Miami may be the glitz capital of Florida, but for those who want a more people-friendly place to spend their winters, the place to be is Tampa. Situated on Florida’s west coast, Tampa and its neighbours are the favourite home for a lot of northern snowbirds. It’s very livable, the sun shines most days, and compared to South Florida, it’s easy on the pocketbook.
All well and good. But is there more to do than just lie on the beach or play some shuffleboard? The answer is yes: in fact, today’s Tampa is a different place than the city I visited back in the ‘60s. Modern skyscrapers dominate the downtown skyline, there are hip restaurants and microbreweries everywhere, and Tampa has the kind of museums and attractions you’ll see in most major cities.
That said, the Tampa Bay area still has some of that old-time Florida feeling: even downtown, you’re only a few minutes away from the beaches and laid-back lifestyle we baby boomers remember. And you can see wildlife right in the city. Eating brunch at the Godfrey Hotel, where my colleague Maarten Heilbron and I stayed on our Baby Boomer Road Trip, I looked up from watching a flock of shore birds to see a pair of dolphins splashing in the bay.
So this city offers a lot of ways to amuse yourself, even beyond the Gasparilla pirate festival. Here’s my short list of what to do in Tampa.
Do the River Walk
Tampa is surrounded by water on many sides, and it’s made the most of it by creating a lovely and enjoyable boardwalk. The River Walk takes you for miles along the Hillsborough River. It starts near the heart of downtown and runs all the way to the Florida Aquarium, past little parkettes, some lovely views and a few places to stop and get a drink or a bite to eat (photo at top).
Along the way, you see many of the city’s top cultural and entertainment spots. Downtown, there’s the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the Tampa Museum of Art, with the Glazer Children’s Museum right alongside. Later on, there’s the Tampa Bay History Center and the Amalie Arena, where the Tampa Bay Lightning play. You’ll also get glimpse of the José Gasparilla, the replica pirate ship used in the annual Gasparilla Festival.
See the Florida Aquarium
The River Walk ends near the Florida Aquarium, so while you’re there, it’s well worth dropping in and spending an hour or two. This is a first-class attraction, with a wealth of exhibits, from small and cute to large and fearsome. There are Florida-themed exhibits showing the wildlife of the mangrove swamps and wetlands, and another devoted to beach creatures.
The aquarium also has a splash pad for the kids, and a pool where you can touch stingrays. But its most spectacular feature is the Coral Reef Tunnel, which puts you on the sea floor where hundreds of sharks, groupers and other fish swim by behind a huge wall of glass. You could spend the whole day sitting in front of its panoramic viewing window.
Visit Ybor City
Probably the most colourful neighbourhood in Tampa is Ybor (pronounced EE-bor) City. Once known as the cigar capital of the world, home to a colony of Cuban cigar-makers, Ybor has kept its Latin flavour. While Cuban cigars are now outlawed, cigar shops and cigar bars still line the main street, along with many bars, restaurants and pizza joints. Visit Ybor City at night, when the streets are filled with merry-makers and the mood is electric.
If you come by during the day, stop by to sample the wares of the Florida Cane Distillery, or one of the local craft breweries, like the Coppertail Brewing Co. There are also authentic Cuban bakeries, and a real oddity: José Marti Park, a piece of land named after a Cuban revolutionary hero and still owned by Cuba. (Photo by Maarten Heilbron)
Eat at the Columbia Restaurant
Tampa Bay has a lot of eateries, but there are none like the Columbia Restaurant. Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez and run by the same family ever since, the Columbia is Florida’s oldest restaurant. It’s pretty much the heart of the Ybor district, and it’s an attraction all its own. This is the biggest Spanish restaurant in the world, stretching an entire block: one grand dining room leads to the next, each with its own decor and ambience.
The Columbia has played host to everyone from Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe to Bruce Springsteen, so join the crowd. The food is Spanish, as you’d expect, and tasty – try the tapas – and the service is attentive and personal. If you want to make a night of it, stay for the flamenco show after dinner. (Photo by Maarten Heilbron)
Visit Busch Gardens
If you’re a child of any age, you really can’t leave Tampa without seeing Busch Gardens. My parents took me there when I was a kid, and it’s still fun. There are rides for the strong of heart, like the Sandserpent and the Cobra’s Curse, plus others for the less adventurous, like the Gwazi Gliders. And there’s the usual assortment of food and souvenirs, and even some music — Herman’s Hermits are the next big act.
But there are also a lot of animal attractions, organized into different geographical areas. You can watch gorillas rough-housing or elephants being fed, or take the Serengeti Express train through the savanna for a look at zebras, antelope and rhinos. Still a good way to spend a sunny day — and even worthwhile in the rainy day we had.
See some sports
The Tampa Bay area is a great place to see some sports while you’re away from home, with a variety of major-league action to choose from. As mentioned, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning play right downtown, in the Amalie Arena (seen here). In fact, the NHL All-Star Game was held there during our visit. So if you’re a snowbird needing your hockey fix, it’s there for you. And while the NFL season is over now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a home at Raymond James Stadium.
But with February comes another big event for sports fans: baseball’s spring training. And Tampa Bay lays claim to one of the biggest names, with the New York Yankees holding camp at Steinbrenner Field. The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile, have their training camp in nearby Clearwater, and Canada’s team, the Blue Jays, make their home a few miles up the road, in Dunedin, A Florida holiday and some baseball — what’s not to like?
View some manatees
One of Florida’s most iconic creatures is the manatee, a slow-moving, gentle giant of the sea. Manatees can be elusive, but one of the best places to get a look at them is south of the city, in Apollo Beach. It’s called Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Centre – and yes, it’s a power plant. The warm water that flows out of Big Bend power station creates a haven for manatees when the weather turns cold, and they sometimes gather there by the hundreds.
The gathering of these creatures attracted so much attention over the years that the power station’s discharge canal is now a federally designated sanctuary for them. There’s even an interpretive centre, a butterfly garden and demonstrations on sustainable energy. You’ll find the most manatees on a cold morning, when they come in to get warm.
Visit the neighbours
If you feel like a day trip, Tampa also has some neighbouring cities and towns that are worth the drive. Right across the bay are St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. Cruise along the beaches, spread out a towel in the sun, or have dinner in a restaurant overlooking the sea. This is real Florida living.
If you still have some time, there’s some interesting history just up the coast. A hundred years ago, Greek fishermen came to a Florida town called Tarpon Springs to make their living in the age-old trade of sponge fishing. The sponge trade later declined, but the town is still there, and it’s still very Greek. If you fancy some moussaka or souvlaki, this is the place. There are still lots of sponges, too, in every shape and description. They make good souvenirs — and they won’t add much weight to your luggage.
So those are my top ideas for what to do in Tampa. There’s more to see, of course: the Lowry Park Zoo; the historic Hyde Park district, with its arts-and-crafts style bungalows; the wide variety of parks, filled with flowers and animals; the Tampa Bay History Center, with its display of shipwreck finds … Better bring a car — there’s a lot of ground to cover.
But even if you just want to find a comfortable spot and soak up the sun, who could blame you? The weather up north isn’t getting any better.
My colleague Maarten Heilbron and I were guests of VISIT FLORIDA and its partners, including Visit Tampa Bay, on this trip. While in Tampa, we stayed at the Godfrey Hotel, overlooking the shores of Tampa Bay.