Road trip: Tampa to Boca Raton
Cruise coast-to-coast on a route that takes you from the bright lights of Tampa to the beach city of Boca Raton. | Joanna Tweedy | December 20, 2021 (Updated May 30, 2022)
Can’t decide which Florida coast to enjoy? See them both by taking a leisurely 250-mile road trip that starts in the West Coast city of Tampa and ends in the east in Atlantic-lapped Boca Raton. And there’s plenty of fun, including alligator-spotting and airboat rides, to be found inland while you travel. So, hop in your car and get ready to create lasting memories on the road by:
Experiencing the Big Guava: Soak up arts and culture while you travel through Tampa
Viewing Florida’s nature from above: Enjoy an airboat ride on Lake Kissimmee
Boarding the ferry to Peanut Island: Day-tripping in Fort Worth’s Lagoon
Spend a few days exploring Florida’s third-largest city before heading out on your road trip. Tampa’s blend of skyscrapers, cobalt blue waters (it sits on an inlet) and swaying palms make it a delightful blend of urban meets nature.
You'll learn about a kaleidoscope of varied species, many native to Florida, at The Florida Aquarium (701 Channelside Dr.), ZooTampa (1101 W Sligh Ave.) and Manatee Viewing Center (6990 Dickman Rd.); the Manatee Viewing Center is open Nov. 1 through April 15.
If history is more your vibe, plan to check out the Henry B Plant Museum (401 W. Kennedy Blvd.). It's a National Historic Landmark that pays tribute to the opulent life of the Florida transport mogul. Get in your car and drive across town to Heights Public Market at the Armature Works (1910 N. Ola Ave.). It's the brightest star on the city’s foodie scene, with cool pop-ups featuring every kind of cuisine.
In the evening, head to Ybor City, the city’s former Latin Quarter and heart of Tampa’s cigar-making industry. It's home to fine dining, bars and LGBTQ-friendly nightclubs.
If you have the time to spend another day on this coast before heading east, consider a short detour to Clearwater. It’s located about a 35-minute drive west of Tampa and is home to some of the finest powder sand on the Gulf Coast. The water is as transparent as its name suggests.
For a truly relaxing day, rent a cabana and let your only exertion be a dip in Clearwater’s calm waters. If adventure is what you seek, this destination is also for you. Parasail City (25 Causeway Blvd. Slip 8) can launch you high over this coast. Discover the deep end and don a pair of flippers as you dive into the water on a scuba trip; 2 Shea Charters (190 Seminole St.) is a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
A stroll before sundown — and the sunsets here are truly incredible — might lead you to Pier 60, a vibrant tourist hub where you’ll find musicians and circus performers entertaining the crowds.
When you’re ready to continue your trip, loop south on state Road 699 (locally known as Gulf Boulevard). You'll drive by some of the area’s most stunning stretches of sand, including Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille Beach.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
Travel inland on U.S. Highway 60, which cuts through Florida’s middle, to swap beach life for a taste of the state’s cowboy heritage. Lake Kissimmee State Park is home to a mid-19th century cow camp that now offers historical reenactments of how life once was in rural central Florida.
Visitors pulling up to Camp Mack Road might feel the centuries rolling back as the Florida of yesteryear is showcased around Lake Kissimmee, Lake Tiger and Lake Rosalie. There’s plenty of Osceola County wildlife to spot, including bobcats, white-tailed deer, bald eagles and, yes, those famous Florida alligators.
Plan to experience Lake Kissimmee, be it in a canoe, fishing vessel or via an airboat ride. Kissimmee Swamp Tours (4500 Joe Overstreet Rd.) have smaller boats that fit up to six people, along with headsets so you can hear the guide as you travel through the headwaters of the Everglades.
Palm Beach County
When you’re ready for the beach, head south about 150 miles to Palm Beach County.
Stretch your legs at Carlin Park in Jupiter and John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. The former has walking trails galore plus beachside courts for volleyball and racquet sports. John D. MacArthur Beach is a serene spot to try your hand at paddleboarding, snorkeling (schools of tarpon and snook are a regular sight) or kayaking.
Travel about 9 miles north of Boca Raton, and you'll find Delray Beach — a 2-mile stretch of oceanfront fun, with gorgeous golden sands backed by enticing restaurants, bars and boutiques on pedestrian-friendly Atlantic Avenue. Cap off your trip with a turn (or three) on the classic games at the SilverBall Retro Arcade.
Known simply as Boca, this smart southeast Atlantic coast enclave has fantastic vacation credentials; think posh boutiques, impressive golf courses and wonderful museums. The city’s beaches — the pick being Red Reef Park and Spanish River Park — are pristine, with clear azure waters that will tempt you in for an afternoon dip.
South Beach Park’s 24.5 acres has three different areas for swimming and is also a great place to go if you enjoy birdwatching. Look out for herons, spoonbills and egrets.
For some retail therapy, spend hours — and many dollars — in the 220 stores at upscale shopping destination Town Center at Boca Raton (6000 Glades Rd).
Depending on traffic, the drive to Boca Raton from Tampa takes around 3.5 hours, but you'll miss out on some of Florida's best attractions if you make the road trip without stopping. Instead, leisurely make your way south and plan regular stops to see alligators, historical reenactments and sunsets so beautiful that you'll remember them long after the sun sets. It's time to hit the road!
Joanna Tweedy is an award-winning travel writer and editor who lives in London.