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Tampa city guide: Where to experience the hip side of Florida’s theme park capital

It may be close to some of the state’s biggest theme parks, but Tampa has a refreshingly cosmopolitan vibe that’s a world away from Disney

Ella Buchan
Friday 18 January 2019 15:25 GMT
Tampa is trendier than you think
Tampa is trendier than you think (Photos Getty/iStock)

Not everyone appreciates Tampa’s hip side, or even notices it. They might use the city as a base for nearby Busch Gardens, or as a place to stay while exploring Orlando’s theme parks, around an hour away.

Not that the locals mind. Because although Tampa ticks pretty much all the boxes for a cool city break – walkable neighbourhoods, engrossing museums, a dynamic food scene, and tucked-away bars – it’s all geared towards those who live and work there, rather than trying to attract tourists.

Which is what makes it so charming. It’s like a mini, more manageable Miami, right down to the Cuban heritage.

Norwegian launched direct flights from London Gatwick to Tampa in October 2018, opening up the city for a short break, as the starting point for a road trip down the Gulf Coast, or – if you like – as a base for exploring those aforementioned theme parks.

What to do in Tampa

Explore the Riverwalk

There’s water everywhere in Tampa. The downtown area and surrounding neighbourhoods sprawl out from the Hillsborough River, while a network of canals eventually trickle into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Tampa Riverwalk makes the most of the city’s proximity to water (Getty/iStockphoto)
Tampa Riverwalk makes the most of the city’s proximity to water (Getty/iStockphoto) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Riverwalk, a 2.5-mile (and expanding) raised walkway connecting downtown museums and parks, makes the most of the waterfront location. It’s a hub for live music events and festivals. On a “normal” day, you might see dog walkers, impromptu band rehearsals and penny farthing pedallers. Look out for tell-tale splashes, too – dolphins often play in the water.

Discover a Cuban original

Miami has Little Havana; Tampa has Ybor City, reached via a 20-minute streetcar ride from downtown. The district, founded by Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigar magnates in 1885, appears sepia-tinted. It’s all putty-coloured buildings, original 3D signage and fading frescoes.

You can still watch cigars being hand-rolled at spots like Tabanero and La Faraona. Workers have tip jars at their stations, so expect to put in a few dollars for the demonstration.

Tampanians claim the Cuban sandwich, made with meat, meat, cheese, mustard, and more meat (usually ham, salami and pork), was invented here, though Miami makes the same claim. Try it at La Segunda Bakery, where they’ve been raising the sandwiches’ crisp yet fluffy Cuban bread since 1915.

Pay a visit to Ybor City (Getty)
Pay a visit to Ybor City (Getty) (Getty Images)

Be taken for a ride

If you enjoy a good scream and belly-flip, head 15 minutes out of town to Busch Gardens. It’s actually pretty cool, as theme parks go. You can take a “safari” around the African wildlife preserve (with the chance to hand-feed giraffes), or wander past meerkats and tigers between rides. It tends to be a little quieter than Orlando’s parks, so you can spend less time queuing and more time yelling (and looking dodgy in ride photos). Tickets from $80 (£62).

Get an art fix

The Tampa Museum of Art’s building is a striking feature in itself, with a mesh exterior that shimmers in the sunlight and, on the south facade, illuminates with multi-coloured LED lights at night. Entrance to see collections including rare antiquities and modern art costs $15 (£11.75).

Occupying two floors of the distinctive “Cube” building, the Florida Museum of Photograpic Arts should be far busier. But you might find it’s just you wandering around exhibitions on absorbing topics such as retro road trips. Tickets $10 (£7.80).

Where to stay

Several big hotels perch by the water, including Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk. Rooms are simple and comfy, but the best bit is the pool area with bar, where you can swim (and sip) with views across the river. Doubles from £120, room only.

Aloft Tampa Downtown is a millennial-friendly haunt
Aloft Tampa Downtown is a millennial-friendly haunt (Aloft Tampa Downtown)

Next door, Aloft Tampa Downtown exudes a high-tech, millennial vibe. The beds are like marshmallows, and the lobby bar is a cool spot for a nightcap. Doubles from £110, room only.

Stepping up the luxury a little, Le Méridien Tampa has a serene, palm-fringed pool, elegant bedrooms and an on site brasserie in the city’s grand old courthouse. Downtown’s art galleries, restaurants and bars are all easily walkable. Doubles from £160, room only.

Where to eat

Columbia Restaurant, in Ybor City, opened in 1905 as a sandwich shop. Now it looms large over an entire block, with three dining rooms and more than 1,700 seats. It fills most of them, especially around the stage where flamenco shows are held each night. The mainly Spanish menu includes Cuban sandwiches and paella.

Take a short water taxi-ride from downtown to Ulele, which serves Native American-inspired dishes including jalapeno corn muffins and “native chilli”, with alligator, venison and wild boar. It even has an on site brewery. This destination restaurant, which opened in 2014, has since sparked other developments, including Armature Works, a few minutes’ walk away. Perfect for a more casual bite, this bright, open space has craft beer, cocktails, sushi and excellent Cuban food.

Locals claim the Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa (Getty/iStockphoto)
Locals claim the Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa (Getty/iStockphoto) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Anise Global Gastrobar is a real success story, and testament to Tampanians’ love of good food. It gained popularity as a truck selling “stinky bunz”, fluffy, sticky, white buns filled with soft pork belly, crispy chicken or courgette. They’re still on the menu at the cosy downtown restaurant, along with ramen, burgers and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s “all the good stuff”.

Where to drink

Tampa has one of Florida’s best craft beer scenes, and Armature Works is a great place to sample a few sours and porters.

Cigar City Brewing’s tasting room, in northwest Tampa, pours saisons, IPAs and inventive infusions like coriander and orange peel.

Downtown has Hidden Springs Ale Works, known for ales brewed in bourbon barrels, while Tampa Bay Brewing Company has a popular Ybor City pub.

Armature Works is part of Tampa’s swinging craft beer scene
Armature Works is part of Tampa’s swinging craft beer scene (Armature Works)

You can also drink while strolling along the Riverwalk, provided the alcohol was purchased at one of a string of approved bars along the stretch (they’ll provide you with an official “go cup”). On Fourth Fridays, when many museums offer free entry, you can also drink (approved beverages) on the water taxis.

Tucked on a quiet street parallel to the Riverwalk, don’t let Hotel Bar’s unprepossessing location (or name) put you off. This is the hotel bar of dreams, albeit not in a hotel. A place to perch while the bartenders fix you something stiff and dangerously sippable; the old fashioneds, manhattans and martinis are all impeccable, or ask for something off-menu and tailored to your tastes.

Where to shop

While picking up your maps at Unlock Tampa Bay Visitor Centre, pop into the gift shop. From retro slogan T-shirts to jewellery handcrafted from Ybor City bricks, this is way better than the typical cheesy souvenirs.

Pick up first editions at Oxford Exchange
Pick up first editions at Oxford Exchange (Oxford Exchange)

It’s a similar story at Oxford Exchange, a grand building where restaurants, bars and cafes share open space. This cool store has all the first-edition books, dog collages and fluffy sheep toys you never knew you wanted.

The best destination shopping is in Hyde Park Village, an open-air shopping mall in an area known for 1920s arts and crafts bungalows. Local boutiques include Salt Pines and Downtown Dogs (for the four-legged fashion lover).

Architectural highlight

Dominating the west bank of the river, the University of Tampa is a beguiling meld of styles, with Moorish influences and silver minarets. It was originally the opulent Tampa Bay Hotel, opened by transport pioneer Henry B Plant at the terminus of his railway line. The on site museum (free entry) reveals more about the building’s history.

University of Tampa has moorish influences (Getty/iStockphoto)
University of Tampa has moorish influences (Getty/iStockphoto) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars (USD).

What language do they speak?

English. Spanish is widely spoken in Ybor City.

Should I tip?

Tipping is customary in the US, with 18-20 per cent standard in restaurants and $1 (80p) a drink in bars. For tour guides, $5-10 (around £4-8) is expected.

What’s the time difference?

Five hours behind the UK.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Around 10 hours.

Public transport

The Teco historic streetcar runs between Downtown Tampa and Ybor City, and has been free to ride since late 2018.

Best view

The recessed, riverfront terrace at the Tampa Museum of Art is one of the best spots to gaze over the water.

Insider tip?

Mid-January to March is Gasparilla season, a series of fiestas, arts events and parades beloved by locals. The climax is the elaborate Parade of Pirates on 26 January, held since 1904 in honour of legendary pirate Jose Gaspar (known as Gasparilla).

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