If you live in the Tampa Bay area of Florida or are planning a trip there, you can discover some of the state’s hidden gems during a day trip or a weekend getaway.
To get you started exploring the possibilities, we’ve developed a list of four inexpensive and fun places for you to visit with your spouse, partner, family, or friends.
In the heart of the Nature Coast, Crystal River is a haven for manatees and for people who love the outdoors and history. To get there from the Tampa Bay area, drive up U.S. 19, which runs through the center of town.
Plan a day trip to one attraction or stay the night at a hotel to enable you to see multiple sites.
The environmentally diverse Crystal River Preserve State Park can take a whole day to take in on its own, depending on how athletic you are. The 27,500-acre preserve offers hiking, biking, fishing, birdwatching, and kayaking opportunities. [Financial tip: If you want to take the Friends of Crystal River State Parks narrated boat tour, bring cash or a check to purchase tickets.]
A prime spot for viewing manatees is Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The springs serve as a refuge for manatees in winter due to the consistent 72 degree water temperatures. Overlook the springs via the boardwalk any time of the year or rent kayaks to paddle out to the springs during the summer months.
Take a break from the outdoor adventures by strolling through Crystal River’s charming downtown, replete with vintage shops and gift stores.
History buffs will want to visit to Crystal River State Archaeological Site, where six Native American burial and temple mounds, along with an interpretive museum which houses artifacts recovered on the grounds. The property also lures anglers and birders because of its location on a coastal marsh.
For a new perspective on old Florida, head to Lake Wales, just a two-hour drive east of St. Petersburg. The town’s picturesque attraction, Bok Tower Gardens, features almost 50 acres of manicured gardens designed by renowned historic landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. A 205-foot-tall Art Deco bell tower not only adds to the visual beauty of the property, but it also performs a concert twice every afternoon. You’ll also find a 1930s-era mansion, a children’s garden, and nature trails here.
Plan to spend just a couple of hours or make a full day of it. You can have lunch at the on-site café or pack a picnic. [Financial tip: If you’re a Florida resident, you can save 50% on admission during the month of August.]
Before heading out of town, railroad enthusiasts will want to make time for a stop at the Lake Wales History Museum, which has three restored train cars on display, along with a 1919 railroad station.
Art and culture lovers will want to take a day trip to Winter Park, located just north of Orlando yet worlds away from the theme park festivities.
Along charming Park Avenue, the city’s main road, lie locally owned boutiques and restaurants, which mingle with a few national chain stores. Wend your way down to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art to gaze at one of the largest collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany art glass, including a restored chapel interior built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Be sure to get there by 2:30 p.m. to allow enough time to view the entire collection before 4 p.m., when the museum closes. [Financial tip: There is free parking behind the museum and on the first, fourth, and fifth floors of the nearby Park Place garage.]
Have lunch at one of Park Avenue’s cafes, where you can sit on the promenade and people watch while eating.
After your meal, take a Scenic Boat Tour on an 18-passenger pontoon that sails along Winter Park’s lakes. You can make reservations for 10 or more passengers ahead of time. Regardless of the size of your party, you’ll need to have cash or a check on hand to pay in person. During your hourlong trip, you’ll see local wildlife and beautiful homes.
About 2.5 hours south of Tampa Bay, Sanibel Island is a perfect weekend getaway destination. Reserve a cozy cottage on the beach and use the built-in kitchen to save some money on dining out.
Start your first day strolling one of the beaches to collect shells and enjoy solitude with nature.
For more encounters with nature, include J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on your itinerary. More than 245 species of birds, indigenous mammals such as Sanibel Island Rice Rats and bobcats, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates like Mangrove Buckeye butterflies, all live within the confines of the refuge. Drive, bike, or walk along Wildlife Drive to traverse the property. You can also fish, boat, and do paddle sports. [Financial tip: Visit on October 20 to celebrate “Ding” Day 2019. Admission to the activity-filled festival is free and discounted nature tours are offered throughout the day.]
The island is also known for its spectacular sunsets and all-around relaxed beach vibe, whether you’re dining, shopping, or simply sitting on the sand.
Hop in the car and take a Florida road trip this weekend!