By Valerie Moloney
With the calendar creeping into May, many of us are in full-on summer vacation planning mode. In previous years, cheap Orlando hotels lured us to Disney World, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Studios, but a cheap Florida vacation doesn’t have to involve one more trip to see Belle and Jasmine.
Call it the Tampa secret.
Just an hour from Orlando off I-4, Tampa is equal parts familiar and unexpected, pretty and gritty. Pass the bank of strip malls and strip clubs – yes, there’s no glossing over it – to find neighborhoods dotted by Spanish-style bungalows, sprawling homes on Bayshore Boulevard and fairly recently, the mega mansion built by one very famous New York Yankee.
If you’re not willing to commit to more than a day or two at Disney, a stay at cheap Tampa hotels could be the low-key vacation that you’ve been pining for. Consider these 5 free things to do in Tampa for real local experiences instead of waiting in lines.
1. Walk or ride a bike on Davis Islands.
The laidback, man-made island was hand-picked by Derek Jeter for a 30,000-square-foot waterfront “home.” Even if you can’t get close to the compound, you’ll find comfort in the warmth of the neighborhood, starting with the Main Street feel of Davis Boulevard and its cute shops and restaurants.
2. Stroll along 7th Avenue in Ybor City.
The former cigar rolling center of Tampa keeps its historical character via brick streets, iron balconies and loft-style buildings now populated by bars, restaurants and shops. By night, expect to see denizens crawling New Orleans style from club to club.
3. Rollerblade, jog or walk on Bayshore Boulevard.
Bayshore, which connects South Tampa to downtown, is the kind of street that could show well in the opening credits to a “Dallas-” or “Dynasty-”type show. Dotted with just about every style home imaginable – from colonial brick houses with stately columns to Mediterranean-inspired villas – the boulevard offers prime recreational space to locals who simply can’t get enough of the water views, along with the occasional dolphin sighting.
4. Take photos of the University of Tampa.
Standing in front of the majestic minarets, you’ll wonder whether you landed in Tampa or Moscow. Your dripping forehead will be proof that you’re in the former.
5. Drive across the Gandy Bridge or Courtney Campbell Causeway.
OK, so this cheats a little since it requires enough gas, but boy, are they some sights to behold. The wide expanse of water – almost blinding on a sunny day – captivates with its beauty and simplicity. Remember this moment when you’re boarding a plane back to Gary, Ind.
Valerie Moloney is a writer for Orbitz and CheapTickets who was born in the Philippines, lived in Morocco and married a native Irishman. She now covers hotels around the world and contributes to the Orbitz blog.