Tips + Trends

A Tale of Two Cities: How to Make the Most of Orlando and Tampa

(Photo: Kevin J King; IHASAKPRACHUM/Shutterstock)

Visits to Tampa and Orlando yield similar and very different travel experiences — all of them amazing. Only one hour away from each other, you may be able to squeeze in a little of both over the course of a long weekend.

Get Your Thrills

Of course, Orlando’s known for its theme parks, of which there are plenty to choose — Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Universal Orlando are just a few of my favorites. No matter which world you want to escape into, or beneath, it’s most likely found in Orlando.

About an hour west of Orlando’s theme parks, Busch Gardens Tampa holds its own in that realm, and in between the two — if you arc a bit — is Legoland Florida, in Winter Haven, a theme park of a build.

Go Wild

In addition to seeing the wildlife found at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens’ 12,000-plus animals, I like to visit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa — one of the world’s largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats. Here you can get up close and personal to some of the most magnificent creatures, but no petting!

When I want to get back to nature, I go just outside Orlando’s city limits. There, find airboat rides that whisk you quickly away into the swamps and marshes where you can spot alligators, as well as loads of birds and other animals that make their homes in that environment. In Tampa, I head out to the Hillsborough River for kayaking, and spot plenty of gators and birds there, too.

Hit the Beach

One thing that sets Tampa apart from Orlando is its close proximity to the beach. Where it may take an hour to reach sandy shores from Orlando, in a mere 30 minutes you can be neck-deep in the Gulf of Mexico, enjoying fun under the sun. Sometimes, all I need while traveling is a little R&R!

Famed Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach are each just about an hour east of Orlando, with packed beaches and lots going on. I prefer the smaller crowds at New Smyrna Beach, between Daytona and Cocoa. And for even smaller crowds, in New Smyrna, head to Smyrna Dunes Park — it’s a mile and a half walk through the dunes, via a boardwalk, but well worth it. And your dog can join you, too!

On the west coast, if being in the middle of the action is how you like to spend your days under the sun, spread your towel at Clearwater Beach or St. Pete Beach. For a bit more quiet and solitude at the shore, I opt for Indian Shores or Redington Shores, between Clearwater and St. Pete.

Party and Hang With Locals

Festivals and events fill the calendars in Orlando and Tampa throughout the year, from farmers’ markets to craft beer fests to music festivals, and so much more. In the spring, rock out at Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival (March), or the Florida Music Festival in Orlando (April).

As far as farmers markets, Orlando’s Winter Park Farmers’ Market and its ultra-popular Saturday Market (every Saturday, 7 a.m. – 1 p.m.) are popular with locals and visitors alike — you may arrive hungry, but you certainly won’t leave that way!

The Tampa area has a number of farmers markets, most of which run seasonally. Among the local favorites is the Seminole Heights Sunday Morning Market, held the second Sunday of the month, in the Seminole Heights neighborhood. The Tampa Downtown Market is every Sunday, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m., October – May. Running year-round, the Ybor City Saturday Market is held every Saturday starting at 9 a.m. and running until early- to mid-afternoon, depending on the time of year. Perhaps the most popular in the area is St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market, every Saturday, 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., October – May.

To see just what’s going on, take a look at the papers in each city and find out what’s on the calendar — there’s sure to be even more fun to be had!

This story first appeared on The Florida Buzz, a collection of blog posts about all things travel in the Sunshine State, powered by Florida Marriott Resorts.