Why and Where
The Port of Tampa is located at the northern end of Hillsborough Bay, an offshoot of the larger Tampa Bay. It’s extremely conveniently located in Tampa and not far from other attractions in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
The port’s growth can be attributed to the increased interest in domestic U.S. homeports, making it easy drive to access cruises.
Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America have ships homeporting there and further increases and decreases can occur when hurricanes require relocating vessels. Assuming the ships and itineraries are appealing, Tampa is a great place to begin or end a cruise and add a few days on either end.
The terminal at the port is extremely good for arrivals and departures. While getting in and out is affected by lots of one-way streets, it’s easy overall for incoming taxis and cars; directional signage to the port for visitors is excellent.
Features inside the terminal building: a comprehensive information center, full amenities for arrivals and departures and parking at the terminal ($12 a day). The port also touts an excellent security system.
A popular feature for cruise guests (and locals as well) is Channelside, a busy complex offering dining, shopping and an IMAX theater. There’s an outdoor plaza with live music, perfect for those extra hours one may be spending at the terminal at times.
Restaurants range from steakhouses and Mexican food to bistros and Thai cuisine. There are lots of bars and a large Hooters.
Without traffic, it’s about a half-hour to or from Tampa International Airport. But, especially during morning and afternoon rush hour, there’s lots and lots of traffic. So those driving or taking taxis/buses need to plan accordingly.
If you’re arriving by plane, and not staying extra time, taxis (about $25) or the shuttle bus ($10) are the best options. There is city bus service that, while cheaper, is not a convenient option.
For those overnighting in Tampa or surrounding areas before or after a cruise, rental car facilities are at the airport, and all major rental car companies offer pickup/drop-off service at the cruise terminal.
Highway access for those driving to or from the port via Interstate 275 or the Selmon Expressway (618) is relatively convenient with exits off both and good local signage.
In addition to the Channelside parking, there’s covered parking across the street from the terminal ($14 per day).
Cruise guests arriving before check-in time will find plenty to do in the immediate area. In addition to the shops and restaurants/bars at Channelside, just steps away from the port, there’s the Aquarium for those with an interest in the wonders of the sea.
To explore a little farther out, take the trolley tour or a taxi to nearby Ybor City, originally home to the cigar industry. Founded by Don Vicente Martinez Ybor in the late 1800s, it was the home to more than 12,000 immigrants and produced 700 million cigars annually. While it is now mostly a shopping/dining/drinking tourist type of area, there are still plenty of shops rolling cigars by hand.
Pre/Post Cruise Stays
Cruise guests staying overnight before or after their cruise have a ton of choices of where to stay.
The closest hotel to the port is the Westin Harbour Island, featuring an enjoyable scenic boardwalk and within walking distance to the terminal and its attractions.
About a half-mile away is the Embassy Suites Tampa Downtown. The streetcar and trolley stops adjacent to the hotel.
One mile from the port but offering free shuttle service is the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk.
But for those with cars, there are clusters of hotels offered by virtually all national brands all around including downtown Tampa (with a plethora of dining, shopping and sightseeing opportunities) and downtown St. Petersburg (near the famous pier) and all along the wonderful beachfront areas in Clearwater Beach and all of the ocean-side smaller communities going south from there.
Exploring The City
From big city features such as shopping malls and a range of restaurants to the superb beachfront along the Gulf of Mexico, and at points in between, the Tampa area offers more than enough to keep visitors busy for several days.
In addition to the Aquarium and Ybor City, recommended attractions include:
- Busch Gardens, a combination amusement park/animal adventure (buy tickets in advance, especially for one of the terrific animal close-up tours)
- Lowry Zoo, an exceptionally well laid out home to a wide variety of species
- St. Petersburg Pier for sensational water views
- Big Cat Rescue Center, a wonderful non-profit home for older or retired larger cats
- Florida Holocaust Museum, one of the best of its kind
- Dali Museum for fans of this strange and wonderful artist.
A little farther out but well worth the drive is Tarpon Springs (an hour northwest of the pier), an amazing old Greek sponge diving community that is still active (visit the docks and museum) with authentic Greek restaurants and shops (including olive oils not seen elsewhere in the US).
Getting to and from Tarpon Springs, experience a good drive along the oceanfront all the way from Treasure Beach on up to Clearwater Beach and then along the ocean route past Crystal Beach.
The entire Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater area features lots of bridges, water views and related activities including harbor tours, marinas/watersports/boat rentals, a dolphin encounter, “pirate ship” adventures, various museums (including the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete, the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa and Tampa’s Henry Plant Museum for a great look back in time), and various nature attractions and sanctuaries.
Golfers have lots of options to choose from and shoppers have an incredible number of places to spend their money (maybe the best centrally located one with a wide variety of national chain stores and local shops is the Westshore Mall in Tampa; it also has some great restaurants as part of it).
Sports enthusiasts may be able to schedule taking in a game at Raymond James Stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tropicana Field for the fast-rising Tampa Bay Rays or the St. Pete Times Forum for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For those cruising in March, this area is spring training heaven for baseball fans. The Phillies, Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays all offer exhibition games.
For the more culturally oriented visitors, the Tampa area features such venues as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Lakeland Center; as well, there’s also an Improv Theater. Spring visitors also may get the chance to indulge in the over-the-top Florida Strawberry Festival in nearby Plant City. October visitors can enjoy Mama Guava and the Guavaween Parade.
For more information
There are several excellent sources for information about the Tampa area, including:
Avid Cruiser contributor Art Sbarsky originally wrote this article for Vacation Agent Magazine.