Beyond the Beach: Florida Road Trip From Tampa to Panama City

A Florida vacation conjures up images of surf and sun, but what if you’re not feeling beachy? Take a trip along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and you’ll be surprised how much there is to do that doesn’t involve sand. Here’s where to go for the ultimate family road trip.

The Best of Tampa

The Tampa Bay area is one of the state’s top tourist destinations for good reason. There are thrill rides, museums, art, animal encounters, and more to discover. But one of the best ways to soak up Tampa culture on a busy road trip schedule is by visiting their many food trucks. Quick service and convenient locations let you maximize your time exploring the city. You can sample everything from Asian to Mediterranean cuisine, but Latin American is a must.

  • Mexican: For Mexican food “with a twist,” try Xtreme Tacos. Visit their spot at the family-friendly 7th Sun Brewery, so you can check two things off your culinary bucket list at once (Tampa is famous for its local beer scene). Xtreme Tacos has a kids’ menu with cheesy quesadillas and more, but make sure someone gets the taco with carnitas for a truly authentic experience. Vegan options, made-from-scratch tortillas plus flavorful fillings like sriracha cauliflower and tempura-battered fish make this red 1983 Winnebago not your average food truck.
  • Cuban: Of course, you can’t leave town without having a classic Cubano, filled with pork in varying forms, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. Michelle Faedo’s On the Go, one of Tampa’s first food trucks, serves an impressive Cubano that you’ll be talking about for weeks. Dishes, including another Tampa staple — crab — come in large and small portions, perfect for little appetites. If you can’t catch the food truck, stop by their counter-service restaurants in and near downtown.

Cubano at Michelle Faedo’s, a Tampeño cuisine classic (photo by Cheryl Rodewig)

For Tampa Bay attractions, take your pick. They’ve got a zoo, science museum, multiple aquariums and, of course, you can’t miss Busch Gardens if you’ve never been. If that sounds like your kind of trip, the Tampa CityPASS lets you do it all and save money.

If you’re traveling with younger kids, take things at a slower pace. You can play all day at the children’s museums (one in Tampa and one in St. Petersburg) or explore Big Cat Rescue. This sanctuary does a special Kids Tour geared especially for those 10 and under to learn about lions, tigers, panthers, and more.

A resident of Big Cat Rescue peeking at visitors after a nap (photo by Cheryl Rodewig)

Manatees in Citrus County

We’ve road tripped across the Sunshine State plenty, but if you ask us for the most incredible experience here — that’s easy: swimming with manatees in Citrus County. Just 75 minutes north of Tampa, the springs around Crystal River are the only place on the continent you can swim with these “gentle giants,” and nowhere else in the world has as many manatees in winter. You can join them in the water by snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding, and more.

Playful and curious manatees swimming the crystal clear springs of Citrus County. (photo courtesy of Citrus County Visitors Convention Bureau)

Tour companies make sure encounters are safe for this endangered species. River Ventures, one of the top rated, conducts snorkeling group tours accessible for families, welcoming kids 3 and older. My guide said she’s seen preschoolers be absolutely chill in the water as a manatee comes close for a nuzzle. You know your kids, so if they’re not up for floating in a wetsuit with wild animals gliding by (no reaching, grabbing, splashing around, etc.), then head to the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs to view manatees from land.

The best tours are early, when manatees feel playful, so you’ll want to make a night of it. We stayed at the Best Western Crystal River Resort, an easy walk to downtown shops, but accommodations throughout Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness, and Floral City are affordable. Which gives you more to splurge on dining, particularly the seafood. Traveling with teens? They’ll appreciate the class and creative flavors of Vintage on 5th — and you’ll appreciate their award-winning wine list. Food is fresh (including housemade noodles), and service is some of the best I’ve encountered. If your crew is a little more boisterous, Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller & Cafe has energy to match. Get a taste of Nawlins with po’boys, gumbo, and fish caught from their own boats. You can walk from the River Ventures to the cafe to Three Sisters Springs for a perfect, memorable day.

Going in summer instead of winter? Here’s another unique water activity: diving for scallops in one of the largest seagrass beds in the country.

Capital Travels in Tallahassee

A friendly college town, Tallahassee is right on the way to Panama City, so it’s a great place to stop for the day. Here’s a snapshot of what to do while you’re in town.

Shrimp and braised beef with mushrooms, cauliflower and sweet potato noodles plus a dragon fruit bowl for dessert (photo by Cheryl Rodewig)

  • Museums: From art exhibits to a planetarium, Tallahassee has plenty of museums, but there are two standouts. First, the 52-acre Tallahassee Museum stretches the limits of what a museum can be. Kids will enjoy the animals, aerial obstacle course, historic buildings, and dinosaur art. If you plan to do all the trails, allow at least half a day here. Our second pick is the Museum of Florida History. It has hundreds of artifacts: Native American, colonial, wartime, even Disney. Best of all, it’s completely free.
  • Food: Grab lunch at Vale Food Co. This build-your-own-bowl eatery specializes in quick service, natural ingredients and catering to different dietary needs, including vegan and gluten-free. If that sounds suspiciously healthy (it is), don’t worry — the kids will never know because it’s delicious. Customize your base, veggie, protein and toppings with a superfruit bowl to finish it off. Save your calories for Lofty Pursuits, the candy shop of YouTube fame where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a candy-making demonstration.
  • Parks: Downtown’s Cascades Park is great for little ones. They can splash in the fountain and let loose on the inclusive playground. Nearby, the scenic Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park is a pleasant getaway right in the city. Stroll the trails and gardens or go during a scheduled activity like fishing and catching fireflies.

A colorful, upcycled dinosaur at the Tallahassee Museum (photo by Cheryl Rodewig)

Speaking of state parks, as you head out of town, you can stay on I-10 toward Chipley for another unusual stop: Falling Waters State Park. It boasts the state’s tallest waterfall, but it’s not the height that will impress you — it’s that it drops straight into a sinkhole, a true Florida experience.

Family Fun in Panama City and Panama City Beach

These side-by-side cities have such a different vibe. Panama City Beach boasts water parks, endless snowcones, and a new 174-foot SkyWheel. Panama City is where you’ll find historic districts and less touristy entertainment. Which should you do? Both, of course.

Tasty sandwiches, soup, and toast with a side of games at Amavida. (photo by Cheryl Rodewig)

Our favorite spot in Panama City is St. Andrews, a bayfront historic community perfect for a laid-back day. While you’re there, stop into Amavida, a fair-trade coffee roaster. You’ll love their organic coffee selection, and the kids will love their grilled cheese menu. (Actually, you’ll like that, too — they’ve got fancy, grown-up versions of this childhood classic.) With their buttery fresh pastries and 100-plus games to borrow, it’s the perfect place to chill. Afterward, walk down to Oaks by the Bay Park for a stroller-friendly ramble along the boardwalk.

There’s loads of art in town, but for a live performance, hit up Kaleidoscope Theatre. The talent and passion of this all-volunteer troupe shine on stage. Their six annual productions range from G-rated plays to edgier new works better suited for teens, so check the schedule to see what’s on tap. Kaleidoscope’s 50th season, opening in their renovated theater, starts this fall.

Panama City Beach tends to be all about the beach, but there’s indoor entertainment, too. For toddlers up to preteens, check out WonderWorks, full of wacky fun that’s sneakily educational — lots of astronomy, geology, and physics. Also, giant bubbles, simulation rides, and laser tag. When the weather’s nice, visit Pier Park for endless shopping and snacking..

Ready to go farther? For more in Panama City Beach all the way to Pensacola, check out our Gulf Coast road trip itinerary.

About the Author:
Cheryl Rodewig is storyteller, marketer, and award-winning feature writer specializing in travel. Her Venn diagram includes minimalism, waterfalls, French, and the em dash. Find her at or on Twitter at @cherylrodewig.