Tampa/St. Petersburg sports travel guide
Our city guides are meant to showcase the best of a metropolitan area from the perspective of a sports fan visiting to watch a game or two. Here’s our guide to the best of Tampa Bay sports travel.
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Located in a prime spot along the Florida Gulf Coast, the Tampa Bay metro area is known as a great vacation destination for anyone seeking to frolic on the beach, catch a few rays of sun and experience fine dining.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for sports in that equation as well. In addition to three major teams, Tampa is a hub for spring training and minor-league baseball, and it boasts experience hosting some of the sports world’s biggest events, including Super Bowls, Final Fours and a memorable college football championship game.
Read on to see how you can make the most out of a sports travel trip to Tampa Bay.
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The landscape: Where to watch sports in Tampa/St. Petersburg
Tampa Bay’s three main sports venues are spread out amid a car-centric region, so careful planning is needed to make sure you’re able to get to them — especially if you plan on going to more than one on a particular trip. The two main cities, Tampa and St. Petersburg, are separated by a large bay, and their downtown districts are even farther apart, so budget your time accordingly when traveling between the two.
You’ll definitely need a car if you’re around in March, when spring training is in full swing, in order to hop from ballpark to ballpark. More on that below.
• Amalie Arena: Home of the Lightning. Located at 401 Channelside Drive in downtown Tampa.
• Raymond James Stadium: Home of the Buccaneers and South Florida Bulls. Located at 4201 N. Dale Mabry Highway in northwest Tampa.
• Tropicana Field: Home of the Rays. Located at 1 Tropicana Drive in St. Petersburg.
The strategies: Arriving and getting around Tampa/St. Petersburg
Tampa International Airport (TPA) is the primary entry point into the region for air travelers. It’s in northwest Tampa, not far from Raymond James Stadium, and close to the bay so it’s easily accessible from St. Petersburg and Clearwater on the other side.
Tampa is also serviced by Amtrak, which stops at Union Station on the east side of downtown. The Silver Star, Silver Meteor and Palmetto lines, all of which run down the East Coast from New York City, run through the station. Both Tampa and St. Petersburg have their own Greyhound stations; the latter is located two blocks east of Tropicana Field.
The main access point for drivers is via Interstate 75, which runs north-south along the Gulf Coast. From there, I-275 runs west through downtown Tampa, across the bay into St. Petersburg, then back across via the majestic Sunshine Skyway bridge before rejoining I-75 just north of Bradenton.
Where to stay
It really depends, based on what you plan to do, as there are several popular spots for hotels. For easiest access to the venues, consider downtown Tampa or Ybor City for Amalie Arena; near the airport or along Dale Mabry Highway for Raymond James Stadium; and downtown St. Petersburg for Tropicana Field.
Or, do what the majority of tourists do and stay along the beach in either St. Petersburg or Clearwater. However, expect lodging costs to go up significantly if you go this route, and plan on a minimum 30-minute drive to get to any of the three major venues.
Your primary option is to rent a car. The Tampa Bay region’s streets are generally simple to learn and navigate, though expect major traffic backups along major routes during rush hour and leading up to games — particularly I-275 running through downtown Tampa and Dale Mabry Highway and Boy Scout Boulevard leading toward Raymond James Stadium.
Ride-sharing (Uber, Lyft and the like) is popular in Tampa and another viable alternative. The city of Tampa also runs a streeetcar line between downtown and Ybor City that stops at Amalie Arena.
The highlights: Points of interest in Tampa/St. Petersburg
Even if your reason for coming to Tampa is sports travel, the region has so much more to offer. Here are just some of the things to see:
Spring training central
In February and March, Tampa Bay becomes a hub for the Grapefruit League, with five teams training in the area — the Yankees (Tampa), Phillies (Clearwater), Blue Jays (Dunedin), Pirates (Bradenton) and Orioles (Sarasota). The Yankees’ Steinbrenner Field, designed to be a mini-Yankee Stadium with the same frieze overhang, is located across Dale Mabry Highway from Raymond James Stadium. Once the baseball regular season begins, all but Sarasota become hosts for teams in the Class-A Florida State League.
Tampa Bay culture
Ybor City, just northeast of downtown Tampa, is a historic district known for its Cuban restaurants and cigar shops, as well as some of the city’s best nightlife. In the wintertime, it hosts the annual Gasparilla Festival, a pirate-themed celebration. Ybor City is also home to Columbia Restaurant, a Spanish food institution that’s more than 100 years old.
Take a beach day
No less than 12 separate beaches can be found along the Gulf coastline between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and the weather is good for visiting nearly year-round. Some of the area’s most popular restaurants can be found nearby as well, such as Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach, known for its grouper sandwich.
Also in Clearwater, but several miles from the beach, is the original Hooters location along Gulf to Bay Boulevard.
A Tampa sports travel vacation doesn’t have to end with pro sports. The University of South Florida is the most prominent collegiate athletics program in the area, with Division I football and basketball programs competing in the American Athletic Conference. Tropicana Field also hosts the annual St. Petersburg Bowl between AAC and ACC teams.
Orlando, a 90-minute drive away on Interstate 4, not only has the NBA’s Orlando Magic playing at Amway Center, but also University of Central Florida athletics. If you’re willing to drive to the other coast along I-4, you’ll hit Daytona Beach, home of the legendary Daytona International Speedway and the “Super Bowl of NASCAR,” the Daytona 500 run every February.