Could this be Tampa's moment to shine? The cost of living is affordable, there's an award-winning airport, and major pro sports teams perennially competing for championships. The Floridian city on the Gulf Coast has seen its population surge thanks to the pandemic, and the crowds are energizing the downtown and historic neighborhoods. A slew of new hotels, breweries, and restaurants makes a strong case for a Florida trip that doesn’t just revolve around the beach.
Lay of the Land
Tampa sits on the Gulf Coast of Florida, bordering the north shore of Tampa Bay and the east shore of Old Tampa Bay. Many cruises dock at the state's largest port, and non-cruisers stop here en route to St. Petersburg or the southern coast. Attractions can be found along the buzzy Riverwalk, where you will run into dogs, joggers, bar-hoppers, and tourists; in the historic Ybor City neighborhood, cobble-stoned streets lead to cultural institutions like The Cuban Club.
Everywhere you look, downtown is in flux. Water Street, “the spine” of the downtown district, is the epicenter of the hubbub and new development: towering glass condos with sleek names to match their exteriors, live/work businesses, modern restaurants nailing beach lifestyle decor, and interior design shops attracting the young generation moving in. On a recent visit, I was struck by how clean and fresh the streets felt, populated with vibrant murals and neon installations and a very necessary dog park. At night, the Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile pedestrian and biking path along the channel, comes alive with hotel and cruise crowds spilling out to have a drink at one of the many establishments that dot the path.
A few miles east of Water Street, there’s another building boom on the brick-lined, historic streets of Ybor. For years, Ybor was where you went for a quick cigar factory tour or stopped for a famous Cuban sandwich, but with the influx of new inhabitants, the historic side of Tampa is making strides to accommodate the crowds with coffee and ice cream shops, walking tours, breweries, and a hip hotel. It’s a different direction for Tampa.
Where to Eat
At “Florida’s Oldest Restaurant,” the Columbia Restaurant, in Ybor, ordering the original “1905” salad (made table-side!) is a must. The original Cuban sandwich uses traditional bread and the original 1915 recipe. Located behind Roast on 7th’s southern-style deli and bakery counter is Madame Fortune, a black-owned hi-fi speakeasy serving West Indian bites and cocktails with a side of Marvin Gaye. Atop The Tampa Edition sits Greek-inspired Azure from Michelin-starred chef John Fraser, where mezze and an Azure Burger (topped with feta cheese and basil labneh) can easily be devoured. Save room for two Water Street neighbors: the Boulon Brasserie & Bakery, with French classics like lobster pot pie, coq au vin, and caviar service; and The Pearl, a seafood-forward spot with raw and fried oysters and fresh pies.
For brunch, hop across the bay to Oxford Exchange, an all-in-one restaurant, bookstore, and shop that gives off collegiate library vibes mixed with conservatory garden interiors. Try the green juice and French toast before purchasing your next beach read. For a real food tour, I made my way to Heights Public Market at Armature Works anchoring the north end of the Riverwalk. The enormous warehouse that once restored streetcars, located right in the heart of the Heights District, is filled with food counters and full-service restaurants and bars. I spent an afternoon here as I taste-tested my way through the savory and sweet vendors, one after another. Large parties should consider Splitsville Southern + Social, where groups can dine on American fare and enjoy feather bowling, ping pong, foosball, darts, and shuffleboard.
How to Spend Your Time
With a few days to explore, I split my tour between the Ybor and downtown. I recommend both to get a sense of the different vibes. Ybor has a slightly slower pace during the day, which is great for a historic walking tour to learn all about the area’s major Italian and Cuban influences. Lucky me, I got to roam around with the tour founder’s son, Max, who exudes Tampa fervor and is considerate enough to look for a shady spot on the street before pointing out an unassuming building that Teddy Roosevelt and The Rough Riders passed through. A touristy but fun thing to do is sign up for cigar hand-rolling classes at the newly renovated J.C. Newman Cigars (Tampa was once the cigar capital of the U.S and, at its peak, produced more cigars than Cuba). Do not skip out on a cocktail or a meal at Flor Fina in Hotel Haya, a fusion of Latin-American, Mediterranean, and Gulf Coast cuisines, where you can also order a novelty drink called the Smokey Joe — displayed in a cigar box. Procure your iced coffee from Café Quiquiriqui or a cone from Chill Bros. scoop shop. Peruse vintage clothes and accessories like sterling silver geode necklaces and berets at La France. Word to the wise: the chickens and roosters strolling near car and pedestrian traffic are best left alone – lest you want to incur a fine for bothering the official neighborhood mascot.
From Ybor, I rode the TECO Line Streetcar, a free mode of transportation that gave me a 15-minute tour of downtown with eleven hop-on and hop-off stops; the electric streetcar with quaint wooden interiors is an easy way to get around, especially for families. There are tons of sites along the Riverwalk, including The Florida Aquarium, where visitors will experience many sea habitats, including that of cownose stingrays, whose velvety wingtip you can touch. Next door is Sparkman Wharf, an outdoor dining hall made from repurposed shipping containers. It’s a good idea to book a Tampa Riverwalk Attraction Pass, a deal if you’re looking to knock out more than a few attractions like the Tampa Museum of Art or the Glazer Children’s Museum, as well as the Pirate Water Taxi. Tampa Riverwalk Rentals offers kayak, stand-up paddle boarding, and bike rentals to traverse the waterfront.
Where to Stay
The amount of hotel options has steadily increased in downtown Tampa over the last few years. Ybor’s first boutique hotel, Hotel Haya, pays homage to Ignacio Haya, whose cigar factory was significant for rolling the first cigar in these parts. Located on storied 7th Avenue, the hotel joins a rowdy scene of bars, jazz venues, and breweries with night owls taking the party to the sidewalks after closing hours. With only a few years under its belt, Hotel Haya has managed to attract crowds with its dining, pool parties, and design conscience, recreating a neighborhood vibe that hasn’t been felt since the days of Cuban revolutionaries mingling with cigar factory workers. Local artists helped outfit the mid-century Havana interiors with vibrant pops of color. Rooms are pared down and modern. It’s a busy hotel experience, and if you prefer lower decibels (read: peace and quiet), request a courtyard pool view room (like I did) upon check-in.
On the high-end of the hotel spectrum, The Tampa EDITION has made a splash with its brand of vaulted, white interiors. As a guest, I had access to the full-service onsite spa, multiple bar options, live music and comedy in the Arts Club, and the highly coveted rooftop pool. I caught a sunset view from there and felt like I had won the travel lottery. A tip before booking a room: There’s still a fair amount of construction surrounding this hotel, so request a view that doesn’t face cranes and neighboring jackhammers.
For a more lived-in, long-term option, Roost offers an extended stay in a great location. With room options ranging from a studio to penthouse, each one is equipped with a full-service kitchen washer and dryer, and key access to the lounges, co-working spaces, pools, fitness center, and on-site 24-hour concierge. It’s the best of an Airbnb with hotel amenities. The only drawback is once-a-week housekeeping (unless specially requested).
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Fly to Tampa International Airport, only six miles from downtown. This large airport may require trams between the terminal and baggage claim, so give yourself extra time to get around. Be sure to catch the 21-foot fiberglass flamingo named “Phoebe” – it's a memorable photo-op.
When to Go
Without a doubt, the best time of year to travel to the sunshine state is October through May, but keep in mind that just when you are thinking about optimal Florida weather, so is everyone else. If you’re looking to save on flights and hotels, consider bearing the humidity during the off-season. Gasparilla is a lively eight-week stretch starting in late January, when Florida’s only fully functional pirate ship sails into downtown and blasts real cannons to announce its film, music, and all-ages art festivals.
Exploring downtown has never been easier, so ditch the rental car, save money on gas, and elect to travel by foot, bicycle, or water taxi. All offer the most satisfying means of transportation to experience your agenda, and for the one-off events and areas that seem a bit out of reach, take a ride share.
What to Remember
Regardless of the time of year, don’t forget to pack sunscreen and a hat — I found both oddly hard to come by, especially in Ybor. Note that wild Ybor chickens and roosters are protected because of their connection to the city's earliest immigrants.