Overview

Tampa Bay, Florida, has much to recommend it: Busch Gardens (which predates Disney World), impressive museums, winning sports teams (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning), fishing charters and one of the country's largest ports, rocking nightlife and a wealth of tourist attractions.

Tampa has sharks and rays at the Florida Aquarium and the more lovable manatees at the zoo. At Busch Gardens, you can ride across re-created African plains in a safari truck, stopping to hand-feed roaming giraffes. Or you can go to sea on a fishing charter and try to catch your own wildlife.

In Ybor City, the historic Cuban neighborhood, you can amble down brick streets, following your nose to bakeries to buy fragrant loaves of Cuban bread or to shops where tabaqueros hand-roll fine cigars. Lively Spanish conversation might lead you to an old-fashioned domino parlor where grandfathers with gnarled hands gather to play in friendly neighborhood matches. Antiques shops, boutiques and art galleries beckon. After dark, the nightclubs throw open their doors, and Ybor City metamorphoses into a hip nightlife spot.

St. Pete (the local name for St. Petersburg, Florida) is only a 30-minute drive away, and the gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches are about a 45-minute drive. The theme parks of Orlando, Florida, are about 90 minutes to the east.

Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.

Geography

Greater Tampa, a major port city, sprawls around the northern end of Tampa Bay. The beaches of the Gulf of Mexico are west across Old Tampa Bay, and the city of St. Petersburg is south across the bay. Bridges and long causeways (with signs warning you to check your gas gauge) link the city to St. Petersburg and the popular beachfront communities of Clearwater, St. Pete Beach and other smaller resort towns.

North of downtown are Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida.

The Hillsborough River, the main source of Tampa's drinking water, weaves through the city from the northeast.

Tampa's streets are basically laid out in a grid. The east-west divider is Florida Avenue. Kennedy Boulevard divides north from south. Interstate 75, just east of town, and Interstate 275, running through town, are major north-south routes. Interstate 4 runs from Tampa to Daytona Beach and is the preferred route to Walt Disney World and the other Orlando-area attractions. I-275 continues west across the water to connect with St. Petersburg.

History

The Calusan and Timucuan people were the original inhabitants of the area. Centuries later, around 1500, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived. Staking claim to the Native Americans' real estate, the Spanish also attempted to convert them to Christianity. The ensuing bloodshed lasted for more than 300 years. By then Tampa and the rest of Florida were becoming settled, and in 1824, Fort Brooke was built nearby to subdue the remaining resistant Seminoles, another of the fierce Floridian groups.

For several decades, Tampa remained a quiet little village surrounded by orange groves. Then, in 1884, transportation baron Henry B. Plant linked the city to Jacksonville by rail. Plant also established a steamship line that connected Tampa to Havana, and he opened the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891, establishing the city's profile as a winter resort for the rich and famous.

The city got another boost in 1886, when Vicente Martinez Ybor, attracted by lower taxes, moved his cigar factory to Tampa from Key West. He brought thousands of cigar makers with him, swelling Tampa's Latin population and intensifying its Latin flavor. Ybor City supplied money and men for the 1898 Cuban Revolution, and it was a staging ground for U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War.

Tampa became a shipbuilding center during World War I, and the city boomed again in the 1920s, when millionaire developer David P. Davis created Davis Islands by dredging the mud flats in Hillsborough Bay. World War II saw the opening of MacDill Air Force Base.

Today, Tampa is Florida's third-largest city. The Tampa Bay area, including St. Pete, has approximately 2.8 million people, making it the business center of west-central Florida. It's also an air and sea gateway to the western Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

Sightseeing

Visitors to Tampa have a wide range of entertainment options, including art and science museums, amusement parks, dinner and gambling cruises, major-league sporting events, nature preserves and, of course, nearby beaches. Downtown is the business center, but it also hosts art festivals, boating races and is the home of the picturesque campus of the University of Tampa.

We suggest heading for the waterfront, where you'll find the fascinating Florida Aquarium and a promenade where cargo and cruise ships dock. Next door is Channelside with its shops, restaurants and upscale bowling. The Tampa Riverwalk is a scenic pedestrian walkway that runs from Channelside through downtown, to the east side of the Hillsborough River at Tampa Heights.

Ybor City is not to be missed—its shops and cafes still carry the Latin flavors brought there by the Spanish and Cubans who first made the district home.

Electric streetcars have returned to Tampa, connecting downtown to Channelside and Ybor City. This is an easy and pleasant way to get around these areas without worrying about parking. Streetcars arrive about every 15-20 minutes and every 30 minutes during Friday and Saturday late-night hours.

The rest of Tampa's sights are a bit spread out, so you will probably need a car. North Tampa has Busch Gardens, one of the area's main attractions. The amusement/safari park has activities for children of all ages and offers an opportunity to view many critters rarely found outside of their native Africa. Roller coasters and other rides add to the appeal, and nearby Adventure Island offers aquatic activities to help visitors cool off. Also near the parks is Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry. The Florida Fairgrounds, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphtheater and Seminole Hard Rock Casino are just outside of downtown on Interstate 4 East.

For help planning your trip and for discount coupons, be sure to stop at the Tampa Bay Visitor Information Center, in Channelside near the cruise port. If you plan to be in Tampa during spring break or during the Gasparilla festival in January, make your reservations well in advance. It's also worthwhile to arrive at attractions early enough to beat most of the crowds.

Nightlife

Dozens of bars—jazz, blues, country, reggae, punk, gay, Goth, strip, you name it—line the streets around Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. The bar scene doesn't really start until 10 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and the action often lasts until the clubs close around 3 am. Ybor is also a good bet during the early evening hours—before 9 or 10 pm is a more family-friendly time.

Those looking for something a bit different in Ybor City should check out the classical flamenco dancing at Columbia Restaurant.

Another nighttime hot spot is SoHo, or South Howard Avenue in South Tampa, where bars line the avenue and offshoots and stay busy late into the night.

Dining

The highlight of Tampa dining tends to be restaurants specializing in Cuban and Spanish cuisine. The Latin influence is most evident in Ybor City, of course. You could just walk around and stop at any little eatery that looks good, or head straight for the venerable Columbia Restaurant. Prices vary widely.

But there's more to cosmopolitan Tampa than cafe con leche and black beans and rice. Tampa's restaurants represent virtually every ethnicity.

Fresh seafood abounds in Tampa, including clams from nearby Cedar Key, scallops from Steinhatchee, oysters from Apalachicola, Key West pink shrimp and a local delicacy, stone crabs. Eat these crabs like the locals do—chilled with mustard sauce. Stone-crab season runs mid-October to May, and for the first weeks, you'll find long lines at popular seafood restaurants.

A number of steak houses feature excellent beef, and French and Italian eateries don't disappoint. The Soho District, which includes all of elegant Hyde Park's South Howard Avenue, is home to some of the city's hippest dining.

General dining times are 7-9:30 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.

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