You've been looking forward to this trip: attending a University of South Florida Bulls football game at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. Win or lose, it should be a memorable four hours of action at one of the nation's best sporting venues.
But what about the time you or your family will have before and after the game? What else is there to see and do in Tampa besides football?
48 hours in Tallahassee
48 hours in Orlando
48 hours in Miami
48 hours in Gainesville
We've asked the locals to help us decide what to do with your valuable time and hard-earned money. The emphasis here is fun, enjoyable and value-packed.
OK, let's assume you're here with the family, meeting friends or reuniting with old college roommates. Let's look at some of the better-known destinations, as well as a few off the beaten path.
Adventure Island (open March-October): Across the street from its sister park, Busch Gardens, Adventure Island offers 30 acres of water-drenched fun including water slides, waterfalls, a giant wave pool, a river to relax on and float the day away, a children's water playground and even private cabanas. It's fun for all ages in a soothing Key West atmosphere. Spend all day here or most of it. www.adventureisland.com
Busch Gardens: Tampa's slice of Disney-like entertainment just gets bigger and better. It's a combination of theme park and zoo, with an emphasis on heart-pounding roller coasters. The park offers a unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country's premier zoos with more than 2,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games. Visitors can experience up-close encounters with exotic animals and take a "Serengeti Safari." Plan to spend the day here. Discounts available for Florida residents and multiple-park tickets. www.buschgardens.com/Bgt
Florida Aquarium: Most visitors say you can see everything in about two hours, but there's also a two-acre water park for the kids. It’s home to multiple exhibits, including Florida wetlands and opportunities to have in-water experiences. www.flaquarium.org
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo: An award-winning zoo on nearly 60 acres with approximately 1,500 animals, a manatee hospital, aviaries, splash grounds, rides and interactive areas. Many say this is one of Tampa's best attractions for the dollar, particularly for families. Visits typically last a half-day, longer if you want. www.lowryparkzoo.com
Glazer Children's Museum: Opened in the fall of 2010, this 53,000-square-foot, three-story complex sits on the edge of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa. There are more than 170 interactive displays about life in Tampa Bay – the outdoors, medicine, sports, broadcasting, the arts, and air and water travel. Many parents have said that what they like best about the Children's Museum is how well maintained the exhibits are and the staff that helps kids enjoy it to the fullest. www.glazermuseum.org
Ybor City: Arguably the city's most historic and beautiful neighborhood. Established in the late 1800s, Ybor City was the home of thousands of immigrant workers, mostly from Spain, Cuba and Italy who worked in the numerous cigar factories. Today, Ybor is known as the area's top entertainment district, with famous 7th Avenue at the heart. The TECO Line Streetcar System shuttles visitors from Tampa's downtown and the Channelside district to "Centro Ybor," a shopping, dining and multi-cinema complex on 8th Avenue. For families, Ybor is best enjoyed before the nightclub crowd arrives late in the evening. Affordable, city-operated parking garages are within walking distance of the main avenues. Spend most of the day here or a good part of the evening for dinner and a movie. www.ybor.org
Museum of Science and Industry: Tampa's MOSI is what many call a "scientific playground" for kids and adults. The 400,000-square foot complex near the University of South Florida has more than 450 hands-on activities, making it the largest science center in the southeastern United States. The "Kids in Charge" area is designed for children 12 and under. Enjoy an astronomy show at the planetarium or see a movie in MOSI's 10,500-square-foot IMAX Dome Theatre. There's enough here to spend at least half a day. www.mosi.org
Channelside Bay Plaza: Offers a wide variety of dining and entertainment options and, each weekend, live music in the central courtyard. Channelside also offers dining and bowling in an upscale atmosphere called Splitsville. This is a great place to spend the evening and parking is easy at the nearby multi-story garage. www.channelsidebayplaza.com
David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts: Leading Broadway shows, musicals, orchestral and opera performances, and events year round. Check listings to see the latest shows. www.strazcenter.org
The Tampa Museum of Art: Former mayor Pam Iorio calls the museum one of the city's "string of pearls" along Tampa's downtown waterfront at Curtis Hixon Park. The $31 million facility is home to exhibits of 20th-century fine art, as well as Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. It's adjacent to the Glazer Children's Museum, so families could spend a good part of the day at each spot. www.tampamuseum.org
Although Tampa is something of a metropolis, there are places to enjoy a wilderness retreat. Most notable are the sites within the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve and Lettuce Lake Park. All of these are about a 20- to 25-minute drive from downtown. You can spend all day at one of these sites, particularly in the cooler fall and winter months. The cost for all these parks is usually a few dollars per car.
Trout Creek: Just east of I-75 on Morris Bridge Road/Fletcher Avenue, enjoy fishing, canoeing, off-road biking and hiking, or have a picnic. Restroom facilities, running water and shelters. www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/areas/lh-troutcreek.html
Flatwoods: Less than nine miles from the University of South Florida, this is one of the best-kept secrets in the area. Great for cycling, there's a seven-mile paved road and miles of off-road trails that loop through the park and past deer, gopher tortoises, bobcats, birds and, yes, a few snakes that sometimes scurry across the road. www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/areas/lh-flatwoods.html
Lettuce Lake Park: Less than three miles from the University of South Florida, this 240-acre site offers something for just about everyone of any age: wooded picnic areas, playgrounds, a bicycle path/jogging trail and the park's showpiece, a 3,500-foot boardwalk and three-story-tall observation tower. New to the park is a canoe and kayak launch area, where you can rent either vessel to experience the park from the vantage point of the Hillsborough River. www.hillsboroughcounty.org/parks/parkservices
There are many great places to eat, including numerous chain restaurants. But we will focus on the locals' favorites. Here are two suggestions for each meal.
First Watch (520 N Tampa St., downtown): Pancakes made to order. "Florida French Toast" featuring slabs of cinnamon raisin or sourdough bread sprinkled with fresh bananas, kiwi and berries. Omelets with special cheeses and sour cream. Great prices, fast service. www.firstwatch.com
Pink Flamingo Cafe (304 E. Davis Blvd., Davis Islands): You can go as healthy (fresh fruit tossed with low-fat yogurt and granola) or as comforting as you want (homemade pancakes and hash browns). This is a kid-friendly place with something for just about everyone, including lunch. www.pinkflamingo.us
La Teresita (3248 W. Columbus Drive): For a true taste of Tampa, this is without a doubt, a must-eat spot. The staff is mostly Cuban and the food reflects it. Powerful espressos, toasted and buttered Cuban bread, pressed Cuban sandwiches of roasted pork, pan-fried sirloin steak, chicken with yellow rice and black beans and "ropa vieja," a roast beef cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. Tables abound in the dining area, but for the real La Teresita experience, sit at the lunch countertops on the west side of the building. This is where politicians come to stump and mix with the locals. And it's where you can be served in a matter of minutes. www.lateresitarestaurant.com
Datz (2616 S. MacDill Ave.): They call themselves a "Gastropub," and given the massive deli sandwiches paired with 34 craft beer taps plus a collection of vintage bottles, boutique wine and artisanal spirits, okay then. There's an emphasis on "comfort foods" like chicken and waffles and bacon mac 'n cheese, but Datz’s can also be a satisfying spot for vegetarians with numerous salads and side dishes. datztampa.com
Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe (5119 N. Nebraska Ave.): Hip and artsy yet family-friendly. There's an emphasis on Americana, particularly with the restaurant's folk art decor and live music on the weekends. But Ella's has a menu featuring fare from Americana to vegan (Sundays feature soul food and barbecue), a smart wine and beer list, and a solid wait staff. ellasfolkartcafe.com
Mise en Place (442 W Kennedy Blvd.): After more than a quarter century in Tampa, Mise en Place still changes its menu weekly. That means you can expect something unique to go along with the stylish surroundings of this bistro, like roast duck and Creole-style snapper. But the emphasis at Mise is on the wine. It defines who they are and changes with the menu for one of the most intimate dining experiences in Tampa. miseonline.com
Other notable Tampa restaurants include Bern's Steak House, Donatello, Miguel's Mexican Seafood and Grill, 220 East (Davis Islands), The Taj Indian Cuisine, Estela's Mexican (Davis Islands), Taco Bus, Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, The Columbia Restaurant, Bella's Italian Cafe, Mellow Mushroom Pizza, Joto Japanese (Dale Mabry Highway) and Mr. Dunderbak's.
Bill Ward has covered high school and Olympic sports for the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times for more than 30 years. He and his family live in Tampa.