An Insider’s Guide to Tampa Bay, Florida

Tampa is a rather small city, according to US standards and has almost 3 million residents. I loved how authentic Tampa was in comparison to the touristy cities of Orlando and Miami. I fell in love with its chilled out white beaches, turquoise waters and a downtown filled with skyscrapers. 

After 2 days in Miami, we continued our road trip to Tampa Florida where we’d be staying for 10 days before heading to New York. It was one long drive from the Keys to Tampa Bay, and we were welcomed with frightening storms. It was probably the worst i’ve ever witnessed! Once we arrived, we met with my extended family where they showed us our villa.

As we were here to visit family, we had some local tips on the best places to go in and around Tampa. Here a few top things you could do in the city!  

Lettuce Lake

Tampa Bay has plenty of beautiful parks to explore. My uncle, who lives there took us to his favourite lake – Lettuce Lake, located near the University of South Florida, in the northern section of Tampa. We came here during the weekend and it was a great place to come to escape both the city noice and the Florida heat.

The admission fee is only $2 per car load (up to 8 people). We started off by parking near the Visitor Centre and then walking along the 3500ft boardwalk. The shaded walk goes across hardwood swamp forest.

This path will take you up to the Hillsborough River and to an observation tower. While walking the boardwalk we saw some pretty amazing sites!

Along the way, you might even catch a glimpse of a gator! In fact, Lettuce Lake Park is well-known for being one of the best places in the city for spotting gators in their natural habitat. We saw a five-foot alligator up close and personal! He was just hanging out right off the boardwalk. 

The observation tower (pictured below) gives you the chance to take in panoramic views of the Hillsborough River. A beautiful sight – be sure to bring with your camera!

Canoeing at Weeki Wachee River

If you visit Tampa, I highly recommend the chance to kayak the Weeki Wachee River – located about an hour north of Tampa. Its suitable for the whole family as its quite a nice calm ride. The swift current makes it much easier to paddle downstream, but then going upstream afterwards, towards the end closer to the gulf –  is slightly more challenging. 

The water is beautiful and just looks like it came out some sort of Disney movie. Each turn you take in your kayak, the water turns different shade of green or blue. The spring that fed Weeki Wachee River has crystal clear water that flows in the Gulf of Mexico. 

It was really nice just kayaking for a little bit and then taking a dip in the river before kayaking a bit more. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t swim near a manatee because they’re ugly (sorry but its gotta be said). 

The river winds through the forests and mangroves and has plenty of wildlife. We jumped off the a few trees and swung on a few ropes near the riverbed. When I think of Tampa, these are the sweet memories that come in mind. 

But guys, if you can’t swim, be extremely cautious – there are some deep water areas in the river. We had an incident where my auntie and mum were in a kayak with all of our bags and electricals (don’t ask why). They were stuck in this current which quickly took them under a tree in the riverbed. They both grabbed onto the tree above their heads to try and stop the kayak moving forwards and then it capsized and flipped. I was sharing a kayak with my father and so I told him to stay in the kayak while I jump in, as he’s also not a very confident swimmer. At this point, I didn’t know my auntie couldn’t swim so I dived in to grab the mobiles, wallets and bags. It was only when I re-surfaced that I saw my cousin swimming over to pick my auntie up. Luckily everyone was fine with just a few scratches here and there. Now we laugh about it but it was scary times guys! Just be cautious… 

Clearwater Beach 

There was one afternoon where we went to Clearwater Beach to watch the sunset and swim in the sea. It is really a chilled out “local” beach – in fact, this is the sea where my uncle wakes up at 5am to go swimming in (how impressive is that!?)

We were on the beach, sunbathing and swimming for more than hour – before lightning struck, literally. We were stuck in the Pier 60 for 20 minutes with everyone else who also decided to wait it out and take shelter. We made the most of it by sitting in a circle and playing cards.

Downtown Tampa

We visited downtown Tampa in the evening and found it impressive, albeit a quiet city centre. It has stunning skyscrapers and a pleasant waterfront park. We parked our car and then walked along the river. The Tampa Riverwalk runs for 2.5 miles along the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel.

After admiring the views, we drove around the area and the resident streets behind the city centre – the houses were MAHOOSIVE and each house/mansion has its own character. It was good fun…  

Chilling with family! 

Of course my main reason for going to Tampa in the first place is to visit my mothers brother (i.e. my uncle) and his family. The last time I saw them was in Gaza, many many years ago so it was amazing to re-connect with them. 

Do you have any questions about travelling to Tampa that I didn’t answer? Be sure to leave them in the comments, and I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible 🙂

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Top Things to do in Orlando, Florida

There is no doubt that Florida is one of the best road trip destinations in the US with its endless miles of wide, sandy beaches and the unique keys. Hiring your own car is the most affordable way to experience the best of Florida.

Since we have family living in Tampa, we drove all the way from Miami to Tampa so that we could meet them. We stayed in an apartment villa which my uncle kindly organized for us to stay in. 

Orlando is home to the world’s most iconic theme parks and attractions. Because there are literally SO many attractions in Orlando, you must understand that it is IMPOSSIBLE to see and do them all in one visit (unless you are staying a very long time). It’d be much easier to manage your expectations and focus on a few top things you want to see/do. 

We chose Aquatica, Busch Gardens, Disneyland Magic Kingdom, SeaWorld and Universal Studios because we thought it was a good combination. We also made sure we had time to fit some shopping in!

Aquatica

The weather was so hot and was just screaming ‘waterpark’, so my sister and I headed to Aquatica. I really enjoyed it (before it started thundering randomly later on in the afternoon) because it had a young vibe, pop music playing throughout the park and great rides! 

Aquatica-florida-orlando

Busch Gardens

Okay so technically this is in Tampa Bay – but its close by, and well categorically relevant I guess. I haven’t even heard of Busch Gardens until this trip and is often overlooked by other Florida attractions. It’s another massive theme park but combined with a zoo. I loved the fact that it caters for everyone – for the roller coaster enthusiasts, to the animal’s lovers and foodies. The park is extremely well-marked and set on beautiful grounds. 

I enjoyed checking out the animals and seeing the beauties for myself.  The theme park also has the best thrill rides of any park I’ve been to in the US. My favorite were ‘Cobra Curse’ – a unique coaster that spins backwards and forwards along the track and the ‘Montu’ – and Egyptian mummy themed ride. 

Disneyland – Magic Kingdom

I first went to Disneyland Paris when I was a youngish teenager with my family. The one in Florida is so much bigger and extravagant. I had such a fantastic day with my family as we absorbed the Disney magic (don’t judge) and atmosphere. I think I lost my reputation when I queued for more than an half an hour to hug Tinkerbell and Mickie Mouse. I definitely forced my younger sister to come along so i can pretend to go for her sake (soz yasmin!).

Im a sucker for fireworks so obviously we waited until 9pm for the massive Happily Ever After fireworks show over Cinderella Castle. Crowds start to build from around 7pm so make sure you get there relatively early for a good spot! It was so much better than i remember!

SeaWorld

We came here because my mum loves the SeaWorld and looking at sea animals. The most impressive show for me was the Killer Whale show, One Ocean. I was also excited to see the smaller animals such as the turtles, stingray (where we could touch!) and sea lions. I loved the fact that there are lots of educational aspects to SeaWorld, which is great for kids and adults! I was blown away by the penguins in Antarctica House! We came here with my cousin Noor and she told us some cool facts while walking around – thanks Noor!

If you’re visiting Orlando, then I recommed you visit SeaWorld without a doubt. The park as a whole was better than anything we hoped for and provided countless opportunity to learn about different marine life and enjoy some thrilling rides along the way! 

Universal Studios 

We spent an entire day at Universal Studios and entered via the CityWalk. This is my father’s favorite as he loves his movies and famous actors etc. 

I loved how much effort went into making the Harry Potter section in the park – particularly Diagon Alley and its ride called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We went in an off-season (September) so the queues were minimal.

The favourite ride for everyone in my family is the Too Fast Too Furious ride. 

Shopping in Orlando

Obviously you cant leave Florida without doing some shopping – especially if you’re a fan of designer labels! When we left Aquatica, we joined my parents at the Orlando International Premium Outlets, located on the north side of International Drive. We stayed there until it closed at 10pm (my family loves a good shop).

Shops range from Kate Spade, Coach, Michael Kors, DKNY, Nike and Levi’s. I bought a few presents for my fiancé and his family and splurged on a few things for myself. The Premium Outlets is outdoors too, so you can enjoy the glorious sunshine while you shop! Quick tip – you can get extra discounts if you go to Guest Services and sign up with them. 

2 Days in Miami | Travel Guide + Itinerary

I never quite realised how huge and diverse Florida is before this trip. There is so much to do and the state is brimming with yummy foodie scenes, a mix of cultures and so much natural beauty. Miami was our first stop in my family’s 2 weeks Florida road trip and we only had two full days here before driving to Tampa, Orlando.  

In all honesty, at the time I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first but the longer I spent there and the more I think back on it now the more I appreciate how much character and vibrancy it has in comparison to other parts of the state.

It’s a place of two completely opposing parts separated by a couple of bridges.  Whilst central Miami is heavily influenced by authentic South America, Miami Beach is pure USA at its most shiny and extravagant.  In my opinion, to get the best out of what Miami has to offer you need to experience a bit of both.

Here are some of my favourite spots in Miami that you can include on your trip to the Sunshine State. 

Day 1

Everglades

One of the nicest things to do in Miami is visiting Everglades National Park, Florida’s largest swamp. As I love nature, this was something that I definitely wanted to go to as its just such a unique national park! It’s home to panthers, alligators, snakes and birds. 

We walked the Anhinga Trail which is a 0.8 miles paved and boardwalk trail along a small section of wetlands. This is where we spotted the alligators and Anhinga birds (the bird the trail is named after). 

If you have time, you could also take an airboat ride through the swamps to see how many gators you can find. However, please don’t make the same mistake as we did and make sure you mosquito spray the hell outta your body! I definitely left with more than 20 bites. 

The weather can be unpredictable in August – it can be so hot one minute and then pouring down with rain the next!

The Florida Keys

We then continued driving south to the the Florida Keys. The Keys stretch 190 km (120 miles) from Miami to Key West. The islands (or keys) are linked by a series of bridges. It looks like a concrete snake across the ocean between mangroves. What’s nice is that each key is different to each other – but all of them are a tropical delight. We only had time to go to the first big key – Key Largo but it was heavenly! As we didn’t do any research beforehand, we stopped off at some local shops and asked the guy behind the counter what is the best local secluded beach he knows. He said that he goes to one that not even the locals go to -it had no name, but pinpointed on the map exactly where it is. We went in between the small side streets and then some more residential streets before we discovered this gem. We met this Cuban mafia guy while swimming and my dad got excited and was talking to him for a while (while I was trying to find my escape route). We must’ve been in the sea for more than an hour, just talking, swimming etc. It was just so perfect.

The sunset was legendary. 

Day 2

Little Havana

We started off the day by exploring Little Havana. This neighboured was once largely Anglo-Jewish but then blossomed in the 1960s to the lively Latin quarter it is today when Cuban emigres settled in Miami after Castro’s conquering of Cuba. 

The main street is called Calle Ocho (Eighth street) – you’ll recognise the street as soon as you go in as its full of salsa music, shops selling cigars, café con leche and the Cubano (Cuban sandwich). If we weren’t heading to Tampa that evening, it would have been nice to explore the area in the evening where it comes even more alive. 

Instead of buying my brother a keychain and fridge magnet, we headed to a Cuban cigar shop and bought him a few cigars! We watched as this fella rolled up the cigar himself.

South Beach

As the sun was starting to set, we parked the rental car near the South Beach strip and walked to the beach. We loved the colourful lifeguard towers dotted along the shoreline – its so Miami! We found a patch of sand, soaked up the sun and then watched the sunset. 

Art Deco style

I was really excited to see the world-famous Art Deco District. As the family nerd, I took it upon myself to google the fact on every retro building that caught our eye along Miami’s art deco streets: Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road. 

Truth be told, I didn’t even know what art deco is until this trip. Art deco style started in Paris in the 1920s and then made its way to the US in the 1930s. Because it was during the time of the Great Depression, the style was more subtle than its European counterpart. The style can be described as a representation of luxury, glamour and technological progress. It features bright colours, geometric forms and chrome plating.

 


Do you have any questions about travelling to Miami that I didn’t answer? Be sure to leave them in the comments, and I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible 🙂

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