The thriving west coast city of Tampa is out to prove that not all the action in the warmly welcoming southern state of Florida happens at Miami Beach or Cape Canaveral. At the heart of its revitalisation is Ybor City, the historic heart of the old cigar industry.
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What To Do
If thrills at the nearby theme parks is not your bag, then get the wind in your hair for real by cycling, ice skating or canoeing. For those against energy expenditure, spectator sports such as football, baseball and hockey should do.
What To See
Tampa Museum of Art
Reopened in February 2010 on Curtis Hixon Park in a glorious, dramatically cantilevered building sheathed in a silver-mesh skin, the Tampa Museum of Art now commands attention among the bay area's crowded art world. Six cavernous galleries balance their permanent collection – an unusual mix of Greek and Roman antiquities, contemporary photography and new media – with major traveling exhibitions.
Ybor City Museum State Park
This somewhat dusty, old-school history museum preserves an authentic slice of a bygone era: tour immigrant cigar worker houses and poke your head into the massive, original bakery ovens. Fascinating photographs bring late-19th-century Ybor City to life.
Lowry Park Zoo
When it comes to animal encounters, Florida sets the bar high, and Tampa's AZA-accredited zoo clears it with room to spare. The well-designed exhibits emphasize getting as close to the animals as possible, with several free-flight aviaries, a camel ride, giraffe feeding, a wallaby enclosure and a rhino 'encounter.' Not only does Lowry contain all the big-ticket African animals you'll find at Busch Gardens, but it highlights Florida's homegrown menagerie: scores of American alligators, roseate spoonbills, panthers, pink flamingos, manatees and more.
Tampa Bay History Center
In a new three-story building along the Riverwalk, this first-rate history museum is the best place to learn about the region's Seminoles, Cracker pioneers and the legendary Cuban community and cigar industry that formed the cornerstone of turn-of-the-century Tampa. Like maps? Its dazzling cartography collection covers 400 years of mapmaking, as conquistadors and tycoons tried to pin down Florida.
Glazer Children's Museum
Oh, to be eight again. Creative play spaces for kids don't get any better than this bright, new museum. Eager staff help children engage their limbs and imaginations among the plethora of interactive exhibits: the watery port of Tampa, a TV station with hidden cameras throughout the museum, a working theater stage, art lab, Lego building station, paper-airplane tester, supermarket, vet clinic and more. Best of all: it's adjacent to Curtis Hixon Park, a scenic grassy swath with its own playground.
Home to the major-league Tampa Bay Rays, who play baseball from April to September. Huge parking lots line 10th St S near 1st Ave S.
When it comes to nightlife, just head for Ybor City's 7th Ave. Start at the pirate ship-like bar Gaspar's Grotto then wander till you find the right scene.
By far Tampa's most exciting festival is Gasparilla, kicking off seven days of parades, parties and assorted spectacular events dedicated to the arrival of the legendary pirate ship Jose Gasparilla. This festival starts on 31 January and is accompanied by lots of 'arghhs', 'ahoys', 'avasts' and other pirateisms. Nearby St Petersburg brings the sound of the south further south with an annual Tampa Bay Blues Festival, usually around the beginning of April, which attracts big name acts to the bay. Ybor City pulls out the stops for its biggest cultural event, a street party of food, music and smokes in mid-November for the Ybor City Heritage & Cigar Festival.
Food and Drink
The Spanish atmosphere is so thick it feels like a schtick, but the Columbia's historic, original location is laudably authentic and truly memorable. Reserve ahead for the main dining room's 45-minute flamenco show (twice nightly): it's an exuberant performance, with red dresses swishing beneath dusty iron chandeliers. The Spanish cooking is robust and traditional, rather than refined.
At this Cuban cafeteria, grab a stool at a horseshoe-shaped counter (ignore the separate restaurant) and experience the 'real' Tampa. Locals from all walks of life get their Spanish comfort food here: bay leaf–steeped black beans, neon-yellow rice, fried plantains, grilled steak with onions and peppers. Add a dash of hot sauce. Perfection.
The Refinery marries a sustainability ethic with a punk attitude. The hyperlocal changing menu features small plates (and 'more than a small plate'), allowing chef Greg Baker extreme latitude for his clever creativity. At this blue-collar gourmet joint, they promise chipped plates, mismatched cutlery and no pretensions, just playful, delicious cuisine 'for folks like us.'
Did this place blow in from the Keys on a hurricane? No, for over 30 years Skipper's has been an unpretentious, beloved Old Florida institution and Tampa's best open-air venue for blues, funk, folk, reggae and gator-swamp rockabilly.