For Extra Fun, Take the Ferry to the Pier

For Extra Fun, Take the Ferry to the Pier

If you’re visiting Tampa, or live there, don’t pass up a chance to experience one of the more unique excursions the Bay area has to offer. It’s called the Cross Bay Ferry, and it drops you off near the entrance to the St. Pete Pier.

You’ll enjoy a scenic, hour-long cruise between two vibrant downtowns without having to sit in traffic or find a parking spot. When was the last time you had a day trip where the getting there was almost as fun as the being there?

Here’s just one sample itinerary of how to experience the Pier via the Cross Bay Ferry.

Tampa — a.m.

Your best bet for a Cross Bay Ferry day trip is on the weekends, when the schedule is fuller. (It doesn’t run on Mondays and Tuesdays.) On a Friday or Saturday, the first departure from Tampa is 11:30 a.m. – late enough to give you some time to stroll the area and grab a quick breakfast. The Cross Bay Ferry dock is at the southern end of the Tampa Riverwalk, which hugs the Hillsborough River and offers an invigorating morning stroll with several fun stops along the way. If you’d rather ride, you can rent a bike through Coast Bike Share.

You’ll find plenty of parks and other green space as you go. Culture, too, like the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum. One idea for a starting point is Armature Works. Originally a streetcar warehouse that opened in 1912, this long-shuttered building was brought back to life in 2018 as a 73,000-square-foot, mixed-use facility on 50 acres. The facility offers a plethora of dining and shopping options. The ferry dock is 1.7 miles from Armature Works if you take the Riverwalk, so keep track of time.

11:30 a.m. — Pier Bound

You won’t have to check a board to see about routes because there’s only one: Tampa to St. Pete and back. Tickets are available in advance online, or you can purchase them at the Tampa Ferry Terminal. They’re a bargain at $10 one-way, $20 round trip (with discounts for select groups).

The ferry is a twin-hull aluminum catamaran, with upper and lower decks and ample seating. It’s certified to carry up to 149 guests and travels at a speed of roughly 33 miles per hour, so you can count on a smooth ride. Hang outside and soak up the sun and feel the breeze, or sit in a large, climate-controlled cabin. We think the best seats in the house are in the open-air section right up front on the second deck.

Either way, during the trip you can gaze out over the waters of Tampa Bay and take in both the St. Pete and Tampa skylines.

All told, this is one relaxing, refreshing trip. The ferry has a full bar, with coffee, soft drinks and light snacks available as well. Shortly after departure, the boat passes through a channel, with views of the large homes on Davis Islands to the west and massive Port of Tampa to the east. In a few minutes you’ll be in open water, with the St. Pete skyline in the distance.

As you approach St. Pete, notice that nearly all of the city’s waterfront is parkland. That includes the Pier, which you can’t miss.

12:25 p.m — Arrival in Downtown St. Pete

Disembarking the ferry is easy, with hardly any wait or queues to maneuver. Once on land, take the short walk down a wide sidewalk to the Pier. (No directions needed; it’s right there).

The entrance to the Pier is a hive of activity. The main promenade, which will take you all the way to the stunning Pier head building,  includes a line of locally-run kiosks called The Marketplace. As you go, you’ll encounter several striking pieces of public art, headlined by internationally renowned artist Janet Echelman’s Bending Arc, a massive, shape-changing net sculpture.

The Pier offers several dining options, starting with Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro at the entrance, moving on to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille and Spa Beach Bistro, which offers casual food and a vast outdoor dining space. At the Pier head, you’ll find Driftwood Cafe on the ground level; Teak, for a more upscale experience, on the second level; and the rooftop Pier Teaki. Each restaurant provides terrific views to go along with tasty food and drink. Also on the Pier head is Pier Gear and Gifts, chock full of gift items and souvenirs.

There are plenty of other ways to experience the 26-acre Pier park. If you feel like putting your toes in the sand and lingering along the shoreline, saunter over to cozy (and uncrowded) Spa Beach. For the kids, there’s the Glazer Family Playground and a big splash pad. If you feel like taking a load off, benches and shaded areas with Adirondack chairs are placed throughout the facility. To mix in some educational fun, consider checking out the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center (which also offers eco-tours in the Bay) or the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

We recommend going all the way out and back. The Pier is only a half-mile long. Take your time. Stop regularly to enjoy the sights, attractions and diversions. When you reach the Pier head, rest your elbows on the railing, breathe in the fresh sea air, and gaze out over the water or back toward the city skyline. Have your phone close at hand for photo ops.

Heading Back

The Cross Bay Ferry’s first return trip to Tampa is at 4:45 p.m., but we’re betting that you stay until the 6:15 departure, or maybe even the 9:45. Riding the ferry after dark is a whole other breathtaking experience.

Happy day-tripping.

The seasonal Cross Bay Ferry runs through April 30, 2022 and picks up again on Oct. 1. The service is scheduled to operate year round starting in October 2024.