When you say “Tampa Bay,” Busch Gardens is the first thing that comes to mind. Yes, it’s a great theme park, but there is so much more there. The area has so many fantastic museums that help tell Tampa Bay’s story. Here are some I visited recently.
St. Petersburg Museum of History
Located on the St. Pete Pier, The St. Petersburg Museum of History, tells about the local baseball history in Little Cooperstown exhibit, the early development of the area, some oddities like the two-headed chicken and the alligator pulling a wagon used to draw curious visitors in the early days. In the lobby, they’ve got a full-sized replica of the Benoist XIV aircraft. It is the precursor to today’s passenger planes.
Out front, the sculpture of the iconic paperboy, barefoot, and dressed in knickers and suspenders, hawking his papers, is adorable.
Salvador Dali Museum
Saint Petersburg is an art lover heaven. The Salvador Dalí Museum has an extensive collection of Dali’s art. One of my favorite exhibits is Rainy Rolls 2010, a sculpture paying homage to Dali’s many Rainy Taxi sculptures. He once stuffed a Rolls Royce with cauliflower and called it art. This one is a Rolls Royce Sedanca that was in production from 1929 until 1936. It has leaves protruding from doors, sides, and roof. There is a “driver” wearing a suit and sporting a deep-sea diving helmet, a few lifelike snails, and a strange-looking lady in the passenger seat. Of course, it’s raining inside the car.
The museum has a gallery showcasing temporary exhibits. The video explaining how the Surrealist Movement arose is enlightening.
Morean Arts Center
There is more art awaiting in St. Petersburg at the Morean Arts Center. It’s home base for a fantastic Chihuly Collection. His “Fiore” is a dazzling glass fireworks display in light and color. The amazingly vibrant colors are a Chihuly’s trademark. There is an exhibit telling about the artist as well.
The center has other artists like painting or pottery, but if you can only visit one gallery, do the glass blowing exhibit. The artist creates a gorgeous glass art object right in front of your eyes.
Fort De Soto History – Quartermaster Museum
One piece of history most visitors miss is the Quartermaster Museum, at Fort DeSoto. The Quartermaster Storehouse building was originally built as a Post Exchange. They house the present museum in an accurately recreated building. Inside, there is a display of the post’s quartermaster and the type of supplies he would have issued to the soldiers. There are displays of pre-Columbian Tampa Bay area showing the Tocobaga Indians. Several displays show the part the fort outside played in the Spanish American War and WWII.
There is a touch screen program with more information about the fort. From the museum, the remains of the fort are just across the parking lot.
Ybor City Museum State Park
Moving on to Tampa, start at its beginning in Ybor City. Tampa began with Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish cigar manufactures form Cuba. He tried Key West first and then came here. He paid start-up costs for other cigar manufactures to join him. They did, and Ybor City became the cigar capital of the world. Eventually it was absorbed by Tampa but it still holds its own for uniqueness. Where else can chickens roam the streets safely. These chickens are the descendants of ones once kept in many backyards by immigrant families.
Ybor City Museum State Park, located behind Centennial Park, tells that story. It’s housed in the former La Joven Francesca bakery where Cuban bread began in 1896 when Francisco Ferlita, a Cuban-Spanish-Italian immigrant, began baked those traditional loaves of Cuban bread. His bakery baked them until the 1960s.
The museum garden and Centennial Park have free Wi-Fi. The Museum Garden has tables facing a fountain where you can catch up on email. The front entrance to Centennial Park is stop number one for the TECO, Tampa Historic Streetcar.
Tampa Bay History Center
The Tampa Bay History Center takes is a trip back to Florida’s prehistoric days with its “Tusks to Tails” exhibit and continues to Tampa’s founding and present times. A video tells the story of the Second Seminole War. There’s “A Land Remembered” display honoring Patrick Smith, and one that tells the cigar making story that got Tampa to where it is today. Orange growing has its spot.
There’s an exhibit of Columbia Restaurant’s original counter in the lobby. Columbia Restaurant, in Ybor City, is a great place to combine history and food. It is the oldest Tampa restaurant and the architecture and displays are fit for a museum.
American Victory Ship Mariners Museum
The American Victory Ship Mariners Museum is a couple of blocks down the street. It’s one of only four fully operational WWII ships in the country and tells a more modern-history story, mainly WWII. A knowledgeable guide takes you on a tour of the entire ship. You visit not only the on-deck guns and equipment, but inside the captains’ quarters, the mess hall, the radio room, you even get to peer down on the immense engine it takes to power this floating city.
The tour makes me proud to be an American, but it involves climbing several steep stairs.
Henry B. Plant Museum
Henry Plant was a self-made millionaire who built steamships, railroads, and hotels. The Henry B. Plant Museum was his masterpiece, Tampa Bay Hotel. The museum takes you back into an early 20th century hotel built to cater to the super rich.
Viewing the turrets, steeples and exquisite lace woodwork on the massive red brick building lets you know you are in for a treat inside. The art and furnishing in the hall prepare you for the magnificent detail in the rooms. Some rooms display a typical suite in the hotel, most showcase the lounging areas and furniture. It was called The Gilded Age for a good reason.
Since traffic is heavy and parking expensive in most of the bay area, it’s a good idea to use the Looper Trolley in St. Pete and the TECO Line Streetcar in Tampa. In Ybor City, there is ample free parking for two-hour periods and not much traffic. Just beware of the chickens crossing the street—they have right of way.
There is much more to see and do in the Tampa Bay area besides museums, but don’t skip them. You will miss a lot of the essence of the area. A good way to save money is the City Pass. It gives free admission to Busch Gardens, Zoo Tampa, The Florida Aquarium, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and Museum of Science & Industry, or The Tropics Boat Tours Dolphin or Sunset Cruise for less than half what you would pay for gate admission price. I was comped a City Pass and admission to the museums, but opinions are my own.
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