean Hotel in the beautiful Hyde Park area of Tampa.
Disclosure: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are mine. My family received complimentary admission to Clearwater Marine Aquarium so that I could write about the experience. This post contains affiliate links.
My family visited the aquarium during our visit to Tampa Bay. We knew Winter, the real rescued dolphin who helped saved the aquarium, was a big deal, but when you arrive Clearwater Marine Aquarium, you realize just Winter and her movie(s) how important they are there.
Tip: Watch a “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” before you visit. Things will make a lot more sense.
My initial impression of the aquarium was not the most positive. It did get better, so I should explain that I get irritated by places that make you pass through a gift shop before seeing the attraction.
We had to do that here, plus pose at a souvenir photo station before beginning our exploration of the aquarium. It’s all in good spirit, I suppose.
Our souvenir photos were cute after all.
And we had pretty much expected we wouldn’t be leaving the place without some sort of dolphin memorabilia. We ended up leaving with two dolphins – don’t forget Hope – and a plush Rufus.
But still. Couldn’t we just get right to the animals already?
A bit about this aquarium. It’s not like most; certainly, not like any I’ve been to… which is a good thing. It’s a functioning marine rescue center, so your little wanna-be vets and marine biologists are going to love it. They may get the chance to see pros in action, either doing regular physicals on the animals or in an emergency situation in the surgical suite.
Unlike the typical aquarium with resident stars, a lot of animals at the aquarium won’t be there forever. The mission of Clearwater Marine Aquarium? Three words: Rescue. Rehab. Release.
They’re doing great things.
And, if your kids loved “Dolphin Tale,” like really loved the movie, they’ll love seeing pieces of the set (don’t miss Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure), in addition to all the rescue animals.
While my kids didn’t get up close to Winter, they did get to hold a replica of her prosthetic tail, and they were pretty psyched.
My kids each had different areas of the aquarium they liked best. My youngest gravitated to the stingray touch tank, again and again and again. The stingrays there were super friendly, way friendlier than I’ve ever seen them behave. My 3-year-old was tickled silly.
My 5-year-old enjoyed watching the trainers with the dolphins. He observed one little girl’s personal session with a trainer and dolphin, and then was part of the crowd that was soaked by the onary dolphin at the end. He loved it.
Locals and Clearwater fans alike have told me to expect a crowd at the aquarium, and they were right. This place draws families in. Indoors, it was sometimes difficult for our little ones to see much of the action between the trainers and the dolphins. Outdoors was great.
However, they found things they liked beyond that. There’s a classroom with a coloring station that drew my kids in.
And it had a few items the kids could gently touch. And if you’re really into educational videos, there’s one playing on loop in there.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium takes every opportunity it has to educate visitors, and it does it well. Whether it’s a storytime geared toward younger kids, or words of encouragement on the walls telling visitors how they can help, the aquarium stays true to its mission.
If you really want to make your visit memorable, the aquarium offers many opportunities for animal encounters, from feeding a puffer fish to getting up close to dolphins (even Winter!).
This aquarium was one of the highlights of the trip for my kids, which totally surprised me. Winter has that power.
Explore more of Tampa Bay
Thinking of flying your family to Tampa? Check out our two-day Tampa Bay itinerary! We crammed a lot in, which I actually wouldn’t suggest. Mix and match my recommended places to see:
I also wrote about the Allegiant Air direct flight from Omaha to the Tampa Bay area, so check that out, plus if you need a hotel suggestion and you L-O-V-E food and pampering, read my post about Epicurean Hotel in the beautiful Hyde Park area of Tampa.
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My family spent a fun morning at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa recently. When I was planning our two-day Tampa Bay trip, I had asked a friend in Florida what she thought we should not miss and right away she said, The Florida Aquarium (well, she had a big Tampa list for me to choose from). I took her advice and I’m glad we took the kids to The Florida Aquarium!
Disclosure: Thanks to the Florida Aquarium for providing complimentary admission for my family so that I could write this review.
We Omahans are spoiled by our zoo and aquarium. Even so, there’s a lot to be impressed by The Florida Aquarium, and a ton of stuff to excite little ones. It’s worth planning a visit here if you’re in the Tampa Bay area.
Tip: If you have a zoo membership, check if it’s part of the Association of the Zoos & Aquariums. You may receive FREE or 50% off admission to The Florida Aquarium! Members of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium receive 50% off admission. Learn more about reciprocal membership discounts here.
The first level you walk into features the gift shop, access to the large “adventure water zone” called Explore a Shore, and a touch tank with horseshoe crabs. In my opinion, there are much cooler touch tanks upstairs, but you’ll still have a tough time getting your kids past it without a stop.
Tip: Get to The Florida Aquarium when it opens. We enjoyed light crowd at the start of our visit and then, whoa boy, everyone and their grandma showed up. This place is popular.
Now head upstairs and start exploring. The Wetlands Trail feels like an open-air exhibit without being one.
Here, you get up close to Florida wildlife, including alligators. The design of this space allowed plenty of viewing opportunities of the animals.
Other animals we saw in the Inside The Wetlands exhibit included 14-feet pythons (not Florida natives), birds, turtles and free-flying birds.
It was in this area that the kids got to listen to a little educational talk and touch a baby alligator.
You can check out The Journey to Madagascar exhibit in this area, too. Crawl up a tree and be surrounded by hissing cockroaches…if you dare.
The Wetlands Trail leads into Bays and Beaches and my 3-year-old’s favorite spot: Stingray Beach. It’s a large tank of water to accommodate a lot of people. At Stingray Beach, you can touch the tops of sting rays as they passed by.
Just past the stingrays is the No Bone Zone where you can feel sea stars, sea cucumbers and other interesting creatures without a backbone. For some reason, my kids weren’t that interested in this touch tank. I’m guessing they thought the urchin and other creatures were prickly.
I think the areas that were the most indoor fun for my kids were Coral Reefs and Ocean Commotion. There, they saw sharks and strange creatures from the deep blue.
A highlight for my son was the LEGO buildings inside different tanks. The different themed buildings provided a unique backdrop to the fish we were viewing.
The exit for this part of the aquarium just about blew my kids’ minds. It was the end credits to the film about the area projected onto steam coming down from the ceiling.
But all of these fascinating creatures from the ocean and tactile experiences could not hold a candle to the excitement Explore a Shore drummed up in my kids. Which leads me to another tip for visiting The Florida Aquarium (or really, any place in Florida):
Tip: Bring swimsuits for your children when you visit The Florida Aquarium.
Explore a Shore, included with aquarium admission, is an outdoor splash garden for little kids (there were no huge waterslides or anything like that).
At the center is a pirate ship surrounded by fountains shooting up from the ground and little misters around animals.
My kids could’ve stayed here all day. But we had an itinerary to stick to.
If we had stayed, though, I totally would’ve partaken in a mixed drink from the bar located inside Explore a Shore. Smart way to appeal to parents melting in the Florida sun.
Anyway, there are water cannon type things, a sandbox and little slides for the wee ones. They also have changing cabanas to get your kids in and out of their swimsuits.
Cost: General admission ticket prices vary and it’s best to buy them online for the lowest cost. If you’re getting the AZA reciprocal membership discount or a coupon, you will have to buy in person at the aquarium. Children 2 and under are FREE.
Disclaimer: My family was provided complimentary brunch and a lovely bottle of wine and a meat and cheese plate (for me, not my kids). All opinions are my own. This post includes affiliate links.
The Epicurean Hotel‘s lobby lets you know what this Tampa hotel is all about: A front desk made out of wine crates, cute bicycles with picnic baskets propped on a wall (to rent), modern and thoughtful decorations with cookbooks arranged just so.
It’s about food. It’s an upscale hotel for those who like to eat. And drink.
My family stayed at the Epicurean during a recent trip to Tampa Bay. I know! The hotel screams “Parents! Come escape from your kids here!” with its award-winning chef, its famous steakhouse, a rooftop bar, outdoor pool, spa and on-site wine store.
I brought my kids to the Epicurean. It’s not our typical choice of hotels – I tend to look for a place with a free breakfast or happy hour and Mr. Wondeful likes places where he’s not paranoid the kids will break something. And while I saw several families with young kids there, I would say it’s designed to appeal to us, the adults, in every way, not to our off-spring.
There is an outdoor pool, but we did not get to see it. Our flight out of Omaha was extremely delayed and the downtime I had planned for the pool was tossed out the window. I didn’t even tell my kids there was a pool. shhhh
The hotel is located in South Tampa in historic Hyde Park, a trendy neighborhood that’s an easy walk to Bayshore Drive with its mansions and bayside sidewalk. It’s a short drive from attractions like The Florida Aquarium and the famous Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. It was a drive to get to the beach, but when you’re from Nebraska, 30 minutes is nothing if it means you get to have your feet in the sand in that time.
The rooms are comfortable, like “lounge in your cloud-like bed in a robe while you drink your Tassimo cup of coffee” comfortable. But I had kids. So that didn’t happen.
The drawbacks to the room is that the basic rooms do not have a bath tub. They have a divine shower with the rain showerhead; us grownups will appreciate and ooh and ahh at. But, kids. Kids got to rain on my parade. I got my sand- and sunscreen-covered kids in there only after some heavy negotiations.
Shower aside, the room was great, with free wi-fi to boot. It’s part of the prestigious Autograph Collection® of Marriott International, Inc., but it felt more like a cool boutique hotel than anything belonging to a chain.
You can totally splurge and get a fab room with a balcony and that coveted tub that kids love.
Go ahead. Book that balcony suite. You deserve it. Photo courtesy Epicurean Hotel
Epicurean has a couple dining options that don’t feel like hotel restaurants. There’s Élevage and its nationally recognized Executive Chef Chad Johnson, named a 2012 Best Chef: South Region semi-finalist by the James Beard Foundation.
It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a menu highlights of Lobster & Bacon Hash, a “Duck, Duck, Goose” foie gras burger and a brunch to die for.
The hotel invited my family to try their brunch.
A little tip: If you’re traveling with young ones, get there right when it opens for brunch, at 9 a.m. It’s not busy and the only other people in the restaurant are in your same situation, so you don’t feel very embarrassed when your kid throws his or her Winter the dolphin figurine.
Let’s talk about that brunch. Mr. Wonderful and I opted for Brunch Like Bacchus, a tasting menu featuring dishes like Truffle Vichyssoise and Sourdough Pancakes. Our courses took some time to prepare and, admittedly, not the best choice to make with our kids in tow.
I’d suggest everyone at your table brunch like Bacchus, or save it for another day and order just one dish. I suggest the one below.
My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits, which was a choice for the second course. Our waitress confirmed this was the most popular menu item for brunch. I could’ve licked the bowl.
There was no kid menu, so we got the kids each eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and toast. Here’s where it would’ve been wiser to split the plate. Neither finished their food and each dish was a cool $16.
They were, however, good sports and sampled some of our food, helping us finish that third course of brioche french toast.
Now on to the other dining options at Epicurean. There’s the in-house pâtisserie called Chocolate Pi, which serves High Tea daily, and the roof-top bar, Wines & Spirits Edge Social Drinkery, which has a small menu.
There’s also the Epicurean Theatre where you can sign up for cooking demos, and classes like Champagne 101 or Whiskey Making; The Bar at Élevage in the lobby; and Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits. Across the street from the hotel is Bern’s Steak House.
Near the Hotel
I don’t know what kind of vacationer you are, but I like a hotel near things to do. Epicurean is a walkable distance from a trendy strip of restaurants and bars, none of which would be great places to bring your pre-k kids to.
If you’re a runner, you’ll like the hotel’s location near Bayshore Boulevard with its continuous trail along the bay. Gorgeous! You can also rent bikes from the hotel and enjoy the view on two wheels.
The hotel is near Hyde Park Village, great for shopping with a mix of national, regional and local retailers, as well as an upscale cinema. Our quick trip didn’t allow for a chance to check this place out.
The Epicurean Hotel touts itself as being located just 15 minutes from Tampa International Airport (TPA), as well as St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (PIE). That all depends on traffic, of course. You can fly directly to PIE on Allegiant Air.
*Partner in the Marriott Rewards loyalty program
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Thinking of flying your family to Tampa? Check out my sample two-day Tampa Bay itinerary! We crammed a lot in, which I actually wouldn’t suggest. Mix and match my recommended places to see:
Updated April 16, 2018: Since our travels, troubling reports questioning the airline’s safety have surfaced. See the latest by “60 Minutes” here. The CEO of Allegiant responded to story here.
There’s a new airline in Omaha, a discount carrier that flies us directly to vacation destinations. Right now, you can fly Allegiant Air to Florida (arriving at to St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport near Tampa) and soon they’ll offer flights to California (arriving at Oakland/San Francisco Airport).
Raise your hand if you like direct flights. High five.
Allegiant Air offered to fly me and my family to St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport in exchange for telling you all about it.
Here’s the deal, it’s cheap and convenient to fly Allegiant from Omaha directly the Tampa Bay area, but there are indeed a few catches.
Mr. Wonderful likened it to a hostel. There are certain things you have to accept as part of the deal of a hostel. There are “extras” you’ll have to pay for if you want them at a hostel, like having your own bathroom, right? Don’t complain about how a hostel works just because it’s not like a hotel. Same goes for a budget carrier. Just accept that the lower price means that certain things are “extras.”
So back to those catches…
No. 1. Most things are extra and you’ll have to pay for them. You get one personal item to carry on like a small backpack or purse at no cost, but any other carry-on and all checked luggage is additional. So, just accept that you’ll have to pay a little more so you can bring clothes.
I have a sister-in-law planning a girls getaway with a friend to Clearwater Beach and after comparing prices with other carriers, even with the added fees, the ticket with Allegiant ended up being cheaper.
No. 2. Your seats are randomly assigned at check in. We were traveling with two small children so we were paired two and two. Our two pairs, however, were not randomly assigned next to each other. No big deal. But if it is to you, you’ll have to pay $12 per person to move seats. Want to move your seat assignment to a window? Pay $12.
Side note: Go online starting 24 hours before your flight to check in online. Print your boarding passes at home so you can avoid the $5 fee to have the airline print them out the day of your flight. Plus, checking in early gives you more flexibility with seating.
No. 3. There are only two flights to and from Omaha each week – Thursday and Sunday. We took a Thursday to Sunday trip. It’s a nice length for a quick getaway, but man, we left wishing we had more time there. There’s a lot to do!
Flying Allegiant Air – my family’s experience
Allegiant flies out of Omaha late Thursday mornings, arriving in Florida at around 3 p.m. Like most people on our flight, I had planned on taking advantage of the remainder of that day in order to get the most out of our Thursday to Sunday getaway.
Unfortunately, the proverbial “stuff” happened. It was out of the airline’s control, but our Omaha flight was delayed. By, like, five hours. Maybe six. I stopped counting.
What happened? We were waiting for the Tampa flight to arrive, only it had experienced a weather delay compounded by a maintenance issue and the need to re-staff the flight.
I have to hand it to Allegiant. They set up a text alert with ticketholders so they can notify passengers ahead of time if their flight may be delayed.
I didn’t have the alerts set up initially, so we ended up at the airport for the original flight time and marveled at how short the wait was to check in. Well, most everyone else got that notification.
Anyway, I got it set up and we were able to leave the airport to pass some time in downtown Omaha.
I could check my texts as well as AllegiantAir.com to see what the inbound flight status was.
Tip: If you have kids and have a long wait at the airport, the Omaha Children’s Museum is a short distance away.
Our flight ended up being delayed even longer than anticipated, so we did have to spend some time waiting at the Omaha airport.
Allegiant took care of all of us passengers, though. They set up a courtesy table of free beverages and then handed out meal vouchers.
Some people did lose their cool – if they were planning quick trips like me, they were losing valuable vacation time. I had to cancel dinner reservations and neglect to tell my kids there was a pool at our hotel because that was going to be our Thursday entertainment.
By the time we returned to the airport – 2:30ish – there was no plane in sight. We were told the plane would be arriving in Omaha by 3:04. “The computer still shows an arrival time of 3:04,” we were told… but the actual clock was saying 3:20 and there was no plane in sight.
So we waited. Incidentally, this was about the time of day we all had planned on being in Florida. I bet some planned on already being sunburned or drunk by 3:04 Omaha time.
Those losing their marbles were passengers, not anyone with the airline. I watched airline personnel be very accommodating with people. One family traveling with a toddler asked if there were any open seats for him – they’d intended on him sitting on their laps but after the wait, they knew he’d need a chair to sleep on. Allegiant found some unoccupied seats on the flight and let them move without charging for that extra seat.
In spite of the delay and some frustrated passengers, our crew was cheerful and kinda funny. I like happy flight crew, but the perkiness wore on other passengers after the long day.
They offered in-flight snacks and beverages at a cost. I had packed snacks and filled up our water bottles, so that didn’t matter. I recommend that route, saving your money for rum drinks. Right?
There was no in-flight entertainment – you had to bring your own portable devices if you wanted music or a movie. No wi-fi, either.
By the time we arrived, patience had worn a little thin.
St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport
You aren’t technically arriving in Tampa, though you’re close to it. St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport is, obviously, closer St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and the other smaller, beachy towns. If your main plan is to hit the beach, opt for a hotel in either of those cities.
Tampa isn’t far, but it’s still a 20- to 40-minute drive depending on traffic. We arrived late and had to get a rental car, so by the time we hit the road, it was 10-ish.
The nice thing about this airport is that several rental car agencies have cars parked on-site at the airport, so it’s easy to walk out of the airport and to your car. It’s also quick and easy to return the car.
Flying back to Omaha
St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport is smallish, but don’t be fooled. It’s a tourist destination and a lot of people head home on Sundays. Don’t arrive as if you’re catching a flight out of Omaha – allow plenty of time for check in.
We arrived late for our return flight – a puking kid, an unplanned bathroom stop and a stop to fill up gas in the rental car will do that. By the time we were at the airport, there was an incredibly long line for the Allegiant counter.
Ticketing agents hustled people on our Omaha flight to a separate, shorter line and we made it onto the plane with minutes to spare. Whew.
Would I recommend Allegiant?
Heck yeah. I consider two things when booking a flight: Which flight is the cheapest and which one gets us there the fastest. Nonstop flights trump all else.
If you’re on a budget, you can’t beat a cheap ticket for a direct flight to a tourist destination. If you like a little pampering, or you like knowing your entire trip cost up-front, look for a different carrier.
And FYI, Allegiant partners with more than 20 of the most popular hotel properties in the Tampa Bay area, provides low-cost car rental service through its partnership with Alamo Rent a Car and offers great deals on local activities. Omaha travelers can book their entire Tampa Bay vacation for less by visiting Allegiant.com.
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Thinking of flying your family to Tampa? Check out my two-day itinerary for Tampa Bay! We crammed a lot in, which I actually wouldn’t suggest. Mix and match my recommended places to see:
Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions expressed on the blog are my own. Allegiant Air provided complimentary roundtrip airfare for my family. I was provided complimentary passes to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Morean Arts Center, The Florida Aquarium and MOSI. Epicurean Hotel provided free brunch for my family at Elevage. This post contains affiliate links.
Two days in Tampa Bay is a fun, quick getaway for Omaha families. In early April, Mr. Wonderful and I took the kids – ages 3 and 5 – on a whirlwind weekend trip to southwestern Florida. We crammed a lot in. I had a plan (and I had some local advice on what to do, as well).
Skip past the “Getting there” section if you want to read a sample two-day itinerary.
Allegiant Air offered to fly me and my family to St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport in exchange for telling you all about it. The beautiful thing about that flight? It’s direct. No schlepping kids on and off planes for an extended layover.
The downside? There are only two flights to and from Omaha each week – Thursday and Sunday. You’ll have to plan your trip around those days, but really, Tampa is as good of a getaway for a weekend as it is for a week. We took a Thursday to Sunday trip. We were to arrive Thursday afternoon, but due to some major delays (I’ll tell you all about it in my Allegiant Airlines post), we didn’t get in until night time. It affected our plans big time, but we still managed to have a ton of fun.
You can pack a lot in over the course of two days in Tampa.
Arriving at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport
You aren’t technically arriving in Tampa, though you’re close to it. Tampa isn’t far, but it’s still between 20 to 40 minutes away depending on traffic. The beaches are closer to this airport, if that’s what you were headed for on a trip to Tampa Bay.
Our rental car was on site at the airport, which was super convenient. We decided to fork over extra money at Enterprise to drive this beauty.
It fits two car seats (well, technically, Farley was in a booster), and the experience of feeling an ocean breeze with the top down is memorable!
Where to stay
If you want all things beachy, you’re better off finding a hotel on the St. Petersburg/Clearwater side of the bridge. If you want a mix of beach and city (like museums or Busch Gardens), Tampa is a better choice.
We opted to stay in south Tampa at a gorgeous place called Epicurean Hotel, located in Hyde Park.
It was a 20-mile drive from St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport – when we had to do it at 10 p.m. The hotel is near attractions and restaurants my family wanted to go to on our trip, so it made sense. Check back to this blog in a week to read more about Epicurean!
Two days in Tampa
With Allegiant’s schedule, you’ll arrive in Florida on Thursday afternoon. Usually. For this post, I’m writing as if you only had Friday and Saturday there.
I planned our days out to allow enough time in the car between attractions so that my youngest could nap. I was optimistic. You can be, too, but between you and me, things like that never go according to plan.
For our first day, we had breakfast at Dough, a few minutes of a drive from our hotel. They’re known for their donuts – you’ll be tempted to order them all.
The kids picked out a chocolate M&M donut and a s’mores donut (hold on to your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen). I tried the pistachio donut and Mr. Wonderful ordered the winner of the morning, maple and bacon donut. Get that one, for sure!
We also ordered coffees, milk and some quiche (I recommend quiche lorraine), and later, an oatmeal when Mooch’s tummy was upset and she actually wouldn’t eat a donut.
Sufficiently sugared up, we drove a short distance to The Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. Much larger than the aquarium at Omaha’s zoo, The Florida Aquarium puts you up-close to a lot of animals.
The kids got to touch a baby alligator, stingrays, sea urchins, starfish and more.
Both kids loved Explore a Shore, the outdoor water adventure zone, included with admission. Definitely pack swimsuits to change the kids into (there are changing rooms outside).
Lunch was at one of the Taco Bus locations downtown (located very near the Glazier Children’s Museum). I’d heard good things about it, and wasn’t disappointed. It seemed less a tourist spot than a quick place for nearby office workers to grab lunch.
Farley got his usual chicken quesadilla and Mooch, her usual rice and beans. I tried a salad topped with grilled portabella mushrooms and a tangy avocado dressing and Mr. Wonderful ordered a humungous burrito.
We topped everything off with ice cream bought at CVS. I’m going to kick myself if someone comments saying I was a block away from the city’s best ice cream shop. That’d be my luck.
Our next destination was Clearwater Beach, with a little nappage along the way – after stopping several times trying to find pillows to make the uncomfortable rental carseat bearable.
We visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the dolphin from “A Dolphin Tale.” Farley was totally in love with this place, loving every minute of it, even getting soaked by Nicholas, the dolphin.
You’re probably wondering how it compares to the first aquarium of the day and if it’s worth going to both. They’re vastly different places and the experience is not similar. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is much more like a functioning marine animal hospital, and the Florida Aquarium has bigger variety of animals and more elaborate displays of animals in natural settings.
We had a celebrity sighting on our way leaving the aquarium – it was all Hulkamania up in there.
Our next stop was an early dinner at Frenchy’s Saltwater Café. Frenchy’s is a well-known local chain of restaurants (five in all). Several people recommended it, suggesting we try the grouper sandwich, so I had to oblige.
It’s well worth going there! The waiter was friendly, the atmosphere was low-key and fun, and after a long day of running around, it was perfect for kicking back.
But there was a beach to see, so we weren’t there for long.
Clearwater Beach was a busy place, even after dinner when things cool slightly.
We didn’t mind. The gentle waves and powdery white sand were inviting.
I regret rushing the kids out of the water to check out the Sunsets at Pier 60 festivities. I had heard it was a nightly street festival type deal, with street performers and vendors.
It was neat to see, but I think the kids would’ve liked staying in the water a little longer.
Bring extra cash because there’s a lot there to tempt your kids, from inflatables, to balloon animals to henna tattoos.
On weekend nights, they show a free, kid-friendly movie by the pier, so we laid our towels down and watched the old school “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” It was pretty late, so Mooch was ready to crash. Sticking around for the entire movie (with intermission) made for a very late night for the kids.
We were hungry once back at the hotel, so Mr. Wonderful picked up some ‘za by the slice at New York New York Pizza. Yummo.
And no, I didn’t get them balloon animals. I am, in fact, the meanest mommy.
We slept in after the late night at Clearwater Beach. We had an early brunch at Epicurean’s Elevage – they have a foodie’s dream of a brunch on the weekend. If you go right when it starts, 9 a.m., you’ll be with other families with young kids and not feel like a bother to the child-free crowd.
We met friends in St. Petersburg and visited the Morean Arts Center, timing it right to enjoy the free kids’ art activities. It was not a typical tourist thing to do, which made it a nice change of pace.
It was hard to get everyone to leave the room when it was lunch time for the art instructor, it was that inviting and fun of a place for kids.
We checked out the current exhibits at Morean before going next store to the Morean Hot Shop to watch a glass blowing demo.
Ours were the only kids there (evidently, it was a perfect beach day). If you have time, take the 1-mile drive or walk to the Chihuly Collection, included with your St. Petersburg Art Experience ticket. Our group of cute but nearing-nap-time kids made the decision to skip the glass exhibit easy, but I’m bummed I missed it.
Lunch was at nearby Bodega, a popular Cuban sandwich shop.
It’s walkable from Morean, but in the heat of the day and with small kids, it probably would’ve been better to drive.
Expect a wait. It was a tough one with four kids in tow. Oh, but that Cuban sandwich was divine. I may have been the only adult to say it was worth the wait, but whatever. I loved my sandwich.
The kids crashed in the car and we debated on our next step. But, I’m a checklist kind of girl, so we drove the long drive to MOSI, the Museum of Science and Industry. I knew the kids would love it but I didn’t know how long they’d nap.
Spoiler Alert: A long time.
We didn’t get much time at MOSI, the pitfalls of a quick getaway weekend, huh? We explored Kids in Charge, a building dedicated to younger kids with a lot of fun activities. We also checked out some of the activities for Robotics Week and the weather exhibits. There was so much more we missed out on.
We met our friends for dinner at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City (a neighborhood in Tampa), a place that always seems to be on top 10 lists of places to eat or things to experience.
We had reservations for the Flamenco dance show. Plan on spending your whole evening here if you’re watching the show.
The kids liked the dancing and tried mimicking it later (admittedly, the two 3-year-olds didn’t like how loud it was). The food was superb, and the kids food was reasonably priced.
What I’d do differently
I’d probably spend more than two days there, that’s for sure. We fit a lot into our weekend, but didn’t get any downtime. Next time, I’ll plan some relaxation and pool time in.
Facebook fan tip: Sherri recommended visitors look into purchasing the Tampa Bay City Pass. Three of the places we visited are included in it. For $99 for adults and $84 for a child ages 3-9, you get admission into Busch Gardens, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, The Florida Aquarium, and the Chihuly Collection or MOSI. The price to Busch Gardens for an adult is at least $75 alone. One CityPASS booklet saves up to 51% on admission to the 5 best attractions in Tampa Bay! Shop Now!.
Want to know more about the trip? Read these posts about family-friendly things to do in Tampa Bay and how to get there.