18 air-conditioned places to escape the Tampa Bay heat

·11 min read

It’s no wonder Florida’s population didn’t start to skyrocket until air-conditioning became more common in the 1960s. We now go from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars to our air-conditioned jobs. Like the reverse of Chicago in January, summer is the season when we go outside at our peril.

With the humidity and the Florida sun blazing, we came up with a few places that encourage lingering in blissfully chill air-conditioning. (Keep in mind that changes in COVID-19 protocols are frequent, so it’s a good idea to check the website or call any location you plan to visit.)

Movies

Tampa Theatre: The famed movie palace is beautiful to behold any time of year, but the first commercial building in Tampa to offer air-conditioning deserves a medal of honor. The theater’s grandiose Mediterranean courtyard designs and Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ are precious. And they have brought back their summer film series, and for a good reason: “For 30 years, the community has flocked to Tampa Theatre on hot Sunday afternoons to enjoy summer classics as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, with a bag of fresh popcorn and a cold drink in hand,” the theater’s news announcement said. Coming attractions include 1974′s Young Frankenstein (Aug. 15) and Casablanca (Aug. 22). Find the lineup at tampatheatre.org. 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. 813-274-8981.

Grove Theater: The former Cobb Theater in Wesley Chapel now features spin bike classes in front of a movie screen, plush reclining seats, a sushi bar and an upscale bistro. There are 12 theaters, half of them offering in-theater dining. Reserve tickets at the theater, 6333 Wesley Grove Blvd., Wesley Chapel. 813-536-3250. cmxcinemas.com.

CineBistro: The Hyde Park theater takes the “dinner-and-movie” experience to another level with a full kitchen and craft cocktails. Arrive 30 minutes before show time for service at your seat. 1609 W Swann Ave., Tampa. 813-514-8300.

Tyrone Luxury 10: Pinellas County’s addition to the dinner-and-a-movie trend takes a less upscale approach than CineBistro, in menu and prices, but the movies and climate control are pretty much the same. 2998 Tyrone Blvd. N, St. Petersburg. 727-209-1950. cobbtheaters.com/tyroneluxury10.

Books

Oxford Exchange: This space was built in 1891 as a stable for Henry Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel (now part of the University of Tampa); it opened as the Oxford Exchange in 2012 so gorgeously redone that a visit feels like a walk back in time. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in sunny rooms, but the Champagne bar, coffee and tea counters, furnished with an assortment of easy chairs and tables, are conducive to long-term lounging and people-watching. You can shop for Warby Parker eyeglasses or adorable home goods, or visit the nicely curated bookstore for something to read. 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. 813-253-0222. oxfordexchange.com.

Largo Public Library: This spiffy, spacious 90,300-square-foot facility is nestled amid the lush Largo Central Park. There’s an entire children’s wing with activities to keep the little ones busy. And you can idle away some time in the library’s cafe over a book and a cup of java. Don’t miss the IdeaLab to try your hand at robotics, 3D printing, videography and more. 120 Central Park Drive, Largo. 727-587-6715. You can take a 360-degree virtual tour at largopubliclibrary.org.

Tombolo Books: The locally owned, independent bookstore in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District offers the best of what people like about indie bookstores, including curated recommendations and book clubs for fans of sci-fi, fantasy, Florida writers, horror and poetry. Its sales floor has reopened but you can also still get contact-free pickup of book orders or have orders shipped to your home. Find an events schedule at tombolobooks.com. 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. 727-755-9456.

Book & Bottle: The downtown St. Petersburg bookstore-meets-coffee and wine bar has a variety of cozy seating options, plus a variety of drinks and treats. One night a month they host Late Night at Book & Bottle, such as the July 31 Harry Potter birthday party where adults were invited to wear their PJs and bring their favorite book in the series. The store’s blog also offers a monthly book and wine pairing, such as the time comedian Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds was paired with a Gewurztraminer, a semisweet wine. 17 Sixth St. N, St. Petersburg. bookandbottlestpete.com.

Active entertainment

Topgolf: The high-tech driving range and entertainment complex is known for its microchip-equipped golf balls and climate-controlled hitting bays. It boasts a large food and drinks menu, and there are free ways to entertain yourself while waiting for a spot to hit golf balls (pool tables, shuffleboard tables, cornhole). The one in Brandon is almost always packed, so reservations are a must and can be made online only at topgolf.com/us. 10690 Palm River Road, Tampa. 813-298-1811. A new Topgolf location is expected to open soon at 220 Carillon Parkway in St. Petersburg, but a spokesperson said a date has not been finalized.

Rock climbing: In pancake-flat Florida, the Vertical Ventures Rock Climbing Gym in St. Petersburg gets you off the ground and across man-made rock walls. The difficulty ranges from walls tilting slightly inward for beginners to all-the-way-upside-down challenges. It’s not just a place for kids, and it is amazing to see a 5-year-old scramble up a wall past a slow adult. Those under 13 have to stick to stations with pre-hung safety rope and machines that slowly lower them to the ground. The lobby has comfy couches and TVs if you choose to watch rather than climb, and you can buy a cold drink. Day passes start at $25, $17 for kids 12 and younger, and that price includes climbing gear. Keep an eye on the website for specials and frequent coupon offers. 116 18th St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-304-6290. verticalventures.com.

Ice skating: Not many indoor play spaces are so cold you need to pack a scarf and gloves. You can forget the oppressive heat outside at one of Tampa Bay’s ice rinks, including one inside a mall. Tampa Bay Skating Academy has two ice rinks — Clearwater Ice Arena, 13940 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, 727-536–5843; and Tampa Bay Skating Academy, 255 Forest Lakes Blvd. N, Oldsmar, 813-854-4010 — and also runs the one inside Countryside Mall, 27001 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater, 727-723-7785. TGH Ice Plex (formerly Ice Sports Forum) is a two-sheet figure skating and hockey rink that has leagues but also public skate, laser tag, a restaurant and an arcade. 10222 Elizabeth Place, Tampa. 813-684-7825. tghiceplex.com. Xtra Ice is a hockey rink designed to give players of all ages extra practice time and teach beginners game skills. 6910 Asphalt Ave., Tampa. 813-888-7161. xtraicehockey.org. In Wesley Chapel, the Advent Health Ice Rink has numerous public skating sessions, including some Harry Potter parties coming up. 3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd., Wesley Chapel. ahcenterice.com.

Splitsville: The Tampa Riverwalk location at Sparkman Wharf in recent years added Southern + Social to its name to reflect the redesigned menu by celebrity chef Art Smith. The James Beard winner was Oprah’s personal chef for years and has cooked for the Obamas and Lady Gaga’s Manhattan restaurant. He’s best known for his fried chicken (Oprah’s favorite), and he kept the menu Florida-focused with a plate called Tampa Hot Chicken. There are 10 bowling lanes, as well as indoor lawn and feather bowling, pingpong, billiards, foosball, darts and shuffleboard. 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa. 813-514-2695. splitsvillelanes.com.

Kids

Children’s museums: The Tampa Bay area is lucky to have some pretty great hands-on museums for kids to play within the confines of sweet, sweet air-conditioning. And membership gets you unlimited visits and often free parking and discounts on shopping and food. Check out the Glazer Children’s Museum in downtown Tampa at 110 W Gasparilla Plaza. There’s Great Expectations next to Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, 1925 Fourth St. N. And Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry lets kids lie on a bed of nails, build a robot, explore optical illusions and explore the NASA-funded Mission: Moonbase lunar colony. 4801 E Fowler Ave. 813-443-3861.

Mall play areas: The big malls around the Tampa Bay area all have play areas to give kids some space to blow off steam. Some of the better ones are the Busch Gardens play area at International Plaza, with its bouncy floor covering and climbing structures, and the Citrus Park Town Center, which has a gorgeous Venetian carousel.

Playgrounds of Tampa: This indoor bounce house space has a toddler area for the little ones age 3 and younger and an open play space for children age 12 and below. It has a variety of oversized bounce houses and slides and an interactive gaming floor in which a video game is projected onto the floor to allow multiple people to play at the same time. There also is a frequent “Parents Night Out” for potty-trained kids to be dropped off. There’s a coffee lounge with a 180-degree view of the play area so you can keep an eye on the kiddos while you sip a latte. Admission is $13.95 for ages 3 and up, $8.95 for 0-2 and additional siblings. There’s no limit on low how long the children can play during the open play periods, which generally run 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for special events or parties. 4535 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. 813-835-7529. playgroundsoftampa.com.

Art

Tampa Museum of Art: On Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m., the museum hosts Art on the House, where the admission price changes to pay-as-you-will. Bring the family and celebrate 100 years of art in Tampa with exhibitions that emphasize ancient, modern and contemporary art. You can also peruse offerings at the museum store and dine at Sono Cafe, which overlooks the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa’s famous minarets. $15, $7.50 seniors, groups, $5 students, university, college and higher education students with IDs, 6 and under free. 120 Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. 813-274-8130. tampamuseum.org.

Dalí Museum: Holding the largest collection of art by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí outside of Spain, the museum has a free app that gives you a tour of its best artworks. Even better, some of them have an augmented reality feature. Tap the AR button on your phone as you point it at the painting and birds will fly off, elements of the painting will spin and some of them will be highlighted so you can tap for even more information. You can explore the museum’s epic gift shop of items inspired by Dalí paintings and then relax with some Spanish tapas and a cafe con leche at Cafe Gala in the lobby. $25, $23 seniors, $18 students and children 13-17, $10 children 6-12. On Thursdays after 5 p.m. it‘s $12.50, $8 for ages 6-12. 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. Tickets must be reserved in advance at thedali.org. 727-823-3767.

James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art: One of the newer museums in the area opened in 2018, the dream of philanthropists and collectors Tom and Mary James. The architecture of the downtown museum is an homage to the grandeur of the West with a canyonlike feel to its soaring panels. Hundreds of pieces of art and sculpture are displayed in a wide variety of styles, from pop art to classic bronze sculptures to a Jewel Box gallery of jewelry and accessories by Southwestern artists embedded with precious stones. If you just want to take a break from the heat, the entryway is a marvel with a massive sculptural element wrought from sandstone suggesting a vertical version of mesas, and a gift shop full of goods made by Native Americans. In the back of the shop there is a massive early 19th century bar on the back wall, once located in a historic San Francisco hotel. It will be the centerpiece of a cafe that will open Labor Day weekend. In the meantime, there are comfy chairs and tables set up with a view of Central Avenue, and on a recent Saturday an old John Wayne movie was playing while we took an A/C respite. $20, $15 students, teachers, seniors and active military, $10 youth ages 7-18, free for children 6 and younger. Check thejamesmuseum.org/events for specials, such as free admission for teachers in July or $10 Tuesdays when the museum stays open late and brings in musicians or other special programs after 6 p.m. 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-892-4200. thejamesmuseum.org.

Staff writers Colette Bancroft, Christopher Spata and Maggie Duffy contributed to this report.

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