By Susan & Simon Veness
While the Sunshine State’s beaches and theme parks are the prime draws for the majority of visitors, Florida still boasts superb city experiences that are equally compelling. This new series of blogs will look at the fabulous array of attractions that await in the state’s many urban destinations.
When it comes to great – and unexpected – city experiences in Florida, there is one urban landscape that has evolved enormously in recent years, to the extent it is practically an attraction in its own right.
Tampa by the bay was founded in 1855 from the establishment of Fort Brooke some 31 years earlier, but there is nothing vintage about the city today, albeit it still pays homage to its roots in places like Ybor City and the Henry B. Plant Museum.
This is a modern, vibrant and happening destination that revels in a millennial spirit fueled by craft breweries, glamorous shopping centres, contemporary resorts, food halls and a thriving cultural scene.
As well as the historic district of Ybor City – the Cigar Capital of the World from 1888 to 1930 thanks to its strong Cuban connection – Tampa offers community neighbourhoods such as eclectic Seminole Heights (complete with a unique bar scene, boutiques and a new-bohemian attitude), ritzy Hyde Park (home to superb shopping and dining), and Channelside, where the Florida Aquarium, Amalie Arena and Tampa Bay History Center can all be found.
This is also where Sparkman Wharf is fast becoming one of the great nightlife centres, with an enticing mix of shops, restaurants and an open-air Biergarten. Visit during ice-hockey season (October to May) and you can enjoy a thrilling Tampa Bay Lightning game at the Amalie Arena.
Did you know?
Tampa boasts the world’s longest uninterrupted stretch of pavement (or sidewalk). Elegant Bayshore Drive is 4.5 miles long and attracts joggers, bikers and dog-walkers along its glittering extent adjacent to the waters of Tampa Bay.
Once you’ve soaked up some local heritage at the History Center, you should make a beeline for the Henry B. Plant Museum. The former 1891 Tampa Hotel – now part of the University of Tampa – is the repository of the essential history created by railroad baron Plant and his partners, highlighting the Gilded Age of tourism that his transportation routes opened up at the end of the 19th century.
You should definitely cross the road from the Museum and have a coffee, breakfast or lunch at Oxford Exchange, a wonderful mix of bookshop, restaurant and gift emporium that brands itself as “a large house or small town,” and really lives up to that nickname.
Tampa is also a city that revels in a dazzling array of ways to get around. You can ride the free TECO Trolley streetcar system, dating back to the 19th century and providing 2.7 miles of access between downtown and Ybor City. Or how about an electric boat ride with eBoats Tampa, who offer rentals from $90 for a gentle putter along the waterways?
There are also miles of cycling paths, water taxis and the Downtowner electric car ride-hailing system. Just download the App and ride for a very modest fee.
Or you can really, ahem, push the boat out and take a cruise from the Port of Tampa, where the big-ship companies like Carnival, Holland America and Royal Caribbean offer a mouth-watering series of Caribbean voyages year-round.
High-quality dining is another highlight, and there is a growing array of possibility, from traditional Cuban-inspired cuisine to the latest foodie fashions. It’s hard to go wrong, but all of Columbia Restaurant (dating back to 1905), Elevage (at the gorgeous Epicurean Hotel), eclectic Ulele (with its modern twist on traditional Floridian fare), Oystercatchers (fine seafood at the Grand Hyatt hotel), Haven (with its small-plate delights) and historic Bern’s Steakhouse (boasting one of the largest wine collections in the world) should be on your to-dine list.
Ready for a drink? You’ll find more than a dozen craft breweries on offer, many of which can be enjoyed on the handy Brew Bus, with a series of brewery tours and a weekend shuttle service that visits a wide array of venues.
Finally, if you’re in town in January, look out for Gasparilla, Tampa’s annual celebration of all things piratical. This expansive festival is second only to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in terms of parades and associated festivities and salutes the city’s 18th century pirate history over several weeks.
PS: Yes, we know we left out Busch Gardens, but we promised “no theme parks” in this blog, so we didn’t.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.