Museum lovers will find plenty to please them at downtown's most notable cultural institutions, Tampa Museum of Art and the Henry B. Plant Museum. For a deeper dive into Tampa Bay's history and culture, try some of the region's more unique repositories of history, art, and education. You'll find something for everyone in the family to enjoy.
Tampa Firefighter Museum
720 Zack Street
This museum will put a gleam in the eye of any fan of first responders. The museum is housed in one of Tampa's original firehouses, built in 1911. The displays include two historic fire engines -- one, "Little Mack," is still officially on duty -- firefighter gear from over the years, and an entire wall of tools, implements, machinery used over the decades to keep Tampa Bay residents safe and sound. There's also a special 9/11 memorial honoring New York City firefighters crafted by local sculptor Dominique Martinez. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It's free and supported by donations.
Tampa Police Department Museum
411 North Franklin Street
The big blue building in the heart of downtown is the headquarters of Tampa Police Department. The department offers a museum of its own on the ground floor -- the entrance is on Franklin Street directly across from Lykes Gaslight Park. Inside, you'll find a trove of police gear -- badges, hats from around the world, a 1970s-era police car and even a helicopter! True crime fans will want to explore a special exhibit -- two glass panels displaying the Wanted poster, fingerprints and booking mugshots of some of the most notorious criminals from the early 20th Century, all collected by a young Tampa resident and bequeathed to the police department when he died suddenly in 1960. The museum is free and staffed by volunteers, so the hours can be a bit sporadic. The most reliable time to visit is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
Willaford Railroad Museum
102 North Palmer Street, Plant City
Named for the Gilded Age railroad baron whose rail line turned Tampa Bay into a thriving commercial center in the 1880s, Plant City, located east of downtown, celebrates its railroad heritage with an impressive collection of classic railroad equipment -- including antique tools and retired cars. The open-air viewing platform lets train fans of all ages watch the comings and goings on three intersecting rail lines.
July 2019: The museum now has a live feed showing passing trains (complete with sound) for railroad buffs to enjoy.
Florida State Fairgrounds
You can see, feel and hear history all around you at Cracker Country, a living history village that captures the spirit of thousands of pioneering settlers who hitched their fortunes to Florida between the U.S. Civil War and World War II. In those days, the process was pretty simple: with a horse and a whip, you could round up the cattle left behind by the Spanish in 1834. With them, you had the making of a farm or a ranch and eventually a community. Those settlers got the name "Cracker" from the sound of their whips. And, no, there wasn't any air-conditioning.
Ybor City Museum State Park
1818 East 9th Avenue, Tampa
The early days of Tampa Bay's historic Latin Quarter are captured at Florida's smallest state park. The museum is housed in the former Ferlita bakery, a piece of Ybor City's unique blend of Italian, Cuban, Spanish and other cultures. Cigars made Ybor City famous, but displays also describe the neighborhood's unique role in the history of the U.S. -- mutual aid societies (the precursors of modern insurance companies) started here, as did pre-fabricated housing (check out the casitas nearby). Ybor City's roots in the late-19th Century means there's also an impressive array of mustaches on display among images of the founders!
Contemporary Art Museum
3821 USF Holly Drive, Tampa, FL 33620
Located on the campus of the University of South Florida, this museum requires a short drive north from downtown to the expansive campus between Fowler and Fletcher avenues. The museum holds more than 5,000 objects of contemporary graphics, works on paper, sculpture multiples and photography. Particular strengths for the collection include extensive gifts from Graphicstudio, the Martin S. Ackerman Foundation, Robert Stackhouse and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The museum also hosts several small teaching collections of African and pre-Colombian Meso-American artifacts.