Like many New York natives, Florida was where my parents often brought my family on Disney vacations and to visit my snowbirding grandparents when I was a child. As a kid I had probably visited Florida a dozen times and yet felt no real connection to the state. To me, Florida represented where retirees went to live out their last years, soaking up the vitamin D their bodies had severely lacked from fifty plus years of living in the Northeast. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I realized just how much the Sunshine State had to offer.
After a work opportunity began bringing me to the Tampa region three or four times a year, I was finally able to explore central and southern Florida on my own accord, discovering new restaurants, beaches, and experiences that I didn't even know existed prior. Although I've enjoyed multiple trips to Florida, here is how I would do it if I had to limit myself to just one week...
Fly into Orlando - You’re going to want to rent a car at the airport to keep for the entirety of your trip.
Spend the day at The Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes - The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriot are on the same grounds, giving you access to both pools no matter what hotel you decide to stay at (we usually stay at the JW as it's about half the price as the Ritz and just as luxurious). If you’re traveling with children, the JW offers a family friendly pool along with a lazy river, while the Ritz has a more private pool space with rentable cabanas where you can order drinks and food.
For dinner, you have to head to Norman's. Although Norman’s used to be on The Ritz-Carlton grounds, it has recently been moved to a separate location in Orlando. While you now have to leave the hotel to visit, it’s well worth it - eating at Norman’s is a culinary experience paired with first class chefs and sommeliers. Although everything on their menu is suburb, I highly recommend the green fried tomatoes, their grouper dish, and Russian Caviar (this was the first place I ever tried caviar and their staff really helped me learn about and appreciate the dish).
Wake up early and spend your morning and afternoon at Universal Studios. Although there are many attractions in the park, I prefer the Harry Potter World exhibit over the rest.
If theme parks aren’t your thing, stay back at the hotel for a Ritz-Carlton spa day. Being at this hotel complex is like staying in a mini resort, so there’s no reason to feel bad for wasting away your time in Orlando here using all of their amenities. The hotel also offers an eighteen-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman for anyone looking to spend their day enjoying Florida’s favorite pastime.
Skip rush hour traffic by heading to Tampa in the late afternoon and be ready to enjoy dinner at Ocean Prime (order the crab cakes and prime roll), one of my favorite restaurants in the area. Looking for something more casual? Check out American Social, a happy hour favorite with great cocktails and bar food overlooking the water.
There are multiple Airbnb's I recommend in the area:
Head to St. Pete Beach (about thirty minutes outside of Tampa) for a day by the ocean at the Don Cesar. They have an outdoor bar, pool, and beachside lounge chair and cabana rentals with waitservice. You can also rent paddle boards, kayaks, wave runners, etc. right on the premise.
For dinner, try Red Mesa Cantina in downtown St. Petersburg. They have a great outdoor patio and bar that is the perfect place to spend an early evening before heading back to Tampa.
For your forth day, explore the city of Tampa. As an up-and-coming city whose economy has rebuilt itself since the 2008 crash, Tampa has been attracting more and more people every year. Here are some recommendations on how to get the most out of this area:
Check out what events are going on at the Straz Center - I was lucky enough to catch an afternoon showing of Hamilton (who will be back in June 2021!) while spending a few days in Tampa last March. Some shows being offered at the Straz Center in the next couple months include the Mean Girls Broadway Musical, Andrea Bocelli, Jersey Boys, and Mandy Moore.
Right outside the Straz Center is Tampa's Riverwalk, a great place to take in the sights of the city and grab lunch. Stop by Sparkman Wharf for a waterfront happy hour cocktail, or Four Green Fields to enjoy authentic Irish food under America's only thatched roof Irish Pub (I ate here right after getting back from Dublin and loved how similar the atmosphere was to actually being in Ireland).
Another thing Tampa offers is great sports teams. With the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL), Buccaneers (NFL), and Rays (MLB), there is almost always a game to be seen at one of their local stadiums. To buy tickets to an upcoming game or match, see what's being offered on Ticketmaster.
Tampa's International Plaza Mall is another great place to stop on your tour of Tampa. With high-end stores such as Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, Neiman Marcus, and Gucci, this is the best place in town to spend your extra vacation money (I don't know if that actually exists, but screw it, that's what credit cards are for). The plaza also offers a row of outdoor restaurants and bars, some of my favorites including Brio, Bar Louie, and Rocco's.
For those traveling in groups, Topgolf is a great option for you - a bowling-like simulated golf experience where you can order drinks and food right from your outdoor bay.
While in Tampa, makes sure to make a stop at Bern's Steakhouse for dinner. With one of the largest wine cellars in the world (ask for a guided tour!), a separate dessert room, and macadamia nut martinis that will change your entire view on craft cocktail creation, this is one of those go-before-you-die restaurants.
From Tampa, drive the hour journey to Bradenton Beach to enjoy the remainder of your trip at one of my favorite accommodations of 2019 - The Bradenton Beach Bay Front House.
Bradenton Beach is one of my favorite beaches in Florida and possibly the entire United States. It’s white sand beaches and turquoise waters make you feel like you’re in the Caribbean. Spend the day relaxing at the beach and eating lunch at Beach House on their outdoor, beach-side patio that overlooks the ocean.
For dinner, spend the night cooking and grilling back at the house (which has two kitchens!) and enjoy a night drinking daiquiris by the pool.
Rent a boat at the Bradenton Beach Marina (directly next to the rental house I recommended) and spend the day on the ocean cruising alongside dolphins and other wildlife. Along with full and half day boat rentals, they also offer parasailing, snorkeling, and jet skiing.
For dinner, head to Charthouse on Longboat Key. There are very few restaurants that offer food I consider life-changing, but this is one of them. With breathtaking views of the bay and an out-of-this-world wine list, this is one of my top 5 favorite restaurants in the United States. I highly recommend the Kim Chee Calamari (quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever ate) and their chopped salad.
Unfortunately, it's time to head home. When flying out of Bradenton Beach, there are multiple airport options available - Tampa International, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
If you're flying out of Tampa and skipped Ocean Prime your first night, this is the perfect opportunity to stop for sushi before getting on your flight. The restaurant is minutes from the airport and have awesome bar seating for a quick lunch.
What are your favorite Florida getaways? We'd love to hear your recommendations in the comments below!