By Dalia Colon

If you’re a parent or grandparent looking for free things to do in Tampa Bay with your little ones, then you won’t have to look far. From parks to museums to sports, the area offers plenty of no-cost ways to entertain your brood.

Arts and culture

Tampa Museum of Art’s minimalistic design and collection of priceless Greek and Roman antiquities may not scream “kid-friendly,” but the museum’s interactive Gallery Activity Cards and dedicated artspace make it appealing to even the littlest art lovers. The museum holds a handful of free Family Days each year, with hands-on art activities, live entertainment and pay-what-you-will admission. 

Introduce your kids to “real” music with a Florida Orchestra performance. The group’s Classical Kids program offers a limited number of free tickets to its Masterworks performances for children ages 5 to 18, with a paying adult. In addition, the orchestra’s pop-up concerts, Instrument Petting Zoo and semi-annual Pops in the Park concerts in Tampa and St. Petersburg are great ways for families to experience the music

It’s worth the trek to Sarasota, about 60 miles south of downtown Tampa, to check out the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Every Monday, admission to the museum and special galleries is free. Kids can explore the art collection that the circus magnate amassed with his fortunes, and then head to the circus museum for even more educational fun. The museum’s lush grounds are also a great place to take photos, so you just might leave with some art of your own -- a new family portrait.

The Gulfport Art Walk happens in a boho neighborhood in South St. Petersburg. Held on the first Friday and third Saturday of each month, the event showcases paintings, sculptures and other creations by local artists. Families can enjoy live music, peek through St. Pete Astronomy Club’s and ride the free trolley from off-site parking lots.

Kids being kids

Clearwater Beach’s nightly Sunset Celebration is the perfect way to close out the day. As the sun dips into the Gulf of Mexico, Pier 60 comes alive with street performers, craft vendors and kids burning their last bits of energy on the waterfront playground. On weekends, stick around for Pier 60’s Sunset Cinema -- a free, family-friendly movie under the stars.

If your kids aren’t quite ready to swim with manatees, then get them acquainted with the gentle giants at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center. During winter months, the so-called sea cows congregate in the warm waters that surround the company’s Big Bend Power Station. Guests can watch manatees from an observation deck, learn about the creatures through educational displays and shop for manatee-themed souvenirs in the gift shop. There’s even a stingray touch tank. Be sure to pack a lunch for the picnic area.

On the first Tuesday of each month, the Glazer Children’s Museum offers free admission in the afternoons and evenings. Little ones can explore the marine-themed Tugboat Tots area; big kids can learn through art, dress-up and water play; and adults and children alike can enjoy a photo op with PBS characters like Elmo and the Cat in the Hat, who appear at the event every other month.

Parks and rec

Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, located in downtown Tampa on the banks of the Hillsborough River, is a relaxing place to spend a few hours. Kids can stroll the Riverwalk, let loose on the playground, frolic through the eight-acre grassy field and cool off at the sprayground. Curtis Hixon Park is adjacent to Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art, so you can easily make a day of it. The park frequently hosts festivals, concerts and other events, too.

About a mile north of Curtis Hixon Park is another outdoor gem: Water Works Park. Also on the banks of the Hillsborough River, the Water Works features jungle gym, picnic shelters, stage for live performances and green space for festivals and picnics. The park’s splash pad, with its massive bucket that dumps water on giddy kids waiting below, is a huge draw.

Largo Central Park is a local favorite for its spacious jungle gym, lush lawn and attractive holiday light displays. As if that weren’t enough, on the first full weekend of each month, the public is invited to board the park’s miniature Largo Central Railroad train.

Shop ‘til they drop

Malls are fine, but Tampa Bay offers shopping experiences your kids won’t soon forget.

Everyone should visit St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market at least once. The weekly gathering is a feast for the senses, with live entertainment, fragrant produce and flowers, colorful handmade items for sale. The kid- and pet-friendly event is believed to be the largest weekly outdoor market in the Southeastern United States.

Bass Pro Shops is a massive outdoors store that’s big on family fun. Around holidays head to the Brandon location for themed crafts, activities and printed photos with Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, all for free. And when school’s out, Bass Pro offers its free Family Summer Camp\ -- a catch-and-release pond, BB gun shooting range and other daily activities. Leave plenty of time for your kids to stare mesmerized into to store’s giant fish tank.

Yes, IKEA Tampa is a furniture store. But it’s also a great place to spend an air-conditioned summer day. The store offers free childcare in a playroom complete with a ball pit, so parents can shop in peace. Around school holidays, there are free crafts and free kids’ meals. Check the store’s schedule for upcoming activities.

Get sporty

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Buccaneers, Lightning, Rays and Rowdies. But beyond its pro sports teams, there are lots of ways for active kids to have some fun.

What better way to beat the heat than with an ice skating lesson? Tampa Bay Skating Academy with locations in Oldsmar and Clearwater, offers beginners ages 5 and up a free 30-minute trial class. Introductory classes are held every eight weeks.

The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club makes the sport surprisingly fun for all ages. Its Friday night St. Pete Shuffle gatherings are free and kid-friendly, and the BYOB policy will appeal to adults, too.

Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa has bragging rights as the world’s longest continuous sidewalk -- so long, in fact, that the city considers it a “linear park.” Parents can get some exercise while kids ride in a stroller or ride their bikes along 4.5 miles of gorgeous scenery: the Hillsborough Bay on one side and stately mansions on the other. Periodic exercise stations break up the trip.

Living history

Learn about Tampa Bay’s early years at these attractions that bring history to life.

Step back in time with a visit to Heritage Village in Largo. The sprawling outdoor “living history museum” features a 19th-century school, railroad depot and other historic structures that invite hands-on learning.

Spongeorama Sponge Factory pays homage to the sponge industry of Tarpon Springs with museum exhibits and an educational film.

The Tampa Firefighters Museum downtown is where kids can learn about real-life heroes. Admission is always free to this building, which served as the Tampa Fire Department’s headquarters from 1911 to 1974. Kids can see how fire trucks have changed over the years, interact with hands-on exhibits and even slide down the pole.