CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
Limitless Choices

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

Central West Florida - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

There are plenty of places from which to choose when planning a trip to the Sunshine State, and each has its unique flavor. If you're looking for the perfect combination of theme parks, electric nightlife, fine dining, world-class museums and sandy white beaches, look no further than Central West Florida!

WHAT'S NEW

The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts moved into its new space in 2012 and has quickly become part of the core of the downtown Tampa Arts District. It has also made quite an impact on the face of downtown with the six larger-than-life photos that adorn some of the windows of The Cube. The museum features traveling and permanent exhibits to delight photographers of every ilk.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Several world-class museums are located in Central West Florida. Take The Dalí Museum, for instance, which houses the world's most comprehensive collection of art from the master himself. The building itself was recently named one of the 20 most beautiful museums in the world by Flavorwire, a popular cultural blog.

Then, there's the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg featuring the glassmaker's masterpieces. The collection is displayed in a building designed specifically for the exhibit—that's impressive!

Central West Florida is rich in history, including Ybor City. During its heyday, the small city within a city contained numerous cigar factories where workers would roll millions of cigars a year. It was once known as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Today, the old brick streets are lined with shops and cafes and you can still find some hand-rolled cigars to sample.

To get a real feel for Tampa and its surrounds, take a bike tour with City Bike Tampa. When you're done riding, stroll over to the University of Tampa campus where the Henry B. Plant Museum is the focal point with its unmistakable minarets. The building was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant for his railway guests to enjoy at the end of their journey from the northeast U.S.

Northwest of Tampa is the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs. The sponge industry brought the Greeks. Today, that Greek influence still prevails in the community's culture and in its plentiful choice of restaurants, which are highly recommended after you walk through town or take in a sunset cruise.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Named the country's best zoo by Parents Magazine, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo offers thrills for kids and kids at heart. More than 1,500 animals—including leopards and tigers—can be found within the zoo's 56 lush acres just a few miles north of downtown Tampa. Be sure to check out the zoo's website for special events year-round.

What's that rustling in the trees? Could it be a dinosaur? It may just be, if you find yourself at Dinosaur World just off I-4 in Plant City. One hundred and fifty life-size dinosaurs, from Brachiosaurus to Triceratops, call this home.

Docile manatees, or sea cows, make their cold-weather homes in the warm (at least 72 F) waters throughout Central West Florida, and there are many places to sneak a peek at these gentle giants. The viewing platform and boardwalk at the Tampa Electric Company in Apollo Beach is ideal. Folklore has it that sailors, in their delirium after months at sea, mistook manatees for mermaids. For nearly 60 years, crowds have gathered at Weeki Wachee Springs to watch these "mermaids" swim.

The inspirational, real-life story of Winter, the dolphin, splashed onto the silver screen in Dolphin Tale. As a juvenile dolphin, her tail became entangled in a crab trapline. She subsequently lost her tail, yet survived! Winter's the first dolphin to have a prosthetic tail, and you can visit her at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she happily resides much to the delight of thousands of fans.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Central West Florida is home to a variety of cities and towns, with something to suit everyone's tastes. The metropolises of Tampa and St. Petersburg offer big-city living, while the quiet beach towns along the Gulf of Mexico have a laid-back vibe—flip-flops only!

Dunedin is a town rich in its ties to its Scottish roots, not to mention its love of the arts.

To the east, Plant City is known as the Strawberry Capital of the World, and Dade City is popular for its antique stores and historic architecture.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The Cuban influence is prevalent in restaurants in Tampa. For a real treat, make reservations at The Columbia. Since 1905, fans of Spanish food have made their way to Florida's oldest restaurant in Ybor City. Originally serving Cuban sandwiches and coffee to local cigar workers, today the restaurant spans 15 dining rooms and features flamenco dancing performances every night except Sunday.

Another Central West Florida dining institution is Bern's Steak House. For more than 50 years, Bern's has served aged prime beef, caviar, organic vegetables and wines from an extensive cellar—about 6,500 labels. Try the tableside Caesar Salad and make reservations for the Dessert Room.

Seafood often finds itself in the spotlight in Florida and numerous restaurants offer the catch of the day. Island Way Grill and Bob Heilman's Beachcomber Restaurant in Clearwater Beach, as well as Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores are three that do it right.

When the sun sets in Central West Florida, there are plenty of places to celebrate the day's end. If you're at the beach, toast the sun dipping into the Gulf at Frenchy's or at Palm Pavilion right on Clearwater Beach. In Tampa, head back to Ybor City to enjoy its myriad restaurants and bars. SoHo (South Howard), also in Tampa, is another hot spot, featuring several restaurants and bars that party into the night.

In St. Petersburg, there are also plenty of choices, from live music venues to nightclubs along Central Avenue that are hopping into the wee hours.

GREAT OUTDOORS

Warm sunshine and cool breezes make Central West Florida the place to be for Spring Training. Whether you're a New York Yankees' fan (Tampa), pull for the Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater) or root for the Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), you'll find a game to enjoy along with the fine weather. Once the season officially starts, the Tampa Bay Rays play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Baseball isn't the only game in town, though. The Tampa Bay Rowdies take to the pitch to rival soccer teams from summer into fall, and once autumn comes around, cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Through the winter months, the Tampa Bay Lightning take to the ice.

If you'd rather play than spectate, a number of public and semi-private golf courses for all skill sets abound throughout the region. Saddlebrook Resort and Innisbrook Golf Resort incorporate the game on the greens into their properties with great ease.

Of course, Florida's premier attractions nearly anywhere you go in the state are its beaches, and there's no shortage in Central West Florida. In fact, the area boasts some of the best beaches in the U.S., including Honeymoon Island. Fort De Soto is also a top spot and was named America's best family beach by Parents Magazine due to its 1,136 acres and three miles of sandy white beaches. It's also one of the area's only dog beaches.

If you just want to walk, jog or rollerblade, head to Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa—the world's longest continuous sidewalk at 4.5 miles.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

With anchor stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, not to mention boutiques including Tory Burch and Gucci, and international favorite H&M, the International Plaza in Tampa has become a destination unto itself.

For more boutiques, make your way to Hyde Park Village. Tucked away between sprawling homes on tree-lined streets, shops in a European-like village make this quiet residential neighborhood one of Tampa's hot retail spots.

If you're looking for a souvenir, try Johns Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach, where dozens of retailers sell everything from T-shirts and shells to artwork and more.

The Central Avenue Corridor is an enjoyable stroll in downtown St. Petersburg. As you pop in and out of fine art galleries, record and vintage clothing shops and antique stores, you never know what you may find on this eclectic stretch of 15 or so city blocks.

SCENIC DRIVES

Put the top down and let the warm breeze blow through your hair as you drive along the beaches on the west coast. Is there anything better than the sun overhead, tunes on the radio and the feel of the open road?

In Tampa, gorgeous mansions have fantastic views of Tampa Bay to the east along Bayshore Boulevard.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

There's plenty to choose from to keep busy in Central West Florida. Everyone will enjoy the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa—and they won't even know they're learning! Don't miss the Sky Trail® Ropes Course and Zip Line!

Have a roaring good time at the Glazer Children's Museum in downtown Tampa, Great Explorations Children's Museum in St. Petersburg and Dinosaur World in Plant City, just off of I-4 on the way to Orlando.

Thrills are a mile a minute at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and its water park, Adventure Island. Surf's up!

The biggest family attractions, though, are the beaches in Central West Florida. Set up a chair, throw down a towel and enjoy a day by the water!

INSIDER'S TIPS

The Suncoast Beach Trolley offers quick transportation along the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area beaches and to downtown St. Petersburg. The air-conditioned, natural gas-operated trolleys run along Gulf Boulevard as far north as downtown Clearwater and as far south as St. Pete Beach's Pass-A-Grille neighborhood. The system also takes visitors from Treasure Island on the beaches to downtown St. Petersburg. Trolleys operate every day 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cost is $1 per ride or $2.50 for the day.

A little-known site in Tampa is actually Cuban soil. A little park—just 0.14 acres—is dedicated to Cuban poet and freedom fighter Jose Marti, and has belonged to Cuba since 1956. The park is gated and locked most of the time, but sneak a peek of Cuban soil right here in the U.S.!

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