I’d like to start this blog post by acknowledging that while I like Florida, I don’t like amusement parks.
Fried food, spew-inducing roller coasters, long lines, direct sunlight, other people’s poorly behaved children? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
You’d quite literally have to pay me $200 to go to Disneyland.
So when my husband invited me to tag along to a conference in Tampa my thought process went something like this:
“Ohhhhh! Beaches and warmth! (But what I am going to do on day three when I’ve read all my books and I’ve reached that sweet spot of slightly-less-pale-but-not-sunburned?)”
Friends, be ye not so stupid as me. There are tons of fun, interesting things to do in Florida that don’t involve waiting in long lines for roller coasters.
10 of things to do in Florida that don’t involve amusement parks
1. Drink in a Tiki bar
2. See the Weeki Wachee mermaids
3. Smoke a hand-rolled cigar
I’m not really good at smoking things and I’ve never inhaled a single cigar. That being said, I love watching people make things with their hands and tobacco leaves smell like subtle, vanilla-scented heaven. Ybor City is full of cigar shops where you can press your eager face to the window and watch cigar rollers at work. Or you can just go inside and buy cigars. And did you know they even come in different flavors?
4. Watch a movie at the Tampa Theatre
Oh, what’s that? You’d like to pay normal movie prices for a gorgeous, old-school movie-viewing experience? And you like interesting indie movies? This is the place for you, friends. Unchanged since it was built in 1926, the theatre features a huge balcony, insanely fancy turrets and tiling, AND A WOMAN WHO PLAYS THE CALLIOPE BEFORE EACH MOVIE. Movies are $11. Get on it.
5. Visit the Dali Museum
Melting watches, spectacular mural-sized paintings, religious pieces featuring Dali’s wife’s face as the Virgin Mary – they’re all here. Get the free audio guide and learn more about his complex relationship with his family and his forays into advertising and movies.
Be sure to take your photo with the giant mustache outside and add your entrance bracelet to the wish tree! (Tickets are a bit expensive so try to get them ahead of time at your AAA office or go on Thursdays after 5.)
5. Go to Big Cat Rescue and squee over the Lion and Tigress couple
Did you know there are still several states where you’re allowed to own big cats? And they frequently don’t count as pets but as property – so animal endangerment laws don’t protect them? Yuck. Big Cat Rescue serves as a permanent second home to big cats who’ve been confiscated in police raids (!) or rescued from road-side zoos or circuses.
My favorite cats were the lion and tiger couple who’d been introduced as cubs, raised together, and rescued together. They live together at Big Cat Rescue where apparently the tigress taunts the lion by throwing his toys in the pool (because he doesn’t like water) and shaking herself off after a swim directly next to him. Big Cats: They’re Jerks Just Like Our Cats.
P.S. This is Carole Baskin’s big cat rescue that you heard about in Tiger King!!
7. Go on a Dolphin-spotting tour
I know it’s suuuuuuper tempting to swim with captive dolphins and there are about a million places in Florida where you can that. But dolphins are uniquely ill-suited to confinement. They’re social creatures that live in large pods and travel forty-plus miles a day, with 80 percent of that time spent beneath the surface of the water.
So! How about we just go look at dolphins, swimming happily in their natural habitat? I’m totally partial to this tour company called Little Toot.
I swam with a manatee already but I’d be happy to kayak along side these sweet, teddy bear-faced guys. This company runs a particularly animal and Eco-friendly company, discouraging you from befriending them in the wild even if they hug and kiss your kayak. Which they apparently do.
9. Eat your weight in Cuban food
Dur. Obviously. Let’s talk about Cuban sandwiches (sweet ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese on toasted Cuban bread with mustard and pickles), filete salteado (strips of beef tenderloin sauteed with peppers and a special sauce) and pernil asado (pork shoulder braised with onions in its own juices and spices.)
Or, if you’re vegetarian like me, order croquetas de frijoles (bean croquettes) or madures fritos (fried ripe plantains).
10. Stay someplace amazing
Florida has a jillion hotels because it has a jillion tourists, but I always prefer to stay in an Airbnb because it’s quieter, homier, better for the environment, and puts money in the hands of locals. If you’ve never used Airbnb, here’s $65 towards your first booking!
Florida natives, what other good things should we know about? Any other non-park travel tips for Florida?