There’s no shortage of strange, offbeat things to see throughout the state of Florida and Tampa Bay plays its part. This land of pirates, then cigar rollers, then wildly erratic sports teams is no exception. Once you have explored the usual suspects and had enough of the beaches, here are some ideas for having a more memorable local experience. We teamed up with Expedia.com to bring you these top picks.
Tampa Thai Temple on Sunday
If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you’ll feel some serious deja-vu when visiting Wat Mongkolratanaram about 15 minutes north of downtown Tampa. The signs are in Thai, the Buddhas shine in gold, and the buildings look just like the ones in Bangkok.
Each Sunday from 8:30 to 1:00 p.m., volunteers serve Thai food at reasonable prices to visitors in order to raise money for the congregation and temple upkeep. It’s a good way to try a variety of Thai dishes without paying sit-down restaurant prices, in a park-like environment beside a river.
Tigers and Lions at Big Cat Rescue
You can see a wide variety of animals at the Lowry Zoo in Tampa, but for a less conventional experience head to Big Cat Rescue in a suburban location about 15 minutes north of the international airport. Started in 1992, it has grown into a major 45-acre operation that’s home to more than 100 leopards, tigers, lions, ocelots, and other rescued big cats.
Choose from a variety of guided tours to see the strong animals up close, but note that children 10 and under are only allowed on weekends. Click here for more information about Big Cat Rescue.
The World’s Biggest Shuffleboard Club
If shuffleboard conjures up images of senior citizens in retirement homes or on cruise ships, visit the oldest and largest shuffleboard club on a weekend night to have your expectations dashed. Located in downtown St. Petersburg on the other side of Tampa Bay, this club established in 1924 packs them in on open nights where you don’t have to be a member. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6-9:00 p.m. you can enter for $5 and play a few rounds on one of more than 60 courts.
Friday nights you may have to wait for a spot: “St. Pete Shuffle” nights run from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. for just $2 a person and best of all, it’s BYOB. (Just don’t bring glass.) There are also regularly scheduled family days, strategy sessions, and a Shuffleboard Boot Camp.
Take a Walk to Cuba
You could walk right past the pocket park known as Parque Amigos de Jose Marti when you’re strolling the sidewalks of Ybor City and not even see it. This section of Tampa was once the cigar rolling capital of the USA though, which meant lots of immigrants, especially from Cuba. Three years before the communist revolution took hold in that country, the U.S. granted this section of land to the Cuban government via its private owner, Paulina Pedroso. She was an associate of the revolutionary Jose Marti and he stayed at her boarding house on this property when he visited the United States.
The land contains soil from each of Cuba’s provinces and naturally there’s a statue dedicated to the park’s namesake, Jose Julian Marti Perez. Despite the eventual change in leadership in Cuba, this park is still technically Cuban soil, freely visited by anyone since 1953. It’s located at 1303 8th Avenue, right off the Tampa city trolley line.
A Railroad Tycoon’s Moroccan Wonder
The Henry B. Plant Museum is part of a collection of Moroccan-inspired buildings that have made many Tampa visitors scratch their head in puzzlement when looking at the tops of them from Curtis Hixon Park or the Riverwalk. On what is now the campus of the University of Tampa, this was once an opulent hotel created by the man who brought the railroad to the Gulf side of Florida.
Now the Henry B. Plant Museum bears his name and provides information on his life. It captures the time when the region was transformed from a backwater to a major trade center and tourist destination.
Hotel and apartment rates aren’t too bad in Tampa Bay once you get away from the beachfront resorts, plus there are plenty of Florida campgrounds and RV parks as an alternative.