Sharp-toothed gators are just one of many wild animals you’ll see around Tampa. (Photo: Alamy)
Though your first impression of Tampa might be that of a sleek, and modern city, the pristine beauty of “Old Florida” is alive and well in central Florida. While you can choose to delve into a variety of urban-centric things to do in Tampa, we recommend planning a visit to picturesque state parks and exotic animal sanctuaries for up-close experiences with both local and international wildlife.
Discover Wildlife Wonders at Hillsborough River State Park
The Hillsborough River winds 54 miles through unspoiled wilderness from the Green Swamp to Hillsborough Bay. When you’re looking for things to do in Tampa, rent a canoe or kayak from Canoe Escape and enjoy the local scenery.
Wildlife is particularly abundant within the 4.5-mile section of this Tampa river between John B. Sargeant and Morris Bridge parks. Go sightseeing and look for wild pigs and shy limpkin birds. Here is also your best opportunity for spotting alligators in the wild or floating past hundreds of white ibises.
For a challenge, paddle through Hillsborough River State Park, where a limestone outcropping creates a set of Class II rapids, a Florida rarity.
Going on Safari to the Wilderness Ranch
As sun warms your back, your camel lumbers across dramatic Serengeti terrain, bringing you closer to the herd of red lechwe antelope splashing through marshland.
If you’ve never seen a zedonk or a zorse and you’d love to view exotic animals free from cages, take a camelback safari at the Safari Wilderness Ranch, 45 miles east of Tampa. An overnight stay in nearby Lakeland cuts your travel time for visiting this 260-acre preserve, which offers a rare opportunity to view approximately 400 animals from five continents in natural environments. In addition to commonly known beasts, you’ll witness endangered and nearly extinct animals such as the scimitar-horned oryx.
Enhance your experience with extras like the ring-tailed lemur feeding, where you hand-feed grapes to a troop while learning about their social behaviors.
A Roaring Good Time
Want to experience more animal-related things to do in Tampa? It’s all about the felines at Big Cat Rescue in Citrus Park. This accredited sanctuary is home to over 100 exotic cats that have been rescued from abuse or were abandoned. Tour groups are kept small to reduce the animals’ stress levels, and knowledgeable guides teach you how to tell the difference between a leopard and a jaguar. Learn the story behind each cat, such as cougar Mickey, rescued from a home zoo in Alabama, who loves rolling on the soft ground and playing with his toys despite severe leg injuries.
For an even closer encounter, participate in a behind-the-scenes Big Cat Keeper Tour. Learn about the animal sanctuary’s inner workings and watch a conditioning session, when a trainer teaches a cat to show paws or step into a lockout area to help with medical monitoring. You also make stimulating toys and treats for the cats, then watch their reactions as the keeper shares your creations with them.