Tampa Downtown Walking Tour, Tampa

Tampa Downtown Walking Tour (Self Guided), Tampa

The City of Tampa sits at the head of what is now known as Tampa Bay. It is Florida’s third-largest city and its largest shipping port. Native Americans lived around the Bay almost 2,000 years ago, long before Spanish explorers “discovered” the area. Even when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they didn’t stay in Florida long. There was no gold, and the native inhabitants fought them off. Regardless, those native cultures declined in the 1600s, decimated by European diseases. The area remained mostly a far-flung frontier, inhabited by hardy ranchers in seasonal camps for the better part of 200 years.

Tampa remained a small fishing village for many years. The city didn’t see much growth until phosphate was discovered nearby, which caused the port to boom. When Henry Plant extended his rail line to Tampa in 1883, the town was suddenly connected to the east coast and the rest of the nation. Things really took off then, and Tampa became a tourist town. The port grew even more important thanks to the rail connections.

Today, Tampa is part of the Tampa Bay Area, which includes nearby St. Petersberg, Clearwater, Sarasota, and the many small towns and suburbs strung around the Bay. Downtown Tampa is connected by the Riverwalk Trail, which winds its way along the bayfront. Many attractions lie in this small area right on the Bay, from the Florida Aquarium to Henry Plant’s historic Florida Hotel building, now a museum. This self guided walking tour takes you to explore the most important attractions in the downtown Tampa.
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Tampa Downtown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Tampa Downtown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Tampa (See other walking tours in Tampa)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.2 Km or 2 Miles
Author: anna
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Florida Aquarium
  • SS American Victory Mariners' Memorial and Museum Ship
  • Tampa Bay History Center
  • Sacred Heart Church
  • Tampa Theatre
  • Tampa Riverwalk
  • Henry B. Plant Museum
Florida Aquarium

1) Florida Aquarium (must see)

A trip to the Florida Aquariums is a journey through Florida's natural world. Along the way, you'll visit and learn about the coral reefs of the Florida Keys, north Florida's freshwater springs, and the many wetlands, shallow bays, and beaches in between.

The Aquarium is massive, covering 250,000 square feet with more than 7,000 plants and animals on display. They recommend you plan to spend more than two hours here, but many visitors wish they'd allotted more time. Over a half a million gallons of seawater is pumped into the many aquarium exhibits. You'll want to spend the better part of a day here, especially if you plan on participating in any special programs.

Within the Aquarium's exhibits, expect to see sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, alligators, jellyfish, river otters, and many dozens of types of fish and marine invertebrates. The Aquarium focuses on conservation efforts and educates the public about the plight of Florida's ecosystems from pollution and habitat losses. The organization focuses on conservation efforts on coral reefs, sharks and rays, and sea turtles through habitat restoration and animal health and sustainable populations.

Why You Should Visit:
This Aquarium features more than just fish! Exhibits include detailed walk-throughs of Florida ecosystems where you'll see alligators, otters, and many species of birds. Don't miss the gorgeous Roseate Spoonbills! They've also got touch-tanks and beachcombing exhibits, along with a few lemurs and penguins.

The Florida Aquarium has consistently been rated one of the best in the country, and it's a great place to visit for adults and kids alike.

The Aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is a conservation and education leader.

- Grab a ticket for the Wild Dolphin Cruise, a 75-minute guided tour of Tampa Bay on the Aquarium's 75-foot catamaran, Bay Spirit II.
- Discounted tickets are available if you purchase Tampa Bay's CityPASS discount program. The CityPASS includes discounts on admission to ZooTampa and Busch Gardens and a few other local attractions.
- Consider signing up for an experience, like Shark Dives or Heart of the Sea Swim, to get an even more up-close experience!
SS American Victory Mariners' Memorial and Museum Ship

2) SS American Victory Mariners' Memorial and Museum Ship

One of only four operational World War II ships in the country, the SS American Victory is a preserved merchant marine ship that transported supplies and troops to the front lines during the war. The Victory-class ships were designed to be quickly built, but faster and more capable than the more common Liberty ships. The ship is 455 feet long, weighs more than 10,000 tons, and was built in an impressive 55 days.

The ship was launched in Los Angeles in 1945 and immediately began an around-the-world tour. At war's end, she ferried cargo and troops home. She's powered by two Allis Chalmers marine steam turbines making 6,000 horsepower each, which you can see during your tour of the engine room. She can carry a half a million cubic feet of cargo and was armed with ten machine guns.

Today the ship has been restored to fully functional status. Guided and self-guided tours are available through the many compartments and rooms. Many display photos and memorabilia from the time and show what life was like for a merchant marine during WWII. The ship also occasionally sails for Living History Day Cruises. The ship and museum serve as a testament and memorial to all veterans, especially the merchant marines. In the words of the museum, the merchant marines were the "unsung heroes of numerous conflicts…with the highest percentage rate of casualties of any service."
Tampa Bay History Center

3) Tampa Bay History Center

What do pirates, Cuban cigars, and cowboys have in common? Find out at the Tampa Bay History Center. Three floors of history exhibits take you on a tour of Florida's past. Beginning with Florida's First People and evolving with European explorers like Ponce de Leon, the museum covers the state's often turbulent past.

Many museum exhibits focus on local history, from the events that sparked development around Tampa Bay to the various people who settled there. Exhibits will introduce you to Florida cowmen, "crackers," and pioneers. Learn the forgotten history of the Florida Seminole Wars, some of the most protracted military conflicts in US history. You'll also discover the history of nearby Ybor City, home to immigrant cigar rollers from Cuba.

There are also exhibits on pirates and shipwrecks found in the area. Additionally, the History Center hosts many changing exhibits and events. No trip to the museum would be complete without grabbing a genuine Cuban sandwich and cafecito at the neighboring waterfront Columbia Cafe, Florida's oldest restaurant chain that has been family-owned since 1905.
Sacred Heart Church

4) Sacred Heart Church

One of the oldest churches in Tampa, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was constructed in 1905. The Romanesque granite and marble structure features 70 beautiful stained glass windows and a 135-foot dome. The altar is made of Carrara marble, and the pews and doors are solid oak. This breathtaking church is a popular spot for weddings.

The county deeded the site of Sacred Heart for a church since the 1850s. Before the construction of Sacred Heart, St. Louis Parish was a small wood-framed church on the same site.

With Tampa's boom after the arrival of Henry Plant's railroad, the city began to plan for a bigger church. The Jesuits built the church at the cost of $300,000. In 2005 the Jesuits transitioned control of the parish to the Franciscans.

Most of the original structure and design looks the same today as it did at the time of its opening. The 70 stained glass windows were made for the church by the Franz Mayer Co. Of Munich, Germany, which is still in business today. All of the windows tell stories, like the Resurrection Window. This window is a triptych, with three panels, each telling a part of the tale.
Tampa Theatre

5) Tampa Theatre (must see)

Step back in time to the golden years of film by visiting this authentic downtown movie palace. Built in 1926, the Tampa Theatre was rescued from sharing the fate of many of its brothers and sisters by a group of loyal community residents and supporters. It reopened in 1978 and became a model of how a community could save a golden-age theater.

Several renovations over the years have made the venue shine. The original opulent interior is like a time capsule. Everything, from the seats to the wall tapestries, has been made to match the original 1926 decor. Even the paint colors and carpets match the original look.

The theater hosts a wide range of foreign, independent, and documentary films. It operates as a non-profit, supported entirely by ticket and concession sales and community donors. With its perfectly renovated spaces, the location has been used as the backdrop for many movies and TV scenes.

John Eberson designed the Tampa Theatre as an atmospheric theater. These designs used architectural elements and decor to make viewers feel like they're in a specific place outdoors. The style of this particular theater was made to simulate a Mediterranean courtyard under the night sky. The theater features old-world statues, flowers, and gargoyles, with a nighttime sky overhead complete with twinkling stars and floating clouds.

Why You Should Visit:
The Tampa Theatre is one of the only surviving movie palaces left from the 1920s. Most of these extravagant theaters were demolished as Americans moved out of urban centers and into the suburbs. As movie-going crowds diminished and ticket sales slumped, the land under these movie palaces became more valuable that the theaters themselves. Several other factors contributed to their decline, including laws that prohibited film studios from owning the theaters and the widespread adoption of television.

The theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Tampa City Landmark. It is owned by the city and operated by the Arts Council of Hillsboro County.

Look for the theater's original Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, operated nightly before shows by a crew of volunteer organists from the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society.
Tampa Riverwalk

6) Tampa Riverwalk (must see)

Winding its way along downtown Tampa's waterfront for nearly two and a half miles, the Tampa Riverwalk connects many of the city's top attractions. The beautifully manicured and landscaped path is a mecca for commuters, joggers, and visitors alike. The park serves as a community hub for the arts, outdoor activities, and live music.

The Riverwalk is an attraction in and of itself, with stunning views of Tampa Bay and downtown. But along the path, you will also find many of Tampa's other top attractions, including the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa History Center, the Glazer Children's Museum, and the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

You will find the bronze and marble busts of Tampa's most influential and noteworthy people along the Riverwalk. Through these busts, the Historical Monument Trail tells the story of the history of Hillsboro County and the City of Tampa. There are currently 30 honorees along the Trail, with each character representing a unique and vital part of the region's history.

Why You Should Visit:
Tampa's Riverwalk connects parts of the city in ways that other metropolitan areas can only dream of. The green space provides a break from the hustle and bustle of town, and it transitions the city to the peaceful surroundings of Tampa Bay. The trail is walkable, bike-able, and Segway-able, allowing you to move between visitor hot spots without getting in your car.

- Grab a refreshing drink at the Sail Pavilion, Tampa's only 360-degree open-air waterfront bar.
- Rent a water bike from the Tampa Bay Water Bike Company to view the beautiful Tampa skyline from the water.
- Want to branch out and visit some other areas of Tampa? Hop a ride on the Pirate Water Taxi, which has 15 stops along the Riverwalk, Channel District, downtown, and Davis Island.
Henry B. Plant Museum

7) Henry B. Plant Museum (must see)

While Henry Flagler was building railroads and hotels along Florida's east coast, Henry Plant was doing the same on the state's west side. The Henry B. Plant Museum is situated in what is now Plant Hall on the University of Tampa's campus. The building was once Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel.

The Tampa Bay Hotel opened in 1891 at the end of Henry Plant's rail line. The resort was the crown jewel of the eight resorts that Plant planned to build around his various rail lines. It covered six acres and featured the first-ever elevator installed in a building in Florida. It had 511 rooms, each with electric lights and telephones, also a first in the state.

During the Spanish-American War, the hotel was used by the military as an operations base. Many enlisted men camped on the grounds, while high-ranking officials stayed in the rooms. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders even stayed at the hotel.

The hotel fell on hard times along with the rest of the nation during the Great Depression. After a brief closure in the 1930s, it was opened as the Tampa Bay Junior College's home, which later expanded to become the University of Tampa.

The south wing of the building is currently set aside to preserve the Tampa Bay Hotel's glory days. Much of the hotel's artifacts, including European and Oriental artwork and collectibles imported by Mr. and Mrs. Plant themselves, are on display.

Why You Should Visit:
The museum now hosts a variety of artifacts from the period, in addition to the building itself. You'll find exhibits on the Spanish-American War, Plant's railway and steamship lines, and the sports and adventures that drew tourists to Florida during the Gilded Age.

The Henry B. Plant Museum is on the US Register of Historic Places and is a US National Historic Landmark.

- Don't forget to check out the impressive grounds surrounding the former hotel, now known as Plant Park.
- Be sure to get the audio tour on your phone for a self-guided tour of the museum.

Walking Tours in Tampa, Florida

Create Your Own Walk in Tampa

Create Your Own Walk in Tampa

Creating your own self-guided walk in Tampa is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Ybor City Historic District Walking Tour

Ybor City Historic District Walking Tour

Founded in 1885 by Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur who became a noted industrialist and cigar manufacturer in Cuba, Ybor City was unique in the American South as a successful town almost entirely populated and owned by immigrants. Once the epicenter of the cigar industry, today this historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, is a thriving hub for art, culture, and gastronomy.

Ybor...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.1 Km or 1.3 Miles