Advertisement

See hundreds of manatees, pick citrus and more in South Hillsborough

These hidden Florida gems are easy on the pocketbook and big on the fun.
 
A pair of manatees is visible from the Manatee Viewing Center near Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach in South Hillsborough County on Jan. 17. The mammals are drawn to the toasty-warm waters here.
A pair of manatees is visible from the Manatee Viewing Center near Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach in South Hillsborough County on Jan. 17. The mammals are drawn to the toasty-warm waters here. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 24|Updated Jan. 27

Note: This local guide is a continuation of our One Day in Tampa Bay neighborhood series, which started as a newsletter. Find more guides and local travel tips at tampabay.com/life-culture/guides.

It’s no secret that Hillsborough has a lot to do. You can explore swanky spots in South Tampa, discover hipster hideouts in Seminole Heights and embrace the weird and wonderful history of Ybor City. But don’t sleep on the southern part of the county.

While Apollo Beach, Riverview, Ruskin and Wimauma may require a trek along I-275 or the Sunshine Skyway, the journey is worth it. We found hidden gems, from up-close encounters with wildlife and an Old Florida citrus grove to some of the best tacos you’ll taste in Tampa Bay. As a bonus: These activities are all free or low-cost.

Mingle with manatees

People look out from a deck of the Manatee Viewing Center near the Tampa Electric Co. Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach on Jan. 17, 2024.
People look out from a deck of the Manatee Viewing Center near the Tampa Electric Co. Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach on Jan. 17, 2024. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Underneath the billowing stacks of Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Station, visitors find a manatee mecca.

The toasty-warm waters next to the power plant draw hundreds of happy sea cows in the cooler months of the year, which inspired Tampa Electric to construct a Manatee Viewing Center next door that is free to visit.

Visitors stroll boardwalks right above the gentle giants as they flutter their snouts, flick their tails and float belly-up. There are also views of flying fish and Florida birds.

The Manatee Viewing Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from Nov. 1 through April 15. Don’t skip the indoor education center, which includes the opportunity to smell manatee breath, and the gift shop, filled with sea cow swag from pajamas to wind chimes. There’s also a Ray Touch Tank, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Rays, and a restaurant. 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. tampaelectric.com/manatee.

Times tip: Arrive early to get a prime viewing spot on the boardwalk. You’ll also want time to shuttle to the Florida Aquarium’s conservation campus at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, which includes a Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center.

Chow down on Mexican food in Wimauma

Enjoy tacos, tostadas and more at Sol Mexican Cocina in Wimauma.
Enjoy tacos, tostadas and more at Sol Mexican Cocina in Wimauma. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

This unincorporated slice of South Hillsborough, especially along State Road 674, is lined with Mexican eateries and taco trucks. Former Times food critic Laura Reiley once spent an entire day on a taco crawl there.

We checked out Sol Mexican Cocina, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, for a hearty lunch. Here chickens roam the parking lot as Mexican dance music blasts through the speakers. Order from the window outside or dine indoors — just don’t skip the tacos made with homemade flour tortillas. Four tacos, two tostadas, four tamales and two bottled waters totaled just over $30. 702 Railroad St., Wimauma. solmexicancocina.com.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Settle your sweet tooth next door at Garcia’s Bakery, which sells fresh Mexican sweet breads. Two pieces of pan dulce cost $2.50. 5805 State Road 674, Wimauma. garciasbakery.com.

Pick Florida fruit

Kathleen Hull, 61, of Cooper, Maine, picks an orange from a tree at Dooley Groves in Ruskin on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. U-pick is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, on a seasonal basis.
Kathleen Hull, 61, of Cooper, Maine, picks an orange from a tree at Dooley Groves in Ruskin on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. U-pick is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, on a seasonal basis. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

South Hillsborough is dotted with U-pick farms, offering crops from berries to beefsteaks. (Ruskin is the tomato capital of Florida.) We stopped by Dooley Groves to partake in the honeybell season harvest.

This roadside fruit stand and working farm is open mid-November through April, with fruit offerings rotating along with the time of year. Guests are armed with a bucket, clippers and a long fruit-picking pole that resembles a lacrosse stick. Pluck what you want to pay for. (Honeybells cost $2.89 a pound.) Wear long pants, spritz on bug spray and bring your camera. 1651 Stephens Road, Ruskin. dooleygroves.com.

Hungry for more? We’ve rounded up a list of U-pick farms around Tampa Bay.

Related: It's U-pick season at farms around Tampa Bay
The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia is worth a pit stop.
The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia is worth a pit stop. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Times tip: For orange lovers traveling to South Hillsborough along the Sunshine Skyway, we recommend a pit stop at the Citrus Place in Terra Ceia. This old-school fruit shop slings signed books by Florida authors, tropical jellies and cones piled high with vanilla-orange swirl soft serve ($3.50 for a small cone). 7200 U.S. 19, Terra Ceia. facebook.com/TheCitrusPlace.

Roam a nature preserve

Enjoy bird-watching, hiking and more at Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park in Ruskin.
Enjoy bird-watching, hiking and more at Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park in Ruskin. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

For a beautiful view, head to a place with an icky name: Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park.

This preserve includes a series of islands along Little Manatee River and the shore of Tampa Bay. Come for bird-watching, fishing and hiking. A picnic shelter at the highest part of the preserve offers a clear view of the St. Petersburg and Tampa skylines, plus the Big Bend power plant and the Sunshine Skyway. Those with kayaks or canoes can paddle through the aquatic portion of the preserve. End of Cockroach Bay Road, Ruskin. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/cockroach-bay-preserve-state-park.

Wondering about that name?

“Horseshoe crabs were once so abundant along the shores of Florida’s west coast that early Spanish explorers called them cockroaches, believing them to be seagoing cousins of the insects,” reads the state park’s webpage. “Many people think that is how Cockroach Bay received its unlikely name.”

Times tip: Nature lovers have other parks to roam after Cockroach Bay, including Little Manatee River State Park and E. G. Simmons Regional Park.

Other attractions to check out

The sun goes down as the lights on the screen come up at the beginning of the show at the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre at 5011 U.S. 41 N on Sept. 24, 2022.
The sun goes down as the lights on the screen come up at the beginning of the show at the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre at 5011 U.S. 41 N on Sept. 24, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
  • Catch a double feature at Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre, which offers a throwback cinema experience for all ages. The theater is open year-round, including holidays, and features a snack bar. A ticket costs $7 for two movies. Admission for children 5 to 8 costs $2. Kids 4 and under get in for free. Check ruskinfamilydrivein.com/movies for showings and hours. 5011 U.S. 41 N, Ruskin.
  • Load up on soul food at Fred’s Market. Three locations, including Riverview, offer Southern favorites from fried catfish and collard greens to rutabagas and sweet potato souffle. 6501 U.S. 301, Riverview. fredsmarket.com.
  • Dive into circus history at the Showmen’s Museum. This museum in Riverview, open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., offers a peek into carnival history. It’s not far from Gibsonton, known as a winter haven for carnies and sideshow stars. Visit showmensmuseum.org for more info. 6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview.
  • Sip a beer at Leaven Brewing, a Riverview spot founded by husband-wife duo KJ and Jillian Lynch. We recommend the Florida Cat IPA, treated with Florida citrus. 11238 Boyette Road, Riverview. leavenbrewing.com.