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Trip Report

Road Trips from Tampa

My Vacation in Central Florida. St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Clearwater. 5 days of food, beach and outdoor exploration.

  • The historic Don Cesar hotel on St. Pete beach.+ 5
  • The Hollander Hotel in Downtown St. Pete
  • Enjoying local craft beers downtown
  • Road Trips from Tampa
About Me:Hi, I'm Jackie, creator of the blog Bon Voyage Jackie. I created my blog in 2018 to share my experience balancing working as a full-time professional with my love of travel. I work remotely, but keep a home-base in Baton Rouge, LA. My f... read more

North AmericaUnited States5 days / May 2021

Highs & Lows

Swimming with manatees in Crystal River!

An afternoon thunderstorm put a damper on my plans to visit Silver Springs.

Itinerary Overview

Central Florida is a favorite destination of mine to visit anytime of year. In winter, it’s a welcome escape from the cold and in summer, there’s nothing better than cooling off at the beach or in the natural springs. 

The Tampa area, which includes nearby Clearwater and St. Petersburg, was the perfect base for my road trip in May 2021. A rental car is a must to visit the natural springs. Central Florida boasts hundreds of springs.  Many are only about an hour and half away from Tampa. The crystal clear, turquoise waters surrounded by a jungle of palms and palmettos transports you to a tropical paradise, no passport needed! 

Being a major foodie, I am in love with the Tampa area’s food scene. Fun fact: Tampa and Miami have a little rivalry going over which city makes a better Cuban sandwich! Tampa’s version includes salami, which I will say adds a nice extra level.

I based myself in downtown St. Pete for this trip. Close enough to both Tampa and St Pete Beach, it’s a great central location. It’s also an incredibly walkable area perfect for hitting up some happy hour deals, grabbing dinner by the water, and enjoying a nice night out. 

  • 5 Nights: St. Petersburg
    Great food and art scene
  • Day trip: Rainbow Springs State Park
    Enjoy the beautiful natural springs of Central Florida
  • Day trip: Crystal River
    Swim with manatees
  • Day trip: FT De Soto Park
    Enjoy the beach
St. Petersburg - Great food and art scene

St. Petersburg Great food and art scene

St. Petersburg - Great food and art scene - The Hollander Hotel in Downtown St. Pete
The Hollander Hotel in Downtown St. Pete
St. Petersburg - Great food and art scene - Enjoying local craft beers downtown
Enjoying local craft beers downtown
St. Petersburg - Great food and art scene - Grabbing some ice cream in St. Pete2+
Grabbing some ice cream in St. Pete

After checking into my hotel in downtown St. Pete, it was time to take a stroll. Much of the downtown area was constructed in the 1920s. I loved taking a stroll past all the historic, art deco and Mediterranean-Revival  style buildings. 

Photo Ops: 

Downtown St. Pete has some great photo ops! Bring your favorite outfit and get some beautiful photos in these 3 unique spots: 

-The Vinoy Hotel: 

One of St. Pete’s 2 famous pink hotels, (the other, the Don Cesar, is located on the beach) The Vinoy Hotel is a stunning work of art deco era architecture. The beautiful oak trees nearby also add a very whimsical and unique element to the scene. It’s the perfect spot for a beautiful solo photo in your favorite dress, a romantic couples’ photo, or a nice family picture. 

-The Post Office:

I know it sounds a little crazy, but the downtown St. Pete post office is a gorgeous historic building. Built in 1917, the Mediterranean-Revival style structure instantly transports you to a summer holiday in Italy. 

-Street Art: 

My favorite thing about downtown St. Pete is the amount of colorful murals you see just about everywhere. Make sure to stroll down some of the back alleys as well, most of the street art has been painted on the rear facades of restaurants and shops. 

Rainbow Springs State Park - Enjoy the beautiful natural springs of Central Florida

Rainbow Springs State Park Enjoy the beautiful natural springs of Central Florida

Rainbow Springs State Park - Enjoy the beautiful natural springs of Central Florida - Paddling Rainbow River
Paddling Rainbow River

Dozens of Central Florida’s stunning natural springs are just over an hour’s drive from the Tampa area. We visited Rainbow Springs State Park, and if the rain didn’t stop us, we would have made a stop at Silver Springs State Park as well. 

The area is pretty remote without many options for food, so it’s best to come prepared and pack a picnic for the day. On your way out of Tampa, make a stop at La Segunda Bakery for some guava and cheese pastries and coffee.  While you’re there grab some Cuban sandwiches to pack for lunch. I am obsessed with Cuban sandwiches, and Tampa’s version is a little different with the addition of salami to the ham and pulled pork found in the south Florida classic version. 

You’ll want to get an early start, especially in the summer months, as parking capacity at the state park and the local park access to Rainbow River both fill up fast. Rainbow River is a spring fed river that remains a constant 72 degrees year round!  

There are two public access points to Rainbow River: Rainbow Springs State Park and a local municipal park; however the state park offers more amenities. Admission to Rainbow Springs State Park is $2 per person. 

Tubing in Rainbow Springs State Park: 

Floating down the crystal clear waters of Rainbow River is a great way to cool off on a hot summer day! Tubing is available from April-September. 

Kayaking and Canoeing Rainbow Springs State Park: 

Kayak, SUP, and canoe rentals are available in the state park by the hour or for the day. You can paddle the Rainbow River year round. It’s a great way to explore the area in the winter months. 

Silver Springs State Park

Unfortunately, after enjoying the morning paddling Rainbow River, storm clouds started rolling in when we planned to drive over to Silver Springs State Park so we decided to head back. If you are able, I definitely recommend making a stop there as well. 

What makes Silver Springs State Park so special are its inhabitants–the park is home to a population of wild monkeys! Of course, the monkeys are not native to the area.  Theirs is an interesting history. In the 1930s, a glass bottom boat operator thought having an island of monkeys would be a fun addition to his attraction. What he did not know was that monkeys can swim. The monkeys escaped the island and have been roaming the area that encompasses what is now the state park ever since. 

Crystal River - Swim with manatees

Crystal River Swim with manatees

Crystal River - Swim with manatees - Swimming with a manatee
Swimming with a manatee

Swimming with the manatees was such a magical experience! You can swim with manatees year round, but in the winter months especially, the manatees migrate inland to the spring fed rivers when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are colder. 

The Crystal River area offers an array of different tour operators.  We went with Fun 2 Dive. 

Here’s what to expect on a manatee tour: 

Because the water can be pretty chilly, the tour operator provides a wetsuit along with the snorkel gear. We watched a safety video explaining the rules for swimming with manatees. Manatees are protected by Florida law and it is illegal to touch or harass them in any way. Licensed tour operators ensure that these rules are closely followed.

 After watching the video, we rode to the marina and took a short boat ride to the swimming area.  There is a roped off section of the river in which we were permitted to swim. People are not allowed to swim outside of this area. This protects the manatees and gives them the choice to interact with humans.  Once they’re tired of us, they can swim away and be left alone. 

Swimming with these gentle giants was such a magical experience! Many manatees are curious about humans. There were several swimming in our area, and a few of them came up and gave us a gentle nudge. Our tour guide captured those memories on camera for us, and we were able to purchase the photos after the tour.

FT De Soto Park - Enjoy the beach

FT De Soto Park Enjoy the beach

FT De Soto Park - Enjoy the beach - Enjoying a beach day in St. Pete
Enjoying a beach day in St. Pete

No trip to Florida is complete without a beach day, especially if you’re visiting in the warmer months! 

St Pete Beach has miles of long, white sandy beaches, however, parking is very limited and spaces fill up fast on weekends. We drove around for nearly an hour trying to find parking to no avail. 

Not to worry, Fort De Soto State Park located just a short drive from downtown St Pete has plenty of parking! Even on a Saturday afternoon, we were able to park right by the beach. 

Visiting the beach via the state park, we were able to enjoy views of the beach uninterrupted by high rise condos or the noise of traffic. 

 Of course, being in the state park, there are not as many amenities or restaurants nearby, so you’ll need to pack some drinks, snacks, and maybe a few more of those delicious sandwiches from La Segunda Bakery! 

Q & A

  • Anything go wrong during the trip?

    Nothing is worse during a beach trip than stormy weather. Luckily, downtown St. Pete has a multitude of museums to offer. Get artsy and spend the day in the Dali Museum and Chihuly Collection.
  • Restaurant recommendations?

    There is an amazing array of different cuisines in the Tampa area! For Cuban food, check out the Ybor City area in Tampa. The Columbia Restaurant and La Segunda Bakery are two famous spots for traditional Cuban dishes. Downtown St. Pete has some amazing Italian restaurants. BellaBrava has delicious wood fired pizzas and stunning views of the marina. For traditional family style dishes, Gratzzi Italian Grille is a great spot to visit with a group.
  • Tips you would give a friend?

    If you plan on visiting in winter, you can still enjoy the beach. I’ve visited Tampa in January, and while the beach was a little too cold to swim in for my liking, I did notice several people sunbathing and enjoying the water. Temperatures in the winter months are typically in the low to mid 70s. On that trip, I still enjoyed the beach but took beach walks rather than swimming.
  • Transportation Tips?

    A rental car is a necessity for taking day trips in the area, however, when you’re exploring downtown St. Pete, I’d recommend walking or taking a taxi or rideshare. Finding parking downtown can be a challenge, but the city is very pedestrian friendly. Leave the car at your hotel and enjoy a stroll!
  • Booking details?

    I contacted the Hollander Hotel directly to book with the best possible rate.


  • Hollander Hotel: Great location close to many bars and restaurants downtown. The pool area is a welcome retreat on a warm afternoon, and it's got a great bar!